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telling the tale by Paolo A. '21 G

some thoughts on acting, change, and meaning

hadestown is a tragedy. the narrator, hermes, tells you this in the very first song.

See, someone’s got to tell the tale
Whether or not it turns out well
Maybe it will turn out this time
On the road to Hell
On the railroad line
It’s a sad song (It’s a sad song!)
It’s a sad tale, it’s a tragedy
It’s a sad song (It’s a sad song!)
We’re gonna sing it anyway

Road to Hell, Hadestown

in a song that introduces the cast of characters, before we know anything of the plot, we are given a spoiler to the whole musical. expect a bad ending.

hermes tells us this in one of the most upbeat, high-energy songs in the whole musical. this juxtaposition does not seem to be done for comedy, or to emphasize the sad; rather, there is an unironic joy in retelling it. maybe it will turn out this time, maybe something could be different. there is hope.

view of the hadestown stage from the farthest seats possible

hadestown stage on broadway, jan 2020

when i saw hadestown in january 2020, it hit me like a train with so many feelings. thinking about love and how relationships can be difficult, of the power of this hodgepodge of different genres, of patrick page’s deep voice, of imagining a better world. it was the last musical i saw before covid.

as was briefly mentioned by fatima, i was in a musical this spring! i have always loved musicals, and during my junior spring, briefly joined Next Act, a show performed in Next House for CPW. but then covid happened and we never got to put it on in full, and in the post-college world, i’d accepted that i’d never get a chance to act.

well, two years of singing a cappella01 which i also thought i’d never get to do later, and alan z. ‘23 and marissa a. ‘23 managed to sucker me02 i say this jokingly. i suckered myself into doing it into auditioning for Next Act, and then i was offered a big role, and then i realized i really wanted to do it (when would i get the chance to do this again?), and then suddenly i was thinking about creating a character and how my emotions were being perceived and how to sing with purpose.

we put on a musical that alan wrote03 a long story that i feel is not necessarily mine to tell titled Remembering Her. a quick synopsis: a daughter in a dysfunctional family, arguing with her mother, yells

“You know what! Forget about it. Actually, why don’t you just forget I exist altogether?”

monkey’s paw, everyone does forget her.

the rest of the musical follows two storylines: the daughter at school dealing with being forgotten, and the family at home feeling like something’s missing. in this musical, i played Kevin, the well-intentioned, very enthusiastic, slightly empty-headed boyfriend, who likes this “new” girl, but is very conflicted because he feels like he’s already dating someone but just can’t quite remember who she is. shyeah.04 imagine me surfer shaka-ing here. this is the single word that defines my character

putting on a musical is interesting. every night, you try to take the audience on a journey from start to finish. your character must have an arc as they figure things out about their life and their relationships with others and their relationship with the world. doing this even once was hard. learning how to be expressive in my speech, my singing, my face, my movement. i am generally unexpressive besides showing excitement, and spent a lot of time thinking about how to portray emotions like loss and worry in a genuine way.

doing this multiple times, though, was even harder. once you’ve figured out how you’d like to express something, it is easy to file it away into muscle memory. but doing so felt counterproductive: every night was supposed to feel fresh and real, rather than rote and memorized. the audience should not be able to tell that you’ve told it many times before; they should feel like the characters are truly experiencing these emotions in their world.

i have only one musical of acting experience; in no way do i feel like i know how to do this well. looking back at our show recordings, there are so many things i wish i could have done differently. but it was fun learning as much as i could in the span of 7 weeks. straddling the line between comedy relief and a character going through a hard time.05 alan has just texted me describing kevin as “comedy relief with a soul”, without me sharing the above sentence with them figuring out intonation in all of my words. just thinking through all of these little aspects of what makes up Kevin and getting into his headspace. and keeping all of those at the forefront of my mind for three straight nights of performances (and two run-throughs the days immediately prior).

i enjoyed it. maybe more acting to come in my future. we’ll see.

