I stand backstage in a state of terror. I’m no stranger to the anxiety that creeps into my everyday life – suddenly I can’t catch my breath, and I’m not even sure what brought it on – but this is different. This is true fight or flight stuff. It is my first performance of my solo show Perfect Love at the United Solo Festival in September 2018. I am about to publicly confess some hard truths in a way I have never done before by reenacting scenes from my past which include sexual assault and abuse.
I’m an experienced actor, but all I can think about is what in the hell have I done?! Why have I decided to do this? The questions burn holes in my brain as the minutes count down to my cue to go on stage. Creating this show had seemed important and satisfying while I was writing it. Now, it threatens to be self-indulgent and possibly self-destructive. The fear and self-deprecation are a runaway train. I have just a few minutes until I go on. I can hear the audience filling up. It is a small house, but completely sold out. I hear a few voices I know. My teenage daughters are out there!
I slow my breathing and focus in as far in as I can to the real Linda, if you will, the girl who was shut down and so traumatized she went underground. “This is her shot to tell the truth. Get out of her way and let her be out there on stage.” I hear my cue, step out into the light, and go full on for 75 minutes. I have to hang onto the metaphoric railing to get through, but the audience laughs in the right places and I can feel them with me when I perform the difficult parts. I finish. I did it. They spring to their feet. The relief and sense of accomplishment is incredible.
So, how did I get to that opening night? At the end of my previous article published here (“Why I’m Like This: Developing My Solo Show Perfect Love at the DGI”) I wrote about my process of conceiving and beginning to write the show in Gretchen Cryer’s solo workshop at the Dramatists Guild Institute in the fall of 2017. When the workshop ended in the late fall, I had about 25 minutes completed and knew where I wanted to head with the structure. Gretchen had told me about the United Solo Festival, and I thought that would be a good place to premiere the piece. The application deadline was the end of the year. I quickly went to work writing the remaining sections of the script and submitted it. The script wasn’t done, but it was a strong enough draft to give them the idea of what I intended.
The acceptance letter came in March 2018. Now, I actually had to perform it... in front of people. My show date was September 15th. I immediately reached out to Gretchen, set up some rehearsal/development sessions, and got to the serious work of refining.
I had a chronological structure in mind, stretching from six years old through 24. I primarily focused on the kid-me’s perception of the adults around me, their behavior and their choices, which resulted in me creating a specific fictional world in my head where I spent a great deal of time seeking comfort and freedom, a fantasy world of perfect love. The fantasy had romantic elements to it, of course, heroes and villains, but perfect love was also about a feeling, a place I longed for where I could rest my mind and find solace. My childhood was spent in a wary state of fear and tension, and I needed to know there was another option out there where I could breathe and speak my mind. Perfect love had to be possible.
The other sections of my show are stories from my adult life where that perfect love ideal continued to work on me, despite my more grown-up, realistic understanding of the world. It completely skewed my judgment, resulting in numerous dangerous and potentially tragic experiences. With Gretchen’s guidance I weaved a structure together that takes the show in and out of the chronology of my childhood, as perfect love looms larger and larger until it becomes a trap. Gretchen is a master at timing and tone. She helped me craft the piece into a cohesive whole.
In the spring I brought in composer Jono Hill. I met Jono at a film screening of a friend of mine. He had scored the music for that movie and I loved it. He had written many film scores, but he’d never written for a live show before. He came into our first rehearsal with Gretchen and me with ideas for various themes that would support the big ideas of the play. This was a thrilling part of the process for me, to hear music composed to my words that added depth and beauty, shading and nuance to the whole story.
After all that development and one performance, now what? I wanted more opportunities to perform it. I had received a couple great reviews I could use to promote the show. I sent out numerous inquiries to spaces in New York that are interested in new work, and Dixon Place responded in the affirmative giving me a date in their 130-seat theater in April 2019. Dixon Place has been at the heart of the New York experimental theater scene since 1986. They give space and support to original works at all stages of development. I love their black box theater with its high ceiling and raked seating at two levels. It is generous and intimate at the same time. Again, the feelings of excitement and terror were side by side as I stepped out onto the stage. But this time I was able to slow down and relax a bit more and find more joy in the performance.
This past fall I was invited to do the show for three nights at the Poor Mouth Theatre Company. The Poor Mouth operates out of an Irish pub, An Beal Bocht Café, in the northwest Bronx. They produce their shows in a room adjacent to the main bar/café. It seats 50 and has a small stage with a simple lighting grid and sound system. Low sounds from the bar seep into the theater space. There is a rough and ready atmosphere to the whole place that freed me up. I began to live on stage, to listen to the audience, to feel the timing of the emotion, to let myself exist…and I thoroughly enjoyed doing it.
And for the past few months I had been preparing to do Perfect Love as part of the True Stories series of solo shows at the Cherry Lane Theatre in April and May. The overall project is Gretchen’s baby. For a long time, she has wanted to present a group of solo shows that she directed, and I am so grateful and proud to be one of them. Needless to say, the production has been postponed. We hope to do it at the Cherry Lane next year.
We are self-producing, meaning we all brought money to the table to make this happen. So, for this project I am very grateful we have a producer who is taking care of the business and technical requirements. We also have hired a press agent and a social media specialist to help us get the word out.
I have personal and professional mailing lists of a few hundred people which I used to sell tickets to the previous performances, along with regular posting on social media, and each theatre did their own marketing. For this run, I was planning to reach beyond my own list of supporters and friends by writing individually to the people who have seen the show, asking them to spread the word. Also, I had started reaching out to women’s groups, support groups, academics, non-profits, and solo artist groups.
The show is me finally speaking out, after decades, about the traumatic events of my past and owning them. Audience members who have shared with me their similar experiences have made it worth the work. There is never an entirely satisfying ending to this kind of a story. There is no solution or resolution. There is only the truth. But I believe in the enormously redemptive power of live theatre, of simply telling my/your story. The release into hope and love comes in the moments between storyteller and audience. I am brokenhearted that the production has to be canceled, but I look forward to a resurgence of live theatre when we can all once again gather together.
In order to get my work out now, I have begun writing a blog about my life and art in this time of isolation. You can find it at LindaSManning.com/blog.
RELATED: Why I’m Like This: Developing my Solo Show Perfect Love at The Dramatists Guild Institute