We’ll Get This in Post
A good portion of McFeely Sam Goodman’s Afterward takes place in front of a green screen, where actors clad in virtual-reality-conducive clothing (green spandex, stickers on all the major points of facial expressivity) shout, tumble, and stand heroically before a giant fan. The scenes are excerpts from an unfinished screenplay Goodman wrote in response to a very real brush with death, surviving cancer (and all its attendant hospital room horrors) as a twelve-year-old, a trauma I can hardly imagine.
I can hardly imagine it, and that seems to be Goodman’s point. For even though I am given the context, even though I am explicitly told the story, the action still takes place in front of a green screen – pointing to, but not directly representing, a reality I try and try again (and fail and fail again) to imagine in full.
A little context: Afterward is a confessional narrative essay turned into theater by McFeely Sam Goodman and his collaborator, director Sarah Hughes. The crackerjack cast (Becca Blackwell, Nikki Calogne, Toussaint Jeanlouis, Lucy Kaminsky, and Kourtney Rutherford – all terrific) collectively speak in the first person as Goodman, recounting both his bout with cancer as a kid and his later hospitalization as a wayward twentysomething to remove an abnormality on his thyroid. Throughout, bare, semi-representational staging gives life to the text (it is worth noting that Hughes worked for a number of years with Elevator Repair Service, and her approach to making theater out of deliberately non-theatrical text is reminiscent of Gatz). Most of what we see are the machinations of making a performance – the actors put out spike tape, consult each other for blocking notes, read scripts, put on costumes, miss cues, snack, and make theater.
However, there is a slight strangeness to this action, and it isn’t just the strangeness of metonymical staging (e.g. the dregs of a soda are slurped through a straw to evoke the eerie bubbling of hospital equipment). The strangeness lies in the fact that the performers are performing performing. That is, we know that they don’t really have to ask each other where to stand. We know that that spike tape could have been pre-set. We know that the performer didn’t actually miss her cue. We know that the actor clamoring for coffee out of an empty Box-O-Joe doesn’t actually want the coffee (there isn’t any). They’re actors. They’re acting. The lack of artifice is itself highly artificial.
All of this seems to point to Goodman’s bigger point on the nature of memory, trauma, and truth. Much of the play, he tells us, is misremembered, or flat out made up. We can’t access the objective truth, just as we can’t make an objective performance. And the sum of the falsehoods feels true, and it is that feeling (rather than an adherence to objective reality, whatever that is) that makes for truth. We are seeing Goodman’s traumatic childhood not as it was, but as it feels.
As Shakespeare reminds us, “Tis nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Goodman would likely agree – his text (and Hughes’ staging) seems to argue that it is not the content of the memory that gives it import or meaning, but its emotional valence. That is, the feeling of remembering is just as important (if not more so) than the memory itself. Case in point: when Goodman finds out he needs to have his thyroid removed, he and his parents are understandably shaken – the thought of surgery, of a possible return of cancer, of irreparable damage done to his body by chemotherapy, dredges up all the old traumas from his childhood. But when his girlfriend hears this news, she hardly sees what the fuss is about – it’s a routine surgery for a minor problem; he’s going to be fine. The point here isn’t that Goodman’s girlfriend lacks empathy (she doesn’t); it’s that an event only has meaning (emotional or intellectual) on the basis of the particular context and history you bring to it.
Which brings us back to the green screen. Because as much as I watch this aborted action-movie in the making, I can’t really see or understand what’s going on. And the same is true of the entire play – though I am told in great detail the events of Goodman’s life, and even their emotional impact for him, I am still forever trapped behind a wall of failed representation – I do not have the emotional history or context to feel these events as he feels them, and so I am plunged into the cold distance between reality and feeling. I can never know what it was like to grow up with cancer. At best I can look at the green screen, and try to render it in post.
Goodman shows a promising intelligence and curiosity, and possesses a clear love of thick prose. If he and Hughes are to continue their collaboration (as I am told they intend to), I would eagerly await what the two have in store.