The Octavia: A Post-Electric Play

[NOTE: I wrote this essay for the Summer 2017 issue of The Dramatist magazine, and I am grateful to the Dramatists Guild for the opportunity. Click here to read the print version.]

Here is a photo taken with my cell phone of Porscha Shaw reading her script by cell phone light. Cell phones! Here to stay.

Here is a photo taken with my cell phone of Porscha Shaw reading her script by cell phone light. Cell phones! Here to stay.

The power was out. We were one hour—not even one hour—into what would ultimately be a ten-hour reading of Anne Washburn’s epic-in-process, The Octavia. The University of Washington School of Drama, where I work, had been building anticipation for this day for months. Anne and her director, Ken Rus Schmoll, had spent the last quarter with an inexhaustible team of professional actors and graduate students, slowly, deliberately delaminating the story of this play from the story of the original Octavia from the story of the real life Nero.

Seattle is a weirdly literature-obsessed city. The reading was a hot ticket. It was literal front page news in the Seattle Times. Anne had told me she’d be satisfied if five or ten people came. But up here in the far left corner of the country, in the darkest part of of our long, gray winter, about 80 people showed up to spend a day together sitting in a room listening to these words. And then the power went out.

This little essay will not be about Anne’s stunning play or the fine actors who embodied it, because I watched very little of it. My day became about power—not the Nero kind, the electric kind. Our production manager and I ran around the building gathering every flashlight we could find and ran them out to the actors as their cell phone lights gave out. They kept going. We fed the audience coffee. They leaned forward to see or backward to shut their eyes and listen. The power stayed out.

Mid-day, seeking natural light, we switched venues. Not only did the audience trek across campus in the rain to stay with the story, they carried coffee pots and bagels and music stands. They shared umbrellas. The substitute venue was light-filled, but the cacophony of rain on its roof made it untenable for the reading. We all trekked back to the theatre (coffee pots and all).

At the evening break, audience and actors came into the lobby wrapped in jackets and scarves, red-nosed and sniffly. The power had come back on, but the heat had not. We fed them wine. It was about 7:30 PM—the hour when most theatre starts; we were into hour eight. The audience was tired and buzzed, stiff-backed and limp-necked, yawning and touching their calves to keep awake, but deeply deeply “in it.”

When they went back in for the final chapter, my work done, I laid on the lobby floor, wired and exhausted, straining to hear but afraid of disrupting whatever sacred thing was happening in there, until I realized that was stupid and went in.

It was riveting. This was hour… ten? The audience, distributed around all four sides of the arena stage, formed an energetic web, strong and tensile, knit together through hours of sitting and listening and drifting and deeply attending to this work, that seemed to hold the space and the performers together. They were present.

I am a playwright who makes her living thinking about audiences. I love audiences (and sometimes I hate them). I’m curious about audiences. I care about them. I believe in them. I have said the phrase “attendance” in reference to audiences probably hundreds of time in the last decade, but I maybe haven’t thought as carefully about that verb, “to attend,” as I should have. I have never seen an audience minister to, devote themselves to, attend to a work of art the way that audience did that day at The Octavia. I was—and I am—inspired.