Graphic by Daniella Mazzio
By Hampton Cade, Guest Writer
If I had to describe my state of being in early 2011 Hagerstown, Maryland I would use the words: ennui, promiscuity, and debauchery. This was a place where dreams quivered under the weight of substance abuse and high cholesterol, too miserable to make a sound or announce its presence.
I had just turned 21 and decided my only purpose was to attempt to undo all the work my parents had done investing in my life. If I didn’t spend the night going on a bender, driving my car drunk, losing my car, and waking up in someone else’s home I considered it mediocre at best.
It was difficult to get interested in anything other than human flesh and depressants.
2011 was a time I didn’t do much of anything. It was a time where, despite all the things, I felt practically nothing. But, I also did theatre. And a lot of theatre.
It was strange being so flippant about life yet ready to put on a smile (that wasn’t alcohol induced) and get up on a stage. Perhaps it had something to do with the portal that theatre offered me to a different world, a world that was all encompassing and not just virtual. I played my share of video games, watched a lot of movies, but nothing held me like theatre did. Theatre made me feel like something other than my apathetic self. It made me feel like giving a shit.
The problem was I didn’t much care for any of the material theatres were doing. I was caught between my love for expressing myself on stage and the fear that nothing came from my work. After all, I had been feeling next to nothing for so long.
Strange then that it was David Dull who introduced me to one of the most compelling pieces of theatre I had ever come across. Dull was the sort of man who, in his 25 years of directing, spent most of his time with Noel Coward wannabes, musical renditions of shows that didn’t need renditions, and plays about southern Christmas pageants. He almost always had some form of food in his hand to gesticulate with. Dull almost always forgot it was in his hand until he hit a bump in his thought, took a bite of whatever it was, and then resumed his direction.
This was the man who proposed to direct the play Marat/Sade by Peter Weiss. Marat/Sade is anything but your general please-the-small-community-you-live-in play. It in is an insane asylum. It is a play post French Revolution. It is a play about pain, suffering, and murder. It is a play that made most of Dull’s staff nervous to be a part of.
When the cast list came out and I saw I would be playing the role of the Marquis de Sade, I thought to myself, finally, a chance do something with stakes. After all, Sade is infamous for creating sadism, and though I wasn’t so sure how it would be used in the play, I knew that I must be the one who pushed the violence. I was thrilled not just because the show appealed to me but because it was a lot of lines. I was shallow, an actor. I didn’t think twice about what the subject matter was, or what kind of trials it would put me through, I was interested in making my name. To be honest, I didn’t even finish reading the script before the first rehearsal. It was incredibly long, and I didn’t have the kind of time to devote to reading everyone else’s lines.
With this mindset, I entered into the first week of rehearsals.
When I first met Melissa Pugh I had no idea she would be a key to my artistic awakening. I also was unaware that she was the Charlotte Corday to my Marquis de Sade. I remember her eyes the best. She had a look that penetrated me. I remember thinking if I could ever look at someone the way Melissa did then I would truly see them. After all the pleasures and comforts, just her look was enough to make me feel something. And that was the start.
When Dull introduced us he said, “Hampton, this is the girl who will be flogging you.” A look of terror crossed her face and she said, “Like flogging flogging? Whipping?” To which he laughed and said, “As hard as we possibly can.”
A large amount of conversation during the first two weeks of rehearsal were how exactly we were going to do the whipping. It appeared that even though Dull wanted to have us pummel one another, he was at least knowledgeable that he couldn’t do it unless we consented. Melissa asked if we could potentially miss me and only whip behind me, leaving it up to me to act the pain. Our fight choreographer, Ben Buhrman was more interested in training Melissa to hit me gently on every other lash. After all, it was up to me to act the pain.
It didn’t take me long to become bored with this conversation. The whole dialogue felt very stagnant, another tedious discussion about how to best cheat to get the result. I didn’t want to cheat. I wanted to be. Finally, Dull asked me what I wanted to do – since it was my body, I can only assume. Lucky for Dull, I was less interested in safety, and more interested in doing something extraordinary. Something that both shook me, and the audience that would be watching me. I told them to hit me the whole time.
The first time we staged the whipping scene was only two weeks out from opening. Dull held off on the scene for as long as he could — to give Melissa and me as much time as we needed to get in the mental head space for the action. When we started the scene Melissa whispered, “I’m sorry” and we began.
The whip Ben brought to Melissa was more intimidating that any object I had ever seen in my life. It was an Indiana Jones whip. If I was uncertain that I might be hurt by this thing, all doubt had left my mind.
When Melissa first attempted the scene she missed on every hit but one. And that was enough.
The whip gripped my back the way a lover grips the waist. Firm. Determined. The whip wanted to assure me that it was ready to perform for me. But it did not want to stay. Just as fast as lovers leave one another, the whip finished and turned me over to pain. Melissa had lit my back on fire.
“FUCK!” I exclaimed dropping to my knees. Melissa shrieked, dropped the whip and ran to my side. Regardless of how many times I told her I was alright, she insisted she was too nervous to do it again. But I wanted to keep going. I wanted to keep my nerves awake, to keep myself awake.
Over the next couple of days, Melissa and I had set times scheduled to work the whipping scene. The fight choreographer was always there guiding her and making sure I was safe. He would come up to me and say something like if she’s hurting you, let me know. Of course, I couldn’t actually say anything about it based on the reaction she had previously. I was unsure how to actually work in the situation. She was never going to hit me with as much force and realism as she did the first time. I knew this was the case, but I also knew that without it the scene would fall flat. It was then I made one of the most defining choices of my artistic life. I decided I would lie to her.
I would never tell her when it hurt. I would never tell her when I thought I was going to bleed. I would never tell her when I was going to pass out. I kept this secret from Dull and the choreographer. They just assumed I was a hell of an actor. And I guess I was, but my acting was coming out of giving myself a truthful situation as opposed to creating a false one. By the time we got to opening night she was so comfortable with the whip that she barely hesitated.
We were not Hampton and Melissa, we were Corday and Sade. She hit me so hard that when the stage direction said “Sade drops to his knees” I actually had to fall to my knees in order to brace myself on something. I dropped as Sade. She lashed out as Corday. I cringed as Sade. She huffed as Corday. We were simultaneously ourselves and our characters – we were something new, something different.
As I felt the whip, blow after blow, I become increasingly aware of the faces of those around me. Suddenly I could see the audience as clearly as if there had been no stage, no lights, and no costumes. I watch as people started to come into focus, and I could make out every question, every uncertainty, ever shudder in their faces. “This is happening!” “Is this happening?” “This can’t actually be happening.” I could hear their questions bouncing around the room, uncertainty painted the walls. What was really real?
The audience seemed afraid to give into the reality of the world. They questioned the validity of the stage, and that questioning drove me to continue to embrace the whip throughout our run.
The last night of the run I held eyes with an audience member for more than half of the whipping. Every time I flinched, he flinched. Every time I gasped, he gasped. The man was unable to look away. I was unable to look away. I didn’t want to look away. I wanted to study him, to examine him, to really understand what made him want to watch me in pain. He was on trial, and I was his judge. I saw him. The way Melissa looked at me. I saw him, and he saw me. And that was theatre.
I remember thinking that it would be impossible to have that much time with every audience member. I remember thinking that if I could create intimate acts of theatre like that, could I? Should I? The more I was hit by the whip, the more my thoughts of theatre turned into thoughts of the future, of a future in theatre.
“Jesus Christ!” Dull exclaimed upon seeing my back. Yes, I was on the right path. For the first time in a long time, I could see the light and I was moving towards it.