Literature 4-21-2005

Letters from a Writer: Leaving All Bridges Unburned

Jean Sramek is in the home stretch--"The Phantom of the NorShor," which she wrote, is on--April 22 - 30, at the NorShor Theater in Duluth. Here's her valedictory take on the preparations.

Jean Sramek

Opening night is in less than a week. A year ago, it was in a year; four months ago, it was in four months; six weeks ago the show was a healthy six weeks away. But none of these real-time measurements means anything, and saying how far away or how close the show is means nothing. Opening night is a few days away, but in theatre years (at least from my perspective as a producer), the show is tomorrow. In an hour. This minute. Too late. The show is yesterday, and my to-do list is crammed with items, only some of which are crossed out.

Some can never be crossed out, because they never appear on the to-do list in the first place. They are also the reason that I have not had time to cross out many of the other items—the ones that can be crossed out. These invisible to-do items are the absence of items. To include them in a to-do list would be like including “do not exceed the speed limit” or “do not overeat” or “do not wash clothes” or some other non-actions. The invisible items on my to-do list, logically, should take up no time at all but mysteriously seem to take up all my time. If these do-not-do items had names, and occupied spots on my to-do list, they would read something like, “BRIDGE: DO NOT BURN.” In a small town (and I dare you to name an arts community that isn’t) it’s all about burning bridges. Or rather, refraining from burning them.

I am producing a musical, a musical for which I co-wrote the book and lyrics, that opens on April 22. I have hired a cast that I love and tech people who truly function as a team, and our core company is working together like a dream. All of us have a vision of what the show will be, and during production meetings or rehearsals, it is not an uncommon occurrence for one or more of us to throw our heads back and laugh with delight at this art we are making together.

And not a day goes by when I don’t want to kick someone square in the ass.

Every day I am faced with a bridge that desperately needs burning, and my job as producer of a show in a small town is to not burn that bridge. Burning a bridge in a small town is a bad idea. There are ever fewer bridges in a small town, and one of those bridges might someday be your only available route out of whatever it is that you have gotten yourself into, or a shortcut to some kind of giddy success.

Putting aside the leaden metaphor, what this means is that in the next week I will not write a letter to the editor, railing against the right-wing fundie columnist in the local weekly newspaper, even though that columnist has written ignorant self-righteous dreck, because that columnist also happens to be the paper’s arts reporter (and frankly, a good one). I will wait until after my show’s run is over to write such a scathing letter—or maybe I’ll just let someone else write it. I will not tell a principal actor in my show that I am filled with sick fear because he has made no attempt to memorize his lines—no, I will just offer to come to rehearsal 30 minutes early to help him run lines, and I will not point out that actors with far less experience are already off book, and I will be supportive and not use words like “lazy” or “ego” or “prima donna.”

If I long to say words to someone, words which are more or less “LISTEN PUNK. SAVE THE PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE SHIT FOR SOMEONE WHO’S ABOUT TWENTY YEARS YOUNGER THAN ME. I’M BEING NICE TO YOU NOW BECAUSE I HAVE TO. BUT ABOUT FIVE MINUTES AFTER WE STRIKE OUR SET—IN SPITE OF THE FACT THAT YOU ARE AT LEAST A HEAD TALLER THAN ME AND OUTWEIGH ME BY 75 POUNDS—I AM GOING TO DRAG YOU INTO THE PARKING LOT OUT BACK, AND KICK YOUR SORRY ASS,” I am going to not say these things, but instead, sign all my emails with a cheery “Thanks for everything!” And maybe I’ll just keep that nasty stuff bottled up inside, where it belongs.

I might realize that it was a mistake to hire the costumer or stage manager or light board operator because she is doing theatre for theatre’s sake instead of doing what we need her to do. I might want to say that I don’t give a flying eff what she did when she was working on The Music Man or Guys and Dolls in college, and would she please stop talking about it. But burning the bridge is a bad idea. She might suddenly say to me, “I realize that I’ve been making this show all about me, instead of responding to what you guys need for this show, and I feel bad about it because I totally respect you, and I’m ready to learn from you.” She might literally say this, and everything will be okay, because I didn’t burn the bridge before she had a chance to tell me.

Just because someone is a sociopath today, doesn’t mean he or she is not going to be valuable to me next year. If I burn a particular bridge, I may be stranded. I may be inconvenienced. I may be screwed. Worst (or best?) of all, the person on the other side of the bridge, that bridge I long to turn into ashes, might turn out to be rather pleasant. An ally. Someone with whom I will make art. Someone who will not burn a bridge that leads to me.