Short Fiction: THE ACTRESS by Chris Fontanes
by Chris Fontanes, Bottle Alley Theatre Company
I don't write these little pieces for every play. Just sometimes. Whenever it compels me. I wrote this one back in 2012, before the opening of my first Austin play, which was entitled Stage.
Stage went up at The Broken Neck, a hidden underground punk rock venue, formerly an illegal skatepark. Stage is a play about a play. Sorrel, played by Lexi Burrows, is an actress and the focal point of the fictional production. Below is a piece of fiction that I wrote, which I hope may inspire other theatre folk. At the very least I hope it makes for a good read.
We sit in the middle of the room, surrounded by pictures and glue, sipping green tea out of steaming mugs while a muted vintage horror film flickers reassuringly in the background.
I touch my recording machine, the wheels spin and a red light looks out at us like an eye.
“And so begins the extensive interview of super recluse Sorrel Beaudoin,” I begin, grandiose.
Sorrel reaches across me and turns the recorder off – the wheels stop and the red eye blinks off. “I don’t like being recorded,” she murmurs, pasting another picture into a scrapbook.
“But it’s for my class!” I protest. “How do you expect me to remember of all of your brilliant quotes?”
A shadow of a smile passes over Sorrel’s lips. “You’ll find a way,” is all she says.
I silently sip my tea and inspect her. She looks so much better now than she did a few months ago. The bruises have mostly transitioned from darkish purple to a sickly healing yellow, the blood vessels have retreated from her eyes, and the dark circles and the bags underneath them have vanished altogether. Her hair is clean, and she has gained some of the weight back.
Becoming aware of my silent observation, she stops pasting and meets me with a steady gaze. Her eyes are bright and clear for the first time in months.
“You look good,” I say. It’s true.
She smiles, a genuine smile this time, and drops her eyes. “Plants in the wintertime often seem dead,” she whispers, resuming her pasting, “but come spring, they always seem to come alive again.”
I scribble this on the back of a loose scrapbook page. I may as well get my big question over with now. “Tell me about Evelyn,” I say quietly.
Sorrel slowly puts down her mug. A dark shadow passes over her face, muting some features and obscuring others. She takes a long glance at the large shelf where theatre awards are stacked crookedly and out of order.
There, at the end, gleaming new, is the Drama Desk Award for Best Supporting Actress. It seems as if the new, experimental play – The Full Moon Effect – closed ages ago, when in fact only six months have passed. Sorrel blinks once. Her eyes slide back toward mine. “I love you like a sister,” she says slowly, measuring her words carefully, “but please never ask me about that again.” Then she stands and strides out of the room, closing the door behind her with a muted click. Interview over.
I piece the rest together on my own. After six months of preparation the New York Public Theatre opened its newest experimental show The Full Moon Effect. Sorrel Beaudoin spent a month researching the role. She requested and received special permission from the New York State Hospital to spend a week inside the institution’s walls. For seven nights she lay in a small white cell, listening idly to the cries and screams of the insane, writing down their ravings in the dead of the night.
The show closed after its limited run of only six performances, amidst a storm of controversy. Those who were lucky enough to see the sold-out production are uneasy about sharing their experiences. “It was. . . shocking, to say the least. But that word doesn’t do it justice,” one audience member recalls. “A total transformation,” one rattled critic wrote in his review in the Times “[Actress] Sorrel Beaudoin shows [us] that acting can be dangerous. That one can be carried away into a dark place, never to return.”
The Full Moon Effect had its final performance on a hot and sticky summer night in July. For six nights Sorrel’s fellow cast begged her to quit the show – she was gaunt and had lost twenty pounds over the course of rehearsals. Her eyes were beady and bloodshot, hooded and dead, her hair was falling out in clumps. Her voice was a rasp, barely audible to the audience, and she had developed a violent tremor in her hands. The show was literally killing her, they argued.
After the show closed, Sorrel was seen speeding off towards the coast, driving twenty, perhaps thirty miles over the speed limit. She took refuge in a small cottage by the sea that she owns, licking her wounds for two weeks and trying to heal – physically, mentally, and emotionally. The neighbors say that those first few nights were horrific. They tell of the sounds of glass breaking, bangs and crashes, sobbing and screaming. “That was the worst part,” one recalled later. “The screaming. Like two people fighting.”
I find her sitting on the curb in front of her house, looking up toward the stars, smoking, and practicing blowing smoke rings. “I’m sorry,” I whisper. “I shouldn’t have asked.”
We watch a cat climb up on a fence before I feel her shrug next to me.
“I’m glad you’re in another play,” I say to fill the heavy silence.
“So am I,” she says, still practicing smoke rings.
“Evelyn…Em,” I begin, then stop abruptly and look down the street.
“What?” Sorrel demands, turning towards me.
“They’re so….” I let my words hang, wrapped in her cigarette smoke.
“So what?” Sorrel sighs, as though she already knows the answer.
“. . . similar.” I finish and tense for her outburst.
Silence greets us, interrupted only by the siren of an ambulance wailing in the distance.
“Aren’t they?” I ask.
Sorrel stubs the cigarette out on the heel of her shoe before standing. “No. Not at all,” she says. She turns and heads for the car.
* * *
It is three in the morning as she stands onstage. We had to climb in through a window that she kept propped open after the first read-through. I watch her from the back row and scribble down notes.
Sorrel paces and blows smoke. “Em, where are you?” she whispers to the dark theatre, still “Where are you?” She sits on the floor and glances through the script, rocking gently. A razor blade appears in her hand, a cigarette dangles from her mouth, and her eyes are black and shadowy onstage.
“Tell me where you are,” Sorrel whispers again, eyes unfocused now. She makes small diagonal cuts on her arms with the razor, precise and shallow.
The first few droplets of blood dot the stage, and she sighs, seeming relieved. “Ah,” is all she says.
The lines come out then. Slowly at first, then louder and more forceful. Eventually in the waning darkness and the soft cloud of smoke, it becomes impossible to tell who is truly speaking.
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