James Robison, Actors


…Or this. I was in a car wreck one January where people died, and on that day the world was torn to points by a blizzard and I a passenger in a cocoa brown VW on a snow slashed day, seeing blotted glass and dead fields and two icy lanes in Chilicothe, Ohio, bang, head on into a big yacht car, a 1978 Buick slow-drifting into us, I went through the windshield, through the windshield onto the highway, not wearing a belt saved my life, so I stood at once and strode with purpose (I was told) into the snowy cornfield and sat in exactly the pose of Rodin’s Thinker. Nothing of this matters.
I remember only the snow road, coming awake inside ambulance doing the terrible inventory. Scariest first: who am I? I knew half my name and that something unspeakably bad happened. What? Where am I in time and space? Then the audit. Both eyes working? Can I hear? Legs? They don’t work and my head is tied to a board so I can’t look.
Is Christmas over, I asked the ambulance guy.
This is the desired emotional pitch and psychological entry condition for being an actor. Blotted out.
I wanted to be an actor when I was in school and college. You give everything for the perfection of being in a condition of NOT. You sit in a chair, the girl from your high school English class has pots, wands, pads. Those velvety makeup pancakes? She will erase old you, wipe away like muckfilm off a mirror the hot presence of an animal, YOU gone in strokes and swaths, wiped away leaving no brow nor hunger nor nerves, just air, spirits. You disappear into various possibilities.
I hate professional actors acting. I was close to one on stage—a woman actor–a professional. The director gave me business for my hands I looked so like an uncomfortable rock. We sat on a curb the carpenters built in spotlights and as I didn’t listen to her, I picked up her purse and ransacked it until I found a cigarette, lit it with her matches, whilst she acted, acted, and I blew a steely sigh. 1967. The audience wanted a smoke too I am sure. I was 22, she was 50, and the play was bad and we were bad, but I was thinking, “Why is she spitting? Is this baseball?”
Baseball! We Americans go all year without spitting, but put us at the plate with a Louisville Slugger, P-tang. We spit. Catcher spits. First base shoots a spitstring between teeth. Way back in Little League Ball, the adult Umpire, Mack Dominick, who sold insurance in real life, raised his mask and spats. You’re standing in left field, scab on knuckle, spitting. You’re acting like a baseball player. Acting is NOT where you think THIS BODY IS MY INSTRUMENT. Or. What does my character want? And, NO, you do not claim this stage space to master, or prepare the gesture, perform the gesture recoil therefrom, breathe, breathe and say: “Aw mah lawd, the heat is so ah-pressive,” and go tsk.
This professional actor lady would spray spit while talking up close and go TSK and say things with what she thought was a Mississippi accent because she learned to act professionally when Tennessee Williams ruled the stage.
In rehearsals she would guillotine a flat hand down in front of her face, shutting her eyes, going blank, clearing away her best self to say: “What does my character want?”
Don’t want anything, I say, and act like it. “The soul that is clouded by the desires is darkened in the understanding,” says John of the Cross, “and allows neither the sun of natural reason nor that of the supernatural Wisdom of God to shine upon it and illumine it clearly.”
In one play I fell off a chair night after night and kissed a girl night after night and both things—chair, girl–hurt. Really hurt, no acting. She was the target of so much of my wonder. My friend Ray said, “Hey, it’s like she’s your co-star…” but I wasn’t a star, I was an open vein.
Who never acted? The greatest actors. Tuesday Weld, W.C. Fields and Groucho Marx and Lassie and Brando. Brando wasn’t acting but finding affinities between his character and the beauty of the world.
“For Simone Weil, the beauty which is inherent in the form of the world…is the proof that the world points to something beyond itself; it establishes the essentially telic character of all that exists.”
The above was on her Wikipedia page, I think.
My opinions and selves are fed off identities of others, off the ones of rare light, in the tense blind film theaters where I dream or contemplate.
St. Dionysius calls contemplation a ray of darkness and that reminds me of the films shot from a booth to the great screen, radiant cone of grays and blacks.
People remember of you what you never were, didn’t want to be, maybe regret. Chekhov grabbed this with his characters. He knew we tell stories to correct the imperfectly understood.
Actors don’t act, but when they do they best go against what is. WHAT IS.
I wrote a story called LSD because LSD had nothing to do with my subject: first love. I believe, when writing specifically about ornithology in March, you should call the story “Autumn Cider.” Tarkovsky came closest to a war film making a biography of an icon artist. Love is almost impossible to write.
“If I acknowledge my dependency, I do so because for me it is a means of signifying my demand: in the realm of love, futility is not a “weakness” or an “absurdity”: it is a strong sign: the more futile, the more it signifies and the more it asserts itself as strength.”
― Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments
All writers are actors. You act a text, a sentence, and no book I write is without a sentence and most sentences have been written so many millions of times I cannot see them…But when the sentences are perfectly made in tone shape and color and weight, the world is recast. With luck, we may get a paragraph, a page. But don’t hold your breath. It’s a long tightrope walk between tall towers in gale-force winds and no net.
Most of us need shorter scenes. As the short novels that are in the form of paintings by Balthus.
Humans struggle to create books or music, play instruments, sculpt, and the name of a human is attached to the best projects, but the true author is some angel with time on her hands. Some intrusive, blessed or damned angel. I don’t believe in angels, but when there is no other explanation…Like I’m reminded of being sober, fighting to stay so, and writing my best and kindest story, watching it twist and course from my pencil—as if I were drawing it and being guided—as if I had set aside the very Cup of Trembling, like Sonny in Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues”.
The humans I’ve met who have caused me to be lost for a spell, who have reinvented reality in words, notes, forms, have nothing to do with their products. They don’t even seem to know these products-or understand them–because they are so busy courting another divine intervention. We all need a car wreck, to be remade, after an inventory: Do I have an ear? Am I blind? I offer this face and this version and my tragedy to be forgotten by you–
Is this next part theater or fiction or just truth? It has actors. In a garage in a subdivision near where I lived, we little kids gathered to watch, like demons, a boy named Craig put his penis into his own sister, her eyes rolled back-
My friend, Ray, who was driving the VW on blizzard wreck day and lived, always laughed about this oddness in my past.
“You mean Craig and the incest garage? What the hell were they proving? And with an audience? How did you hear about it to show up?”
“I can’t remember. Somebody called-”
“What do you mean? You’re sitting, your mom says, ‘Phone for you! ‘ ‘Hello?’ ‘Yeah, this is Craig and I was gonna have sex with my sister in the garage around two. You busy or you wanna drop by?’”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember. I mean, her eyes rolled up- “
That’s what I mean. Who cared? Who cares? She was an actor then. Centered in the storm of wants and wounds and years, Who will finally care? You live through one accident, amazing, good for you, now act like there’s not a bigger one just through that upstage door.


©James Robison
photo©Stratos Fountoulis “Casting shadows”, 2011

robison_portrBio: James Robison won a Whiting Grant for his short fiction and a Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his first novel. His work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize 1995, Grand Street, The New Yorker, The Manchester Review and elsewhere. He was 2011 Visiting Artist at The University of Southern Mississippi. He is the winner of a Pushcart Prize for 2012 and his story appears in that anthology’s 2013 edition.

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