God Uses a Headset
What does an actress do in the summer? She works in summer theatre, of course. She treads the boards, sharpening her skills on Shakespeare and Sondheim. I’ve spent many summers this way, creative, energized, answerable only to the director and myself. But when I’m not onstage, does that mean I offer the world less? Am I less significant, with less to say to God? Is God such a snob about these things that She will turn a deaf ear to my efforts to communicate? There is a direct connection between artists and God in the moments of creation. What happens to that connection when we’re not creating?
I love being onstage because it is the one time that I am completely uninvolved in myself. Within the structure of my lines and character, I feel unfettered. With my feet solidly connected to the wooden foundation of the stage, I’m safe enough to let go of all that tethers me to this earth. The way I feel in my purest moments onstage, when I’m not thinking of the audience but am in the moment, reminds me of Edgar Lee Masters’ poem: “Be brave, all souls who have these visions. You’re catching a little whiff of the ether reserved for God himself.” Ether is a drug and I’m high at those moments.
In the nineties, I acted at the Maine Film Institute in Rockport, Maine. On one of my three sojourns, Alan Arkin was hired to direct the film directing course for which I acted. At one al fresco lunch, Alan was candid about his lifelong bouts with depression and anxiety, and their correlation with his acting. He said something that reverberated deeply. “Being onstage was my way of having a direct connection to God, and because of that power, that electricity jolt, it became a drug for me. I was so high when I was onstage. When I wasn’t, I felt suicidal,” Alan confessed during our weekly lobster fest. He cracked a claw and sucked out all the juice and meat.
Appreciating his candor, I asked, “So what did you do?”
“It was an addiction I couldn’t control, so I stopped acting for a while.”
I did that, too. How many others stop acting intermittently because of instability? Consequently, how many have lost their momentum and their careers?
He continued, tearing into a hard roll, “I had to find other ways of conversing with God without losing my mind. I didn’t know who I was offstage. I had to know myself before I could be other people. I had to know that I could still contact God when I wasn’t acting.”
I knew what he meant. I’d felt that way. It took years of expensive therapy before I developed the coping skills and my personality coalesced enough for me to act and audition without serious damage to my self-esteem. Most of the actors I know are that fragile. It’s a combination of the job requirement for emotional availability and the consequences of that accessibility. I know people who are so addicted to acting that they use it as the framework for their lives. They have to line up their next show before they finish the one they’re in. Because who are they when they’re not acting? I’m not afraid to be showless, but could I still make that spiritual connection with God without the stage as the conduit?
This summer, instead of soaring free on the stage, I am a caged bird in a very small box. Instead of courting my mystical connection with God, I work five days a week, forty hours, including weekends, at the box office of the Ogunquit Playhouse.
I’d been slated to teach four college courses this summer, and one by one, the courses evaporated because of lack of enrollment. I cast around desperately for work. I went after the box-office job with a vengeance because the company manager, Kim, a big, blond, confident young woman who never questioned her actions, didn’t return my calls for over a month. I didn’t give up until they hired me. I’d always enjoyed my work in lighting, stagecraft, publicity, and costumes, and I thought this would be theatre work like any other. Silly me.
In many ways, the Ogunquit Playhouse is a shrine. Famous people have come to perform here for the last seventy-two years. The walls are plastered with the photogenic faces of the greats of past and present. An impossibly young Tallulah Bankhead sits across from her contemporary, Ethel Barrymore. Buddy Ebsen, looking all of nineteen, smiles out from his picture and never imagines his fame will come in the form of Jed Clampett.
Why isn’t my photo up there? I grouse, as I sit tethered to my stool by my headset in a three-by-eight-foot “box,” answering the onslaught of calls from the wily ticket hunters in search of The Best Seat.
So why wasn’t I treading the Playhouse boards? There are several answers: All of the Ogunquit auditions are held in New York City. It’s part of the Equity snobbery. I’ve no intention of going to New York for cattle calls for productions in my own back yard. I guess I never wanted an acting career badly enough to suffer through tomato-ketchup soup in New York. Whether it was merely the desire for a different lifestyle or something else, I made other choices.
About the box office, my friends said, “Ooh, what a fun job!” They think I will spend my time drinking frosty ones with Sally Struthers, receiving offers to make me famous. “No, no, Sally! I can’t leave the seacoast for LA for a choice role with you on Gilmore Girls. It’s a lovely offer, I’m tempted, but I must decline.” Actually, I did lift a few Poland Springs with Sally at the weekly cookout, but sadly, she wasn’t psychic and therefore didn’t know I am an award-winning, talented actress. It would have been a difficult subject to introduce. Anyway, my friends are unaware of the quagmire of interpersonal communication issues that present themselves when dealing with the public who desire to purchase theatre seats.
My compatriots in this ticketed hell are Cyndle, Andrea, and Tricia, the box-office manager. Emotions among us daily slide fluidly from great fondness, hysteria-based hilarity, explosive anger, to frustrated tears and subdued silence. After all, we spend eight hours a day in a very small fishbowl.
