Thoughts While Working On 'The Time of Your Life'

The first time I read William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life I wasn’t particularly impressed. Truthfully, I was only paying attention to the sections in which Tom shows up because I was auditioning for that part. So I knew that Tom was a innocent sweetheart, who falls in love with a prostitute named Kitty Duvall. For the bulk of the play he's trying to figure out how to make enough money to get her out of that life and into the one she's dreamed of. But the play is so much more than that story and it’s easy to miss the big picture when you’re focused on 1 character out of 27. (Is it that many? I read a review that said it was that 27 and we all know critics are rarely wrong.) It wasn’t until we all got together to read the play aloud that my perception of the play changed. Hearing the words come out of my fellow actors’ mouths, I was flooded with an overload of ideas that William Saroyan was presenting in the densely packed script. Every night since that one, I discover something new about the story we’re telling, and, two weeks into the run of the show, I find myself rather deep in the rabbit hole.

During a Q&A after one performance, someone asked the cast what the hell the show was about. It was the first question and there was a mighty beat of silence. At first I felt bad because I wanted the audience member to tell us what he thought the show was about. Maybe we didn’t give him enough to latch onto so he could sort it out on his own, but that wasn’t it. He wasn’t looking for answers, he wanted confirmation - to know if we saw what he saw. That’s the fun part of art because anyone can interpret it however they want, and then you get to compare responses and discover connections between other human beings that run a little deeper than the typically mundane associations we make with each other.

“Oh you’re an accountant, I have a brother who does that too, it’s like we know each other.”

“You’ve got kids, I’ve got kids too. Our lives are equally fulfilled or ruined depending on the quality of your offspring.”

“Look at that, we’re both Americans, we have a relationship now. No, I don’t want to know if you’re a Republican or a Democrat - let’s not fuck this up.”

Art evokes icky feelings that are weird and complicated that we don’t want to share for fear of being rejected. For example, when I look at Manet’s Le Suicidé I find this pleasurable warmth in the letting go of one’s life, contrasted by the unpleasant, contortions of a dead body - both of which mirror my own thoughts on the subject of killing myself. It sounds like a good idea sometimes, but then I don’t like the idea of being unable to control what I look like when people find me and I’m very vain that way.

 

You see what I mean? Who’d want to share those feelings? But if one person said “Yeah, I get that too”, then that particular form of relating to another person is beyond compare. Certainly better than the opening questions we softball to each other on first dates. “Soooooo, do you like air? Yeah. Breathing is pretty cool.”

So during this moment of silence after the audience member’s question, I felt myself trying to decide which topic I felt comfortable broaching, and how much of my own feelings I wanted to share.  Seventy-six years ago, William Saroyan wrote this play that challenged the American Dream in a fairly balanced way. He shows the good and the bad, and no matter how bad it gets - he tells us to go live. Keep living so that there will be no ugliness. Is that a good enough answer to these problems? Living in 2015, I feel considerably more cynical about America and the purpose of this country than ever in my life. And I imagine it’ll get much worse because I’m still young. I see police brutality today against the weak and the downtrodden just like In the play. I see people struggling for work to make enough to feed themselves, and people that are well-off who make themselves feel better by slumming it with the charity cases. Not much has changed in seventy-six years, so it’s hard to look back at the desires and dreams of a character like Kitty Duvall and feel hopeful. We’ve seen the future and we know what “Happily Ever After” looks like. It’s a lot like 1939 except you get a new iPhone every year to shut you up.

On September 18th, while I was about to perform this show, two boys, aged 14 and 15, were shot and killed in a drive-by on the 4400 block of South Greenwood - which is six blocks away from President Obama’s house. I think of these boys and so many other kids like them who die every week in the city that I love. I wonder how only six blocks separates the most powerful man in the country from the helpless victims of an overly-violent nation. With this on my mind I wonder how I can even get up on stage and make people laugh or try to give people hope in what can often feel like a very hopeless world. I do because Saroyan is right. We have to live. We have to get out of bed and find goodness in our humanity. And more importantly, we have to live because those boys don’t get to. Tyjuan Poindexter doesn’t get to go out with friends. Hadiya Pendleton doesn’t get to go to college. Kimythe Hubbard doesn’t get to “learn how to grow up, grow old.” We have to live life for the people who don’t have the luxury to do so, because wasting our life is a disrespect to all those who’ve had theirs taken from them.

Is the play about that? I don’t know. It’s about a lot of stuff, man. We could talk about capitalism vs. socialism, or the role violence plays in how characters solve their problems, or whether or not Kitty and Tom live happily ever after (my director Kathy Scambiatterra says they do - I have my reservations, but we’ve firmly established I can be a little dark). We could even discuss the negative and positive aspects of sex work or the myth of the Old West cowboy because all that’s in there too. But I guess the most important point this show makes is what it says about people - specifically people on the bottom. Somehow, against ridiculous odds, these characters - who in some cases are barely surviving- manage to find humor in this life and the will to keep living it. And they do it just like you and I do, despite everything on the news telling us we should behave differently. Because we have to. Because that’s all we’ve really got.

 

-Jae et Gail