Scene4 Magazine: Michael Bettencourt
Michael Bettencourt
Life of the Daily Adequate

My job this night was to review a show for a publicist-friend who gets me tickets in return for posting my thoughts on Scene4.  The show, part of the Soho Think Tank's summer festival, Ice Factory, played at the Ohio Theatre on Wooster Street in New York, the street which named the Wooster Group (which has its own den just a few doors down).  The Ohio is in a building that used to be a textile factory, and its large high open space floored with tongue-and-grooved oak is intersected with thick columns holding up the floors overhead.  By next year, the theatre will probably be gone — the building owners, who reprieved its lease for a year, don't see a theatre as part of a Soho now boutiqued and malled to within an inch of its life.

The show, "A Wonderland," came off the way it came off (see my review in QReviews), but two of the individual performers stood out.  And for some reason (which I will get to in a moment), I did what I usually do not do: I hung around until they came out so that I could congratulate them personally. I don't usually do this because of a personal reticence about gushing and personal-space-invasions as well as a desire not to put people in the awkward position of having to make-believe a politeness they may not want to feel.

But stay I did.  And thus this happened.

First, important to know: I stayed behind to speak to two women — the two performers.  And as I spoke to the first (I only sensed this on the slant, so to speak, in the moment, unpeeling it more later), I felt myself slip into not only compliment but also — what else could it be called? — flirtation. Not flirtation with the intention of winning something — contractual flirtation, so to speak — but flirtation composed of cleverness and repartee and shared theatre-speak and the warm enjoyment of connection (no matter how unrooted and brief). 

And as we badinaged back and forth, I also noted the still-on stage lights pouring out their heat, the shuttlecock of other conversations, the slight sweat-sheen on her forehead, her grip as we shook hands (the faux-embrace of strangers lies not within my repertoire) — and I felt opened-up and opened-out in a way not found — not even possible — in my life of the daily adequate husband, office manager, writer, theatre-maker.

The second compliment-session went the same way, with the same pried-open feeling, this time in conversation with a smoking, beer-drinking, snap-talking actor/musician who flummoxed me, when she said she knew my name, by playfully demanding that she wanted to see who I had in my phone — and I realized, as I fumbled-out some stupid comment that I barely had a phone, much less one that served me that way, that my phone is not my lifeline, which also meant that she and I had one, probably two, generations between us technologically and culturally and that that difference, in that post-performance moment before the daily adequate re-asserted itself, felt immensely attractive — no, felt full of possibility — for re-description, re-direction, being re-bodied (older body with younger body crossed the mind, how could it not?).

The moment felt in play. I felt in play.  Outside the adequate.  And more than adequate.

And just so you, dear readers, do not take this rendition simply as middle-aged-man-musing about regret and loss (which even I wouldn't find interesting), I had the same feeling the following day inspired by the non-fleshly medium of "Radio Macbeth," produced and performed by SITI, founded many moons ago by Anne Bogart and others.  Using nothing more than wooden folding chairs, two tables, three microphones, excellent sound and lighting design, exquisitely timed movements, and Shakespeare's script (amended), they created the excitement that comes from seeing the familiar made strange in ways that made it familiar all over again.  At the end, standing and ovationing with everyone else, that same opened-out/in-play feeling infused me — theatre/art making the daily adequate inadequate, with joy as the distillate.

What goeth on here?

In my twenties, when I finished the graduate degree that enabled me to go out and teach — i.e., start an adult career (in both meanings of "career") — I had also had pretentions to take up dancing as a career.  And there came a moment, that moment — I think most of us who consider ourselves artists have had that moment.  I had interviewed for a teaching job in a nearby rural high school, and I told myself that if I did not get the job, then I would go to New York and do whatever dancers do there until they dance or do something else.  The phone rang — the time and place where I took the call still tactile in my body even though forty years have passed — the teaching offer came through, and I took it as a sign of the road I should follow.

Wrong road.

