Well, life had definitely taken a turn for the better. I still had my job teaching acting at Gotham University’s School of the Arts. This meant that I could afford to keep my East Village apartment. This, of course, was not good news for my landlord, a slumlord who retained his property long enough to strike gold when the neighborhood became gentrified. Now I wouldn’t have to slink in and out of the building, avoiding his acquisitive fingers, and he would have to find a different way to get rid of me. I also might have a new girlfriend, Anitra Blavatsky, a flighty artist who I met at an opening at a trendy gallery in Chelsea. When she told me her name I guess I didn’t react properly, so she informed me haughtily that she was a lineal descendant of Madame Blavatsky, the famous spiritualist and mystic. This meant nothing to me, so I casually commented:
“That’s nice. Did she tell fortunes?”
Anitra thought I was being clever and laughed at my wit. She was tall, bony, and handsome in a chilly sort of way that I found appealing. She was generally out of town assisting the famous artist she worked for, whose art consisted of wrapping buildings or other things in plastic, so we talked a lot on the phone.
I don’t know if fate owed me an upswing, but life hadn’t been easy for the last two years. I came to New York to escape the constraints of my Boston upbringing. I was the second son in a long family line that had a rigid tradition: the first son became a doctor, the second son became a lawyer. The allure of law was nonexistent to me, so my choice was simple: obey the family dicta and live oppressed, or refuse history’s mandate and suffer the consequences. When I chose to study theater at Northeastern, instead of pre-law at Harvard, Mum and Dad brought in the Gurkhas to suppress rebellion. Uncles inveighed, aunts entreated, cousins reasoned, Mum pouted and Dad fumed. When their combined efforts failed to daunt me, Dad trundled out the heavy brigade, Granddad doctor Arthur Hayes Kensington IV. Fourth, as he was respectfully referred to, rarely emerged from the glacial isolation of his den, where he cackled over illustrated Moliere plays that satirized his profession. His mobilization indicated that the front line troops were faltering.
I may have been outnumbered, but I wasn’t outgunned and I resisted every assault until my funds were expended. Then the family issued the final ultimatum: unconditional surrender, or exile. With a light heart, a lighter wallet, and lightest of all, the freedom of release from an unwanted burden, I entrained for New York City and moved into a cheap hotel on upper Broadway. I quickly got an acting job in an off-off Broadway theater company, unpaid of course. I earned a living performing as a silent clown at 72nd Street and Central Park West. The park habitués enjoyed my act, which I concluded by making balloon animals for the kiddies. Single- and five-dollar bills flowed into my baseball cap begging bowl and I was soon able to afford an apartment of my own.
An actor acquaintance relocated to Hollywood and I inherited his apartment on East Ninth Street, between Avenues B and C, where the yuppie invasion hadn’t penetrated too deeply yet. I transferred my clown act to Saint Mark’s Place and Second Avenue, a short stroll from home, and it prospered. At lease renewal time I signed my name to the precious document, sent it off hoping for the best, and behold, it came back with the landlord’s signature. I was a genuine New Yorker.
It didn’t take long for the landlord to discover his mistake and descend upon my peaceful domicile with unmitigated wrath. When he finally stopped bellowing like an anguished steer, I tried to reason with him, but he wouldn’t listen. The implacable gouger of the poor had planned to rent my apartment to a yuppie pioneer who would be willing to endure the loneliness of the urban frontier and pay exorbitantly, until the other settlers arrived. He rantingly demanded I vacate the apartment. I loftily refused. War was declared and I was summoned to housing court. Judge Evictus, no doubt marooned on this ignoble bench since the dethronement of political boss Carmine DeSapio, was more resentful of tenants than landlords. But I had a signed lease, a legally executed document that entitled me to the apartment. However much they conspired and connived against me, I wasn’t budging. Finally, despairing of another solution, the judge advised the landlord to offer me money to vacate the premises. The pusillanimous landlord offered $700, one month’s rent, and I courteously refused. Judge Evictus, out of options, glared malevolently at me and begrudgingly dismissed the case.
