Ta-da! Here is the excerpt we’ve all been waiting for–the first chapters of Allen Zadoff’s novel, “My Life, the Theater, and Other Tragedies.” And YARN is the only place on the Internet where you can read it.
Publisher’ s Weekly has raved about “My Life, The Theater,” concluding that “All the world’s a stage, indeed, and these players earn their applause.” Horn Book joined the chorus, saying this novel is “equally parts witty, informative, insightful, and painfully realistic.” And don’t forget our interview with Zadoff just a few months ago.
The novel will be released on May 10, but we just bet you’ll want to pre-order, after you read what’s below
Without further ado….
SINCE NIGHT YOU LEFT ME
I dream of my father.
It sneaks up on me in my sleep, this dream I have from time to time.
Maybe more than time to time. I think I have it every night, but most nights I sleep through and wake up in the morning having forgotten.
Some nights I’m not so lucky.
Tonight for instance.
My father is there with me one minute, the next minute gone, disappeared into the darkness. He’s never dead in the dream. He’s missing, which is much worse. At least with dead, you know what you’re getting. But what is missing? Missing means he could be lost and need help. He could be hurt. He might have run away, abandoned me, Mom, and Josh. He might have been taken against his will.
If he’s missing, he can still be found.
That’s what’s so painful about the dream. When I’m awake, I know my father is dead. He died in a car accident two years ago. A little less than two years. But in the dream, I don’t know that. In the dream he’s alive and I’m looking for him, searching everywhere with this giant wave of fear expanding in my chest.
Some nights I sleep through until morning, but not tonight. Tonight I’m in the middle of the dream when my eyes pop open. I reach for the big Maglite flashlight I keep in bed with me, but it’s rolled away onto the floor somewhere. There’s nothing to do but lie here with the covers pulled up high, remembering everything.
I don’t know when I go back to sleep, or if I do. I spend the rest of the night in that place between sleep and dreams and waking, my room barely illuminated by my night-light, lying in bed with my eyes open, staring at nothing at all.
Not true. Staring at the rest of my life.
How does it help to think about your entire life when it’s three in the morning? What are you supposed to figure out at a time like that? And when you’re sixteen like me, the rest of your life is a long, long time.
Or a very short one.
You never know. Which is just something else to think about.
“Adam!” my mother shouts.
My mother is not a dream. That much I’m sure about.
“You’re going to be late for school!” she says from the foot of the stairs.
It’s morning already. My mother is extremely nervous in the morning. She’s super nervous at night. In between she’s only relatively nervous.
“Are you awake?” she says more quietly from the other side of my door.
“For a long time,” I say through the closed door.
“I had trouble sleeping, too,” she says.
“Bad dreams,” she says.
I don’t respond. I wait until I hear her footsteps moving away, and then I drag myself out of bed.
I turn off my night-light and crack open the shades. The sun is harsh, tinged with yellow, hinting at the summer to come.
That’s when I remember. It’s the first day of tech. We move into the theater this afternoon. Our spring production opens in four days. A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
I should be excited. I search my mind, trying to find some angle that equals excited.
“Adam!” my mother calls, now down in the kitchen. “Look at the time!”
Excited doesn’t come. I’ll have to settle for awake.
UP AND DOWN, UP AND DOWN
By afternoon I’ve put the dream out of my head, and I’m back in my element. In the theater.
More specifically, above the theater.
I’m on a catwalk, surrounded by lighting instruments and cable, watching the actors get a tour of the set down below. I look down through layers of wire and pipe at the long line of actors snaking around the stage. The actors shouldn’t be in here at all, not during load-in when we’re working on lights and set, but Derek loves to break the rules almost as much as he loves to make them. Derek Dunkirk, student production designer. Man of many gifts, lover of many women, and wearer of many keys on his belt.
And my nemesis.
Maybe nemesis is too strong of a word. For someone to be a proper nemesis, they at least have to know you exist. But I’m no more than an annoyance to Derek, a techie flea in his royal fur.
Derek is the first student ever invited to design a production in our high-school theater. He’s doing set, lights, and costumes. That’s not just impressive; it’s legendary. Usually the director designs the show at our school. There are kids who do little things in a classroom—an improv performance or a workshop without any tech or something—but at Montclair High, the nine-hundred-seat auditorium is as close as we get to the big time. And Derek is definitely big time.
“By way of inspiration, a bit of Tennyson,” Derek says with his less-than-perfect British accent. A stir passes through the actors as he clears his throat. “ ’Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all,” he says.