For example, there are Tricia’s micromanaging techniques. She had no patience with me when it came to learning the box-office software. “All the other box-office agents learned the software much quicker,” she declared. “If you can’t get it, perhaps you shouldn’t remain.”
Hello, God. Did you hear that?
“Well, I’m sorry you think that,” I replied. Her critical comments and über watchful eye made me nervous, and I, of course, made every error possible when she was there. “I think I’m doing well,” I responded, smiling sweetly. “Maybe you can think of some of the positive things I do.” She remained stonily silent.
Often she didn’t like my phone interactions with customers, certain I was misinforming them. She hissed in the ear that didn’t house my headset, “Get off the phone now! Do you hear me?!” Trying to listen to the customer and her simultaneously, I clearly didn’t respond quickly enough, so she grabbed the headset off my head and cut the connection.
Twice, she punched me in the arm when she disagreed with information I was giving. Punch! “That is not what you’re supposed to tell them,” she hissed at me. “Don’t say ‘up against the wall’!” Punch! “Every seat in that theatre is good. There are no obstructed views.”
Hey, God. Did you see that? Is that how you want your favorite Jewish female treated?
I barely held my temper in check when I told her, “No matter what I’m saying to a customer, no matter what I do, there is never, ever any reason for you to hit me. Never.”
I realized that nothing I said would ever get through to her. She was excellent at her job, but every ticket, every conversation, was a matter of life and death. I spoke to her silently often, my eyes bulging: WILL YOU LIGHTEN UP? It’s tickets to entertainment we’re providing, not gastric bypass surgery!
“Hey,” Andrea said one day, “the Goldbergs came to the window and asked specifically for you.”
“No way,” I cried, pleased beyond what this announcement deserved. Starving for a little affection, I begged, “What’d they say?”
“They raved about you to Tricia, about how funny you are, how you bent over backwards for them for every show this summer. Didn’t Tricia tell you?”
I lifted my eyebrows with a pointed sidelong glance.
“I guess not, huh? I can’t believe she didn’t tell you. They made her promise she would.”
Hey, God, Tricia didn’t keep her promise.
It was slow at the time. “I’m taking a break,” I said, my lips a tight, thin line. I went outdoors and danced my frustration out all over the beautiful, manicured front lawn of the Playhouse, singing every tune I could remember from Beauty and the Beast, which was then in production. “Tale as old as tiiiiiiiiiiiime . . . Beeyooty aaaand the Beeeeeast.” I spun and kicked and grande jetéd across the oval green in front of the box office. Andrea and Cyndle were both hanging out of the box-office window, applauding and giggling.
“You know Tricia will can you if she catches you prancing about this way,” Andrea bellowed over my singing, but I whirled on injudiciously.
I belted a new song from Cinderella: “Whyyyyyyyyyy can’t a fella’ ever once prefer a solid girl like me?”
“Because you’re nuts, that’s why!” Cyndle yelled out to me, laughing.
I leapt and tour jetéd, back and forth, whirling and whirling, a dervish before her shrine, until I spun into a pile of shivery limbs on the green satin.
No one with claustrophobia would make it more than half a day at most in the box office. The room is so tight we can’t move past each other without turning sideways and sucking in our stomachs. We have constant demands from the customers and requests from staff and cast members. No one comes just to socialize. We are the theatre’s hermits, forced into seclusion, leaving our cave only at the end of a day and blinking like owls against the bright summer light. Low on the Playhouse hierarchy, we feel distanced from the workings of the others at the theatre. We spend our days with headsets, phones, and computers, or at the window, answering questions and putting out interpersonal fires.
It’s a Thursday afternoon before one of the CATS matinees. I sit musing on Arkin’s ideas about talking with God. Could the box office be a part of it, unpleasant as it sometimes is? Does that spiritual conversation only take place in times of extreme creativity like onstage, or are there other ways to dialogue with the Almighty? I wander to the open Dutch door leading into the theatre lobby. The lobby has quieted, and the actors in CATS pad silently into place before the auditorium’s back doors, where they’ll enter through the audience. I know one of them, Linette, from other productions we’ve done, and I greet her. We chat a bit, but not wanting to disturb focus, I leave the Cats to their pre-show ablutions. Say hello to God for me, I mentally project to them and then return to my box.
I pick up my headphones again. “Good afternoon. Ogunquit Playhouse. How may I help you?” I say in my nicest nice voice.
The customer, Mrs. Gold (made up name), says, “Yes, I’m calling to find out the availability of seats for CATS.”
I say evenly, “For which night? CATS runs for three weeks.”
Mrs. Gold says, “I want to know which night you have the Best Seats.”
Ahh, the Best Seats. No, I’m going to give you the very Worst Seat. Why? Because, having never met you, I don’t like you, and I’m hoarding the Best Seats for all the jet-setters who come and are so much more seat-worthy than you.