When I got outside, the intoxicating air of victory filled my lungs, but was immediately superseded by city carcinogens. As I scaled down my respiratory ambitions, the landlord accosted me and swore unrelenting war, unless I departed. I sneered at his threat, but made a mental note to visit the Tompkins Square library on East 10th Street, between Avenues A and B, and review tenants’ rights. I knew he couldn’t cut off heat and hot water to my sixth-floor aerie, since some of the tenants in the partially gentrified building were yuppies, and they wouldn’t tolerate the loss of creature comforts. I spent some time speculating what the landlord could do to me, but aside from wild fantasies of sponsored break-ins, or assassination, I didn’t see how he could dislodge me. A wave of well-being surged through me. I had a secure apartment for two years, as long as I could pay the rent. A celebration was called for, but I had no one to share my elation. Anitra was out of the country, planning to wrap the mosque of Omar in plastic, as long as the faithful didn’t stone the unbelievers for profaning a holy place. I couldn’t understand how wrapping something in plastic, made by man or nature, could be art when any deli counterman could do that.
I originally thought I wanted to be a theater director, but the endless struggle to impose one’s will on the production quickly made it lose its luster. I was anything but a control freak. The ongoing prospect of trying for quality performances from a mixed talent base of off-off Broadway actors led me to playwriting. I enjoyed acting. I wasn’t driven to build my career in the lust to be adored, the childish need of most actors. I just loved performing in front of an audience. My clown show allowed me complete freedom and also supported me. So I started my first play, a grandiose three-act tragedy based on my family. It took a while to realize that my play lacked certain ingredients: a theme, a plot, a dramatic structure. Despite these critical oversights, there was some good dialogue, mostly filial invective against a domineering father, that sounded suspiciously autobiographical. So I put the play aside and started something simpler: a one-act, two-character play about a young couple falling out of love.
I was painfully familiar with falling out of love. My last girlfriend, Ellen Markson, had broken up with me for cause. She objected to my rampant display of lust. It’s not that she didn’t enjoy sex, but it had to be part of a larger relationship. Ellen was a law student and wanted to debate the issues she encountered in class. Marbury versus Madison was low on my priority list compared to diddling Ellen’s taut, slightly hyper-tense, sexy little body. In a last effort to stabilize the fraying fabric of our relationship, Ellen suggested we follow an agenda: dinner, discussion, sex. I excelled in two out of three, but Ellen demanded all of them. I fell asleep during the thrilling climax of Brown versus the Board of Education and inexcusably violated the covenant. Ellen gathered the few items she kept at my apartment—a hair brush, a tooth brush, clean panties, deodorant—and abandoned me for the niceties of the law. I berated myself for weeks for losing her. I could have mastered the art of looking interested and nodding my head periodically like a dipping bird.
So on I wrote and waited for the light, and had just enough meat and bread, and didn’t care who put a bullet in his head. But in a thunderbolt of revelation, I saw that I needed a theater. After all, what good is a play without a theater? The off-off Broadway company that I had worked with as an actor specialized in updated versions of the classics. I had appeared in Richard III, set in the Chicago stockyards; Prometheus Bound, set in the American embassy in Teheran; Hamlet, set in a mental institution. The last venture almost prepared me for institutionalization. I played Horatio, Hamlet’s loyal friend and confidant. My function in this director’s psychotic exercise was to give Hamlet a swig of Thorazine whenever he faced a crisis. Not even the most faithful friends or devoted families could sit through this atrocity. When this not-too-solid run ended, I left the company without a single sarcastic remark about the show. After all, by being there I was as guilty as everyone else who participated in this decomposition, or as the deluded director preferred, deconstruction of a classic.
With a one-act play in hand, I approached various small theaters, and a pattern of rejection quickly emerged: “We’ll get back to you if we’re interested.” “Join our playwright’s workshop, for a substantial fee, and you’ll get a reading, someday.” “No unsolicited scripts.” “Agent submissions only.”
