Becoming Bill Sykes
The scene is choreographed as tightly as ballet. On a high narrow bridge Bill caresses Nancy’s cheek, pushes the hair from her face, then in a sudden fury makes a fist behind her ear. She snaps her head, arches her back, hangs from his arm. It should look from the audience as if he’s pulling her by the hair. Thus connected they perform a tense, aching pirouette until they’ve exchanged positions on the bridge. He looms over her and raises his shillelagh. The lights go red.
You’ve just eaten a handful of Altoids backstage to mask the anxiety on your breath. You’ve obsessively twisted the shillelagh in your hands until it’s warm and tacky, so that when you swing it down through the narrow space between Nancy’s head and the bridge’s upstage railing you won’t lose your grip and fracture her skull. (Though she can feel in her ear the air disturbed by your swinging, she says she’s never had a second’s worry.)
Nancy screams and goes down on one knee, head thrown back, still hanging from your arm. You step back, reestablish your footing, and swing a second time. Nancy crumples on the bridge as close to the downstage railing as possible so she’ll lie clear of the third and final swing.
You kill her.
You fall to your knees, carefully, one knee between Nancy’s legs, the other beyond her arm, wherever it may have fallen. You lift her hand, touch your cheek to it. You rock back and forth and back and forth.
You listen for your musical cue then haul yourself to your feet and move off—scalding and feral.
An hour before this scene you were standing halfway down the hill to the train tracks behind the theater, ankle-deep in wet leaves, clasping to your head a pair of headphones way more expensive than is appropriate for your tax bracket, trying to perform with the Deftones’ Diamond Eyes at full volume something akin to an emotional lobotomy.
You began “using” this record several months ago, because Bill Sykes is your first acting role and you decided, without consulting anyone in the theater who could’ve disabused you of such notions, to take a page from those guys in Fahrenheit 9/11, the American soldiers who pumped themselves up with heavy metal music before going out to shoot Iraqis.
But no matter how much you tried to force them, the Deftones would not be thus used.
Later, you put on the headphones to thwart the urge to divide yourself onstage—one actor to commit the murder, another to receive the blows.
You put them on to regulate the suspicion that if your parents were here they would tell you you were being reckless and stupid.
But the Deftones would not be thus used.
You needed help processing the steady stream of compliments about how lifelike and scary your violent playacting is.
You needed help finding outlets for the vast unusable parts of all the personal unrest you’ve tapped into so you could infuse this role with emotional power.
You needed help reinforcing the line between violence performed and the potential for actual violence, which is surely lodged within you—perhaps within everyone—like a canker in a hedge.
But the Deftones would not be thus used.
You suspect you will need help reassuring yourself that these charged moments onstage will not have amounted to the most emotionally vital thing you ever get to experience, that when these moments are gone you will not feel destitute. The part of you that says you’ll from now on be incapable of appreciating anything short of the scalding, feral emotions you feel with the headphones on, or which you’ll be hungrily on the verge of experiencing as you climb the stairs to the bridge—this is a part of you that is interested in something other than making art, and it is telling lies.
It also tells you that you’ve misused the Deftones and that you should be ashamed of yourself.
But you can’t stop listening. You’re drawn to the album’s balance, its precision, its restraint. You feel expansive, cavernous in the thrall of its emotionally vital stuff. You know instinctively, though you’re not smart enough to unpack it, that with Diamond Eyes darkness was confronted and transformed into art—in a tone more positive, with compositions more painterly, and engagement with its influences more playful than anything the Deftones had ever produced.
Perhaps things were even misused in the process.
Clearly you’ve fallen for the Deftones. That’s what this is. You’ve fallen for the theater, too, of course. Perhaps it’s in their overlap that you’ve decided Bill Sykes must fall for Nancy after he murders her.
You bracket without comment the next four words—but it’s too late—because you are not an unpacker of time.
You are not an unpacker of music, either, or of darkness. You are an unpacker of “misuse.” Things became emotionally vital for you, you realize, as soon as you located the moment when the “misuse” of Diamond Eyes and Oliver! began to shape your relationship with those works so profoundly that it no longer qualified as “misuse.” It was like discovering that you didn’t need to keep doing drugs to return to the places they originally took you.
You will discover, long after the production ends, that even during the occasional descent into the dark performative confusions of that “villain in his prime,” you can locate and express tones more positive, compositions more painterly, and engagement with your influences that is more playful.
Eventually you will give yourself permission to use and misuse whatever inspires you, and to use and misuse (and reuse) the darkness.
Someday you will forgive yourself when you fall.
Christopher Ross writes, acts (and will soon be directing) in Middlebury, Vermont. His stories and essays have appeared in Southern Review, Georgia Review, Cortland Review, Good Men Project, B O D Y, and the Rumpus.
NER Digital is New England Review’s online project dedicated to original creative writing for the web. “Confluences” presents writers’ encounters with works of art such as books, plays, poems, films, paintings, sculptures, or buildings. To submit an essay to our series, please read our guidelines.
Kendra Gratton says
This process, this “charged acting thing” is nearly impossible to “unpack”, yet there is so much to this essay that rings raw and true. Thanks, Christopher!!! Great essay.