There was no red carpet. There were no lights. Well, there were no lights outside. It would have been odd for there to have been lights outside since it was the middle of the day. It was one o’clock on Saturday afternoon at a storefront in suburban Cincinnati. It was the opening of my play for young audiences, Fake Flowers Don’t Die.
On this day, however, the audience would not be made up of young people. This production is touring all over the Cincinnati area, playing just about anywhere that will have them. Today we were at a center for adults with developmental disabilities. They were to be our first real audience.
I was a little concerned, but I shouldn’t have been.
They were a fantastic audience.
What they were not was a conventional audience. There were a few outbursts. A man in the front row seemed to express every thought he had – “that’s funny”, “mean brother!” One man had a form of OCD which led him to stand up and move his wallet from one pocket to the other several times during the performance. But these people were not being intentionally disruptive. They were simply handling their own unique circumstances the best way they knew how. Honestly, they were as attentive an audience as you could reasonably hope for.
At least, it seemed that way. They were pretty quiet. Sometimes it was difficult to tell if they were following the play. There was a woman with Downs syndrome who, though she was fairly still, wasn’t looking directly at the stage. It wasn't until the third scene of the play that I knew she was paying attention.
In scene 3 of Fake Flowers Don’t Die, a character named Barky, who is on the autism spectrum, has an episode where she hits herself over and over again saying, “Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!” Every time Barky said “stupid”, the woman with Downs syndrome visibly winced. It was almost like she was being hit. I wondered how many times that epithet had been hurled at her, what awful memories it was calling forth.
At the end of the play, Barky’s brother comes to a greater understanding of the ways that Barky is different. He realizes that he loves her because of those differences, not in spite of them. Not surprisingly, this story landed very powerfully with this particular audience. The applause was vigorous at the end, and the enthusiasm at the talkback was remarkable. A man in front of me, who wore a gold medal around his neck, said in his thick Kentucky accent that it was his first play ever and he thought it was great. One man just kept giving everyone in the cast a thumbs up, over and over again. Another woman with Downs syndrome volunteered that she thought one of the actors was sexy.
Even after the talkback was done, the audience kept hanging around. They didn’t seem to want to let us go. They took pictures with the actors. They talked about how they wanted to take their families to the show so they would learn be patient with them because they were trying their best. A self-identified schizophrenic followed the actress who played Barky around, asking her how she had made her breakdown so realistic. “I do that,” she said. “When I do it takes my parents a long time to calm me down.”
It wasn’t just the audience that made this opening so special for me. I watched the play in a different way. I was aware of the audience, of course, but my ego wasn’t hanging on every laugh and every pause. It was comfortably in the back seat, where it belongs.
I have had many openings, most of them fraught with tension The whole evening generally goes by in a blur. This time I was awake for every moment. I was moved by the audience response and (shock of shocks!) actually enjoyed watching the play. Even though it happened almost 24 hours ago, I can still that satisfaction physically, in my chest, as I write this.
This experience got me to thinking about why I write. It is a question that has always made me uncomfortable. If I answer it at all, I usually say I write because I am compelled to do it and that is all. But that’s not an answer.
Why do I write? Why does anyone? Surely it has something to do with communication. With the joy that come from the moments we realize our shared humanity. I haven’t done much realizing-of-shared-humanity at most of my New York openings. It was front and center this weekend.
I hope I remember this as I move forward in my career, writing more plays, having more openings. I may never have a better one than the one I had at a storefront in Cincinnati on a Saturday afternoon.