“That’s so sad,” Johanna says, and flits her eyelids at him.
Her actor boyfriend, Wesley, pinches her to get her attention, and she punches him on the arm. The two of them hit each other so much, I’m not sure if it’s love or boxing.
“Sad but true,” Derek says. He lowers his head, as if in mourning.
What would you know about it? I think.
But the female actors love it. They make that aaaawww sound that girls make when they see a baby or a puppy. Even Tom, the six foot six actor with a shaved head who is playing Theseus, gets a sad look in his eye.
Derek soaks it all in.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Derek says down below, “would you be so kind as to follow me?” He walks off, clapping his hands like he’s herding sheep.
I look at the female actors crossing the stage, their bare legs going from white to black as they pass between pools of light. They say theater is democratic, but it’s not true. There’s a pecking order here just like everywhere else in high school. The leads walk in the front of the line, followed by the bit players, followed by the extras. They’re the actors without lines, sometimes even without character names.
In the front of the pack are Johanna and Miranda, who are playing Hermia and Helena, the battling heroines of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Next to them is Jazmin Cole, the gorgeous Latina actor who plays Titania. The three of them are the female leads of our school, the “it” actors, The Posse. Miranda is more athletic than Johanna, with short black hair and enormous boobs. From up here, her cleavage looks like a mini Grand Canyon. I know I shouldn’t be looking down girls’ shirts, especially girls I don’t like, but cleavage is confusing like that. You can hate a girl but love her cleavage. That’s how powerful it is.
The closest I’ve come to Miranda was during last year’s production of Spring Awakening. I wasn’t on lights then. My job was to hold a flat backstage while she changed clothes behind it. I would stand there listening to the sound of her clothing coming off an inch away on the other side of the wall. She never said a word to me until one night in the middle of the run when she said, “I can hear you breathing on the other side of that thing, and it creeps me out.”
Anyway, actors and techies don’t mix at Montclair. We don’t even talk to each other unless it’s absolutely necessary. It’s like the Hundred Years’ War, only it’s a hundred years of silent treatment. Nobody knows why, but it’s a rule. One of about a thousand in our school. Unspoken rules. Spoken rules. Codes of conduct. Determiners of status.
I know all of these actors by name, but none of them know me. That’s because I’m a guy who works behind the scenes. Some people call us stagehands, some say crew, and some say techies. Usually there’s a dismissive tone in their voice when they say it. “He’s just a techie.” But when we say it, it’s with pride.
I am Adam Ziegler, Techie. Capital T.
My best friend Reach calls us Crewus technicalis. Like we’re some rare species.
But to the actors we’re just techies, kids in black who hand them a prop or hold a penlight to guide them offstage. We’re invisible, filling the cracks around them like grout between beautiful bathroom tiles.
There’s a click on my headset.
“I think Derek’s accent changed from British to Scottish,” Reach says.
I free one hand, key the microphone.
“And there’s some stiffness in his pantaloons,” I say. “What do you think it means?”
“It means there are females in the vicinity.”
“Females? I had no idea.”
“Of course not. You’re having a love affair with light.”
“You got light, what else do you need?”
“Human beings,” Reach says.
“Overrated,” I say.
“Let’s respect protocol on the radio,” a voice says in my ear. It’s our stage manager, Ignacio. You’re supposed to announce yourself when you get on the headset, but Ignacio loves to creep on without anyone knowing. He’s sneaky like that.
Reach says, “Are you off your meds, Ignacio?” Ignacio has ADHD, which makes it tough to have a conversation with him, but it makes him a great stage manager. I guess split focus is helpful in a job where you deal with a thousand things at once.
“I took my pill this morning!” Ignacio says. “And I expect you both to act like professionals.”
“We are professionals,” Reach says, “but it’s a load-in, for God’s sake, not the Kennedy Center Honors.”
“Chain of command,” Ignacio says.
That’s his favorite phrase in the world. Probably because he’s very near the top of the chain.
“You’re right,” I say. “Apologies, Ignacio. From both of us.”
Reach coughs and says “suck-up” at the same time. You never cough into your mic. It’s rule one of headset etiquette. Reach knows the rules better than anyone. He loves rules, but he also loves to bust Ignacio’s balls.
I’m not a suck-up. I’ve just got plans. Things I want to do.
Shows I want to light.
I want to be a lighting designer. Too bad Derek has that job on lockdown. He’s been working for two and a half years to design a big show, and our director, Mr. Apple, finally gave him the chance.
Now that he’s ascended, there’s not much room for me.
