Monday, February 28, 2005

Hello, square one

The snow is coming down tonight, hard little crystals that blow into your face like sharp, cold sand. I just came from an impromptu dinner with my ex, who is in town for a few days. It's been over ten years now since we broke up (I just had to do the math in my head, and was quite surprised to discover that it's been that long.) We're good friends now, although our paths only cross sporadically, when he comes through New York on his way somewhere else.

We met in Montana, where I had gone for a summer job. We didn't meet properly until the end of the summer, but it turns out that he was the actually the first person I met there: when I was first dropped off at the dorm where I would be living, he was on his way out from having worked the pre-season show. He showed me around. My head was spinning a little bit from the newness of it all, and didn't recall this first meeting until much later.

This was the summer of 1990. I had had a very bad spring; I had been living in New York for about seven months, and someone very close to me had died. I had been on the waiting list for graduate school, but hadn't gotten in. My life felt chaotic and fractured, and I needed to escape.

By chance, a girl I knew from undergraduate school in Arizona called me up in New York. She and I had become friends over the last couple of years in Acting! school, and she had made endless demo tapes for me of a one act musical I'd written. She was originally from Montana, and had worked at this theater the summer before. They were suddenly in need of a music director, and she had recommended me. It was a dream job for a music director - I didn't have to accompany rehearsals, I only needed to conduct and do vocal coaching. It couldn't have been more perfect. They interviewed me over the phone, and I was hired sight unseen. They sent me the scores to the four shows we were doing (Pirates of Penzance, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and 42nd Street), and I set about learning them backwards and forwards. Then, a few weeks later, I was on a plane to Montana.

I had never been to Montana, and had only a vague idea of what it might be like. Northwestern Montana (this was about 60 miles from the Canadian border) turned out to be one of the most gorgeous spots on earth. It was green and lush, chilly in the summer (just how I like it), and set on the shores of Flathead Lake, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the country.

I needed to be in a place where no one knew me, where I could re-invent myself. I didn't realize it until later, but for most of that summer I was in the grips of grief and depression, still dealing with my friend's death. It would wash over me at night like ocean waves, a slow pounding that held me under water.

The one obstacle to my being able to completely escape my past was the presence of a another actor I'd gone to school with in Arizona; somehow he had been hired for the company. He also ended up as one of my three roommates; I tried to spend as little time in my room as possible (not hard to do, as we worked from 9 am until 9 pm every day.) To his credit, he didn't say anything at first when I started a summer romance with one of the girls in the company (I've mentioned her before: my last gasp. As it turns out, it may have been one of her last gasps as well, as she is now a glamorous lesbian.) He was gay, almost Young Harvey Fierstein gay. This was a theater that tended not to hire super-obviously gay people; it was small town Montana, after all. Plenty of people were gay, of course - some of the directors, designers, a stage manager or two, a few of the actors - but nobody was as out-and-about as Harvey. Montana has a strong live-and-let-live ethic - much more so than, say, Wyoming - and I always felt comfortable there - but the keyword was subtlety.

Young Harvey once confronted me dramatically in the men's bathroom - he was all up in arms about what I was doing dating a girl, when he knew that just a year before I had been living with a man. What I was doing, of course, was just trying to escape myself and live another life for a while. I don't remember what I said, but I'm sure I bit his head off; he was already having difficulty fitting in, and I'm ashamed to say I probably didn't make it any easier for him.

Luckily, I had my work to immerse myself in. I had music directed before, and always enjoyed it. I ran vocal warmups, taught the music, re-worked the vocal arrangements when necessary. The level of musical ability of the company that year varied widely - there were some very strong, solid voices in each section, but also a few in-between singers who had a difficult time holding a harmony. It was a challenge, but I managed to squeeze a credible Pirates of Penzance out of the chorus. It felt good to accomplish something; when I wasn't working, I was a complete blank.

Our life in this small, beautiful Montana town was the same every day: gather in the theater bleary-eyed at nine a.m. for company meeting and warm up. Then, rehearse all day and all night; then retire to the bar, where beers were 75 cents and shots of vodka were a dollar. Get roaring drunk, stumble home, pass out. Repeat, repeat, and repeat. That's theater.

There are many stories from that summer, and the summers that followed. The bonds forged in that theater were incredibly strong; I have many lasting friendships that began there. But it's interesting to think back and remember that feeling of escaping, running away to somewhere no one knew me, someplace where I could begin again, go back to square one. Of course, your past always follows you, and eventually you can't help but revert to your true nature, your most essential self. Instead of a past-erasing transformation, I found growth and evolution. I found a new family in that place, and returned every summer (except one) for seven years. The far-away land I had hoped to hide in became a second home. Eventually it became just another place to escape from, a place where I had stayed too long, a still-beautiful place whose magic had inevitably worn off.

Tonight, at dinner with my ex, catching up on the details of our lives and mulling over the distances we have traveled, I was seeing how the pattern repeats and repeats: the arc of my summers in Montana was remarkably similar to the time I spent working at a theater in Minneapolis over the last seven years. A triumphant arrival, establishment of a new network of friends, great success, followed by a waning, a chipping-away, a slow drain, staying too late at a party that is long over.

I'm wondering what the next cycle will be; I'm feeling that it's a time of transformation and forward motion in my career, even though there are big question marks and blank spaces in the months ahead. I only hope that this time I'll be able to sense the ebbing tide sooner, and move on when the time is right.

Square one: it's nice to be back. I see you've been waiting for me.


Blogger Hanuman1960 said...

I never tire of reading your postings. Great stuff!

6:13 AM  
Blogger Knottyboy said...

It would be a waste not to stay connected in some small part to those we've loved. They create a perfect deterent for replaying those ill-fitting responses once again. Or maybe how to do it all over again with only more drama. You made me think of men I've loved and lost track of. Been a long time since that hallway has been walked down.

1:27 PM  

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