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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Empty Seats

By Terry Barr

A few days ago my wife was sorting through the papers that regularly accumulate in one of our kitchen drawers.  You know, those documents you weren’t sure you couldn’t live without but had no proper place to store or display?  Those seemingly precious artifacts that once consigned to the drawer, you promptly forget ever existed?  It’s only my wife who ever goes through that drawer, and she usually does so when I’m editing a vital piece of writing or agonizing over a Yankee baseball game.

“Do you need this?  And what about this?  How about this?  Or that?”

The process goes on like that for hours, and to be fair, I could step in and take responsibility for my own stuff and sort through it before she does.  I know she hates this part of me—the part that finds my indulgences more important than tending to the nuts and bolts of the papers of our lives.  And I hate to be asked about it all, so I really should do something differently to end this madness.

Maybe one day I will, but until that time, I’ll take this opportunity to write about an item that she pulled out for my inspection on this last sorting.  It was a commemorative photograph of my former therapist, posed next to his beloved Boxer dog, smiling as if at that moment he was the happiest man alive.

emptyseatspicdog

“I’m sure you want to keep this,” my wife said.

Yes, I do.

   *******

When your therapist dies of a sudden and massive heart attack, whom do you turn to for consolation, for understanding?

For therapy?

It was seven years ago now, since that evening when my wife broke the news to me. We were winding our way down a mountain road after dropping our daughter off at a weekend youth camp.

“You know that phone call we got before we left home?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I have some bad news.  Paul is dead.”

I didn’t know what to say, and in some ways I still don’t.

“At least he didn’t suffer,” she said.

Which, I suppose, is the best you can say when it feels like the world has shifted unaccountably and forever.

******

Paul had been my therapist for eleven years, ever since my depression deepened to the point where I felt like I was holding my breath every time my wife left me in charge of our two very young daughters until she came home.  I could do all the functional things—feed them, change them, take them for walks—but I always felt like I would somehow lose or break or forget them somewhere, even inside our house.

So I began seeing Paul.

At first, he wanted to see me every week, sometimes for two-hour sessions.  He uncovered layers of depression that, unsurprisingly, took me back to my childhood, into issues of abandonment, triangulation, secrecy, and loyalty.  Through this process, eventually I became more confident of my power and ability to take care of my loved ones.  My love for them had always been strong, but Paul helped me see my competence, my strength, and most importantly, my worthiness of being loved.

Two particular incidents, I think, best describe the relationship we had.  Once, our beloved family cat Hugo, at this point reaching age 12, developed a severe thyroid condition.  Some in our immediate and extended family thought that Hugo was too old to undergo the costly radiation treatment that could cure him.  But I was determined to take care of my pet, convinced that he still had years of life left to live.  I had begun writing film reviews for a local weekly newspaper, and I dedicated my small salary for my first writing job to paying Hugo’s expenses.  I explained all this to Paul during our next session, especially how I was doing this against the wishes and advice of others in my family.

I remember Paul getting choked up as he listened to my story, and then he told me that not everyone understood the obligation and bond between owner and pet.  He told me of how he bought plots in a local pet cemetery for his dogs and buried them there, complete with their own markers.  I could tell that he wanted to cry as he spoke.  He didn’t tell this story to just anyone.  And then he said,

“And what I want to do for you now is to donate the money for this session to helping you pay your cat’s bill.”

It was enough for me that he had empathy, that he heard my frustration and fear and pain.  But even though I protested, he wouldn’t let me pay him for the session, and so I did use the money to cure my pet.

More to a therapist’s strength, though, came the season in 2000 when Paul helped me deal with my father’s decline and death.  Paul understood how to help me grieve; he was the first person to look me in the eye, three months before my dad actually passed, and say, “Terry, you’re feeling sad because your father is dying.”

I knew, in the middle and back parts of my mind that my father was dying.  But I needed to see it more closely, to accept it.  That’s what a good therapist helps you do.  Accept reality, and then deal with it.

