Postmortem

Poetic in style and brilliantly written, Postmortem certainly makes the best of 2013! Dedicated to director Richard F. Mason, author Nancy Caronia writes, “There was his laugh, his scarves, his cigarettes, and his requests for coffee the color of Simone, but mostly what I remember is his silence.” Just poetry. . .

by Nancy Caronia

for Richard F. Mason (1929-2010)

1. I have each one. Every note he wrote during the run of “Garden District”—Tennessee Williams’ double bill of Something Unspoken and Suddenly, Last Summer. Each day’s grouping is stapled neatly one on top of the other into the small yellow spiral bound notebook I kept close through the process.

2. On the first day of rehearsal my handwriting in black ink is meticulous and neat:

Rehearsal more important than performance.

The word EXPLORATION is carefully boxed in red ink.

3.  The first of his director’s notes that I reread after I learn of his passing:

Hal tells me man next to him is asleep.

Richard F. Mason at his directing desk, a cup of coffee never far away.

Richard F. Mason at his directing desk, a cup of coffee never far away.

4. There was his laugh, his scarves, his cigarettes, and his requests for coffee the color of Simone, but mostly what I remember is his silence. During rehearsals in the West End black box, he sat in the back of the theater and listened. His silence was more present than anything or anyone I had ever encountered. It was punctuated only by the occasional hiss, the bang of his fist against his director’s table — a large plywood square set atop a grouping of seats — or, more frequently, the scratch of a pencil on a half sheet of recycled 8- x 11-inch paper. The scratching was urgent, insistent:

We can work on “white lisle” segment if you want; See RFM about “what manager? God?” & your arms

5. More of my notes from our first rehearsal:

Ensemble: w/out obvious stimuli totally aware of other persons on stage

NON-VERBAL AWARENESS

6. He was teaching us how to be silent, but not quiet. He was teaching us to listen. His notes were not simply requests, reminders, demands or praise, but charms to create our presence. He was not perfect. He did not expect us to be perfect. He hoped we would engage fully as the imperfect human beings we were. We did not need to be nice or kind although he did expect compassion (though that compassion could seem rough at times). We had to be ourselves completely or we could not be present for our characters or the other actors or our stage manager in the booth waiting to hear her cues through our cues or the audience, who, he told us on the first day of rehearsal: has no art to listening.

From left to right, Nancy Kaiser, Stacy Lynn Hein, David Shatraw, Lori Gunty, Hal Katzman, Nancy Caronia, and Kym Grethen in Tennessee Williams' Suddenly, Last Summer directed by Richard F. Mason.

From left to right: Nancy Kaiser, Stacy Lynn Hein, David Shatraw, Lori Gunty, Hal Katzman, Nancy Caronia, and Kym Grethen

7. WAKE UP

8. Early on in the rehearsal process he reminded us to: Look into the eyes! Communication!!!! My handwriting not so neat, but my punctuation emphatic.

9. The art of collaboration: We were not alone and we could not do it alone. But what was it? At first, it seemed to be the words on the page transformed to the stage, but it had more to do with Hamlet’s to be or not to be. He wanted us to be and to be with each other. He gave notes on the first day of rehearsal and the last day of performance. His notes assured us that someone nearby was listening, interacting, caring about what we were or were not doing or who we were or were not. His notes focused and helped us to realize his vision. His notes forced me to show up for myself, for him, for the other actors, for the stage crew, and for the audience. Showing up and collaboration were the only things we had—in rehearsal, on stage, and in life. If we did not or could not participate the not to be was assured. This it was the stuff that dreams were made, if only we could learn to stay in our skins. Collaboration was the role to which we were all born and to which he wanted us to aspire.

10. Excellent

11. I worried about hurting the actress who played Sister Felicity with the cigarette I put out in her hand each night and one night he gave me the direction: Not side of but go below table a cig burn fit (w/ashtray). I continued to be too delicate, too careful, too caring.

12. You are singlehandedly boring audience.

13. You must burn Sister Felicity

14. When I finally let go and stamped the cigarette out in the actress’s carefully taped hand, I was sent the note: That’s more like it! and then, a further correction: Don’t hide behind nun on introduction.

Nancy Caronia as Catharine in Tennessee Williams' Suddenly, Last Summer.

