Experimenting with Play in the Game of Everyman
“Ok, so who should we have read the part of the opening chorus?” our fearless leader/professor queried. “Hmm. I’d probably have to say Knowledge is the best choice,” a fellow student replied. “Oh, yeah! That makes so much sense! Such a good idea!” another classmate seconded. And to my shock and horror, Professor Albin looked me in the eye and proposed, “Oona, would you feel comfortable reading the opening chorus for the performance?” Responses ricocheted around my brain at shocking speeds: “Oh God!” “Please, no!” “Send help!” “Why me?!” However, instead of letting any of those pass my lips, somehow I mustered something along the lines of, “Yeah! Sure! No problem!”
After we broke from that brief rehearsal/meeting, less than 48 hours prior to our one and only performance, I walked home from our performance space in Central Park in a panic. Why did I say yes? With the combination of my stress, my crippling nerves, and my dyslexia, which gets profoundly worse under such conditions, I was not sure that I would be able to do it. I feared letting the class and the professor down, as well as the audience members who so awaited this performance.
Then, as I aimlessly wandered somewhere near Strawberry Fields, I had a breakthrough. This show is not about lines or stage fright or any of the conventions of theater that have plagued me for my whole life. It is a medieval play. A play. It is about play and playing. We are players. I started thinking about my character and what I was playing. What is my game? What is my goal? What are my rules? Who am I playing with? Are the others playing along? Are we all playing the same game? As I asked myself these questions, I started engaging with the text in a new way. I started seeing the play as a text and the text as a play, and I understood it on a whole new level.
Once I started to look at the play as play, I began to see the characters as players in a sort of game. The stage started to look like a schoolyard playground and my classmates were its happy inhabitants. God was the dutiful, goodie-two-shoes who was bound by rules and wanted to make sure everything went according to his vision of the game. Death was the mischievous child who went around wreaking havoc and bending the rules to his will. Everyman was the kid who wanted to play along, but was unsure about the game and the rules and the goal, but who then got swept up in the action. Knowledge was Everyman’s sidekick but who left him in the end when Everyman got tagged out. And so on and so forth for the rest of the characters. Looking at the play this way, it started to feel very familiar. It was a comfort to put this source of anxiety into a context that we have all known since we were children. The notion of play brought a feeling of safety that made it much easier to explore character along the way.
The character of Knowledge was a difficult one to bring to life. When I first received the script, I was immediately intimidated by the size of the role and by its importance to Everyman. My first instinct was to play her in a comedic fashion. Comedy is where I feel most comfortable – if I have people laughing, I feel as though I am doing something right. However, as I explored her more, she seemed less and less like the flighty, ditzy, Glinda the Good Witch sort of character I had initially imagined her to be, someone with little substance who would lead Everyman astray under the false pretenses of loyalty. As I got to know her better, I discovered that she was a genuine comfort and help to Everyman. She loyally acted as his guide as he underwent his journey to the grave. I had initially believed her affirmation to Everyman that she would never leave him to be a snide lie that deceived Everyman into a false sense of security, but in the last analysis this was not the case. When Knowledge tells Everyman, “We will never leave you,” she isn’t being entirely untrue. Knowledge follows Everyman further than any other character, with the exception of Good Deeds who accompanies him into the grave. Knowledge is with him until his dying breath, and in that sense, she never does leave him; in a way, it’s Everyman who leaves her. At the moment of his death, he walks into the grave leaving her behind; she never leaves him as essentially all the other characters do.
In the end though, had he been accompanied by others, Everyman would have left them just as he left Knowledge. When you die, you leave your knowledge, beauty, senses, strength, et al, behind. It is not a choice of yours or theirs; it just is. In this sense, Everyman’s lament over the loss of his faculties is uncalled for, considering that this is his final journey and reckoning, something he must endure alone. Asking for help was always going to be futile; it is his time to leave the Earth and all earthly attributes. This shift in perspective should leave the audience less with of a sense of abandonment than with a sense of self-sufficient solitude and independence. In death, the world doesn’t leave us; we rather leave the world.
In fact, the moment of Everyman’s death was a particularly difficult yet fascinating aspect of the play for us to grapple with. The playing/staging of Everyman’s death underwent a number of different iterations over the creative process, from players creating a grave with their bodies, to Everyman being carried off by the players, to him being wrapped in a tarpaulin, etc., but nothing seemed to be working. It was at that Friday night rehearsal, less than 48 hours before our performance, that it finally came together. Logistically, our initial solution of having six of our players carry Everyman off wasn’t working: two of the players needed to reenter as angels moments later and they couldn’t get to where they needed to be fast enough.
After playing it a number of different ways, Marissa, who played Good Deeds, came up with a brilliant suggestion. She proposed that Everyman descend into the black plastic sheet, which only Death and God would hold. Then after wrapping him in the burial shroud, he would be carried off with his arms across his chest, held up by Death at the feet, God at the head, and Good Deeds in the middle. Not only did this solve a logistical problem, it brilliantly engaged with and reflected the playtext and many of the themes we were attempting to portray. By having God at the head and Death at the feet, we had a clear representation of heaven and hell; we saw the godliness of thought and the corporeality of sin. Furthermore, Everyman’s midsection was supported by Good Deeds, which meant that above all else, Good Deeds supported Everyman’s heart. The legs that led him to sin and the grave were Death’s, the head that thought and prayed and believed belonged to God, and the hands and heart were Good Deeds’s. This was a perfect end to our game, our play, because the suggestion was practical (in that it was logistically and technically the most feasible option) and intellectual (in that it engaged so deeply with the play text, even though that was not the initial intention), and it emerged in the spur of the moment.
“The legs that led him to sin and the grave were Death’s, the head that thought and prayed and believed belonged to God, and the hands and heart were Good Deeds’s. This was a perfect end to our game, our play.”
Seeing this conclusion to the play come to fruition and observing the audience’s reaction was astounding to behold. Scholars and students alike were intrigued and entertained by the performance, which had a casualness that most of the audience was not used to. Normally, when we go to see a performance, we expect a stage, a curtain, and a fourth wall. While our production of Everyman may have had a stage of sorts, all other conventions of theater were essentially done away with. Talking directly to the audience, interacting with them, giving them candy, etc. made for a very different dramatic experience, and I think that is part of what made it so enjoyable. By being so self-referential and undoing the expected “theater-going” experience, the audience was forced out of their comfort zones and forced to engage with the play in a different way than they were used to.
This exploration of a new performative frontier was exciting for player and viewer alike and arguably made the audience members into players themselves. A new relationship grew up between actors and audiences. At points it felt more like a social experiment than a show, which helped relieve some of my anxiety surrounding the performance. But even above being an experiment or a show, it was play, for everyone. Because of the built-in interactivity, audience members were called upon to join us in the space and the world of the play. They may not have had lines or a role in a traditional sense, but they did have rules, and they did have a part to play. They had to sit and engage and interact and live in the moment of the show. In no small way, they were being called upon to do much more than your average theater-going audience. They were as much a part of the game as we were—a new experience for everyone in cast and audience alike.