I was driving west toward Rochester, New York last Friday with only the chatter of my mind for company. This was not a good thing, as I had about 400 miles of asphalt ahead of me. On these long drives I tend to examine my life, focusing on the things I do not have –- a boyfriend, a regular friend with benefits, six-pack abs –- rather than on the things I do.
Beyond the drive, I knew that the weekend would be a stretch, a return to the city where, in July, I’d performed to a somber ‘crowd’ of ten people, one of whom sent me a hate-filled anti-Semitic email upon my return home. This ‘fan’ explained that he thought my show, “One Man’s Journey through the Middle Ages,” was a humorous trip through the historical middle ages rather than through middle age. Still, the other nine people seemed to like my material, and I hoped that this time I could draw a modest crowd rather than a minyan.
But as I drove out Interstate 90, a long straight line leading to a city where I basically knew no one and no one knew me, I questioned my decision to participate in Rochester’s Fringe Festival. What was I thinking? This was way too far to be driving for a weekend, to do a one hour show and then turn around and drive back home again –- as if I were a long haul trucker instead of an insecure writer who hates to sit still.
I knew there were literally hundreds of shows going on around the city over the course of two-week festival. The small theater hosting my show again, where I’d drawn those few folks in July, had six or seven other performances on the same day as mine, spaced at one-hour intervals. I must have been overly optimistic or mildly delusional when I’d plopped down $100 to hold my space in the festival, and committed to returning to upstate New York.
As I drove, I listened to a book on CD, a way to distract myself from the tedium of the drive and the uncertainty of the weekend. The book, Anne Lamott’s “Help, Thanks, Wow,” is a somewhat humorous take on the author’s faith, and her use of prayer to get through life crises large and small. Her point was that while God doesn’t necessarily give us what we want, He does give us what we need. Personally, I don’t have much faith in the Christian God cited by Lamott. Still, I felt strangely comforted as I listened, as if her faith were rubbing off on my doubt, just a little.
I’d signed up to do a 10-minute showcase at a kickoff event in a downtown park on Friday evening. Hopefully, my monologue would entertain the locals and convince some to pony up $10 and attend my show the next day. I arrived with plenty of time to spare, and watched a bunch of festival volunteers set up a large stage, part of an outdoor amphitheater in one corner of the park.
But I soon learned that the large stage was for musical acts only; spoken word performers were relegated to the grassy area near the food trucks –- where there was no stage, no microphones, and no way to compete with the gospel and rock music flowing from down below. So I quickly went to plan B, handing out flyers and postcards left over from my July show, with the new date written in.
I approached middle-aged couples, a few singles, whoever looked relatively non-threatening. I explained that I was from Boston, and had come all the way to Rochester to do my show, which was about being over 40 and dealing with life’s various curveballs.
The next day was cool and rainy, with flash flood warnings posted around the city. I got to the theater, and unloaded my props in the rain. As I set up my gear, I noticed a large digital clock above the seating area facing the stage. The numbers were ticking down from 60 minutes – 10 minutes till I had to begin, 50 minutes for the show. When the clock hit zero I was to be off the stage, out of the way, giving way to the next act. Those numbers -- minutes and seconds rolling toward nothingness -- reminded me of Father Time’s clock, of the way the months and years seem to speed up as I cruise through my mid-fifties and beyond.
I pulled myself back to the job at hand and soon an actual audience streamed into the theater. Eventually, 25 people –- including many I’d approached the night before – sat down in the front rows, and I was off and running. They laughed, they listened, and as the numbers wound down and time grew short, I reminded myself that this was it, the reason I had come to Rochester, the reason I write in the first place –- because I want and need to tell stories.
The show ended on time, with a few minutes to spare, and then it was all a blur –- throwing my props in a bag, chatting with several members of the audience, selling two books outside in the rain. The next morning I was back on the road, reversing my journey, listening once again to “Help, Thanks, Wow,” and feeling (if not a sense of faith), a bit more gratitude for those 25 folks who showed up on a rainy afternoon in Rochester, just to see me.
Judah Leblang’s upcoming show, “One Man’s Journey through the Middle Ages” is part of a special ‘Words and Songs’ event with folksinger Maria Sangiolo at Arlington Street Church on Saturday October 5 at 7:30 PM. Tickets ($15) are available at judahleblang.com and at the door.