Derek was a legend long before I got to this school. His dad is Thomas Dunkirk, world-famous British architect, on the boards of museums and arts organizations from New York to London. Derek keeps promising his dad will come to school to do a seminar or something, but so far, nobody has ever met the guy. We’ve only seen him on TV.
You’d expect a kid like Derek to be at private school. I mean, Montclair is an amazing place, but it’s still a public school. Someone once asked Derek why he was here, and he said his father wanted him to be a real American boy—fit in with the plebes, so to speak—so he refused to send him away.
On top of that, Derek’s accent has a magical effect on women. When he speaks, they laugh at his jokes and their eyes widen. If I’d known an accent was so powerful, I might have worked on one while I was in eighth grade. I could have arrived at high school two years ago with a cool foreign identity. Instead I came in as The Guy Whose Dad Just Died. Some people could work the angles on that, get some pity love. Postmortem poon, as Reach calls it. But the idea makes me feel sick. Anyway, I couldn’t talk to girls before Dad died; I didn’t magically gain a new skill set after the funeral.
“Stay focused,” Ignacio says as if he can read my mind. “Especially you, Z. Last I looked, you were twenty feet in the air.”
More like twenty-five, but Ignacio’s right. You don’t want to be daydreaming when you’re up in the air straddling a pipe.
“Will do,” I say. “Z out.”
I take a final glance at the girls, then I crack my knuckles and get down to business.
I shift my balance towards the pipe, pull a wrench from my belt, and lock down the C-clamp on the closest Leko. I attach a safety cable and double-check it.
It’s not easy to do lights from the catwalk because I have to hang over the front in a scary way. But I’ve developed my own system. It saves a lot of time because I don’t have to bring in a lift or keep moving a ladder around.
I finish the Leko and move down the line. Twenty-five lights down, fifteen to go.
That’s the process. We load in the lights. Then we focus. Then we dry tech. Then the actors join us, and it really gets interesting.
I look across the grid at the instruments waiting to be hung. I think about the type of light each one throws. The soft fuzz of the Fresnel, the tight focus of the Leko, the bright wash of the PAR can. Then there are the gels—translucent colored sheets placed in front of the lights to change the color of the beam. I love setting up lights. Cold metal in the air is all potential, like stepping outside right before dawn when you know the world is about to change.
Reach is right about one thing: I spend a lot of time thinking about light, and it’s not my job. As a techie, I don’t need to think about light in general. I need to think about a light—the one I’m working on. I’m supposed to follow the lighting plot and mind my own business. A lighting plot is a map, shapes on a piece of paper telling me where to hang and how to focus and color each light, but when I look at the plot, it’s like the lights are already turned on in my head.
As I glance at it now, it seems like Derek has made a design error. There’s a dead area just left of center, a wide swath of shadow. Derek thinks there’s plenty of light there because he’s hanging nearly everything that exists in the school. It’s his first show as a production designer, and he wants it to be the greatest debut in history. Even though the play is A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he’s designed it like a stadium rock concert—crazy set pieces, wild costumes, and a ton of metal in the air.
While it’s true that there will be plenty of light onstage, in this center left area, at least, you won’t be able to see the actors’ faces. And it’s a strange thing about light inthe theater—if you can’t see the actors’ faces, you can’t hear them very well. It’s like your ears need your eyes or they get confused.
I should say something to Derek, but I won’t. Derek is the reigning King of Theater, and you don’t get on the king’s good side by telling him how to do his job. In fact that’s a good way to end up teching the actors’ toilets.
Just then Derek comes back onstage with the actors in tow. Wesley struts in front of the pack, trying to stay close to Derek.
“Please mind the gap,” Derek says. “I don’t want any of you lovely ladies to hurt yourselves on my set.”
“Be careful, ladies,” Wesley says, parroting him.
There’s a female actor I don’t know at the very back of the pack, standing with the extras. She’s not looking at Derek. She’s looking up at the lights. Up towards me.
That’s weird because actors rarely look up. Maybe the very first time they walk into the theater freshman year, but after that, the theater itself becomes invisible. And light? They don’t care where it’s coming from. They just want to make sure it’s on them.
But this actor is looking everywhere, examining things. I’ve never seen her before, or maybe I haven’t noticed her.
I notice her now.
She has long black hair and the most beautiful eyes. I can’t see if they’re blue or gray from here, but I think they’re the kind of eyes that change color depending on the light that hits them. I get this fantasy in my head. I’m a character in a musical, a fascinating character with a troubled past. I slip down the nearest pipe and the characters freeze in place onstage, all of them except the girl with black hair. She steps out and I walk over to meet her. We don’t speak right away. As the music swells, we recognize something in each other, some shared pain.
