Stage fright in the Lysistrata Project

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(Host) Recently, commentator Philip Baruth participated in the Lysistrata Project, a series of over a 1,000 worldwide readings of Aristophanes’ anti-war comedy. The show featured Willem Lange and gospel singer Fran ois Clemens, and for Philip it was an unforgettable night.

(Baruth) No doubt George Bush and his White House strategists thought that a steady yearlong build-up to war in Iraq would create so much momentum that the rest of the world would move out of the way or clamber aboard. But in fact, that year has given the rest of the world time to close ranks against war.

And the yearlong roll-out of the war on Iraq has transferred its own strange momentum onto me, just like everyone else. A few weeks ago, I got an e-mail from Mark Nash at Vermont Stage, asking me to take part in something called the Lysistrata Project, a reading of Aristophanes’ classic and bawdy anti-war play. Aristophanes’ high concept is that the women of Greece are fed up with endless war, and so they call a sexual boycott until a general peace is declared. The e-mail said that the Project involved over a 1,000 separate readings of Lysistrata, in over 50 countries and in all 50 states. Mark wanted a couple of Vermont writers to flesh out his cast of stage veterans.

So before I know it, I had a schedule of rehearsals and technical run-throughs to attend. All of this was taking place at the Flynn Theatre in Burlington, and so these technical run-throughs were serious business, with huge light and sound systems, millions of ropes backstage pinned to millions of curtains – the whole nine yards. It was pretty intimidating, because most of the cast were real actors – hard-core professionals, people who did splits on the floor during odd moments in rehearsal, people who knew the lingo. My part was a small one, an Athenian delegate who comes on at the end, all but incapacitated by the frustration he’s experiencing.

I didn’t have to do much, in other words, but read my lines and look like I was in pain. But as the last frenzied rehearsal ended and the lights came up, I got what I guess you’d have to call stage fright. I was convinced all of the sudden that I was going to ruin the show, spoil the message behind the comedy that this war, as Willem Lange put it later that night, would not be fought in our name, by God.

And that’s how I found myself in the stage bathroom of the Flynn, two floors below the street, with five minutes to show time, taking deep breaths and trying to calm down. Now, it turns out that in the stage bathrooms at the Flynn there are these little speakers hanging on the wall, so you don’t miss your cue. I suddenly realized that static was just pouring out of this little box stuck up on the wall. But finally I figured out that it wasn’t static at all – it was crowd noise, a huge crowd, now filling the entire downstairs seating capacity of the theatre. The low-tech little bathroom speaker was just translating it as raw force, though, as the noise of shifting momentum itself.

And it probably makes no sense at all, but I can’t think of a time when I’ve felt less alone, more a part of a vibrant, positive consensus, than I did right then, in that weird little sub-sub-bathroom, looking up at that tiny metal voice-box fixed to the plaster.

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington, and professor at the University of Vermont.

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