stage / kiss / death
or notes on the theatre
An essay by Jake Kuhn
My first kiss was with a girl during rehearsal for an abridged version of Hairspray at sleepaway camp. Dusty stage under a roof like an abandoned hangar, muggy with mosquitoes in the Maine summer heat. Lilia was fifteen, and I was twelve, and sweat was pooling in all the worst places. Underneath our shorts, our bodies clamored for relief. I was that boy, and she was that girl, and in the play we made each other swoon. I didn’t tell her I had never done the real thing in real life before because I figured the rehearsal would be enough practice before audiences would see the kiss and evaluate my prowess. This time we’ll try the scene with the kiss, the director said. When the moment came, I stood on my tiptoes and pressed my mouth to hers, eyes opens to make sure it was really happening. I felt a rush, not in the place where you’re supposed to feel a rush when you kiss someone, but more at the back of my neck where the skin tingles when I perform well. I did my job—make the audience root for me, make them feel for me when I kissed the girl of my dreams. What a relief, to pocket my first kiss and leave the emotional investment to some third-party strangers. A milestone for my persona, the me on stage, in public, while the me on the inside could forget about such arbitrary milestones and instead wait in peace for the kiss that would make me feel things where it felt right, off stage and in some nether region.
You hear actors talk all the time about the thrill of living in the moment on stage, those times when they stop the clock and hold the breaths of five thousand spectators captive in their hands. The ecstatic state of pure focus on what’s at stake and effortless response to the actors sharing the space with you, a cast of bodies in perfect sync. They’re not wrong about the joy of playing pretend. But there are things that actors don’t talk about: how under the pleasure, even under the frustration of trying to “get it right,” there are aspects of acting that are deeply troubling. My life is good—so why am I drawn so magnetically to pretending myself into another? Why do I love the moment when I die and the character takes over, no thinking on my part, no judging, just listening to my body and the circumstances of the story? Why do I find a stage kiss so intimate, even when it’s with a girl and I’d rather lock lips with a boy, even though it’s in front of a crowd of onlookers? I want to dive into these tensions and tear them apart, surrounding myself in the debris of an art worth making.
In every show I’ve been part of, we start each rehearsal with ten minutes of warm-ups, stupid games to energize our bodies and focus our brains. There’s the one where we pass the clap around the circle, never breaking the rhythm, and if anyone drops it we all have to melt into the sea of lava that is the floor. There’s the one where we look across the circle at another person, waiting for them to give you permission to “go,” and the you run at them to take their space while they seek another spot to take. The goal is to pay attention so that you don’t leave anyone stuck in their spot with someone charging them. There’s the one where we send a nonsense sound and a wacky whole-body gesture around the circle, switching it until everyone has created one. There is no discernible goal for this one, except it’s stupid and goofy and you forget the bullshit weighing on your mind from the real world.
Then there’s the one we finish with, where we huddle with our arms around each other, eyes closed, breathing in sync, and count to twenty, one number at a time, starting over if two people speak at the same time. After twenty, we sing a free-form sound symphony, coming in and out of harmony with one another, underscoring the tune with pops and scratches and snares and drips and whistles. I imagine us ascending to heaven, climbing through golden clouds towards the heat, and then easing away just before the pinnacle, landing softly on our feet, together in the rehearsal room, present and ready to act.
In rehearsals, I spend hours working myself into a lather so I can release the muck of the day and become subsumed by the imaginary world. People think it’s easy work to play pretend: they hear kids say “Let’s play!” and the walls melt into fantasy landscapes. Pretend is the fodder of children, they think. But when kids hit middle school, inhibition raises the walls—they stop following their instinct to play, they notice one another, they wait to see what the others will do first. They are hopeful that another knows the way through the rapids of youth. No one does. Play lies hidden in some dark cranny like a pill that would give the brain the shock it needs to remember how to unlock, unleash. So we stand in circles and play stupid games and scream gibberish at each other to try to jolt ourselves awake.
“And, like a traitor to the name of God,
Didst break that vow, and with thy treacherous blade
Unripped’st the bowels of thy sovereign son.”
