‘Curse of the Starving Class’

Last night my husband and I went to the University to see Sam Shepard‘s “Curse of the Starving Class“. Michael (though I call him Vivian–long story), my dearest theater friend, played Weston Tate, the boozy patriarch of a poor and starving family, a foul alcoholic who terrorizes those around him.  To know Vivi in real life is to know that he is capital- f-Fabulous, hilarious and deliciously bitchy.  His performance was truly transformative; so angry and aggressive and heartbreaking.  When the play ended, and the actors made their way to make their final bow, I was up on my feet, hoping Vivi would see me and know that I was there to support him.  On the way out of the lobby, I noted the large board of theatre bills, plays of seasons past.  There is a poster with my face on it, and others from where I played supporting roles or worked behind the scenes, and something about that paper-homage blew through me like a warm breeze. A thick, nostalgic lump began to grow inside my throat.  We were walking to the car and I noticed the door leading to the green room was open.  I dashed off and crept in, knocked on the door and asked the person if “Viv-er Michael was around”, he came to the door and we shared the biggest hug, and just let that embrace linger.  I felt like a proud mother, he had done so well  We agreed to meet the following week, after the show closed, and I left in search of Ben.

Once home, I couldn’t shake the sense of melancholy that had enveloped me.  In truth, it’s a difficult, unpleasant play about difficult, unpleasant people, but it wasn’t the context that bothered me.  Ben was lying in bed, reading a book and I was on the other side of the the townhouse, sobbing inconsolably.  I can hear his voice calling out to me, he can hear me catching my breath, but I don’t go to him–it’s kind of like crying during a sad film…I don’t need you to hold me because Kate and Leo can’t figure out how to share that bloody door in “Titanic”, that’s the point of drama: catharsis.  I finally come to bed, and Ben puts his book down expectantly: “What’s going on?”.  I sniffed and sniveled, wiping my nose on a crumpled tissue.  “I don’t know, I’m just feeling…homesick…I guess”.  “Homesick?”  I’m supposed to be a writer, and I can’t articulate how I’m feeling.  There is something about that space, the black box theatre, that represents a happy, creative time in my life.  It also tacked on an extra three years to my university education, but that’s a small price (who am I kidding? it cost a fortune!) to pay for those memorable and life altering experiences.

I was finishing my English degree when I had taken an Oral Interpretation course, which was essentially using different vocal qualities to bring the story to life.  Though I’ve always been a dramatic, gregarious sort, I was just not meeting the expectations of the course.  My friend Monica, a former actress who dated the course’s professor, had worked tirelessly with me through each piece.  Come presentation day, I would succeed, but never knock it out of the park.  The final reading was to be a dramatic piece, and it was worth a huge percentage of the final mark.  Monica suggested Shepard’s “Curse of the Starving Class”.  I was to read a conversation between Weston and Wesley, the father and son.  The day of the reading, I was standing in the hallway, muttering lines to myself–not uncommon in that part of the Old Main Building–when I was confronted by a woman.  She was involved with a man whose dark side I was very familiar with, and she wanted to know just how dark it could get.  The exchange was sudden, shocking and deeply upsetting.  I told her what I could, but then dismissed her: “I can’t talk about this right now, I have a presentation to do”.  I headed toward the classroom in a delirious state, my face red and my eyes like a dam about to break.  I spotted my professor, and between the look on my face and my inability to string a proper sentence together, he understood.  “Go home, we can do this next class”.  I left without a word, and was half-way across campus when I called Monica. We lived in the same apartment building and I wanted to see if she was home so I could pop over for some tea and sympathy.  “What? Are you fucking crazy?”, she says, her raspy voice rising on the other end of the phone.  “What do you mean? I can’t do this today”, I sputter.  “Today is the perfect day, what are you going to do? Come home and feel shitty? You are going to turn around, and go back and do this piece…take your feelings and just give it away…then you’ll come over and we’ll have a drink”.  She hung up, and I stopped dead in my tracks.  I turned around, and with great resolve, marched toward the theatre department. I opened the door of the classroom, and everyone looked over at me, with my red face and bloodshot eyes, and I nodded to my teacher.  Today is the perfect day to do this.  When my turn came, I spilled my metaphorical blood and guts, cried real tears, and delivered the final monologue as if the words belonged to me, as if I suffered Weston’s pain and disillusionment.  ‘I was a flyer’…but I’m not anymore.  It was the theatrical equivalent of an exorcism, and I have never known such relief.  My professor was so enthusiastic, he insisted that I enter the program full time, and it never occurred to me that my life had any other direction but to go onstage.

In those three years, I was involved in several plays.  My first play, Arthur Miller’s “After the Fall”, introduced me to the concept of a theatre family, (Vivi was in that show), and I grew close to Shannon, a committed actress who took the craft so seriously, she would disappear into her roles.  I loved the work, loved what I was learning, and mostly loved giving my emotions away to these characters–the rush of emotion, feeling lighter for having read those lines. Monica worked in the Box Office, and was an endless source of information and advice.  She died suddenly in the middle of my education, on a show night, and I still mourn that loss, now five years later.  After graduation, Shannon was severely injured in a car accident, and though she lived, the girl I knew is lost, and I miss her so much it hurts.  I think about all of this, lying in bed, staring into the darkness, feeling fortunate and affectionate toward that very special time in my life.  What a resurrection of emotion– to come back to this space, to sit in the audience and watch my friend disappear into his role, spilling his blood and guts on the stage.  It filled me with so much longing for that feeling of the lights, the sensation of giving in and letting go–the craving of catharsis.  I eventually drifted off to sleep, imagining the moment before you step out onto the stage, heart pounding, hands trembling, and a head full of someone else’s thoughts.

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