Where I Learn My Lessons

FROM THE DESK OF Gary Garrison

Originally Published in The Dramatist

Recently, I was in the middle of nowhere (well, somewhere deep in the woods of New
Hampshire) at a theatre conference, sitting at a faux-wood table clustered together with
three other faux-wood tables that made one of five pods of tables in a room designed to
resemble an old, weathered ski lodge (or, faux-lodge). I kept looking around and laughing
out loud when I discovered yet another painted on, applied-on, patched-on, constructed
detail of something brand new made to look old (the moose head above the fireplace was
not something that could possibly be found in the animal kingdom, dead or alive). I took
out my notebook (because I am a writer) and begin recording my experience. Here’s what
I wrote:

“I’m sitting in a set – a live set. And as I’m one of the people in the set, I feel like a
character, which begins to feel a little surreal. I am at the apex of a triangle of people
(characters). There’s me, then at another table (on another point of the triangle), there’s a
thin, intellectual theatre-type who’s engaged with a person that would be the third point
of the triangle -- a woman in her mid-forties who looks like she hasn’t slept in a month. I
do a quick scan of her: bottle-brunette hair (except the bottle hasn’t been out in about a
month, so she’s grey about an inch at the roots); a worn, sleepless face; khaki pants that
were taken out of the clothes dryer too quickly before all the creased wrinkles could
smooth out; a t-shirt that simply says, “Mad About It,” and a pair of sandals that read like
a defiant slap to November – a footed “Forget you, Winter!” if you will.

I look at her, then him, and the story’s clear: he’s trapped in her endless loop of
conversation. He’s desperate to find a break in her monologue that’s covered health care, retirement, an upset stomach, motivating actors to be honest in performance, a dead
cactus, a cat that is peeing on everything in sight and her husband’s snoring all in – I kid
you not – a monologue under three minutes. With polite eyes fixed on her, he sneaks a
look at his empty coffee cup, trying to figure out how to politely ease out of her
monologue to get more coffee and escape her ramblings. He hesitantly stands, clutching
his cup, but keeps a knee on the chair. Then he takes his knee off, stands completely
upright and takes a step away from his table. Awkwardly, he steps back towards the
table. Determined, he steps away from the table again, two full steps. All the while she’s
not taken a breath in her endless string of words, images and sounds.

I find myself staring at her, thinking, “My God, woman, take a breath and give the guy
a break, would you? Can’t you see you’re boring the heck out of him? Can’t you see the
man desperately wants to get away? Can’t you see your grey roots and wrinkled pants
and angry t-shirt aren’t making this any easier for any of us? And just at the moment of
this last thought of mine – because theatre is nothing, if not timing – I hear her say out
Yeah. They took my daughter-in- law a month ago. Afghanistan. Twenty years old.
She’s a mother. They don’t care. She’s young. She’s got energy. They lured her into
service with promises of all kinds of money. I’m immediately ashamed; the intellectual
sits down at his table and forgets his coffee. Then more from her: Yesterday, my son left.
Iraq. Eighteen months. Can you believe that? The intellectual looks visibly shaken. I
can’t bear my shame as my chin drops to my chest. But there’s more: He broke his foot a
month ago. They didn’t care. Said it could heal just as easily over there in Iraq as here.
So they shipped him over. I can’t think about it. I’ll go crazy.

And maybe as a way of escaping my guilt, or desperate to learn something from all of
this, I think of how interesting the three of us are as characters, and that maybe someone
will write the truth of us . . . so others can learn.”