The First Murderer wants to kill me, the Duke of Clarence, because my brother, Richard III, turned on me in order to secure the throne for himself. The stuff of royal intrigue is soaked in blood—gore and betrayal, the tenuous bonds between men. Murderer 1 draws his dagger and throws me backward onto the bed. He straddles me and lifts his dagger. I cower as Clarence, but suddenly the scene of murder goes off-script and becomes one of sex, and the lust is as palpable as the blade on my neck. The two of us, no longer our characters but just actors in rehearsal, burst into laughter at the absurdity of where impulse led us, or maybe it was the eerie ease of the discovery: Why kill another man when fucking him would feel the same, even better?
“O, if thine eye be not a flatterer,
Come thou on my side and entreat for me.”
Just as Murderer 2 shows mercy and I bless her for saving my life, Murderer 1 stabs me twice in the back. I fall onto Murderer 2 and drench her in my blood, then fall onto the ground. Murderer 1 hoists me by my ankles and drags me offstage, except my head and chest are still visible from behind the curtain. Half off-stage, relaxed, shed of my character’s life from the waist-down; half on-stage, living voraciously in the semblance of death. Maybe this is the ecstasy of death: to feel my stomach rise and fall with the tides of my breath, freed from the responsibility to perform my life and instead just be, just be, just be.
Yet while I revel in this staged death with the security of knowing I will hear applause and stand up to take my bow, I can’t help but think of the actors who have fallen before me. The performers notorious not for the life they brought to the stage but rather for their deaths mid-performance. Seventeenth-century, France: Moliére had tuberculosis when he wrote and performed in his final comedy, Le malade imaginaire, or The Imaginary Invalid. He played Monsiuer Argan, a hypochondriac who medicated his perfectly healthy body, and in an ironic twist of fate, Moliére was struck by a coughing fit, spewing blood onto the stage. Actors at the time were paid wages by the King, servants of the state, and excommunicated by the Church, which condemned the theatre as a school for scandal. If they didn’t perform every night, they would be thrown in jail; if they did perform, upon death they were banned from burial in the cemetery and often thrown in the gutter. It seems barbaric today to treat actors in this way, but I understand how a society could find itself entangled in such a paradox: to demand the liveness of entertainers and to fear how their spirits might live on in mysterious ways after death. Maybe actors are always on the cusp of popularity and infamy, sexy and deadly. Moliére’s wife sweet-talked the King into letting the favored playwright be buried among unbaptized infants in the far corner of the graveyard. Mid-twentieth century, Wales: Gareth Jones appeared in a live television broadcast of the play Underground when he suffered a massive heart attack while off-camera between two of his scenes, visible to the actors on set who were awaiting his arrival. His character was meant to have a heart attack during the course of the play. I see no other possibility for his death than role preparation gone wrong. I wonder when he crossed the barrier between play and real, if he recognized his misstep, if he left any warnings for the rest of us before he went. Late-twentieth century, London: magician Tommy Cooper, famous for his red fez, turned to an assistant hidden behind a curtain to fetch an object which he would appear to pull from within his cloak, and then he collapsed. The event was being televised live, and the studio audience roared with laughter, believing his fall to be part of the act. Cooper was pulled offstage while the following acts continued the show, and the audience didn’t find out until afterward what happened. If the spectators believed his death to be the punchline to his routine, who’s to say his very real death wasn’t a performance after all? I see here how the magic of theatre has everything to do with the audience’s willingness to believe in something imagined, to delight in something morbid and grotesque because they believe it is not real.
Even though I know that what happens on stage is fiction, I carry the experience with me when I take off my costume and leave the theatre. Some actors find themselves in ruin because of fame; I think it’s because they can get lost in the baggage of the roles they play, night after night pushing their bodies to extremes. Vivian Leigh was known to mutter Blanche Dubois’ lines to herself backstage, even when playing other roles. I worry when my roles are villains or even harsh people; I search for the humanity in all of them, hoping to take with me an ounce of light.
