So this morning I’m sleeping in my room here at the Great Plains Theatre Conference and I’m awakened by a phone call from my wife. I’m glad she’s calling — I wanted to check up on our little boy, who’s been ill — but it’s awfully early, i.e., around 10 a.m. She thought I would be engaged already with adjudicating duties, but someone here at the conference knows me better than my wife of 20 years, because the schedule has never mandated an appearance by me before 3 p.m.
She updates me on the condition of our youngest (improving: good), and hurries off the phone because she can hear that she woke me. But now I’m up. So I read a little more of the Edward Albee biography I’m reading, and I do some further rumination on my new play, make some notes, and go downstairs and have coffee and shredded wheat with Silk. (Again: some wonderful person at this conference has channeled the inner me, because I don’t do milk if I can help it.) Then I throw some laundry into the washing machine in the basement. Now I’m back up in my room. I decide to check the schedule and find out what sort of thing happens before 3 p.m. On my personal itinerary that the helpful person or people have provided, it says, “12:15 — Metro & More taping.” I figure, Hey, they’re going to interview the conference guest of honor, Doug Wright, and I would indeed like to go see that: I’ve met Doug the night before and like him and his work (“I Am My Own Wife,” “Grey Gardens,” “Quills”). So I shower and shave and because I’m also now halfway into doing laundry, I put on last night’s clothes — the semi-casual clothes from last night — well, early into the morning — the clothes that a quick sniff tells me don’t smell too much of cigars and bourbon. Having miscounted the underwear I packed, I have no choice but to put yesterday’s back on, but it seems fine for now.
Just then, my cellphone rings again. It’s a weird phone exchange — 402 or something — nothing I recognize.
“Lee? This is Shanda.”
Shanda is one of the incredibly helpful conference people. Whatever you write on a list on the refrigerator, she provides. Someone else here wrote down “grapefruit,” and they arrived. Someone wrote “eggs,” and they arrived. I wrote down “Impeach Bush/Cheney.” I’m hopeful.
“Hi, Shanda,” I say.
“Are you coming to the Metro & Me taping?” she asks.
“Y’know, I am,” I say. “I’m just now heading out.” I can see by my Treo that it has started 10 minutes ago, but I figure I’ll slip in the back.
She says, “Would you like me to pick you up?”
Her ongoing thoughtfulness astounds me. “That would be really great,” I say. “Thank you.”
So I make some last-minute dabs and pats at my wet hair, glance again at the shaving cut on my neck, and walk downstairs, and she’s there already. I climb into her car and make some small talk.
“Who are they interviewing?” I ask. I know it’s stupid – they’re interviewing Doug Wright – but I have nothing else to say.
“You,” she says.
Ha ha. That’s a good one. “That’s funny,” I say.
She looks at me as she maneuvers the car onto the road. “No, they’re interviewing you.”
“What?” I say. Except it looks and sounds like this: “WHAAAATTTT?!?!?!?!”
“They’re interviewing you,” she repeats.
Suddenly I’m going to a very different sort of taping than I had imagined. Until one moment ago, in my mind I’ll be in the back of a studio audience enjoying the wit and wisdom of Doug Wright. Now with no notice I’m being asked to perform. It’s the actor’s nightmare: finding yourself on stage with no clothes and no lines.
“Am I dressed right for this?” I screech. “I just got out of the shower! I cut myself shaving! Are you serious? You’re kidding!”
She assures me that she’s not kidding, that I look fine, and that it’ll be fine, and I start to wonder if she’s polite or if because she hasn’t commented on it I can assume she can’t smell last night’s porch party on my clothes. About one nanosecond later I’m in the studio skirting cameras as I’m prodded toward the moderator’s desk and fitted with a lavalier mic. At no time is there a makeup person to check in with, which has me wondering just how greasy my forehead is at the moment, and how, by the way, is that cut on my neck doing?
