On April 4, 2021, days after another full-blown lockdown was declared in Ontario due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, I sat as the lone audience member in the Shadowbox theatre, at Shepherd and Howard Avenue, watching a performance of the play Negatunity, which the Post Productions theatre group had rehearsed for an entire calendar year.
I could almost hear Rod Serling narrate: “Consider a man, a playwright, a maker of make-believe. His stories? Events mined from his own life. His audience? An audience of one: Himself. The theatre, you see, has only one seat – center section, middle row — and is located at the far end of… The Twilight Zone…”
Although I was the author of the play, had taken four years to write it, I sat in my seat, transfixed as Michael K. Potter, Fay Lynn, Rebecca Mickle, Joey Ouellette, and Nikolas Prša brought the shadow figures I’d created to actual, three-dimensional life.
I have lived with Negatunity since 2013, when the idea first came to me.
The story centers on technical writer, Singleton Kastamangus, mid-40s, who suffers a nervous breakdown when an Internet search he performed at work uncovers painful pieces from his personal history. He tells his story under decidedly extenuating circumstances.
Negatunity, as a story, does not hold to a safe and practical route. Telling the story was like walking from my house in LaSalle to downtown Windsor in an unwavering straight line: over lawns, fences, through people’s homes, leaping ditches, wading through streams, dodging traffic, scaling buildings… To write the story, I indulged in meta-fiction, autobiography, musical theatre, farce, tragedy, referencing Supertramp, James Joyce, Epicurus, Thomas Wolfe. I had to write a song called “Oh Fuck” to tell the story, and to coin my own words, such as “negatunity”, “ordealists”, “intoxinaut”.
The play is an act of memory. I think many people believe memory is “Recalling things that happened in the past that have since gone away.” For me, memory is the past today. All that’s gone is still here. And none of this sappy “Oh, it lives on inside of our hearts…” The past is the present, continually analyzed, its pieces continuously being rebuilt, re-examined. It’s the famous Santayana quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. There is something circular to memory, to history. It comes back around. There is always something to remind us. It’s impossible to speak about it without conjuring lyrics from pop songs where the frivolous attempts to explain the lofty, but memory is potent, and to some of us — right or wrong — it can often be more real than the present.
When I finished writing Negatunity in the autumn of 2017, I just had to send it to someone. The only person who came to mind was Michael Potter, Managing Director of Post Productions. I had seen several Post Productions plays, and at the time, Michael and Fay Lynn were rehearsing my play, Shelter in Place, under the direction of Michael O’Reilly. Even with that “in”, I anticipated a polite, heart felt rejection. In fact, I wondered if I was risking our working relationship and budding friendship by putting Michael in an awkward position, sending him a piece of work he might consider absolute nonsense.
Because Negatunity is part screenplay, part confession, part instruction manual, part fever dream, which — to the undiscerning eye — might look like a mess. I would love for my life and art to be tidy and organized — a place for everything and everything in its place — but that’s not reality. If there was a chance of someone seeing the play as I did… Well, to paraphrase a line from Star Wars: A New Hope, “Help me, [Michael Potter]. You’re my only hope”.
I submitted the first draft of Negatunity to Michael Potter via email.
A few excruciating days passed before Michael replied. Seeing his reply in my Inbox both excited and terrified me. I didn’t anticipate a rude or dismissive response, but I held (hold) Michael’s opinion in high regard, and needed a moment to brace myself.
His email read, in part:
Okay . . . I fucking LOVE this script. I love it. If you’re game, I’m hoping we can produce it in 2019 (as long as the others agree) because it is exactly the sort of thing that excites me. Difficult to stage, maybe, but we can figure it out. And I want to play Singleton. I can hear him in my head.
Ultimately, Negatunity was scheduled to be performed in Post Productions’ 2020 season.
Then COVID-19 hit.
Fast forward through the heartbreak and angst of cancelled and postponed performances… Post Productions did not give up on Negatunity.
On April 4, I was the sole audience member to see the play performed live, in its entirety.
Post Productions’ performance took me by storm.
How could there be any surprises? When all systems are firing, theatre is like a dream, and aren’t dreams the venue where every person is simultaneously author, actor, and audience?