A memo to the director before the first rehearsal:
Make me feel pretty. Make me feel lovely. Make me feel like this world we’re creating is a glacier about to slide into the sea of me at any moment, silently and making not a single ripple.
Make me feel like the things you only bring your stars to feel, make me your star. Make me feel the magic. Break the magic, and make me feel the scum of reality, the scaffolding. Make me feel dirty. No, make me feel filthy. No, make me feel clean, but in a dirty kind of way that disgusts the spectators. Make me feel so ugly I feel beautiful, my blood and tears splattered across the stage like constellations blanketing the universe. Make me feel like I can do anything as long as I’m not me. Make me feel so not-me I’m really, gutturally, shudderingly me.
Why do I want this so bad, to reach such release only to be told it’s not mine, it’s someone else’s pleasure? Why do I want to feel for others but not for myself? I steal tiny slivers of these emotions I find on stage, I pick them and I store them in an invisible chest I can open much later, when the lights are off and the only person watching me is myself in the mirror.
“Smoke a cigarette now and have another for mawnin’. You’re not managing right. Need advice and … company in this sad ole house. I’m happy to give both if accepted.”
Seduction is a game, one that I fumble at in real life—my brain follows ten strategies at once, I get subsumed by the mud of unfinished thoughts. On stage, though, I slip into Nightingale’s slick skin and slink around The Writer’s bedroom like a pro, guided by the ebb and flow of Tennessee William’s lilting lyrics. His plays are like albums, each scene a song decrying his characters’ fragile hearts and broken spirits, their need to make their ugly worlds beautiful. In the dark of this dilapidated boarding house in the French Quarter, I offer The Writer the two things any closeted young man yearns for the most—a bit of advice and companionship. Even though Nightingale is verbose and overbearing to the point of being creepy, I imagine how my life would have played out if I’d had the chance to play a gay character earlier in my life—how it might have freed me from playing straight for all those years. How the fiction on stage might have bled into my personal life, easing the unmasking of my reality. Or maybe I would have said what so many straight actors who play queer characters tell the media: that an actor’s personal life and sexuality don’t matter for casting decisions, that any good actor can play anyone, that it’s all pretend. Isn’t that the measure of success—how well you can transform into someone else, without letting go of those impulses at the core of you, the real you? Perhaps, but I can’t help but feel that all of those times I’ve had to play straight in strange cities for my safety, to ensure I don’t die, warrants the privilege to play on stage not only my character’s truth, but my own too.
“You are alone in the world, and I am too. Listen! Rain.”
I lock The Writer in my arms and touch my lips to the tender skin of his neck, once on each side, catch his watery eyes and feel him melt into me ever so slightly. I kiss his mouth, soft at first then firm, inhaling the scent of his wanting. My lips remember the taste of his, the texture of his skin and his fingers gentle on my waist, and for a second this moment in the present collapses with my memory of a night in the past. Eight months ago we spent the night together in my dorm room, and my body can’t help but ignite the same rumblings deep beneath my belly. For every stage kiss I share with a woman, I figure out the choreography of my body by imagining what it’s like to kiss the boy I like most. But now I don’t need a substitution, my body knows what to do, and I find that ecstatic release: forgetting this is acting and succumbing to the tug of this boy in front of me, of this writer in front of Nightingale. And then, blackout, applause, and I realize this is the first time I kissed a boy in front of other people.
Sex—and homosexuality—have been inextricably linked with the theatre for centuries. Take the seventeenth century in London. Making ends meet: the actors labored in a profession with so little respect, they took money from where they could find it, prostituting themselves to patrons after the shows. At least that’s how some accounts would wright the narrative—a starving artist driven to sodomy to survive. The London playhouses of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period were condemned as the haunts of the sodomite, as poet Michael Drayton wrote in his volume The Moone-Calfe in 1627. Another poet described the sodomite as a passionate theatre-goer “who is at every play and every night sups with his ingles.” Ingles being young male prostitutes. But there’s no evidence that money exchanged hands—no “prostitutes,” per se, just actors meeting up with their fans in the bawdy tavern beside the theatre, accepting a beer and the company of those who appreciated their work. Or maybe the exertion of performing riled them up and made them insatiably horny. Trial records indicate that the actors engaged in homosexual sex for pleasure, not profit. I see how the Puritans would paint the theatre district as a hotbed of debauchery and immorality—how the theatre unleashes pent up energies, urging these men to do away with divinity and find God in each other.