I would say that the course I've followed in my life has consisted of this wrestling match between the daily adequate (at which I am very good, being my father's son, the son of an Air Force major born in the Depression and who is vitalized by doing what is always dutiful) and what makes the daily adequate completely inadequate as a way of living.  For many years I stage-managed for a large theatre in Manchester, NH, and during every production I did, no matter how stressing, I always felt at home/in place from the time of the first table-reading to the final set-strike, in a way that the daily adequate has never given me.

This wrestling match has only gotten more strenuous as time has advanced.  At my age (55), I now get inundated with information about how to prolong my time upon this earth, from AARP solicitations to article after article in a magazine the Marvelous Maria-Beatriz gets, "Scientific American Mind," chockfull of readings about sharpening the brain with exercise, finding the alpha waves in meditation, reducing stress, avoiding depression, the value of play, all coached in perky-speak.

When I stayed behind to compliment the performers, the flirtatious energy felt truly playful, unrigged and unforced, unlike the "Mind" articles, which all seem geared toward a play manufactured to offset the "stress of modern life," as if we should accept this stress as a given (like a parent's "because I said so!"), something chromosomal, like a force of nature, instead of the outcome of a system purposed to suck every last energy out of us for someone else's profit.  It is play defined to make the daily adequate palatable, to keep us calm and fit during our lengthening terms of service, often by (surprise, surprise) buying products or services from corporations ready to relax us into old age and beyond.

I find myself bucking more and more against this, trying to get back to my mid-twenties road-fork and take the other direction, the one less traveled by, resenting the way the weight of the daily adequate infiltrates and slants all decisions.  I am feeling less and less able and willing to make the daily bargains of setting aside these hours for the necessity of money-making in order to get those hours for the things that actually nourish and leaven, in-between doing the little tunings that make any day in New York get-throughable: subway stress reducer here, the get-my-banana-from-Sharif-the-fruit-vendor-as-a-break there, the dozens of other daily analgesic routines.

Oh boo-hoo, my mother would say: being an adult means doing things you don't want to do.

Sigh.  Yes.  But.

My reading at the moment is a re-reading of a favorite book, Richard Rorty's "Contingency, Irony, Solidarity," a main theme of which is what he considers a driving force of being a liberal: continual linguistic re-description of oneself (one's "self") as a never-finishing process of self-creation so that all the past — that is, all the brute or mindless forces that worked one over in the process of living — can be re-cast by a re-worked language in such a way that a person can say of his or her life, "Thus I willed it."

This is how I will get back to that fork in the road.  This is how I will blunt the daily adequate.  This is how flirtation will reign.  This how real play will play out and not be confused with corporate anodynes. For the art that I need to create is not, or is not just, the plays, poems, essays, stories, novels, reviews but my own self — as it has always been the right work to do but which has gotten diverted and crimped over the time I have been serving my sentence as an adult.

God, this sounds and feels so adolescent, does it not?  Yes it does. And it might be embarrassing (with all sorts of potential for comic disasters — her with him? ha ha ha ha) if I didn't do what I have just committed myself to do: re-describe in order to re-create.  Yes, then, "adolescent," but, as I will live it, "recovered adolescent" — adolescent re-covered (re-skinned) with new understandings, and "recovered," as in saved from some dustbin of supposedly used-up metaphors.

Because once the flirtatious energy gets loosed, the play force popped open, who in his or her right mind would ever want to put those genies back in their bottles for the sake of preserving the daily adequate and its chloroform ways?  "Flirt" and "play" are the daemons we need, in that old Greek sense of the word as attendant and attentive guardians (see, already re-describing, re-scripting) — companionable and pricking, ironic and restorative, finger-in-the-eye and hand-on-the-cheek.   

Let us all become as daemonic as possible — what possible harm can it do us that being adequate already hasn't done?


View other readers' comments in the Readers Blog

©2009 Michael Bettencourt
©2009 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Michael Bettencourt is a produced and published playwright and a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate" and wife, Maria-Beatriz

For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives


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August 2009

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