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My attention flips between the pages of a nearly failed history midterm and the unopened prompt book, today’s bible. I open the binder, and my fingers glide over the script—sound and lighting cues, lists, drawings, and contact sheets. The booth is dim and private. So very quiet. The white paper flutters in the cool light, and I point at the light cue I’ve been prone to miss: LX 10. Four performances down, and each time, I’ve frozen at standby. I always unthaw at LX 11, while the light board op clicks through buttons without me. I promise myself I’ll be present. I will call it today.
Actors to fight call.
Tamar and John enter stage right.
Her: staring blankly at the pink neon “X” gaff taped to her spot.
Him: flinging his limbs through the air like windmills.
They’re courteous, always are. He asks her what she had for breakfast, and she replies that she was too nervous to eat. Despite her protest, her parents are coming today. Their conversation ends abruptly.
Our daring director choreographed their exchange with expert precision. He’s in his senior year, acting track, and he proposed this play three months ago when inspired to direct. His style, as he calls it, is to light the play ablaze until it singes the eyes of its audience, like a theatrical barrage of sensation. His method: to strip the audience of their senses and cleanse their palates. Then, to paint their blank canvases with a splatter of provocative color. If executed to his liking, he expects the audience will leave the show unequivocally terrified. The faculty applauds his boldness. He has high ambitions for a successful directing career.
To achieve his vision, the director required a stage manager, but we have a shortage this semester. The other stage managers were selected for prestigious Main Stage productions led by guest directors from across the country. I was not. He told me he would have chosen me regardless, that I’m accomplished and experienced, that I’m the only one he wanted to work with. He’s stayed up with me on late nights after rehearsals, and he’s walked me back to my dorm. I remember feeling safe with him. Now he knows where I live. He knows my routines. He knows our paths will cross every day through the rest of the run.
I haven’t spoken to him since Wednesday.
Tamar lies on the ground, clinical and still. Her short breaths cut through the air. John straddles her in the politest way he can, and he asks if she’s okay. Tamar is present, but I watch her mind slip somewhere else. This ten second scene took three hours in tech. The director wanted something specific. More sound. Less sound. No sound.
Good afternoon and welcome to the University’s Blackbox Theater. This afternoon’s performance of Sabine Women will begin at 2pm.
Supposedly, the playwright wrote Sabine Women after staring at an art piece in the MoMA. The piece, titled Yours, is a mess of tangled bodies carved in stone, the faces muddled and pained. It reminded him of the tales from his alma mater, from parties and late-night encounters, from accusations and he-said-she-said. He questioned the truth of the narratives, and in his doubt, he stumbled across a story from Roman mythology—the story of the Sabine women. He examined Renaissance art and sculpture, and when he was through, he bestowed the classical title upon his own work and filled the script with his judgments on gender and power. Overcome with inspiration, it was said he wrote the play while self-confined in a cabin for a month. Then he hastily pitched his words to Broadway, then off-Broadway, then off-off-Broadway, until a tiny theater in Oklahoma picked it up and called him the voice of our generation. Indeed, cultural relevance stimulates the art world.
Five minutes to places.
The play on its own is simple, with some details intentionally vacant. That’s where the director inserts his voice, for why would a director choose a play he couldn’t mold, carve, or stamp with his vision?
Places for the top of Act One. Places, please.
The director watches from the back row, like he always does. It’s the closest seat to my booth, too close, and I can’t see the play without seeing him. I remind myself of the show’s value. It’s a coveted line on my blank arts resume. It’s a prompt book portfolio piece. When I said no, he stopped. Shouldn’t that count for something? We’re halfway through the run. Three more performances. It will be over soon.
Lights up on Act One.
My eyes glow with the vibrant illusion of sunrise against the cyclorama, but I think only of the audience. Did they read the trigger warning on the door?
Standby Lights 10.
Striking images of clever choreography. Tamar is in the center on her knees, praying, John lurking behind her. A striking image and an intentional gut punch to those who haven’t seen it before. The audience must assume what’s to come, but I wonder if they expect to see it. I force myself to look away. Focus, focus. I close my eyes and call it.
Light cue 10…Go.
Finally, on time. I release a slow exhale, but my pride is masked by the sudden exit of two audience members. The stage presents a live image that will burn in their minds, and my thoughts are with Tamar’s parents. I keep a running tally of who has walked out. The director wants to know.
The show flashes forward in routine calls. The audience needs a break, I can feel it. The discomfort is rattling through their bodies as they rustle in their seats. Chair squeaks are a welcome reminder that they are only in a theater—that it is only a play. The claps at the end are less than generous, and while I call the curtains to close, I feel I’m not alone.
The director is at the door of the booth, his face and voice expressionless. “Thanks, Rachel,” he says. “I know it’s not an easy show.” I nod. I breathe. I try to imagine that he’s not here.
“Can we talk about it?”
I grip the microphone and tell the actors, “Thank you. That was our first show of the day. Our next show is at 8:00, half-hour is at 7:30.”
He awaits my answer, but when no words pass between us, the director disappears. The truth is, there’s nothing left to say. He’s forced himself into the crevices of my silence, prying for further meaning on the page of a fixed script.
I reclaim my quiet. As the illusion fades, and the stage is cleared, I count the hours until the carousel makes another round. Take a nap. Eat some food. Pretend it’s fine, or people will ask questions. Three more hours until I return. Two more performances until we’re done, and then there will be no more cues to call.
“Cues” by Frannie Dove and the artwork titled Red Light by Julia Jin appeared in Issue 42 of Berkeley Fiction Review.
Frannie Dove is pursuing an MFA in fiction at George Mason University. Her work is forthcoming in North American Review, and her children’s plays are featured on the Drama Notebook (www.dramanotebook.com). She is writing a YA historical adventure series and a RenFest-inspired dystopian novel.
Julia Jin is a Cal graduate and former BFR editor. She splits her time between her 9-5 and freelance digital artwork for bookish projects. She creates hardcover embossing designs, dust jackets, preorder campaign artwork, and more.