The stuff was beautiful and it was deadly. It was called oshiroi, and it was a powder makeup that produced a gorgeous semigloss white for geisha and for onnagata, and it contained a white lead carbonate imported from China. The book I read for class said that some suffered partial paralysis due to lead poisoning; some died. The stuff was used for decades in seventeenth-century Japan in kabuki theater to turn the young men and boys who had the honor of being onnagata into their female stage characters. Layers: after the oshiroi was applied, the eyes were painted with red circles to render them sad and gentle; the neck was painted with dots to highlight the eroticism of that fleshy, vulnerable isthmus connecting brain and body. The onnagata were never allowed to appear otherwise in public because their femininity was the object of desire for all: women wanted to imitate them, and men wanted to sleep with them. Offstage the onnagata were courtesans, highly sought after by wealthy patrons who would vie for their affections and services. Men sent the onnagata letters elucidating their homosexual love, or was it lust, a lust for celebrity? They would prove their devotion by slashing their arms or slicing off the tip of a finger and throwing it on stage, like a bouquet of roses. Homosexual desire, flourishing, elegant: the kabuki onnagata actors prayed to their patron saint Aizen Myo-o in the Great Temple in Naniwa, hanging their love letters on the cherry tree, sometimes sealed, sometimes open for all to read, praying to be united with their lovers.
A revision to the memo to the director:
Take my requests with a grain of salt. Please ignore my irreverence, for I would not want you to get the wrong impression that I am unprofessional. I know what you and all of my instructors have drilled into my brain day after day in the studio. I know that you say it is not an actor’s job to feel these things, that an actor’s job is to render this imaginary playscape so truthfully it brings the audience to its knees. I know that you say we must work to inhabit the play’s given circumstances so that the audience can feel, not indulge in feeling for ourselves. I know that I must not relish in the joy of straining emotions through the porous grit of life—save that for my private rehearsals in the darkness of my home. I know what the rules are. I know how dangerous it is to play with such dynamite—how feelings can explode and derail a performance. I know that it is my focus and my ability to play the character’s objectives that will take me through to the finale, smooth as ice. Those are the tools that lend us the appearance of a visceral emotional life on stage, but really, underneath it all, we must be technical and precise as we navigate the map of the play. Theatre is poetry at the surface but cold mathematics at its core. So ignore what I said about wanting you to bring me to the edge of myself. I won’t hold you liable for my own self-destruction, even as I am drawn down this slippery slide.
My own death plays out in front of me about a dozen times every day: when I cross the street, I feel a semi slam into me and crush my spine; in the elevator, the cable breaks and I fall, a boy suspended in a box for three weightless seconds; I choke on water down the wrong pipe, my brain gets fried by staring into the microwave from too close, my seatbelt prevents me from being thrown from the car but it breaks my ribs which puncture an artery. Sometimes it’s less of an accident: strangling myself with my laptop charger, slipping out a high window like a whisper, swallowing so many vitamin D supplements I explode. If you never do anything, if you just imagine the staging of your own death without fulfilling it, it doesn’t count as suicidal thoughts. The play in my head isn’t real, so neither is my death wish; I’m just sad and have a fascination with the thought of my blood pouring out into the world, proof that life is in me and I’m not just some puppet on a stage. It helps to know that some day I’ll get to die on stage again, and for a moment the world will forget I’m alive and feel the brutal weight of my loss, only to remember with relief that their imaginations have suspended reality and I’m still here, I’m still here.
Jake Kuhn is a senior at Brown University concentrating in Theatre Arts and Performance Studies. He has a penchant for apocalyptic love stories.