The search for new talent was obviously a myth. I briefly considered joining a workshop, but the thought of sitting with other playwrights and wagging for recognition was a dismal prospect. It’s not that I was unprepared for the possibility of rejection, but the discovery that theater was a restricted community was unsettling. Anitra had already lectured me at length on the need to network, but the combination of her know-it-all attitude and my inherent stubbornness had made me dismiss her advice. She was already giving me useless advice in a smug, self-satisfied voice that would raise my hackles. The coincidence that this one time she might be right was irritating and provoked me to childish resistance. I had no desire to become social, or political, so perhaps a career as a playwright wasn’t optimum at the moment.
I loved performing for a live audience. I was getting more and more involved in playwriting. I was somewhat of a loner, an anomaly in theater, which has herd-like characteristics. One possibility that occurred to me was to write a one-man show that I could perform outdoors. If the results were worthwhile, I could raise money, rent a theater and produce the show myself. The more I thought about it, the more excited I became. All I had to do was write a show. I could do that. I also had to learn about producing, so I went online and found an enormous amount of information. My printer was down, so I just browsed the web, scanning the huge, undigested mass of data that was mostly personal revelation by the inept, rather than how-to info. Then I visited the Tompkins Square library, and found a very useful book: How to Produce for the Small Theater. I noticed a lot of attractive young women there and made an instant decision to use the public library more often.
The book was very informative, once I waded through the usual artistic camouflage that disguised the venal business. The two revelations that really shook me up were how expensive everything was, and how many people you needed to do it: director, producer, stage manager, production manager, technical director, designers, techs, stagehands, house manager, box office, ushers. If the book was right, you needed a small army just to produce a play off-off Broadway. I had one or two theater friends who might help me, but for the rest I’d have to hire strangers, not the most reassuring prospect. I tried to eliminate some of the personnel, but the best I could come up with was for me to be the producer/director as well as the entire cast. It looked like I needed all the others. Then I reviewed the budget: theater rental, lighting equipment, construction supplies, personnel, advertising and promotion. The list went on and on, indicating that art wasn’t cheap. I went over the sample budget several times, and the only thing I could eliminate was advertising and promotion, if I didn’t require an audience. I couldn’t find any satisfactory answers, so I gave up and went home.
Before I could shift from dejected brooding to clinical depression, Anitra phoned from Germany to update me on the progress of the wrapping project. The faithful had objected to desecration of Allah’s house on earth, so now they were aspiring to wrap the Kremlin in plastic. My suggestion that they wrap trouble spots around the world, like Kosovo or Rwanda, thus giving the warring factions time to cool off, wasn’t appreciated. After a lengthy silence, I told her that I was thinking about producing a one-man show off-off Broadway, but it required a lot of money. She rambled on for a few minutes that the monthly United States trade deficit of 25 billion dollars was a military/industrial conspiracy to make foreign countries dependent on our purchases. Then we’d suddenly stop buying and watch their economies collapse from over-production. When I asked what that had to do with my wanting to produce a play, she replied:
“Isn’t it obvious?” and hung up.
I must confess that I really didn’t understand Anitra at all. She was proud of assisting “Sophisto,” the nickname I had given her master of plastic, but I was a retrograde and preferred paper. Her personal artistic work was putting miniature images of Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, which she claimed was the greatest invention since the wheel, on coins. She affixed mini-domes on nickels, dimes, and quarters, each a different shade of green. Fortunately, when she first told me, I didn’t make a flip remark like: “It sounds like small change to me,” alienating her instantly with my boorish ways. She had taken charge of my cultural education. I wanted to take charge of her body, but she kept me at a distance, frostily chiding me:
“You must learn to control your low physical appetites and aspire to a higher plane of existence.”
I risked a quip:
“I’ll fly the SST next time I travel.” That met with distant disapproval.
I couldn’t figure out why what I considered normal sex urges were so unacceptable to so many women.
