I’m getting ready to perform Dessie. It’s somewhere between 1975 and 1984, and I’m changing clothes in a little ladies’ room in a community college or a high school or a conference center or a church basement or a prison. I’m not putting on makeup, I’m just easing into the same old tired polyester print wrap-around dress that’s never lost the imbedded memory of sweat. I’m not wearing pantyhose, so my bare feet go into the old pair of blue lace-up canvas shoes I’ve had forever, and I tie the red shoelaces I’ve had to replace a couple of times. Autumn gave me her own shoes way back when, because I needed something that was a little bit too large for me, and Dessie and I have trudged through hundreds of performances in Autumn’s shoes. They ground me, because they make me a little sloppy-footed, and because red is Dessie’s favorite color but she won’t allow herself anything red except those shoelaces. I do brush my hair, which hangs loose halfway down my back, because pretty soon it’s going to be a mess. I look at myself in the mirror, and Dessie looks back at me.
I walk down the corridor to the performance space. One time I’d just participated in a fancy pre-show lunch with the conference sponsors, and after I’d changed my clothes and let my hair down, the usher at the door wouldn’t let me in. I didn’t look like a conference attendee. I got in anyway.
I can hear the people out front rustling and talking. By national statistics I know that a fair percentage of them are going to recognize the agony of child abuse from personal experience, and I also know that the people sitting on either side of them would be shocked if they could read minds. Some will empathize, some will sympathize, some will be compassionate, and some will be honest in the post-show discussion and say, “Sterilize her, lock her up, and throw away the key.” Peeking at them from the stage, I can’t read their faces. Who is who?
I’m hiding behind the wall at the right side of the stage, and Conrad is somewhere off left. He’s been the one to do the final check of our stage set-up, such as it is. There are a couple of chairs, a card table, and close to the audience is a stool by a tiny table with a lamp and a radio and some kleenex on it. Conrad’s already wearing his workman’s jacket, and his other four characters’ jackets are placed around the stage.
I’m not thinking about my lines. For me the performance is tipping over the first domino and letting all the others follow. I am, however, thinking about steadying my breathing and draining any tension, because when I step out there, the people need to see a calm intelligent person, someone they can be comfortable with, because I am about to make them very uncomfortable.
The sponsor says something about who we are and that the performance will last forty-five minutes, followed immediately by a shared talk-back. “And now, here’s Dessie.” I walk out and smile and say hello, explain again that this is a play in five scenes, and that they will have a chance to say how they felt about it. “OK, thank you for coming. I’ll see you in forty-five minutes.” I turn my back for a few breaths, and when I turn back front I am red-faced and streaming very visible tears. This is a conscious device, because at the end of the play they will need to trust me as someone to lead them in shared confidences. They’ll have seen me centered and sane, so after the five scenes of Dessie’s awful world, they can believe it when I come back.
I’m an actress, and my job is making empathy real. I know, because we’ve seen it again and again, that there is probably someone sitting there who will hang around after the discussion, after we clear our props, and then come slowly up in the empty room to say, “I have a friend who . . .” and we will know they’re about to say something they’ve never said before. They will need to trust that if I can inhabit Dessie, I can empathize with them. Others who were there, some of them, were led to feel what it’s like to be caught in a trap that has no beginning and no end, and they might look at transgressors differently, or to find ways that the trap might be avoided. This person, though, is standing at the brink of trust, uncertain what to do.
That’s heavy. It’s what the best theatre can provoke, but there are few circumstances where the actors need to deal with the aftermath. We were privileged to do that, and often scared shitless, but we did our best—and there were some who let us know how it turned out. Impossible wounds healed.
We are now a nation with impossible wounds. Theatre is not the answer, but empathy is going to be imperative for healing. Our knotted clotting into warring tribes will devastate us if not reversed. I know how hard that is. I worked and sweated at it in the messy trenches for nearly ten years, and I was fortunate to know a little about the possibilities. There’s no guarantee. You have to open to the strange “other” and trust yourself to weather whatever happens. Let’s do it.