By the time my father actually died, I felt as close to Paul as I did any other man beside my father, and of course, in many ways, Paul understood me better than my father ever had.  Which led me to take a chance on our relationship.

******

My father died on Christmas Eve, 2000.  A few weeks later, as Paul was helping me manage my grief, I blurted out that one of my deepest regrets was never offering to take my Dad to a game at Yankee Stadium.

“Why didn’t I think of doing this?  We used to go to minor league games in Birmingham all the time.  He would have loved it!”

As I was reeling, the idea formed, and I spoke without considering that there might be a conflict for Paul:

“Paul, can I take you to a game this spring?”

But he answered, in my memory, without any hesitation:

“Why sure Terry, I’d be glad to go with you.”

So I made all the arrangements.  Our tickets were for a late April game against the Indians on a Saturday afternoon.  On the Friday before, I flew into New York and met my best friend Jimbo at his apartment on the upper West Side.  We ate lunch at a Colombian café just down the street, catching up and reminiscing.  On returning to his place, we caught the phone on its seventh or eighth ring.

It was Paul.  I had given him Jimbo’s number just in case of an emergency.

Was this an emergency?

“Terry, I’m so sorry, but I’m not going to make it into the city.  The weather is bad up here, and my wife doesn’t like the idea of my taking a chance on flying from our little airport.”

What could I say?  I felt years of therapy shedding itself from my skin.  I’m sure I tried my best to cover my shame, my embarrassment, my feelings of abandonment.

Covering your feelings from your therapist.  What a great idea.

He promised to talk to me the following week, and as we hung up, I felt my insides curling up.  More than anything , then, I wanted to walk out of Jimbo’s place and keep going.

“What just happened?”  Jimbo’s face was as white as mine.

I told him.  And after pausing a moment, he said,

“Uh…you want me to go with you to the game?”

Jimbo’s knowledge of baseball was accurately summed up earlier that day at lunch when he, who had been living in New York for the past twenty years, asked me if there were two New York baseball teams.

“No, Jimbo, I know you don’t care anything for baseball.  Don’t worry, I’ll go to the game and then we’ll go out for dinner later.”

His visual relief actually made me laugh.  And it got me through this moment of crisis, if being doomed to go to a baseball game by yourself in historic Yankee Stadium could ever be said to entail a crisis.

stadium_4

With the game starting at 1:00, I left Jimbo’s place at 11:00, hoping to get there in time to tour Monument Park.  But by the time I navigated the subways and worked my way to the Will Call booth, it was just after 12, and the exhibits had closed.  Still, I enjoyed strolling around the outside contours of the stadium, soaking in the reality that I was here, and only just a bit wistful that I was alone.

And then I saw him.  Not the ghost of my father, or the living being of Paul, but a gray-bearded homeless man, propped up against one of the pillars just outside the main gate.

“Does anyone have an extra ticket?  I don’t want any money!  I just wanna see the game.”

There I stood, two tickets in my hand, and a male voice begging to be my guest.

I wish I could say now that I walked over to this poor man and gave him my extra ticket.  I wish I could say that we entered together, that I even bought him one of Nathan’s finest dogs, and that we enjoyed a Yankee victory together, including that massive home run by Jorge Posada.  I wish I could say that on this day when I looked at the seat beside me, I saw a man who, while not my father or my therapist, was nevertheless a warm body next to me relishing America’s pastime with me in the grand tradition of fathers and sons.

I can’t say that, of course, because while I almost took a step closer to him, the thought that I would be saddled with a homeless stranger for the next four hours—along with whatever else he might bring—stopped me dead.

So I passed on by, went through the turnstiles, found the first trash disposal I could, and tossed that extra ticket in, where it nestled itself among the beer cans and popcorn boxes.

It was a semi-rainy day, and while the game went on without a delay, there were many open seats in the upper deck on the third base side where I was sitting.  I could have sat anywhere up there, and much closer to the front row of the deck than I did.  But it just didn’t feel right to move.  It didn’t feel right to leave that seat next to me where no one was sitting.