It was clear that it wasn’t practical for me to produce my own one-man show, given my current economic condition. I guesstimated that a three-week run would cost $20,000. If I really skimped for the next twenty years, and if there was no inflation or currency devaluation, I could probably afford to produce the show in 2021. Considering the present level of decadence, theater might be obsolete by then, except for mega-musicals and shockers. Fewer and fewer people were willing to make the requisite effort to think about theater. If serious theater disappeared because it was easier to passively spectate musicals, movies, and TV, that would be frightening for our culture. We were being mind wiped at an increasingly dangerous rate. Too many generations of children have been planted in front of the TV by parents, instead of being nurtured. If you could erase the thought process with electronics, I guess you could wrap things in plastic and call it art.
So my brief career as a producer was over before it even started. I didn’t know if it was worth my time and effort to write a one-man show and perform it on the street if I couldn’t bring it to a theater. Instead, I renewed my commitment to my acting students at Gotham U’s School of the Arts. My initial enthusiasm had slowly faded, as I tried to motivate them to risk emotional extremes in search of actor’s expression. But they were bred on sit-coms. The safe and simplistic acting methods of TV had become ingrained in their plodding creation of characters. It’s ironic that actors were once the despised rejects of a class society and clawed their way out of the gutter with their talent. Now they all went to college, where they learned a little bit about acting, then were welcomed into the middle-class society that once looked down on them. It’s weird how going to college can legitimize what was once a low-life profession.
My silent-clown street show was the redeeming creative factor in what was becoming a comfortable life. There was no fourth wall on the street. The artificial contrivance that separated fearful actors from their audience was inconceivable, if you wanted to reach people on the street. If they couldn’t feel you in a reassuring way, they just wouldn’t respond. Our streets were already overwhelmed by the representatives of decay: junkies, drug dealers, muggers, mentally ill homeless, criminals of all sorts, and an endless stream of stressed citizens, building frustration and rage, only waiting for a target. I attracted all types when I was performing. Some types of psychos were threatened by a silent clown and I had to be very careful to avoid an emotional eruption that could get unpleasant. Other people, demented or retarded, reacted with childish demands for attention. Low-lifes heckled or interrupted the show, and this was no longer an age when spectators told them to shut up. The growing number of difficulties in performing on St. Mark’s Place impelled me to return to my safe old site at 72nd Street and Central Park West.
I was very lucky. No one had replaced me at the park entrance, where I had pioneered a lucrative site. If someone occupied the spot, I couldn’t consider them a claim jumper and reach for my six-shooter. After all, I had abandoned the mother lode. But I was back, my audience was glad to see me, and the money flowed in. I averaged about fifty dollars per ten-minute show, including another ten minutes making balloon animals. I usually did three shows in an hour and a half. Balloons, make-up, and carfare cost me about fifteen dollars a day, so I was doing pretty well. I could reasonably hope to perform into November, maybe even later if global warming persisted. I could start again in March, again depending on climate conditions. So for eight months, I could do my show Friday, Saturday, and Sunday mornings, between 10:00 a.m. and noon, weather permitting. I taught two acting classes at Gotham U on Monday and Wednesday mornings, so my afternoons and evenings were free.
I did some basic arithmetic regarding my income and concluded that I could easily save two hundred dollars per week, barring a calamity. If all went according to plan, I would have enough money to produce my one-man show in two years or so. That didn’t seem outlandishly long. It would take three or four months to write the first draft and a few more months for revisions. Then it would take two or three months to learn the show and create the personal touches that would make it interesting. I’d want to perform the show for a while, say three or four months, then revise it and perform it again, which could take another six months. I was now up to a year and a half of working on the show before formal production.
The plan was actually beginning to seem realistic, and I got a tremendous rush of exhilaration because I had never planned anything more than a few days ahead in my entire life. I desperately wanted to share my feelings of satisfaction, but I didn’t have any close friends, and my family would have said something negative. So I had lots of exuberance bottled inside and it made me much more benevolent towards my acting students, a group that usually feared my caustic tongue. When Anitra called from Paris to rhapsodize about “Sophisto’s” latest wrapping project, the Eiffel Tower, I didn’t respond with proper enthusiasm. I could almost feel the sudden drop in temperature when I quipped:
“Maybe you should consider wrapping Mont Blanc.”
