Robert Estes, on a Wednesday, back to Tuesday next time!
I’m sitting in the piano bar Martuni’s round midnight this past Monday night, listening to the versatile pianist Joe Wicht accompany singers on songs ranging from West Side Story classics to show tunes that stump the slyly knowledgeable audience when he queries, “What musical was that from?” and it’s all happiness and escape, almost as if it were Saturday night, except that I’m sitting there writing about necrophilia.
The odd part of my new Theatre Pub column is that my given prompt is that I’m writing about reading a play in a bar, which is sort of hard to do in the dark recesses of most liquor havens. But being an intrepid cub columnist, I’ve cornered the one lit table in Martuni’s this Monday night, the light reflecting in my watermelon martini as it highlights the sculpture of a musical note hanging on the wall behind me. I feel relatively ingenious in stealing that limited, directed light for my own selfish purpose of jotting notes about all that’s going on around me.
I confess. I’m not reading a play. Damn, second column and I’ve already blown the prime directive. Hey, if you had the choice, would you rather read a play or hear it being read? Would you rather hear about show tunes, or hear the tunes themselves? Tonight, I’m listening to plays being sung by the most devoted show tune lovers in the bay. There are damn good singers here.
I would mention names but I feel a shyness, as if it’s sort of a private party and I’ve been sneaking in without an invitation. I never sing. I’m breaking the social contract by not doing so. Let’s face it; I’m way out of my league. If it isn’t the touring cast of Kinky Boots (that one time!); it’s the pro local singers dropping in on their Monday off night. No way am I getting in the way of hearing them sing by singing myself.
But still, I take pride in being here. There is virtue in presence. And I always participate with full voice in the sing along numbers. It’s actually quite thrilling to be part of the chorus. But most of all, the singers, the performers need an audience and that is me being one drop of that happy, effusive human sea of appreciation, and, yes even tonight feeling consciously cool that I am here.
Then I remember the time when I found something that I took a cool pride in that was revealed to have a dark shadow, or should I say a dark shade? I once loved black and white movies, I still do. There is something architectural about how they look. The chiaroscuro makes them almost seem 3D to me. There is almost something tactile about black and white. And then, there’s just the clarity of the difference in time, as if the era of black and white movies was equivalent to a different geologic period. No one can ever again live in a black and white movie. Noir will always be its own thing. Everyone will always want to be Cary Grant, even Cary Grant.
So I thought till in an everyday conversation years ago, the brilliant actor Danny Scheie casually mentioned “those necrophiliacs who love black and white movies.” What? What does having sex with the dead have to do with seeing my beloved, oh no, yes, um, I hate when I have to see that he’s right, everyone on the screen is dead. I’m communing with the dead. It’s so obvious. I’m a necrophiliac, how disturbing.
Yet, I wished I would have made that thought connection before I heard it from him. Here I was thinking about black and white movies all the time and I had realized that all the people were dead, but never really made the through line to necrophilia. I had to wonder, was the idea of black and white movies being a form of necrophilia a common sentiment?
I’ve often thought that the cool part of being Mark Zuckerberg would be to search a phrase in all of Facebook and see how many times that exact thought had been written before. “Said no one ever” would come up a billion times; it would seem that rather than never being said, everyone says that phrase always! Can you imagine how often “This.” would appear when linking to an article? I mean, whatever the poster is linking to really can’t be that personally interesting to them if all they can muster is “This.”? I would actually pay attention more if they could summon up a simple declarative sentence “This is interesting to me because…”
But then who I am to say that, declaring one’s self is not easy. I won’t even sing in a community piano bar. But I will sit in the piano bar and write about necrophilia, which kind of makes me feel like a weirdo.
And so, in Martuni’s round midnight last Monday night, I began to wonder if in addition to being a necrophiliac, I was also a lurker as I scribbled my notes sitting in the half-light against the wall.
Yes, let’s make the through line of thought go from my non-singing to the status of lurker as the through line of thought of seeing dead people to necrophilia went straight through the prior discovery.
So odd, I’ve never thought of myself as a lurker. Really, though, not that I can answer at the moment, but what is the difference between lurking and observing? What do audiences do when they watch a play? A good audience might respond in many ways, their presence might be felt in a community of electricity, but they are kind of assigned the role of lurker. They are often looking through the fourth wall, which is sort of Peeping Tom, who must be a lurker before a peeper.
And often, I’ve heard the motives of audiences questioned, as one actor once said that he thought some audience members specifically came to the first preview so they could see a train wreck.
Yet, beyond the audience, what does a director do? Is being an observer a central part of directing? I’m sure there are many different places an individual director would fall on the spectrum of being an observer, but it does seem that one of the central doings of directing is observing. Yes, observing is doing, which is so unlike the common refrain that “I don’t want to observe, I want to do.”
So I wonder if observing without purpose is lurking? Then is observing with intent something else? I admit all of these thoughts are improvised right now, but there’s something highly energetic in finding the necrophilia in watching black and white movies or the lurking in observing.
There is something rich in accessing the dark arts when working in theater. We do commune with the dead quite literally when we work on a dead playwright’s work; but even if the playwright is alive, they are often not there in presence. Then there’s always the smudged presence of those who’ve communed with the work before and then that indistinct but charged engagement is carried on to those who may work on it afterwards.
The actors perform in front of lurkers, there is that phrase, lurking in the audience. It’s okay for us to embrace the shadow, or even celebrate the shades of memory that each and every theater production eventually becomes.
So as I thought of necrophilia and lurking at Martuni’s last Monday night, the young man sang “We’re lost in the Stars…”
Really, theater’s kind of a ghost show, isn’t it?
And a ghost is sort of a combination of necrophilia and lurking.