Marissa Skudlarek, walking in and out of the shadows.
October. A new month, and none too soon. We Theater Pub bloggers chose comedy as our September theme, and then several of us found ourselves facing personal crises and challenges in September that made it very hard to be lighthearted. Hence my “maybe comedy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be” article, last time around. Hence Stuart’s invocation of the terrifying momentum of this white-knuckle year.
Our October theme might be more in line with what we’re feeling. This is the month when the days get rapidly shorter, when the Sun moves into moody Scorpio, and the spooky Halloween holiday caps things off. And, appropriately, our theme this month has to do with the magic and mystery of theater (and life), ghost stories, horror theater, the frightening, the numinous.
What could be more numinous, more magical, than the thought that Ashley and Will, two of my co-bloggers, have together created a new life? This baby, conceived around the summer solstice, announced on the autumn equinox, will come into the world around the time of next year’s spring equinox. I think about that, and about how the Spanish euphemism for “giving birth” is “dar a luz,” “to give to the light.” And it feels both wonderfully appropriate and wonderfully mysterious.
My year hasn’t been quite as momentous as Ashley and Will’s, but it — and particularly, the past few months — have brought me bigger challenges than I’ve had to face in a long time. Halfway through the run of Pleiades in August, I began experiencing terrible stomach pains that started as soon as I lay down in bed and kept me awake for hours. After a few nights of this, I went to the doctor and got diagnosed with gallstones. Honestly, the diagnosis came as a relief, rather than shocking or frightening me. I wasn’t crazy! This wasn’t psychosomatic! I was really ill — I had stones in my abdomen that weren’t supposed to be there! And, while I’d have to go on a super low-fat diet and then get my gallbladder surgically removed (neither of which would be much fun), at least that would be an effective, permanent cure.
A few days later, the metaphorical resonances of my situation began to hit me. The process of producing Pleiades, from the time I floated the idea to director Katja Rivera in mid-December 2013 to closing night at the end of August 2014, took about nine months. And then at the end of the process, I came down with terrible abdominal pains and had to go to the hospital to get something removed from inside me! I wasn’t just giving birth to a play. I was giving birth to gallstones.
And then I decided that I needed to name my gallstone. I know this sounds kooky, but I come from a family that names everything — our cars, even our Christmas trees. Giving something a name makes it real and concrete in my mind, and as such, gives me power over it. After considering and rejecting a few silly names that didn’t feel right (gallstones are sometimes made of bilirubin, so perhaps I could name my stone “Billy Rubin”?) I reached back to literature for inspiration. And I decided that my gallstone was named “Caliban.” Partly because it was angry and caused me pain and would flare up if I drank too much alcohol. But mostly, I was thinking of the line at the end of The Tempest, when Prospero says of Caliban, “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”
This gallstone was a thing of darkness. This health crisis was no fun. But if I acknowledged it as mine — if I accepted it rather than falling prey to self-pity or anger — I could survive.
Then, too, I thought of a monologue I had written for one of the key moments in Pleiades. The character of Teresa (in our production, wonderfully played by Monica Ammerman) has been raped, late at night on a beach. The next morning, she tells her sister and her cousin what happened:
The sand. So much sand. Rubbing me raw and abrading me—getting into places where sand shouldn’t go— And at first I closed my eyes and tried to forget it was happening but that just made it worse. You know when your eyes are closed you feel things more intensely, right? So I opened them and saw him, of course, big and dark and close up. And the only other thing I could see was the sky. Big and dark and far away. But full of stars. And I remembered what they say, that there are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on Earth. The stars win out. They have to win out. There has to be more starlight than sand… But there was so much sand!
And I realized that if Pleaides was the starlight in my life, these gallstones were the sand. I was so proud of my show, this play inspired by mythology and constellations and sisterhood. And the stars would win out… even if I had this sand, or these stones, inside me, too.
I think October is about acknowledging those things of darkness that are ours. But also acknowledging the starlight. The sparks of light within us, like the candle in a jack-o-lantern.
Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. She has never read “Illness as Metaphor” but she probably should. Find her on Twitter @MarissaSkud or at marissabidilla.blogspot.com.