Nancy Caronia as Catharine 

15. The actor who played Doctor Cukrowicz and I were upstage in Mrs. Venables’ garden waiting for our cue. Matt, the actor, pulled out a small red plastic drill and put it against my head and made whirring noises. His satire was a reminder of Catharine’s fate–a forced lobotomy to save Mrs. Venables’ delicate sensibility. I swatted the drill away with my right hand and shot him a look that said, Stop, but I chuckled under my breath. We missed our cue, but there was no yelling, banging, or cursing from the darkness. We were safe—the other actors were asked to return to their previous positions and were given new directions. Our beloved director, who never missed anything, never learned that Matt brought the toy drill to rehearsal. Or perhaps he did, but chose to allow us, the actors playing the handsome doctor and the mentally unstable Southern belle, our mysteries.

16. Later that week, during dress rehearsal, he sends this note back with the assistant director: Lovely physical work during the seduction scene.

17. Two or three days before opening night, he asks to see on stage me and the actors who play my character’s mother Mrs. Holly and brother George Holly. He had already had our assistant director write: See Mason about “how elegant George looks” as left-handed compliment. He was pushing me to not see the Holly family as a cohesive or loving group. Once we three are on stage, he re-blocks our entire scene on the portico—a stage area that was meant to be a boxing ring. I believed he thought the scene wasn’t working, but now I know he saw a spark of what was possible and enclosed us in ourselves so that we could not escape the clash of family dynamics. We had arrived at the inevitable.

18. The previous semester he was to have directed Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder. He became ill and disappeared. At least that was how it felt. I panicked. He spoke my language or at least I thought if I could learn his language, I could speak with him and anyone else who knew this mysterious tongue of the living. I visited him in Lenox Hill; I needed to know that he would return. He smiled at me, raised his eyebrows slightly, and shrugged when I entered his room — blindingly white and dull — no scarf, no cigarette, and no coffee. Only a pencil and a notebook were on his table. Plans for the future. I don’t remember our conversation, although I know I worried about how pale he looked and that he liked my boyfriend — 23 and a bit of a bad boy (not a college student)— since he raised his eyebrows and smiled at me when Phil entered the room at the end of our visit. He asked about rehearsals and I said we missed him; I couldn’t tell him his vision for the play was ruined—not when he was sitting before me looking like a ruin. As Phil and I left (I felt as though we were abandoning him), he croaked out: Do you have a cigarette? He could tell a smoker a mile away; Phil gave him the cigarette. I rolled my eyes, but said, I’ll see you soon. We all miss you.

19. See Mason about “procuring.”

20. Nota Bene to Language: I first witnessed the magic of his language during his production of Six Characters in Search of an Author—I sat in the back of the West End listening to the sounds of the play—the voices like Bellini’s Norma—a carefully orchestrated musical score playing one against and with the other. The costumes set against the pitch and shadow of the black box theater—a visual collage influenced, I imagine, by Modigliani’s color palate, attitude, and love of long and lean figures and Visconti’s 1963 film Il Gattopardo for the social decay and displacement. The director of the play within Pirandello’s play conducted the action from atop a black box of a throne off to the side of the main playing area—he mimicked Doc’s laugh, and although he was taller and wider, the life on that stage was perhaps the most autobiographical work our beloved director ever conceived. After he had passed, I found out he was not merely a Massachusetts man, but also a Southern Italian. I should have known, but his last name — Mason — was purposefully chosen and thwarted my understanding of our connection, which, I now recognize in retrospect, I had sensed in his production of Six Characters. That silence again. Something unspoken, yet plain if one were paying attention.

Nancy Caronia as Catharine and Kim Grethen as the nun in Tennessee Williams' Suddenly, Last Summer.

Nancy Caronia as Catharine and Kim Grethen as the nun 

21. Opening night note written with black marker in the assistant director’s hand: See Dr. Mason about “it began w/ his kindness”

22. There was a moment when I lost faith in the process. I went to see him in his office; I was terrified of failing. I accused him of not caring for me. I had never been so bold and so stupid in my life. He was compassionate; he told me to leave his office—now. I sat in the balcony of the John Cranford Adams Playhouse. I knew I was wrong, but I didn’t know what, exactly, I had miscalculated. The actor playing my brother George appeared, put his arm around me, and allowed me a good long cry. That night (or the night after), Doctor Mason handed me my notes, raised his eyebrows, smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and then disappeared through the dressing room door—an imp in the night.