There was a frigid silence, then she replied coldly:
“I don’t expect you to understand the significance of conceptual art, but you could at least keep your unenlightened comments to yourself. Perhaps you should get a dog. He might appreciate your immature sense of humor.”
It was becoming clear that Anitra and I were not meant to be, for we operated on two entirely different wavelengths. When it came to art, she was digital and I wasn’t even analog. My faint hope that a stable sexual relationship would bind us together was obviously misplaced. We couldn’t even get beyond Bickering 101. I ignored her suggestion of getting a dog and apologized for my insensitivity. I felt like a hypocrite because my ulterior motive was to have sex with her, although it was a dimming prospect. We chatted about neutral topics for a while, then I told her about my newly revised plan to produce my one-man show. After a dubious silence, Anitra haughtily corrected my political incorrectness:
“The proper way to describe your project would be to call it a one-person show.”
I guess I was impatient.
“Okay. It’s a one-person show. What do you think of the idea?”
Her reply was indifferent.
“It sounds a bit asocial to me.”
I hung up before I said anything out of anger, but I was simmering. I don’t know what I expected form her, but in the least I anticipated some kind of encouragement. That was probably unreasonable, since I was usually sarcastic about her work. Why should she be more generous than I was? However, my need for approval was great and I reacted to her abrupt dismissal of my plan with extreme disappointment. In fact, I found myself thinking that we weren’t really suited to each other at all, and her body wasn’t that appealing. Besides, she was hardly ever in New York City. When she was, she still seemed to be wrapped in plastic. I didn’t have to work very hard to justify sour grapes. Maybe Anitra and I could be friends, only time would tell, but we wouldn’t be lovers. That wasn’t too difficult to decide, since we never got to be lovers in the first place.
I resolved to go ahead with my plan to produce a one-man show—so there, Anitra—and I immediately started a production list of what I needed to do. I also pledged to rededicate my energies to my acting students and not be so critical of their efforts, however paltry I felt them to be. I never told them that I performed as a silent clown, and I briefly wondered how they would react if they learned about it. Probably with disdain, I concluded, since it wasn’t neat, safe, or antiseptic. Well, I had no intention of telling them. I could imagine the scorn that Ernest “the emoter,” my theater department chairman, might heap on me. If he discovered that I was a common street performer, he was pompous enough to think that my extracurricular activities wouldn’t enhance Gotham U. So I would continue to maintain the greasepaint wall of silence about my clown show. Once I dismissed my concern with Ernest, I started thinking about all the pretty girls I might meet at an internet café. It was too late to go out tonight, but I had something to look forward to tomorrow.
Gary Beck has spent most of his adult life as a theater director, and as an art dealer when he couldn’t make a living in theater. He has eleven published chapbooks and one other accepted for publication. His poetry collections include: Days of Destruction (Skive Press), Expectations (Rogue Scholars Press). Dawn in Cities, Assault on Nature, Songs of a Clerk, Civilized Ways (Winter Goose Publishing). Perceptions and Displays will be published by Winter Goose Publishing. His novels include: Extreme Change (Cogwheel Press), Acts of Defiance (Artema Press). Flawed Connections has been accepted for publication (Black Rose Writing). He has a short story collection, A Glimpse of Youth (Sweatshoppe Publications). His original plays and translations of Moliere, Aristophanes and Sophocles have been produced Off Broadway. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines. He currently lives in New York City.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “OUT OF THE DOGHOUSE”:
Gary Beck’s wonderful piece rings of truth, so much so that we wonder whether parts of it might have come the author’s personal experiences. Regardless, the well-drawn characters feel very real. And the plastic-wrapping artist added nice touches of humor–an enjoyable and light-hearted piece indeed.