Now I’m seated between the interviewer and my colleague, playwright Robert Caisley. Caisley has had more time to prepare than I: He found out about this five minutes before I did. He bears a similar surprised expression, although he’s had the savoir faire to grab the stage-left seat, so that he can hold forth, pontificating with ease and waving his arm about freely, as he’ll do throughout the interview in the periphery of my vision, resulting in a constant twitching blink from me every time his index finger draws close to my eye. I, in the middle seat, will be caught up in the ping-pong match between the host and the erudite Caisley. I decide on the spot that I hate Robert Caisley and for that chair would gladly run him through. I lean over to the interviewer, a cleanly composed gentleman with the bearing of a professional talk-show host.
“How long is this interview?” I ask. I’m trying to devise a strategy: perhaps a few pithy comments and I’ll be out. I’ve done interviews before; on radio they sometimes go 20 minutes, on television you’re looking at a couple of minutes and plenty of editing later.
“An hour,” he says.
I laugh. “That’s funny,” I say. “How long is this—“
“An hour,” he says again. He’s not laughing. He tells me it’s syndicated to about a bajillion different markets through some network or other, but I can’t hear anything except the surf pounding in my ears. He looks at his notes and tape begins to roll as I ponder my coffee mug.
For the next hour, I do my best to sound like I know something – anything – about writing and the theatre, all the while wondering about my forehead, my absurd clothes, my stale underwear, and the overarching all-informedness of Robert Caisley, who seems to know absolutely everything about everything, including the complete origin of Aristotle’s Poetics. Being better versed myself in the origin of Ant-Man, I realize I can’t compete on Caisley’s turf, so I blithely volunteer that I haven’t read Aristotle because I don’t want it to infect my own writing. (Caisley later congratulates me on this tactic.) I throw in a couple of bon mots about Arthur Miller and… someone else, I can’t remember… and the interviewer applauds me on my being able to capture in one short phrase what he himself has been wandering on about at length. This has me wondering if I’m stepping on his toes and now he’s punishing me for it. At some point, I launch into an anecdote about a play that my wife Valorie and our good friend Joe Stafford were in together in college. In this play, Joe’s character goes offstage to the bathroom, but because someone blew his cue and all the actors got lost in the action of playing Monopoly onstage, Joe’s character never made it back on stage – to this day, 20 years later, that character is still in the bathroom. The interviewer loves this story, and to illustrate his love of it, uses my coffee mug to represent a Monopoly piece in that play – and moves it over to his end of the desk, away from me, where it stays for the remainder of the taping. Now I’m sure that he’s in an unspoken power struggle with me. Meanwhile, Caisley is referencing great Russian directors that I’ve never heard of, and sharing stories of his father’s illustrious acting career in England and his own early introduction to the professional theatre back when I was building tree forts, and I start to fall back on my humble origins and my lack of formal training in the ardent hope that, as Americans, we will once again root for the underdog (in this case, me). Caisley impresses all and sundry with an impromptu discourse on the aesthetic unities, while I try to sound clever about what one’s chosen Monopoly piece says about one’s character. Who are these people who choose the thimble, and what does it say about them? (I am the horse and rider. Make of it what you will.)
The taping ends and while I now understand the feelings of the deer narrowly missed by a truck, everyone seems quite happy with it. The producer and the crew and the host are all upbeat. I’m still not sure what just happened. I congratulate the host on his sterling work — he was an enrapt and engaging conversationalist and I tell him this because it’s true and because perhaps it will prod someone in post-production to be kind to me on tape and use ProTools to erase the shine from my forehead. I’m led to another room to pick up a takeaway lunch and Caisley and I stumble out into the drizzle. I can’t help noticing that now that the taping is over, there is no ride back.
“What just happened?” I ask him. I tell him I had expected to be watching Doug Wright getting interviewed. Or, perhaps, someone else. I was not prepared for it to be me. He doesn’t understand it either, and relates that he had been lolling around outside in shorts and a hoodie when Shanda found him. He had run back to his lodging at breakneck speed to get dressed.
What now? Now, we wait. At some point or other, an hour of myself and Robert Caisley will be popping up on a channel near you. They’ve promised to send us each a DVD. If they host it online I’ll link to it — after I’ve reviewed it. In the meantime, I think I’ll study the rest of my conference itinerary very, very closely.