23. What’s wrong is your attitude at the beginning of the story. See Mason about “How it began.”

24. He was the first adult of whom I was not terrified; intimidated—yes, terrified—no.

25. Where is “the mad, are you mad?”

26. He lived in the same apartment on the same street in the West Village for much longer than I ever knew him. We rarely spoke after I graduated (I had abandoned him), but when we did, I was always reminded of possibility.

27. BIGGER pause before “and this you won’t believe” and written under that request: we have to understand “devoured.”

Rehearsal photo, from left to right, David Shatraw as George, Nancy Caronia as Catherine, and Lori Gunty as their mother Mrs. Holly in in Tennessee Williams' Suddenly, Last Summer directed by Richard F. Mason

from left to right, David Shatraw as George, Nancy Caronia as Catherine, and Lori Gunty as their mother, Mrs. Holly

28. Years later, we were eating dinner at this little Italian place in the West Village that he loved—the owners were Caprese and I had lived on Capri and we spoke of shared acquaintances. I loved kissing Doc’s cheek—his scratchy gray beard reminded me of a cat although I have never touched a cat that felt like him or his beard. Doctor Mason was fawning, ordering dinner (The salmon is a good choice for you. Yes, let’s order you salmon.) and making sure my wine glass never sat empty. He could still direct my movement, my every moment in his presence, even though I was no longer his student nor even his friend.

29. Note from my notebook on the first day of rehearsal: Acting is believing/ Art is involved.

30. On the next to last night of the closing of the “Garden District” run, he handed me one note where he had scrawled one word repeated twice. He held it in his hand as I reached out to take it, but he made me meet his eyes before he would release it. We looked at one another for only three seconds, then he let go and turned away from me.

31. Superb! Superb!!

About the author

Nancy Caronia is currently a Lecturer in the Department of Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Rhode Island. Her essays, fiction, and poetry have appeared in the Italian American ReviewThe Milk of Almonds, Don’t Tell Mama!: The Penguin Book of Italian American Writing, and Coloring Book: An Eclectic Anthology of Multicultural Writers.

 


*Postmortem in theater parlance takes place after the sets are struck, the costumes cleaned and stored away, and the actors have left the stage. A postmortem discussion focuses on the successes and failures of a production with an eye towards the future.

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12 thoughts on “Postmortem

  1. Nancy, I remember first reading this submission, getting to the final line, and being overcome with your love and your grief over the loss of your friend and teacher. It’s a lovely tribute and I’m delighted that we were able to publish it.

  2. Nancy…Your writing recreates the angst and the joy, the struggle and the success, the innocence and the grit of that unique time in our lives. Dr. Mason was quite the character; perhaps someone who knew him well will translate this larger-than-life yet intimate-as-your-soul individual for the milieu into which it seemed he was born.

  3. Thank you, Edi, for taking the time to read this piece and for leaving a comment. And yes, it would be a good thing if someone could write an autobiography of him.

  4. I like this, Nancy. Thanks for sharing. The numeric sequencing, the juxtaposition of “notes” with remembrances and with photos works well. I’m toying with using photos, sketches, and excerpts from my mother’s travel journal and my father’s pre-marital letters to her in my memoir work as well … so I’m interested in how you make it work!

  5. Thank you Joan and Sheila. Sheila, I sent an email about the process of this piece. What I can say is every piece is different for me and this one was simple and hard because of how much I respected and loved him.

  6. Wow! Great story, Nancy. And the visuals are fantastic! (If I do say so myself – haha!) I’m glad you still had a couple of my photos to help illustrate it… I remember the the one of you with the crazed look and the one of you, David [Shatraw], and Lori [Gunty] as mine, very much my style at the time. I also remember another great one of you and that cigarette – a very long ash holding still to the cigarette as it was diminishing toward the butt, kinda like your character’s mind I imagined, slowly disintegrating but trying hard to not fall apart…

    • Tom, THANK YOU so much for reminding me that you were the person who took all of our photos for the show. I am so happy that I had some of them in my box of mementoes. We were so fortunate to have someone like Dr. Mason to mentor us in all of our creative endeavors. I hope you are well!

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