The unworkable play I wrote, with flashbacks, fantasy sequences, monologues, technical jargon — a toilet, a bicycle, a desk, a chair, moved around the stage at their various, appointed times. Under the direction of Fay Lynn — who also undertook one of the sizable background roles when another actor had to drop out — the crazy choreography of my play worked. Characters rampaged on and off stage, startling, and addling, tormenting and confusing Singleton. Old bosses, old enemies, old friends melded with figures from the present — Singleton’s work-”frenemy”, Stortz, and the action news team that monitored Singleton’s progress toward the Detroit River.
I laughed countless times. The balcony heckler in my own mind gave me the skeptical look frenemies of the old schoolyard gave when I achieved a modest success: scoring a goal in soccer, catching a dramatic pass in football.
“You’re laughing at your own jokes?” the balcony heckler accused.
Yes. Yes, I was. The performance was hitting notes I had either forgotten about or didn’t even realize were there. Aspects I hadn’t intended as humorous came off funny — in a good way.
Watching the performance was bitter-sweet. There was no question the cast and crew had put hundreds, if not thousands, of hours into the play. The tech, provided by Carter Dersch of Carter Dersch Designs, cast the scenes in beautiful, surreal light. I’m unsure how he contrived it, but at one point, there is a scene involving kids in a twilit neighbourhood, hanging out, and he evoked it perfectly. I felt like I was right back on my old street.
Due to coronavirus regulations forbidding singing in theatrical productions, my song “Oh Fuck” was wonderfully reimagined and performed by Fay Lynn and Joey Ouellette.
The bar scene, the intoxinaut, Singleton running through nighttime traffic, the sound drops of cars cruising by, horns blasting, Singleton encountering a personage he only ever saw from his car, culminating…
And then came the final scene, and the ending I had imagined ten thousand times, played out before me by Michael and Fay. Then, just Michael on the stage. And the final words. All those mornings, writing, sitting, not writing, wondering, “How will those words play? Are they trite? Are they vague? Do I need them at all?”
And then it was done. Black. The actors vacated the stage. I sat there in the dark, feeling simultaneously exhilarated, grief-stricken, satisfied… blown-away.
I applauded, and in my half state of shock, didn’t think to rise from my chair, though I have no doubt a full audience would have. I had witnessed a tour-de-force. It’s seems contrived saying that about watching my own play performed. The balcony heckler sits back in his seat, in the rear of my mind, arms folded, lips pursed, subtly shaking his head. But if I’m honest, that was my response to the show.
Local, award-winning filmmaker, Mitchell Branget is said to have captured the play on video the subsequent three nights (which will be available for purchase in the near future). By Thursday, another lockdown was announced in Ontario and Michael Potter had shaved his beard and cut his hair. No take-backs.
I was slow leaving my seat, I was slow walking out of the theatre, reluctant to leave the building. Michael and some of the cast were already outside.
Ray Bradbury has a short story called “In a Season of Calm Weather,” published in 1956, about George and Alice Smith, Americans, vacationing in Europe. One afternoon, on the mostly empty, off-season beach, George sees the figure of a man down a ways, drawing in the sand with a stick. George wanders down the beach and eventually comes close enough to the man to see his face, to see what he is drawing in the sand. The man is Picasso. He nods at George, completes his work with a few more flourishes, and then walks away.
“George Smith stood looking after him,” Bradbury writes. “After a full minute he did the only thing he could possibly do. He started at the beginning of the fantastic frieze of satyrs and fauns and wine-dipped maidens and prancing unicorns and piping youths and walked slowly along the shore.”
I felt like George Smith, as he sat later that evening with his wife, at dinner. She notices a pensive look on his face and asks if he is all right.
“Listen”, he says. She does, but doesn’t hear anything. She asks what he hears.
“Just the tide,” George says. “Just the tide coming in.”
Negatunity is a uniquely Windsor story because Windsor is of a size where many residents can’t help but stumble upon the past, particularly if they grew up here. Whether it’s passing an old school, a venue where they attended their prom, or wedding reception, or had their first job. Because the city is evolving so quickly, the landscape always changing — whether for the bridge project, older buildings being torn down, or even a tree at the waterfront being cut down — the absence of the familiar triggers the memory of it. When something like that is gone, you find out how powerful your memory is, laying “what was” over “what is” like an outline on transparency sheet for an overhead projector.
Negatunity is available to view online for a limited time: Apr. 23 – May 31, 2021. Purchase your link today via e-transfer to email@example.com (NOTE: Please include your email in the transfer notes to receive your link). Or, gain access to the video using PayPal by visiting www.postproductionswindsor.ca.