I say, “We’ll have to look at each performance chart individually,” a time-consuming venture, and she, of course, insists that we do. Usually, at this point in the season, the remaining seats are around Center Row T because the subscribers and early birders scarfed up the first half of the house months ago. “The best seats I have today are in the Center Row T in the middle.”
“That’s the best you have??!” Her voice is thick with accusation.
“Yes,” I reply calmly, gearing up for the big battle.
“But I like to sit in the third row. On the aisle. I have a hearing problem and my husband needs to stretch his knee out. He’s six-feet-four and he’s just had knee surgery. I always sit down front. Look again.”
I am silent a moment, presumably looking again. “Yup,” I say. “The closest in the Center is Row T in the middle of the row. Or there’s an aisle seat in Row V Center. I’m so sorry.” I’m not sorry. She has waited too long to call. There is silence on Mrs. Gold’s end of the phone, as if she is waiting for the available seating to miraculously improve. I have learned to wait it out. Eventually, she’ll speak again.
“That’s it? Nothing closer?” Her voice verges on hysteria. “I won’t be able to see anything. I’m short. And legally blind.”
“I’m so sorry.” What does she want me to do? Call the other people who have previously purchased tickets in the first three rows and say, “Mrs. Gold is deaf, legally blind, and her husband is knee-disabled. She needs your seats more than you.” If you saw the number of people at the Playhouse who park in Handicapped and practically skip into the theatre, you’d begin to question Mrs. Gold’s veracity.
“What would you like to do, Mrs. Gold?” My stomach is filling with acid. “We also have Seats 9 and 11, Left, Row C.” I haven’t mentioned these seats because they are “up against the wall,” box-office blasphemy. The theatre has two center aisles running vertically toward the stage. There are no side aisles. The seats I mention are far Left, and Seat 11 is literally up against the wall but isn’t a bad view.
Mrs. Gold shrieks, “But those are up against the wall!”
“There are no obstructed views in the theatre,” I quickly reassure her. “I sit in the back of the theater all the time.”
“Well,” she says, “I’m older. And short.”
I flounder like a beached whale gasping asthmatically for breath. “I’m sorry, but I’m afraid that’s all we have.”
Angrily, Mrs. Gold replies, “Fine, then I’ll take the Best Seats you have. You choose since you’re the expert.”
This is one of those moments when my mother would have said airily in Yiddish, “Mmmmn, ayn klayna keit — I’m the expert.” In other words, if I’m such an expert, why didn’t you allow me to choose your seats fifteen minutes ago?
I refuse to take the credit/blame for this decision. “Oh no, Mrs. Gold. . . .”
“Call me Ida,” she coos.
“All right, Ida. It’s a personal preference and I won’t be sitting there.”
She replies she will be happy with anything I choose and promises not to blame me if she is unhappy. Uh huh. She and I both know that she will hunt me down at intermission if necessary. However, I acquiesce and put Ida and her very tall, knee-impaired hubby in, where else? Row T in the middle of the row.
“Mastercard or Visa?”
“Can I use my American Express?”
I work to stay calm, serene on the wave of my fantasy life: I’m Lady Macbeth: Come you spirits, who tend on mortal thoughts. Unsex me here! My brain can’t handle this elevated level of torture. I imagine her training for this at Guantanamo.
“That is for Thursday night, August 12, two seats, and the tickets are nonrefundable.” Of course, if the date of the performance becomes a problem for Mrs. Gold for any number of reasons, she will call demanding a refund.
She giggles. “Well, young lady,” Mrs. Gold chirps. She’s waged the battle for the Best Seat courageously. “You have been such a big help to me. What is your name?”
“Well, that’s perfect, Jewel, because you really are a gem and you’ve been precious to me.”
“Thank you, Ida,” I reply with a painful smile. “Enjoy the show.” I cut the connection, my relief palpable.
“Hey, Jewel,” Andrea calls out to me with her quiet dry humor, her mocha curly hair falling out of its elastic. “My last caller was tall with long legs. He needs an aisle seat.”
Cyndle chimes in with, “Hey, my last guy’s daughter has a broken knee and needs an aisle seat.”
I release the anxiety-poisoned air in my lungs. “There seems to be a lot of that going around this summer,” I quip. “I wish that when they build theatres, they’d make every seat an aisle seat.”
Perhaps this, too, working here, with all its customer service nightmares, is part of the conversation with God that Alan Arkin mentioned. Maybe he was trying to say that it doesn’t matter whether your work is in the limelight or in a dark corner, if you do it with integrity and sincerity, the spiritual channels are open. It is the reaching, the longing for the world unseen, that drives us to work and interact in a way that matters.
Hey, God, what’s new? Read any good books lately? What’s up with The Da Vinci Code?
I press the blinking button on the phone for my next “conversation with God.”
Copyright © 2007 by Jewel Beth Davis