Bowling, to me, is something you do if you’re given a choice between bowling and death. And even then, it’s a toss-up.
Kissing someone onstage is perhaps the least romantic thing you can do. Well, it was for me. It wasn’t my fault, though. I swear.
I was in college when I had my one and only stage kiss. They don’t tend to be assigned in K-12 productions, for all the reasons you’d think. Parents may flip. Casting is more of a hassle when you have to worry about who will kiss whom without freaking out. Even if you cast kids who have paired up, will it last until the production is over? Then there’s all the giggling during rehearsals–or performance.
So I was quite good at leaning in close and looking adoring, but I was a college sophomore before I got my first stage direction to pucker up.
I almost didn’t get cast. I was friends with the director, Greg, who invited me to read for the part. Then he couldn’t decide whether he liked me in the role or just liked me. Luckily for me, his assistant director liked me too and told him to stop dithering.
As an aside, Greg had a better than average reason to be wary about me. The night we met almost destroyed his reputation on campus. I was supposed to meet some friends at the school dance, including my roommate. Greg lived down the hall from me in the dorm and was heading the same direction to go to a cast party. My roommate introduced us, then had to run back to get something she forgot. We kept walking. By the time we got to the student center and I saw the flickering lights, a small cast party where I knew half the people sounded like a lot more fun.
My disappearance wasn’t really the problem, but I’m sure it primed everyone’s reactions later. I didn’t know anything about it until I got back from work the next day and someone asked me if I was okay.
“Um, sure. Why?”
“People heard you crying in Greg’s room last night.”
If you ever get the chance, ask Greg to tell the story about melting his high school theater’s equipment. It’s hysterical. What people had heard was me rolling with laughter. Needless to say, I quashed that rumor. Greg, I think, was torn between relief at knowing why he’d gotten all the dirty looks at breakfast and sheer annoyance.
I never did ask why no one knocked on Greg’s door, but it might just mean something that I’m still friends with Greg and haven’t talked to the rest of that crew in years. But I digress. Back to the kiss.
The show we were putting on is a great one, More Fun Than Bowling by Steven Dietz. It would be hard to find a play that’s more my thing, and I fell in love with the script as soon as I read it. It’s generally billed as a comedy, although I don’t really think of it as one, despite the laugh lines. That might have something to do with the three graves on the set. One of them was mine. I planted flowers on it. I’m not sure whether it’s a comedy, but it is absurd.
Of course, any play that’s about death is actually about life, and the kiss plays a pretty important role in that. Jake is a guy with a teenage daughter, proposing to Lois years after his first (perfect) wife left him. Lois loves him and the kid but is all too aware of the ghost of his first wife. Lois is a reserved sort, very Minnesotan–Dietz was local at the time–but when Jake tells her he loves her, she’s supposed to crack that reserve and kiss him passionately.
That’s what the stage directions say. Passionately. That’s how it went in my head before I auditioned. That’s how it went in my head in readthroughs.
That’s not how it went on stage.
I came to walkthroughs all prepared to kiss Jake. Passionately. The only problem is that I never got to meet Jake. Well, that’s not quite true. Kyle, the actor playing Jake, wasn’t bad, even if he wasn’t outstanding. Jake showed up in several parts of the play. But every time we got to the kiss, every rehearsal and every performance, Kyle stood there in Jake’s spot. Not once in that scene did Kyle give off the body language of a man who was ready to be kissed. Braced? Yes. Ready? No.
I might have been insulted, except that I felt the same way. Pretty as Kyle was, I had no interest in him. He wasn’t my type, and we didn’t share anything like the same sense of humor. Why would I want to kiss him?
But I was frustrated, because that wasn’t how Lois felt. Lois wanted to kiss Jake. She had to kiss Jake. The script said so, and it said it for a reason. She just couldn’t do it passionately. She couldn’t look at someone who didn’t want to be kissed and ignore that any more than I could. No matter what Kyle was saying with Jake’s words, his body was telling her something else.
Maybe I needed to be a better actor than I was. Maybe I needed to be able to tell myself I didn’t see the tightness around Kyle’s mouth, the slight lift to his shoulders as he faced me. Maybe I needed to be able to see a spark in the eyes where I saw only wariness. I don’t know how to do that, but maybe it can be done.
Or maybe it would only have made the entire audience as uncomfortable as Kyle was. I rather hope so.
I made it work in the end. It turned the moment into something quieter, a nostalgia for an unfettered romance that never existed but could have if the first wife had never been. At least it did for me. I have no idea what the audience thought, but it couldn’t have been too bad. Dietz sent his friends to see the show.
It still frustrates me, though, when I think of it. I don’t have many regrets in life, but I’ll never forget that there were a few boys I should have kissed but didn’t. Maybe it’s odd, but Jake is one of those boys.