By Morgan Sutter
This week my family surprised me with an incredible gift: a typewriter.
As a writer, a lover of history, and a lifelong fan of American Girl doll Kit Kittredge, I’ve mentioned several times in the past year that I was interested in acquiring a typewriter. By “interested” I mean I had calls in to multiple resale stores and was on their contact list if a typewriter showed up, and anytime I passed an open antique store I simply had to go in to see if I might get lucky. But after several months of actively searching I’d made my peace with the fact that it would take a while to find the right typewriter for me (“right” basically amounting to a typewriter in working condition that I could actually afford). I do not think I can even begin to convey how overwhelmed I was with delight when upon arriving home for a short visit my parents presented me with a very large box which held—pause for effect—MY TYPEWRITER! And not just a manual working typewriter. But a manual working typewriter that was manufactured in my very hometown proudly displayed the name “WOODSTOCK” just above the keys.
I’ve spent the last week plucking and pounding away. I have learned that the A key tends to get stuck unless you take the lid off. Typewriters, or at least mine, don’t have a number one, you just use a capital I (great space saver eh?). I’m still not exactly sure which way the ribbon is feeding so I keep winding it back and forth trying to find the right setting. But all the unique quirks and calm catharsis of typing aside, my favorite eccentricity of the typewriter is its permanence.
For as long as I can remember I have been called dramatic. I have also chronically dealt with a wandering imagination (a not-so-troublesome burden in my humble opinion). I am constantly living both in this present physical reality but also up in my head, in the stories half written, the characters not yet named, and the adventures yet to be had. Consequently, I have found theatre to be a hobby and passion that provides a haven for both my tendency towards the dramatic and my ever-working creative mind. As an actress there is something profoundly filling about leaving behind Morgan for an hour or two and letting myself be utterly swept away into another person’s story.
In theatre, the director and the actors use the rehearsal process to explore what makes a character tick. What are the motives behind the choices they make and the things that they say? How would such a character carry themselves and move onstage? How would they dress? How would they regard the other characters in the story? Of course, we use the process to memorize the lines, too. But throughout rehearsal, an actor or the director can at any time call “hold” and what is happening onstage will stop. Sometimes it’s to stop and discuss a choice the actor made that the director liked or didn’t like. It could be because an actor dropped a line. It could be because we’re all not quite prepared yet and we need a minute figure out where we are in the script. Whatever the reason, it’s a nice safety net. But it’s certainly not why audiences come to the theatre or why anyone really wants to be an actor.
Before I can begin typing at the typewriter (I’ve named her Shirley, by the way), I have to set the paper. This includes winding it in, adjusting it so that it’s even, and then winding it back down to the top of the page. In a perfect world I would also know how to set margins and tabs, but I’ve only had Shirley for a week so hey, I’m still learning.
As an actress before every show, I arrive at the theatre (for the current show I’m in, The Outfit, I get there an hour before the show starts). I sit at my place in the dressing room and I put on my make up. After make up, I do my hair. Then I put on my costume. You might think that’s where the getting ready stops but it isn’t. I also run upstairs and backstage, and make sure my second costume and my props are where they need to be. Because I want it to be a good show, and I want to give a good performance. So before we begin I do everything I can to make sure I’m ready and things will go smoothly.
When I write in my journal I have a habit of scribbling out mistakes. Sometimes they’re spelling or grammatical errors, or I just think I can find a better word. It’s pretty easy with a few scratches of a pen to start a sentence over. It’s even easier on a computer: all you have to do is press backspace or delete, and it’s as though your mistake never existed in the first place. It’s not quite so easy on a typewriter. There is a backspace key, so if you accidentally press the wrong hammer you can go back and try to pound out your mistake. But no matter how hard you pound you can usually see the remnants or outlines of whatever the original letter you pushed was. As far as word choices go, it’s a hell of a lot easier to just continue to work with a word than it is to white it out. I like to tell myself, the sentence must go on. Not every sentence is exactly what I want it to be, but I’ve also written a lot of interesting things in trying to justify a less-than-perfect word choice. It’s an exercise in making things work.
In theatre you do everything in the rehearsal process that you possibly can to prepare for opening night. On opening night, you move through your pre-show routine that’s meant to ensure everything goes swimmingly. But once those lights go up it doesn’t matter what happens. It doesn’t matter what goes wrong or what goes right. What matters is that the show must go on.
On the opening night of The Outfit I stepped up onstage for a scene and my shoe got caught and fell off. I was playing a “Miss Trunchbull”-esque part as the head of a straight-laced office. And there I stood onstage. One shoe on, one shoe off. I would have done anything for a five-second redo. Just five seconds. But it’s live theatre, you don’t get five-second redo’s. So in the heat and excitement of the moment I made the best choice I could think of to remedy the situation. I glared at my assistant. Then I grunted at her. Then I made sweeping dramatic motions towards my feet and she (in character) made terrified sputtering apologies and quickly fetched my shoe from offstage. And then the scene went on as planned. The audience loved it. I have no way of knowing how many of them knew it was a mistake or thought it was part of the show. What I do know is that if I had gotten my five-second redo I never would have had the opportunity to make that choice as an actor. It was a choice that left not only the audience but also my whole cast in fits of giggles.
Life can be like a typewriter, or like live theatre. We all have our little quirks that make us tick, like my sticky A key. We have our props, like our education, beliefs, and values. We spend a lot of time getting our props set, and compensating for or acknowledging our quirks, but at the end of the day sometimes life doesn’t go the way we planned. Life, like theatre, doesn’t come with a five-second redo button, either. To borrow a line from The Outfit (which happens to be running at the Piccolo Theatre in Evanston, IL until October 10th) “the story must go on”. Your story must go on. So whether it’s a devastating miscalculation or an undeserved blessing, the story must go on. And you get to choose how it moves forward.
You can never undo the disasters.
But you get to choose how to make them meaningful.