science bowl meant a lot to me as a high school student. i made really close friends, learned cool math and physics, and made so many good memories. ever since, i’ve organized and volunteered for scibowl to help others have those same experiences — and this year, i also helped out at the in-person national competition.

stage for national science bowl finals

the stage from this year’s national science bowl competition

volunteering for scibowl naturally leads to some déjà vu. that used to be me, sitting in those seats, stressed about answering questions right. of course, that is me no longer. i know far less math and science now compared to me 6 years ago.06 but does that stop me from trying to play along? no i have a whole different set of priorities these days. i’ve seen so much more in life.

but i also see myself in them still. the joy of getting a question right when you aren’t quite sure. cheering on (or up) teammates. making memories. but it is no longer me having those experiences; i sit on the other side of the judges’ table, feeling all of these things vicariously.

my high school made it this year, and so i spent some out-of-competition time just chatting with my coach. we reminisce about the good old days, talk about how the school is different (and the same) from my time, and just catch up on each other’s lives. it’s a very different type of relationship than we had when i was a student, and it is nice to watch these things change.

boston has taken on a whole new life since becoming a graduate student. my first year of undergrad, i don’t think i left campus except to eat meals at bonchon07 my friend group went for almost everyone’s birthday and yamato ii.08 where we went for the combined bday for me and a friend, and <em>the</em> all-you-can eat sushi place in boston this is only a slight exaggeration — i did leave a few times to see some friends at harvard, and that summer i saw a few musicals at the boston opera house, but truly, i was in the mit bubble.

this changed a lot my senior year. i lived off-campus (albeit during the main covid lockdowns), naturally bringing me away from campus. no longer on a dining plan, i went out for groceries and got too much takeout. that spring i got a bike, which has made boston feel simultaneously much smaller (so much quicker to get to faraway places!) and bigger (so many new places to explore!). i’ve started going to a gym over in somerville, occasionally take a 20-minute ride to allston for dinner, and sometimes just wander up and down the charles for fun. it is not like any of these locations fundamentally changed in the last six years; it is just that my way of experiencing it has changed. 

these days, i can navigate to most places in camberville09 portmanteau for cambridge and somerville without needing to look at a map along the way. and it feels almost as if i am in a new city. a whole city to explore and live in, trying to find ways to be part of the broader community and not just a student who will be here for a short while. i think i feel very far from having actually achieved this, but i hope that i’m on my way.

as i talked to friends that watched Next Act, i learned that my own interpretation of my character was not necessarily shared with everyone. is he no thoughts, head empty? is he actually cool in-universe? is he a serious character? the author is dead, so they say, but i guess so is the actor.

moreover — what stuck out to people watching the show? some were in it for the comedy: the laughs and gags, like the grandparents and powerade. others, the solos and harmonies, the foxtrot and hip-hop. or maybe it was seeing a dysfunctional family that felt real in its dysfunction, and feeling seen. or the feeling of being alone, and being found, and belonging. or of seeing the love in on-stage relationships.

in general, as a writer and a person, i don’t feel like i can say anything authoritatively (beyond facts, of course). “this is the advice you should follow”, or “this is what i want you to take from this post”. to do so requires a knowledge of an individual person, through and through, and getting to know anyone on that level is a lifelong task. and so naturally, i don’t believe in authorial intent, for to do so implies that the meaning and lesson should be identical for everyone.

but for some reason, this was not my instinct post-nact. there was this gut feeling of ownership of “no, this is what my character is supposed to be”. but i did not write his words, or craft the story arcs: i simply said the lines and tried to embody the character. i know i have no ownership10 if anything, that should go to the person that actually wrote the play. hi, alan over him or his interpretation whatsoever; but i wish that feeling went away without needing me to consciously let go of it. 

