NOTES ON NOTES

You can listen to this as read on public radio:
http://wamc.org/post/listener-essay-notes-notes

The other day my wife asked me to look at a manuscript of hers and tell her what I thought. After I read it and jotted a few comments, I said I had some notes for her. She said that “having some notes” sounded theatrical. She’d never heard it used in the sense of critical remarks about fiction, which is her field.

I grew up hearing directors give notes at the end of a rehearsal. As a director myself I would of course give notes to actors. Now I told her the best story I knew about notes:

In college I was in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The director was a tyrant who sometimes held rehearsals till long after midnight, often going over details that could have been ignored. Somehow I survived those months—classes, studying, papers, a part-time job far from campus, and nights of endless rehearsals. Sleeping held a low priority.

A close reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream includes one of the mechanicals, or craftsmen—the one who plays Moonshine in their play-within-a-play of “Pyramus and Thisbe”—bringing on a thorn-bush and a dog, based on folk illustrations of the Man in the Moon. Our director decided we couldn’t omit those details.

The thorn-bush was easy. Then someone lent their cute white puppy to the production, and my roommate—who was playing Puck in the play—volunteered to keep it in our apartment for the duration of rehearsals and performances. The puppy was young enough to need paper training, which we diligently provided. Eager to please, he turned out to be very good at it.

You’ve probably heard the old saw about sharing the stage with a small child or an animal. At the first performance the puppy, when Moonshine carried him onstage, squirmed and whined a lot, threatening to upstage me. I was Bottom the Weaver, appearing now as Pyramus—and I realized my great bombastic final speeches and death scene were threatened, as the audience focused their attention on the cute, hyperactive beast.

So I got an inspiration—to stride over in front of the actor holding the dog. I stretched out the Roman cape I wore, hiding the dog from the audience. This improvisation brought the house down.

At the same point in the second performance, none of this happened. The puppy lay quietly in the crook of the actor’s arm. He may have been asleep. I didn’t get to repeat my portrayal of the Triumph of the Ham.

After curtain calls, I found out that the stage manager, alarmed by all the whimpering and movement the previous night, had given the dog a long walk and run to tire him out before the show.

Here’s the part about notes: the final dress rehearsal ended at 2 a.m. We were facing a day of classes followed by our opening-night performance. The stage manager called us back on stage. The director spread four pages of notes on the floor and said, “Lovely performance, but I have a few notes.”

The well-trained puppy walked over to the papers and expressed the feelings of all of us by making a splendid deposit on the director’s pages of carping criticisms.

There was only one possible response: the director let us go home.

I remember this every time I have notes—or comments—for anyone. The best deterrent for excess in that situation is to ask: “What would the puppy do?”

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