Sunday, March 7, 2010

"The Green Room" by Kerry Madden


“Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable” Tennessee Williams

(On Snobs and Snobbery)

When I was a freshman at the University of Tennessee I dutifully followed the required courses in my journalism major. I even interned for about a minute at the Daily Beacon, the college paper, reporting on sports before I was fired for lack of experience. The great irony is that I grew up the daughter of a football coach, which was the reason they hired me in the first place. But I was clueless and couldn’t write about sports with any clarity. I floundered, and a guy named James quietly informed me that it wasn’t working out. I took the hint. At the time, I didn’t know there was any writing other than journalism to study in college, but I was glad to leave the college paper scene. I didn’t want to write about track and field and volleyball and pretend to know what I was doing.

All freshman year, I endured deadly dull econ lectures on a TV in a dorm lobby three days a week, psych 101 with at least 500 students, freshman comp and I can’t remember what else. But in the spring, I took the class I was secretly longing to take: “Introduction to Theatre.”

Growing up in college football, we didn’t go to the theatre, and so I had never heard of a play called A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE by Tennessee Williams. But that spring I saw the movie, fell in love, and decided that I had to play Blanche in this class where scene study was a requirement. I understood Blanche or so thought I did. Life was passing me by fast. At nineteen I felt old. I was shy and had a reputation of being mature and sensible. Yuck. People invited me to do things like sing at guitar mass or join “Campus Crusade,” which mortified me. I didn’t want to attend Bible Study. I wanted theatre and stories.

And so I practiced being Blanche day and night. I rehearsed lines with my computer science roommate who did not find theatre a holy or transformative experience. The day finally came to perform selected scenes from STREETCAR in the classroom. I filled up a Jack Daniels bottle with iced tea and wore my roommate’s filmy white graduation dress that looked very Blanche DuBois. I clung to the girl playing my sister, Stella, seduced the newspaper boy, got dumped by Mitch, tangled with Stanley, and taped paper lanterns to the chalkboard. I loved crying out the line: “Deliberate cruelty is not forgivable!” I mused over unwashed grapes and being tossed overboard at noon into the ocean and finally went crazy all in about thirty minutes in the Humanities Building. It was a hit. I loved being Blanche. My heart busted wide open for her, and I got an A in the class. I knew I belonged in theatre.

But the "Introduction to Theatre" class had been one thing. We were majors from all the different colleges, so everybody got to play. However, there was this other much more select place on campus called “The Green Room” where only a privileged few gained entry. The Green Room was where the real actors congregated, and the fact was many of them were snobs. But I loved this about them. I had watched these brilliant stars in plays, and they had earned their snobbery. They were incandescent in their roles in THE MIKADO, THE THREE SISTERS, AH WILDERNESS! DRACULA, ROMEO & JULIET, CAROUSEL, PIPPIN, SWEENEY TODD, COME BACK TO THE FIVE AND DIME JIMMY DEAN, JIMMY DEAN, THE TEMPTATIONS OF MANN, TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA, THE BIRTHDAY PARTY, which all meant one thing in my mind. They were too good for me, but I wanted to be one of them more than anything.

The few times I found the courage to grace the green room, I merely walked through as quickly as I could to the other side without quite running. I was afraid to stop, terrified to have a conversation and to be discovered for the fraud that I was, who had taken one theatre class. Then I did something really stupid. I went back to the Daily Beacon and offered to do theatre reviews. At least I knew something about theatre. I had, after all, played Blanche DuBois.

So a student editor told me to review a play called ONLY THE RED BIRD SINGS IN THE SUMMER RAIN. It was a new student play. I had never written a review, and I wrote about the people in the Green Room whom I desperately wanted to be part of…the play wasn’t good, but my review was way worse, and the Daily Beacon ran it anyway.

I remember standing in front of the Clarence Brown Theatre at UT when a boy from the theatre department came up to me and said something like: “You wrote that awful review. I’m warning you that people are really, really upset. To put it lightly, they are furious. They are going to write a response, so be prepared. It is so clear that you don’t have even the basic understanding of what theatre even is, and so if I were you I’d stay out of the green room. You are not welcome.”