in some ways, i think that instinct exists as a protective reflex. if things are seen only in the way you intended, there is nothing to fear — you know what the narrative will be and how you will be perceived. but in doing so, we deprive people of the ability to interpret the world through their own lens, and lose out on making something that can be meaningful to each person.

paolo on stage at rehearsal

a rehearsal pic (pc alan z ’23)

occasionally, when reading a book (or consuming some other form of media), i have the conscious realization that i am sharing in something with thousands or millions of other people. all of us, seeing the same words, watching the same scenes, together. sure, we may not be doing it at literally the same time, but there is this notion of a collective formed by this shared experience.

and from here, my thoughts wander to the concept of timelessness. the idea that something can connect with people across cultures, across generations, across time, through some deep underlying thread of humanity. that it can encapsulate a part of what it means to be a person.

i wonder what that must be like as an author. to know that you are taking all of those people through the same journey. of course, not literally the same journey — as i just talked about, it is up to each person to decide exactly what something means. but as a creator, you have taken everyone through the same broad motions, and everyone is building their own meaning upon the same foundation.

in some ways, it’s a bit like the timelessness of philosophy. sure, it is up to each person to find their own individual meaning, but the fact that we11 as a society. not me personally that much still read plato and socrates and locke and hobbes and so many other philosophers means that there is something about these questions and answers that spans time.

when i think about what gives me meaning, my answers are still roughly the same shape as when i talked about it a few years ago. i think that’s the only kind of timelessness i can ever expect to achieve: finding something that is my truth. of course, i do not expect this to be an answer that is right forever. i’m sure that one day, i will be a different person, with a different set of priorities, who wants different things out of life. but that day has not come yet, and that post is timeless, for a short while, for me.

many of my past few posts have mentioned wanting to blog more, but not really feeling the motivation.

i started drafting this post a few weeks ago, after seeing this article talking about the rise of AI in the last year. i haven’t decided how much i agree with, but there are a few paragraphs that made me think a lot.

Storytelling is a way for humans to understand ourselves. Storytellers are people who understand people well enough that they can tell compelling stories; in other words, a storyteller is a bullshit artist in the way a stage magician is. The best audience, a willing one, is here to go along for the ride; we all know it’s bullshit — these events did not really happen, but we want to treat it as if it is, because that’s how, in doing so, we can be receptive to the emotions driving the writing, and the art can do the work that art is actually here to do: to help us understand ourselves and each other.

No one cares about ‘content,’ stuff that’s just words with no intent or meaning. No one gets it, responds to it, feels anything about it. We remember the things that make us feel — we hear that song that us and our ex shared and we think about it in a certain way. We read that story that reminds us so much of a difficult time in our life and how it helped us, and it hits us square in the emotions. Our memory is emtional, our ability to be persuaded is emotional, every experience we’ve ever had is baked into our fuckin soul with the emotions that we felt when we had those experiences.

Any kind of storytelling — even the wordless storytelling of a silent film or a game without dialogue — is emotional storytelling first and foremost. And for that emotion to work, because emotion is a thing that requires the utmost precision, it must have some level of genuine thought behind it.

That’s how being a bullshit artist works, after all.

—Doc Burford

around this same time, i came across these tweets:

screenshot of tweets. text for screenreaders is below

user 1: do you guys ever think about the old xkcd’s, the ones that were full of yearning, that approached moments of transcendence
quotetweet by randall munroe: Alphabet Notes

user 2: copying here since I’m frowning at the pathologizing in other replies, there’s surely some flanderization and some phoning it in because it’s his job now, but I feel like the main thing is his yearnings were actually fulfilled
quotetweet by user 2: maybe his life is just fine now? the early days comics that weren’t silly jokes were about pining for love he didn’t have or wishing he could escape a job he was trapped in. now he’s married and doesn’t work so they’re all just silly jokes

perhaps me blogging less is a result of me having fewer “big questions” that i can figure out in the open. many of those big questions (like what to do after college) were answered, and i am still wrapping my head around the next big questions of growing and changing in your mid-20s. and so it feels as if there is less substance, less emotion, to underlie my writing.