“What’s your name?” she says.
“Are you the director?” she says.
“Not the director,” I say. “Just a techie.”
Which in the musical would be a lot more noble.
Anyway, that’s the fantasy.
But when she looks up again, I duck behind a pipe.
That’s the reality.
Derek notices her looking around, because he says, “I have a fabulous idea. Would you like to see how the lights work?”
Derek is smooth like that. He’s one of those guys who takes his shot with every girl, actors and techies. That’s totally unheard of in my school because actors and techies don’t mix here. They don’t even speak unless it’s to hurl insults at one another. Derek is the only one who can cross the line between the two.
“I’ve seen lights before,” Wesley says, unimpressed.
“Not like these, you haven’t,” Derek says.
“I’d like to see them,” Miranda says, and she smiles at Derek.
That’s all the encouragement he needs.
“Your wish is my command,” Derek says.
Derek signals the light board operator, Benno.
“Are you sure?” Benno says, stroking his mutton chops. Benno looks like a character from a Dickens novel, the main difference being that Dickens was obsessed with social injustice and Benno is obsessed with large boobs.
“I’m never less than sure,” Derek says.
He should know you don’t turn on the lights during load-in, especially not with actors in the theater. There’s cable all over the place, the board hasn’t been checked, and who knows what’s been plugged in? But Derek doesn’t care about any of that. He cares about looking good.
“Stand by for lights!” Ignacio shouts.
I take my hands away from the cable I’m plugging in.
“Lights, go,” Ignacio says.
Benno types something into the lighting computer.
There’s a loud click, and the theater fills with light, everything to 100 percent at the same time. Nothing is gelled, nothing is focused. There’s burning white light everywhere.
For a second the theater feels like it’s vibrating, light saturating every inch of the space—
Then there’s a loud snap, and it all goes black.
TOO HIGH TO BE ENTHRALL’D TO LOW
The actors scream. It’s more like a mock scream than a real one, but it’s still kind of scary.
“Everybody freeze!” Ignacio shouts.
I stop on the catwalk, high above the theater in the darkness.
I feel panic in my chest. It’s hard to breathe.
It’s just a blackout, I say to myself. No big deal. You’ve been through dozens of them.
It’s true. I’ve been through dozens, maybe even hundreds in the last two years.
But my mind starts to go places when it’s dark.
That’s why I always keep extra light on me. I have a glow stick in my right front pocket, a penlight in my left, a mini Mag on my belt. That’s just for starters. All I have to do is grab one and take it out.
But I can’t move. The dark feels vast and empty, like standing on the edge of a canyon.
I try to slow my breathing and calm myself down, but it’s not working.
I’m back in the dream from last night, my father stepping out of the gloom to stand near me. I don’t think the dream ever goes away. It just advances and retreats inside my head, ducking out of sight long enough for me to forget about it, then popping up to reassert itself.
My father is next to me now, but there’s no way to keep him there. He’ll be gone again any moment, lost in darkness.
“That’s a Rothko,” Dad says.
I’m eight years old standing in front of a painting at the MoMA in New York. Dad and I used to go there a lot. We took the train from Montclair into the city every Sunday. Dad would choose a museum for us, and we’d spend hours looking at art. Then we’d walk through Central Park together, talking about what we’d seen.
I’m back there with him now, standing in front of this burst of orange red on the wall.
“What do you think?” Dad says.
I look at it for a few seconds, but I don’t see much, only bands of color.
“It’s okay,” I say.
Dad says, “Give it a chance.”
He puts his hand on my shoulder, willing me to stay.
I look at the painting. I look at my dad.
“Wait,” he whispers.
The painting starts to move, the canvas vibrating with color.
“Now what do you see?” Dad says.
“It’s alive,” I say.
“Where are the damn lights?!” Derek shouts.
The museum evaporates. I’m back in the theater, standing high in the air.
My father is gone.
I can still smell him, feel the warmth where his hand touched my shoulder.
The house lights come back on. Black stage in front, empty theater seats below. The actors are clustered onstage, some of the girls with their arms around one another.
“What happened to the lights?” Johanna says.
Derek’s face turns purple. “Son of a bitch!” he says. He looks around the theater until his eyes settle on Ignacio.
Ignacio gulps hard. He looks around the theater until he finds Benno.
Benno shrugs. “I think the dimmers blew,” he says. “Maybe something was plugged in wrong?”
