Last week, I helped set up the stage for Independent Shakespeare Company’s production of Cyrano de Bergerac, at the company’s studio space in Atwater Village.
There wasn’t much building to be done. Cat, the set designer for Cyrano, had managed to create a design out of the remnants of the set I built for Macbeth, ISC’s flagship show in their Shakespeare Festival in Griffith Park this passed summer, which had been stacked away in a corner of the studio. One by one, Cat and I – along with Kevin and Andre, two actors performing in Cyrano who’d come to help out – pulled wall pieces off the stack and set them up according to Cat’s design.
Kevin and Andre would run lines with each other as we worked, shouting dialogue to each other across the room, over the music playing from Cat’s iPhone. Andre was tasked with performing the title role of Cyrano. He also translated the play from French to English for the production. This production was his baby – he had a lot invested in it, artistically. Even during periods where he wasn’t running lines with Kevin, he’d quietly mumble lines to himself as he wandered the stage or held a flat in place as I screwed it to the floor.
Some of the flats were stained with stage-blood from the Macbeth production. Dead leaves were stuck in spiderwebs of the many arachnids who’d made homes in the crannies of the wall flats – more than once I found one of the 8-legged creatures crawling up my arm. The wood of the flats was also hard and dry, due to outdoor exposure in the park over the summer. It would crack into pieces when I screwed into it, if I wasn’t careful. But the flats held together and just before midnight…voila!…Scotland had become Paris. When Cat unplugged her iPhone from the PA, a deep quiet fell over the studio, like when birds stop chirping just before a tornado. As the silence began to lift, I could hear Andre mumbling away, somewhere behind the set.
The next day, Cat and I continued working on the set. Her friends, Lexie and May, came in to paint. The three women were attending UCLA together. They were good hearted 21 year olds and fun to be around.
“Oh my god, The Backstreet Boys!” exclaimed Lexie, when one of the band’s tunes came up on Cat’s iPhone. “I think it was the first CD I ever got! Wow, they were such a big part of my childhood.”
The Backstreet Boys were not a big part of my childhood. In fact, I was already 21 years old when they were popular the first time around, 17 years ago. I didn’t listen to the Backstreet Boys, then. I was still mostly listening to country music, still living in the small South Texas town of Orange Grove, population 1,212. But in the fall of 1996, I felt I needed a change, so I cut off my nearly shoulder-length mullet, quit my job pumping gas at the Exxon station in Orange Grove, then nervously stumbled into the Acting For Beginners I class at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. The professor of the class had taught a speech class I took, a few semesters before. I was horrible in that class – froze or stuttered everytime I had to speak – and eventually stopped showing up. But he remembered me when he saw me on that first day of acting class.
“Well,” he said, curiously, “Mr. Pate. Welcome.”
It felt real good to be remembered and welcomed, so I listened hard in the class and did whatever the professor asked of me. He ended up taking me under his wing and for the next three years I acted in most of the University’s productions. I also knew how to use all the power tools in the shop, which gained the attention of the technical theatre professor. He ended up giving me a job and I built sets for the productions, until I graduated. From there, I went on to act, write, build, produce and go broke in the theatre all over the country. A million things happened along the way and The Road took a million turns as one show led to another – all of it leading me to Cat, Lexie and May on a Sunday afternoon in a theatre in the Atwater Village neighborhood of Los Angeles, California …as if the only purpose of those 17 years was to lead me to them, at that location of spacetime. Those years passed by so, so fast. That Sunday, I could still feel that mullet against my neck, smell the gasoline on my fingers as those three giggly 21 year olds bounced around to the swingin’ hits of the 90s. But my aching back and throbbing knees made it clear that 17 years have, in fact, passed by…and I was no longer the young one in the group.
Later that week, I went back to ISC and continued working on the set. A number things needed to be made safe or more cosmetic. Squeaky flooring needed to be fixed. Wires needed to be run for light and sound. Furniture peices needed to be built. Cat and I goofed off here and there as we worked, but Opening Night was getting nearer, so there were long quiet stretches here and there, as the two of us focused, worked faster and moved from one task to the next. Kevin was there on both days, working hard right up until rehearsal time. And so was Andre, helping, wandering, mumbling…
Just before rehearsal on Friday, the set was nearly complete. I was getting ready to leave when my buddy, Sean – who was also in the play – came in. We caught up and made plans to start working on a short film we’ve wanted to make together. I was tired from working, but talking with Sean about the project invigorated me, and my knees and back didn’t ache so much anymore. By the time Sean and I were finished discussing the project, the other members of the company had arrived. The stage manager was setting the props. Actors were running lines or discussing parts of the play. Every now and then, one of the actors would grab Andre by the arm and run a few lines with him, then leave him to his mumbling and wandering.
Everyone came in from there own long, real day. Their few short hours of make-believe together would begin when Melissa, the director, arrived. When she did, she looked just as tired of as the rest, yet bounced around – energetic, in good cheer – also like everybody else. Everyone was ready to work on the Life that rages on in Cyrano de Bergerac.
If you’re not familiar with the play, it centers on Cyrano, a archetypal Frenchmen – a duellist, poet, musician, an all around Renaissance Man, possessing a profound panache. But he’s also cursed with a ridiculously long nose which puts a pretty big dent in his self-esteem – and, therefore, his panache – everytime he enters the presence of the beautiful Roxanne. Cyrano loves Roxanne, but doesn’t have the stones to tell her. Another man, Christian, loves Roxanne, too, but doesn’t have the panache to adequately express his love for her. So, Cyrano writes beautiful letters dripping with panache on Christian’s behalf. Roxanne reads the letters and falls in love with Christian, leaving Cyrano to wander alone, as the odd man out, unable to reap the benefits of his panache. Not until many years later, after Christian has died, and Cyrano is dying, does Roxanne find out that the letters that triggered her love for Christian were written by Cyrano, that it was his panache that awoke the love inside her. But by then, it’s too late. Cyrano est mort…the panache is gone…c’est la vie. The play’s filled with love, longing, fellowship, happiness, loneliness, death, deception, there’s tender moments with poetry, harsh moments filled with danger, it’s funny and sad and a there’s even sword fight.
Just like the last 17 years of my life, probably your life, too…avec ou sans the swords, big nose or not.