Students convened to discuss the work of a master storyteller. ‘This novel was his attempt at an epic,’ said a bookish girl. Thick-rimmed spectacles slid down a shiny nose. A well-dressed boy agreed — ‘It is his Odyssey.’ Nasu rolled his eyes. ‘What kind of person wears a scarf indoors?’ he wondered. The professor reminded them that they were not alone by clearing his throat in a telegraphed manner — ‘Ahem.’ He scanned the room. ‘Nasu, what do you think?’ ‘About what, exactly?’ ‘About the author’s place in literary history, of course.’ The student sighed. ‘I don’t care about that. I want to know why the children have gourds where their heads are supposed to be. One is a pumpkinhead and the other has a longer, greener head!’ The class held its breath. The bookish girl adjusted a beret and the boy loosened his scarf. The professor looked stern. ‘The man was mad,’ he said. Before someone could respond, the bell rang and class was dismissed. There was talk of exams but Nasu had already ducked out. On his way home, a little old lady needed directions. ‘Excuse me, where is the library?’ ‘Straight ahead, you can’t miss it.’ The lady walked on without so much as a smile. ‘What do you hope to find there?’ She turned to face Nasu, though she did not look him in the eye. ‘The truth, dear.’
That night, Nasu did not sleep. He sat cross-legged on a tatami mat that spanned the length of his room. A candle flame illuminated a small book collection, which fitted neatly into an improvised bookcase. ‘The truth?’ he said. ‘If only they could handle it! I see only fear. Fear of authority. Fear of making mistakes. Fear of oneself.’ The words Literary Theory caught the light. The flame danced with vigour. ‘The best books did not spring from painstaking study but from living. Doing. Acting.’ The young man was in a state of fervour. He stood up on the mat. ‘This city is only of interest to timid students and zombielike tourists. I must go to a place in the sun and learn to act. I will commit to the moment and bend that moment to my will. No longer can I waste time intellectualising. To hell with perpetual analysis!’ He found his holdall, its leather stiff from inactivity, and packed it with pastel shirts, yellow, blue and green. Among them, he tossed a stone engraved with a pictogram of a monk sitting cross-legged. ‘Mindfulness is important,’ he thought. ‘But it must be applied, lest it fall foul of analysis like everything else.’ He zipped up the bag and flung it over a shoulder. Outside, a neighbourhood adjusted to morning and shadows passed along the pavement. In a puff of smoke, his father appeared. ‘They are asleep,’ he said. ‘Where are you going with that bag?’ ‘A place in the sun — I want to learn to act.’ At this, his father smiled kindly and knowingly. ‘Those people are crazy but at least they are alive.’
A long flight over land and sea and Nasu was again met by morning. This one had a different complexion. Blue skies proliferated. A vast sandy beach stretched into the distance. He took off his shoes and socks and rolled up his trousers. An elderly couple played checkers, shaded from the sun by parasols. A young boy pursued pocket money playing violin with a flourish when a bill touched down in his hat. All manner of wheels weaved along the walkway beneath boots, boards and bikes. Even a unicycle could be seen. Nasu was wonderstruck by a myriad of movements. He skipped along the beach brushed by an ocean breeze and soothed by the sight of surfers riding waves. His skin was bronzed and his hair turned golden. Soon he arrived at a hostel by the pier. A little old lady greeted him. ‘I’m Kym, spelled with a Y, not an I.’ She stood no taller than his chest dressed in a black leotard, her back straight as an arrow. She retrieved a pencil from behind an ear with a nimble flick of the wrist and started to write. ‘What brings you ‘round these parts?’ ‘I want to learn to act.’ Kym stopped writing. ‘You’re not ready for acting! First you’ve got to get out of your head and into your body.’ She danced around her subject and assessed it. ‘He is strong. Likely quite quick too,’ she said. ‘Do you train in a gym?’ Nasu shook his head. ‘Good, lots of bad habits are picked up in those places. I see you have a weakness in your left ankle.’ ‘Yes, I do!’ Kym sat down. ‘Breakfast begins at seven and ends at eleven, you can make it today if you move along now. Here is your key. We’re in low season so you can stay as long as you like. There’s someone in that room at the moment.’ ‘Thank you, Kym. Tell me — how did you know my ankle is weak?’ ‘You are imbalanced,’ she said. ‘If you’d like to take this conversation further, join my movement masterclass on the rooftop tonight. It’s signposted The Method Theatre.’