He looks around for someone else to blame. People are ducking out of sight, slumping down behind seat backs, sliding offstage.
I don’t slump or slide. I stand there, still thinking about Rothko and my father.
Benno, Ignacio, and Derek all look up at the same time.
I can imagine what it looks like. Me standing with a cable in my hand. Guilty as hell.
“That kid up there. I always forget his name,” Derek says.
“Adam Ziegler,” Ignacio says. “Z.”
He doesn’t even pause before he says it, like maybe he’s considering covering for me. He just gives me up.
I’m watching this happen, but it seems far away, like it’s got very little to do with me. A lot of my life seems like that now.
Derek’s face curls into a snarl.
“Get your butt down here, Ziegler!”
“I didn’t do anything,” I say.
“Z!” Derek screams. He taps his foot.
I cross the catwalk, the creaking metal loud in the theater below.
“What’s going on out there?” Reach says in my headset.
“Firing squad,” I say.
I walk to the edge of the catwalk where a ladder leads to the stage floor below.
I glance down. The Posse looks up at me, the girls putting their hands on their hips in unison like a cheerleader move.
Everyone is looking at me. Sweat breaks out on my forehead. The floor seems like it’s a thousand miles away.
“I’m coming for you,” Reach says in my ear, and I hear a scraping sound as he rips off the headset.
I take two steps down the ladder, and I stop. My mind is reeling.
The girl with long black hair is onstage looking up at me, or at least at my ass sticking out from the ladder. Not what I’d call a great first impression.
“What the hell is wrong with that kid?” Derek says.
I want to climb down and tell them I had nothing to do with it, but I can’t.
I’m stuck on the ladder, high in the air, caught between up and down.
I hear footsteps running onstage.
“Rishekesh Patel at your service,” Reach says to Derek.
Reach to the rescue.
“How can I help?” Reach says.
“You can get this jerk down,” Derek says.
“What did this jerk do now?” Reach says.
The girls laugh a little.
“He blew up my lights,” Derek says. “What if Mr. Apple were here? What would he think?”
He would think you screwed up, I say to myself. Mr. Apple weighs five hundred pounds, and four hundred ninety-nine of them are vicious. He doesn’t like people making mistakes on his stage. He’s fine if you make a legitimate mistake, because that’s how you learn. But not a stupid mistake. A stupid mistake earns you a face full of sour Apple.
“The last thing I need is a techie screwing up my design,” Derek says.
The way he says techie makes me wince.
I look up towards the catwalk. Climb, my head says. Get away.
The stage lights come back on. Not at full, but at 25 percent. Benno is testing the board.
“Looks like we got the lights back for you, Double D,” Reach says.
Derek scowls. He hates that name.
Reach smiles like he has absolutely no idea he did anything wrong.
I have to give it to Reach. He has the ability to make fun of Derek and kiss ass at the same time. That’s a major skill set.
“What are we going to do about ladder boy?” Derek says.
“A public thrashing,” Reach says. “I suggest you whip him with a cable. Twenty lashes.”
The girls laugh even more. Derek looks at them, trying to figure out if he’s being made fun of. After a second, he smiles.
“We shall make him walk the plank,” Derek says, his accent turning him into the ship captain from The Pirates of Penzance. “Or perhaps he needs to be removed from the crew?”
Does Derek have the right to fire me? Not exactly. But he could get me fired. A few words to Mr. Apple and I would be out the door.
I think about a life without techies. Without theater. Without light.
“What if we have him gas up your car?” Reach says.
Derek’s car is his pride and joy, a bright red BMW convertible that he loves more than life itself.
“That’s a fine idea,” Derek says, now smiling.
He walks offstage with the actors following behind.
The girl with black hair hangs back for a second. She stares up at me. There’s a look in her eyes, a familiar look. It’s the kind of look I got all the time after Dad died.
She pities me.
I start to climb as fast as I can, scurrying up the ladder until I’m back on the catwalk where I can breathe.
Copyright Allen Zadoff, 2011.
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Allen Zadoff grew up in Massachusetts, and by way of Tokyo and other cool places, came to settle in Los Angeles. He is the author of the memoir “Hungry,” about his own journey from fat to thin. His hilarious novel “Food, Girls…” is about Andrew Zansky, a fat teen whose idea of good time is Model UN, who is mysteriously taken under the wing of the BMOC. It’s a funny but also moving take on the plight of one of high school’s once invisible men. Allen is also a writing coach, helping all sorts of aspiring writers realize their dreams of completing stories and books. Find out more about him here and read his blog.