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THE URBAN MAN
A Cold Night in a Black Box

by Marc Porter Zasada

A Homeschooling Father Looks into the Future for His Stage-Struck Son

EVERYONE wants to express himself, no matter how great the odds against him. On this Saturday night, the odds include a cold wind down Hollywood Boulevard, where the evening traffic has just kicked into gear. Scanty dresses and leather jackets scurry. In my sometime guise of theatre critic, I’m headed not for the Kodak, nor the Pantages, nor for any marquee built with a thousand small lightbulbs. No, turning hurriedly down a poorly-lit alley of a street, I push through a dance of litter to search for one of the miniature “blackbox” theatres you find strewn across L.A. like fugitive speakeasys from another age.

Even though I have never been inside this one, I picture it lovingly: cramped almost to the size of my living room, but chill and damp as a root cellar; walls, floor, insulation, rafters and drainpipes painted black; lighting cables hanging twisted and threatening overhead. 
Always when I enter one of these venues, I can feel the presence of a fierce talent hidden backstage: A thin brilliant fellow lurking in the green room with a personal take on society and a loose cloth jacket. A producer/director/actor broke but unrelenting. A dramaturge who still smokes, and who, like a determined dice player, goes head-on against the odds. Always I visualize the moment when, at the age of twenty-two, he broke his father’s heart by leaving a perfectly good Shakespearean swordplay workshop at Northwestern to take a red-eye to L.A.

As a critic, I admire him. Often I even envy him. But as a father myself, I have to admit that the very image of such men and women inspires. . . fear.

For across town at this very moment, in my actual living room, where it’s cheerfully warm and brightly lit, I know that a group of hopeful teenagers practices a passionate student play. Homeschoolers all, they’ve been raised to believe, I mean really believe in the arts. From an early age, they’ve been taken to plays and read Sheakespeare. My wife has given workshops on “Educating With the Arts.” And I know that among this serious group in my living room tonight acts my 16-year-old son, probably just now donning his dashing gray felt cap and entering stage left to speak deftly about the state of society. His step is frank and fierce and determined, and even if he has not yet begun to smoke, I know he’s unrelenting. A fine and energetic director urges him on: “More, more. You can give me more than that!” 
During these rehearsals, far from Hollywood Boulevard, true self-expression often hovers close, if just out of reach: Maybe if the kids were a little more fierce, or a little more unrelenting. . . 
Meanwhile, back out in the cold alley off Hollywood Boulevard, where a handmade sign announces the theatre, I pass through a forbidding iron door in a blank medieval wall. In the courtyard, one other patron, himself clearly a critic and clutching a similar manila envelope of press materials, sprawls large, cynical and sport-jacketed on a narrow iron chair. I make a slight joke: “Nobody here but us reviewers, eh?”

“Looks that way,” he says in the weary, uninterested style of veteran journalists.

The odds, I note, have just gone up.
We sit, waiting for the doors to open and ignoring one another as actors and actresses flutter up the stairs to some rehearsal hall, intent on more important purposes than the second night of another world premiere. In the half-light, I can see that each is openly beautiful, and I wonder about that rushing moment when each first decided to really go for it: When each first noticed that Renée Zellwiger nose or that James Dean chin. Did it come just before or just after the moment each decided to really believe in the arts? I recently discovered a James Dean chin on my son, and despite the odds, he has already expressed a strong interest in an acting career. Even tonight, perhaps, he imagines a scholarship at Northwestern, where he almost certainly pictures himself playing Henry V in that swordplay workshop — and I cannot help but engage in a bit of epic foreshadowing.

In a vision, I see him a few years from now, hoisting a flashing rapier under the streetlights and shouting, “Once more into the breach, my friends.” I note his handsome profile as he leads a fierce troupe through a break in the medieval walls of some small venue off some small alleyway in Hollywood – maybe even this one. I picture his director inspiring him again: “Feel it, feel it. Don’t play to the audience, invite the audience in!”

Now it’s ten minutes after eight. Having held the doors as long as it dares, management finally relents and invites in a total audience of two middle-aged critics.

Inside, we find the theatre precisely as I had imagined it but nearly as cold as the outdoors. We sit uncomfortably in two of the 36 metal folding chairs, and I button up my own meagre critic’s sport jacket. As a dramatic prelude, a young man sits stiffly onstage, his back half-turned: here at last is the fierce dramaturge I had anticipated, tonight’s writer-producer-director-leading man. He is sharp of cheekbone and handsome of neck, and I find that he possesses a much more finely-chiseled chin than does my son. I know he has put up his own, probably scarce money to mount his play, and I wonder if he knows there are only two of us out in the gloom, staring him down. In my agitated state, he seems not so very much older than the teenagers in my living room: But surely, whatever fine and energetic director inspired him years ago, and whatever reverence he developed for the arts, this man has long since learned about the odds.

A jet of water roars through one of the drainpipes from the rehearsal hall upstairs, the music kicks in, and I sit forward in my seat. I find myself, as always, filled with an unexplained and giddy optimism. Naïvely, I again link my own eager love of theatre to unknown gamblers. I mean, who knows? Perhaps tonight all that fierce determination will pay off. Perhaps the encouragement of this man’s coaches and well-wishers will be justified. Perhaps he will repay even the fears and anticipation of his father – who no doubt gave him his fervor, encouraged him to speak deftly, nudged him into a personal take on society, smiled on his frank entrances, and bought him dashing gray caps.

The lights flare. Actresses enter to open and close false windows languidly. Actors enter to adjust and re-adjust their ties angrily. The leading man speaks philosophy. And for a time, it all does seem remarkable and important. Indeed, by Act Two we have romance and rising conflict and denouement. Glittering looks blaze beneath colored gels. Truths are summoned in high language.

But . . . no. Ultimately, no dice. Somehow, it all fizzles in the last half hour. Somehow, we achieve no real self-expression. In the end, I slump down in my chair: The magic has again hovered close, but just out of reach. We two critics applaud, trying to sound like an audience, but we know the unrelenting dramaturge has lost his wager. And I, now completely consumed by that foreshadowing, release an audible sigh. I ask myself if I might prevent my own determined child from trying to express himself, five or ten years down the road.

If only I knew how to un-inspire him, the director, or myself. Outside, as we hurry into the bitter night, the other critic turns to me and draws a phrase from a ready box of laconic wit: “Well, better luck next time.”

______________________

Copyright © 2004 Marc Porter Zasada. Mark and his wife homeschool their four children in Los Angeles. You can read more from Marc at www.theurbanman.com, or write to him at marc@theurbanman.com.