I almost fainted. By then I was a sophomore, but I obeyed him. I didn’t go into the green room again that year. A student did write a rebuttal to my review, and she was absolutely right. I didn’t understand how to review a play. Since I knew I wasn’t welcome in theatre at the University of Tennessee, and I also knew I would die if I had to stay in Knoxville for one more second, I applied to become an exchange student at Manchester University in England for my junior year.

I was accepted and I went, and by a miracle a group of Manchester drama students adopted me and told me that journalism was a “grotty trade school occupation” and that if I truly loved theatre and writing, I should become a playwright. It was as if the gods had spoken. I studied theatre all year long. I went to a play a week and took a class in drama criticism and learned how to write reviews. I wrote my first play inspired by my group of theatre friends who got into a rip-roaring fight over HAMLET. In Knoxville, we didn’t fight over subjects like HAMLET. And just like STREETCAR, I had never read HAMLET. So I read the play and wrote down the fight in a one-act play and called it TEA TIME. We put it on at the student lab theatre at Manchester University, and suddenly I was a playwright, who wrote dark comedies.

But in order to graduate, I had to go back to Tennessee my senior year. I was miserable at the thought; however, I immediately changed my major from journalism to theatre and my return to Knoxville came with a hint of a British accent, dyed hair, and petticoats. I was not the loser I was when I left. I’d also been studying in England with drama students for a year and thought, who gives a shit about the Green Room in Tennessee? None of them went to England. I’ve earned it.

So I entered the green room and struck up conversations and began to make friends. I took stagecraft, directing, and theatre history. I was cast as the Kangaroo in PETER PAN and hopped through Never Land. I was a pinhead in THE ELEPHANT MAN and rolled around with other pinheads on stage. I made friends that year in Knoxville who are still some of my dearest friends today. I even stayed and did an MFA in Playwriting, but I couldn’t forget how it used to feel to be on the outside looking in, so when any new student came into the green room, I welcomed them. They were invited to the party.

Today, I go to conferences or book festivals, and it can sometimes feel like a great, cavernous Green Room under the big tent. Many who come are brand new writers working up the courage just to walk into this Green Room, and we’ve all been there, but generosity goes a lot further than playing the weary writer snob. One of my author heroes demonstrated this beautifully recently.

It happened at Kathy Patrick’s book festival in Jefferson, Texas, when Pat Conroy came up to our table of children’s authors where we were signing our books, and he said, “Hey, I got your books. Do me a favor. Sign them to me!” And he had bought all our books. Now Pat Conroy, being PAT CONROY, could deal that snob diva card without question, but instead he was giving us a hand. He said that as a young author nobody bought his books, and he never forgot that feeling of sitting alone at the table.

Like many authors, I have sat alone at many tables behind piles of books. It’s awful, but what can you do? Not show up? Steer clear of the Green Room? For me, that is not the answer. You show up, you say thank you, you behave graciously to everybody, and most important of all you welcome those who are just gathering the courage to say, “I’m a writer too.”

Kerry Madden is the author of six books and an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. www.kerrymadden. She divides her time between Birmingham and Los Angeles. Her husband, Kiffen, and their three kids are her editors and inspirations.


Patrick Brian Miller said...

I am a third of the way through Lousiana's Song and have read Gentle's Holler and the Harper Lee bio. The Lee bio was fascinating and answered a lot of questions I had about Lee and why she has been so reclusive these many decades. The literary tourism aspect on Maggie Valley in NC and Monroeville in AL are compelling.

Anonymous said...

This was so much fun to read. I especially indentified because I used to do theater and play reviews for the newspaper. In the end I also chose writing, but I miss acting sometimes.

Kerry Madden said...

Thank you, Patrick and "Anonymous" for reading and commenting... much appreciated...I miss acting too. :)

Susan Cushman said...

Great post, Kerry. I'm one of those shy authors-in-waiting who has to struggle up the courage to say "I'm a writer," and you treated me the way Pat Conroy treated you at the Girlfriend Weekend in Jefferson. Literary (or theatrical or any kind of) snobbery doesn't help anyone, but humility and kindness sure does. Thank you!

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