******

Paul lived another five years after this life event.  I can still hear his greeting every time we talked: “Hey Terry.”  On our last visit, it sounded to me like he was tired, though I don’t know if that’s just me in hindsight hearing what I now know to be true.  His last words to me on that day were typical, too; “Listen: You be well now, ok?”

I am well, though I still have my occasional low days.  Hugo eventually passed, too, three years after he recovered from his thyroid treatment.  I found him lying in our driveway one evening, looking as if he were just asleep.  His end, like Paul’s, must have been sudden and quick.  I loved him like Paul did his precious Boxer.

Hugo, the author's cat.

Hugo, the author’s cat.

And as I dug the hole where my wife, our healthy daughters, and I buried our dear kitty, I thought again about all those empty spaces that we see and feel: the ones we fill with all our love.

About the Author

Terry Barr’s essays have appeared in The Montreal Review, The Museum of Americana, Red Fez, and Steel Toe Review.  He is also a regular contributor to culturemass.com, where he writes about pop music and memory. He live in Greenville, SC, with his wife and daughters, and teaches Creative Nonfiction at Presbyterian College.

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.

The True Story of an Unlikely Friend

by Stephanie Baldwin

The author and Frances together. Behind them is a weathered photograph of Frances's late son, Raymond Scott. The blue butterfly is a drawing made by the author for Frances who has always seen butterflies as a sign of hope and a sign of love from her son. Also, Frances's outfit theme was blue that day.

The author and Frances together. Behind them is a weathered photograph of Frances’s late son, Raymond Scott. The blue butterfly is a drawing made by the author for Frances who has always seen butterflies as a sign of hope and a sign of love from her son. Also, Frances’s outfit theme was blue that day.

“In all my work what I try to say is that as human beings we are more alike than we are unalike.” -Maya Angelou

Doubled over in laughter, Frances and I are smacking the table between us with the free hands that we aren’t using to hold each other for stability. Our eyes filled with tears, the laughter between us only grows louder as we realize what a scene we are causing in a place normally so quiet. I felt like she had been my best friend for ages, but we had only met 5 days before.

For my school’s 2011 NYC Mission Trip I signed up to work with children; I believed that my brief time with a child would then guarantee a change in the world’s future. Much to my dismay, I was somehow stuck working at St. Patrick’s Home for the Aged and Infirm, the last place I wanted to spend my winter vacation. The first day I was terrified. All of the residents and volunteers were squished into one tiny chapel for a morning Mass. I recall glancing around wide eyed as the residents shuffled in and thinking to myself: My God, this is what death looks like. Half the chapel was cluttered with creaking wheelchairs; the other half with an abundance of canes and walkers. I was trying with all my heart to focus on the service, but I was far too distracted by the violent coughing and obscene yells from confused residents. The only thought that could push through this noise was the fear that I was going to be living somewhere just like this someday. I am going to be the woman alone in that wheel chair, covered with several knit blankets screaming, “Shut up!” to the priest. I am going to be that man, pulling a tube of toothpaste out of his pants, asking the young volunteer if she brushes her teeth with Close-Up. I am going to be one of those women murmuring in the back, or the woman in the corner cradling a plastic baby doll. I am going to be alone and forgotten.

But, my time with Frances changed how I thought about getting old. All the volunteers and I were hosting a Valentine’s Day party, singing Andrew Sisters tunes as we served food and drinks to the residents. Frances, quite bored with this sort of thing, asked to be taken back upstairs. She was such a vibrant character, dressed head to toe in purple. Her hefty gold necklace, gaudy earrings, violet sweater all complimented her lilac headband as well as her plum slacks and blouse. I pushed her wheelchair quickly to her room and very politely turned to leave when she whipped out a photograph of her granddaughter. I prepared myself for an earful of boasting but was caught off guard when she began to speak about her son. He wanted to be a doctor, but died before he could reach his dream. A brain tumor took his life at 28, leaving Frances to care for her son’s only daughter, who, unaware of her late father’s unfulfilled dream, studied to become a doctor as well. Looking back at his sepia-tinted photograph tacked to the bulletin board, her voice cracked with sorrow, “I gave him a beautiful name. I always knew it would be the name of a doctor.” I asked her what his name was. “I can’t say it,” she said. “It is too hard. I miss him.”  She paused for a very long time before finally whispering, “Raymond Scott.” I sat next to her quietly as she revealed her story from the beginning; where she started and how she got where she is now.