perhaps this is a bit of why i enjoyed being a part of a musical. a medium where i have a message to try and convey and convince people of, without it necessarily being mine. i’m not sure.

after the last Next Act performance, we all spent a few hours disassembling the stage, and so i ended up staying in my old dorm12 yes yes back in the olden days i was a nextie through the start of Karaoke, a CPW event that next house often decides to run.

i stayed for a little bit in the area that overlooks the basement, small-talking with some nactors and nact prodstaff, thanking them for letting me be a part of it all. along that railing, you don’t have the best view of the karaoke lyrics13 but that did not stop me from singing at the top of my lungs but you do have a pretty good view of the event itself.

it is a joy to see everyone singing along, tossing balloons, giving hugs. i saw students i met when they were frosh, now the upperclassmen running events. i saw pre-frosh, jamming along with their new friends, some of them deciding in that moment that next house (and mit) was where they wanted to spend their next four years.

it’s interesting watching all of this happen, because that used to be me. i used to be the upperclassman talking to prefrosh, saying here’s some cpw advice and here’s helping you think through your college decision and you should totally come to this event. and i used to be that prefrosh bumbling around and trying to experience everything i could about mit, deciding if i wanted to come here.

but i am no longer that person, and never will be again. while the event is the same and the place is the same, i can never experience it in the same way again. and i don’t really want to; my time in these spaces has passed, and it is now a space for others to make their own memories and meaning. while i am glad for the time i got to spend there, my communities are elsewhere now. and these are no longer communities for me to join in the same way.

it is the same feeling when i look back at esp or science bowl or other formative aspects of my mit experience. this was a thing that was good, yes, but the time for it in my life has passed. sometimes things changed, but not always; however, it is always the case that i have changed.

hadestown was the first musical i saw after covid lockdowns ended. a lot had happened in those intervening 22 months. i’d moved off campus. started (and stopped) learning guitar. finished undergrad. bought a bike. started grad school. stopped dating my partner of a few years.

my second watching of this show was very different than the first. while of course, it was the same musical as i had seen the first time, it also wasn’t. sure, there were all of these surface changes — orpheus changing from acoustic to electric guitar, hermes seeming a bit more like a car salesman, hades singing an octave up. but becuase i was not the same person, i experienced it in a completely different way.

the penultimate song of hadestown is a reprise of its first. the musical, as hermes promised, has not ended well for orpheus and euridyce.

It’s a sad song
It’s a sad tale
It’s a tragedy
It’s a sad song
But we sing it anyway

To know how it ends
And still begin to sing it again
As if it might turn out this time
I learned that from a friend of mine


He could make you see how the world could be
In spite of the way that it is
Can you see it?
Can you hear it?
Can you feel it like a train?
Is it coming?
Is it coming this way?

Road to Hell (Reprise), Hadestown

as if it might turn out this time.

though it may not turn out this time, it is still worth telling again. because when we do so, it will be a different story.

  1. which i also thought i’d never get to do back to text
  2. i say this jokingly. i suckered myself into doing it back to text
  3. a long story that i feel is not necessarily mine to tell back to text
  4. imagine me surfer shaka-ing here. this is the single word that defines my character back to text
  5. alan has just texted me describing kevin as “comedy relief with a soul”, without me sharing the above sentence with them back to text
  6. but does that stop me from trying to play along? no back to text
  7. my friend group went for almost everyone’s birthday back to text
  8. where we went for the combined bday for me and a friend, and the all-you-can eat sushi place in boston back to text
  9. portmanteau for cambridge and somerville back to text
  10. if anything, that should go to the person that actually wrote the play. hi, alan back to text
  11. as a society. not me personally that much back to text
  12. yes yes back in the olden days i was a nextie back to text
  13. but that did not stop me from singing at the top of my lungs back to text