I had been missing for an hour and a half before someone noticed my absence. Almost every resident downstairs seemed to be asking: “Where’s Charlotte?” The fact that my name is Stephanie, and not Charlotte, probably wasn’t much help for those trying to track me down.

I had stayed with Frances as long as I could that afternoon, taking in whatever she desired to share with me. I learned that she had to raise four children on her own. She never had much money, and worked several jobs including being a coat checker at a night club and working as a bridal store associate. She laughed, “You name it, I’ve done it!” Regardless of her financial situation, she always volunteered. She single-handedly organized a program for the homeless of the Bronx, and volunteered for 46 years at the exact same nursing home I was volunteering at, before checking herself in four months ago.

As I spent more time with Frances I truly began to relate to her. I listened to her tales of  a childhood friend whom she still calls three times a day, and to her gossip about nuns and priests running away together. I laughed when she was reminiscing about how she was the best at “spin the bottle,” and took to heart her advice on when is the best time to get married. Ironically, spending time in a place where people are at the end of their lives, taught me a great deal about starting my own. I learned to enjoy every minute of life and each opportunity I am given, regardless of the situation. I was inspired to continue speaking my mind, and to not allow others to stand between me and my goals. Frances taught me that you can always find beauty within sorrow and that helping others is the most valuable reward in life. Most importantly, she taught me that in the end, everyone just wants to be loved.

It was through her guidance that I could now envision the residents of the old folks’ home as they were in the prime of their youth. I could see the woman who yells in church — tall and beautiful — marching for her rights in Washington, D.C. I could see the man pulling the toothpaste from his pants standing in his Marine uniform, brushing his pearly (real) teeth. I could hear the beautiful singing voices of the women in the back, dressed in the latest fashions, dancing on young and lean legs. I could see the woman with the baby doll cradling a lively, wriggling, infant, an apron tied tight around her waist. They all lived unique lives and had their own stories to tell. My high school, Sacred Heart Academy, always encouraged me to look beyond appearances and instead look into another’s heart. I tried so hard to apply such teachings to my life before, but this mission trip made it a reality.

The students at Stephanie's Alma Mater have shirts designed for almost every occasion, mission trips are no exception. Stephanie designed these shirts for the student volunteers on the 2011 mission trip, although she did not choose the color.

The students at Stephanie’s Alma Mater have shirts designed for almost every occasion, mission trips are no exception. Stephanie designed these shirts for the student volunteers on the 2011 mission trip, although she did not choose the color.

Since then I have done service every week and even went on Sacred Heart Academy’s  2012 Mission Trip — this time volunteering to become the leader of the Old Folk’s Home group. I developed many friendships that would not have formed if I chose to not go on that first mission trip. I still think about Frances and wonder how she is doing: what color themed outfit she is wearing today, what stories she is telling to others in her thick New York accent? I still have the package and card she sent me in response to my letter filled with butterflies and paper cranes for her room.

She wrote “I feel that you are a lot like me by how you feel and the compassion that you have.”

These words mean the world to me.

About the author

Stephanie Baldwin graduated from Sacred Heart Academy in 2012. She now attends Fordham University LC in New York City. Stephanie has continued her love of service by becoming a Social Justice Leader through Fordham, and participating in Global Outreach projects — her most recent trip being a week long service-learning trip to Nicaragua over spring break. Although she is an undecided major, she will most likely pursue a career in creative writing and film.