Nasu spent the day at the beach and pondered the class. ‘Maybe it is some sort of meditation,’ he thought. ‘The woman is an ageless marvel, I’m sure she can teach me something.’ The sun sank below the horizon and painted the sky pink. Observers became silhouettes. It was his cue to get ready. Back at the hostel, his roommate introduced herself. ‘I’m Angelina. Nice to meet you, Nasu. Kym mentioned you.’ Stars twinkled over the makeshift theatre, which was exposed to the elements, like the scent of an indiscernible foodstuff fried in fat. The steady thud of a heavy bassline vibrated through the walls of a neighbouring building. Kym stood legs apart and hands on hips. ‘Class in session. Sit.’ Nasu noticed a steel chair and sat down on it. Angelina did likewise. ‘Close your eyes. Let your arms hang by your sides. Let your head drop forward on to your chest.’ The teacher guided them from head to toe and they alleviated tension systematically. When she reached her wrist, Angelina let out a shrill exhalation. She was instructed to commit to the release with greater conviction and she howled. ‘Good, Angelina.’ Nasu was encouraged to do the same when he approached his ankle and he obliged with a thunderous yell. ‘Very good, Nasu.’ Class continued in this vein until they were relaxed. ‘Open your eyes. Stand.’ The teacher twirled a long bamboo stick. ‘Hold it between yourselves.’ Angelina tossed the stick at Nasu, who caught it on a pointer finger and moved it into an upright orientation. Then he lofted the stick and she took it back with a little finger. ‘Enough of that! Hold it between you. Angelina, recite some lines. Nasu, respond, improvise.’ Through the night, they balanced sticks, juggled balls and supported one another. Eventually, class drifted toward a natural end. ‘Thank you for your commitment tonight,’ said Kym, pulling a woollen jumper over her shoulders. ‘A question, please,’ said Nasu. ‘How does this relate to acting?’ ‘The work is layered,’ she explained. ‘You rehearse lines till they are totally natural and you practice movements till they are second nature too.’ ‘Sure, but what about the emotional and psychological side?’ ‘We don’t do that here. Besides, you’ve work to do before you can go there!’
Several weeks passed and Nasu attended class at the Method Theatre. Sometimes Angelina was present and other times she was not. One morning, Nasu smoked with a surfer. He noticed Angelina hanging from the rooftop. ‘Someone is dangling her by a wrist!’ he cried. His face drained of colour. The surfer placed a hand on his shoulder. ‘Chill out, dude. Can’t you see her smiling?’ Angelina grinned from ear to ear. ‘It’s a trust exercise or something, I guess. Anyway, dude, chill.’ Nasu went to his room and packed his bag. He left the hostel and made for the main road. ‘I move more freely now but I’ve learned all I can here, these people are too relaxed,’ he mused. A taxi stopped and the driver rolled down a window. A symmetrical face revealed itself. A short straight nose was decorated by a tiny stud. ‘Get in the front — dogs in the back,’ she said. Nasu got in the car. He was struck by the smaller dog’s eye, which bled. ‘What happened to —’ ‘Pika. Boo attacked her. She’s half blind.’ The day pulsated with unrelenting heat. The thermostat touched a hundred. The driver adjusted the air-conditioning unit on the dashboard. ‘Where are we headed?’ she asked. ‘Downtown. I need a change of scenery.’ A cluster of skyscrapers seemed lost in the desert landscape. There were vehicles as far as the eye could see. She fiddled with the stereo. Music faded out. Then a man and a woman debated and a reporter made claims about the truth. The driver suggested they stop at a drive-thru for a burger. Nasu was not hungry but he agreed anyway. ‘In-N-Out. Animal style,’ she said. ‘What is animal style?’ Pika barked and Boo did too. Night would descend before the taxi arrived downtown.
Nasu set foot on a stained sidewalk outside a record store. A stocky man approached. He had sharp cheekbones resembling a pair of pickaxes. ‘I’ve got AIDS,’ he screamed. The driver got out of the car and slammed the door — ‘Hey, loser, get a job!’ Nasu was stunned. ‘I can’t help,’ he said. ‘I’m not a doctor.’ The man laughed from the depths of his diaphragm. ‘Are you kidding me right now? Druj!’ The driver had recognised an old friend. ‘Yeah, girl. I don’t have AIDS, only playing.’ Nasu watched on as they caught up. He contemplated how one could make a false claim so emphatically — ‘The emotion is true and the commitment to it is unequivocal.’ The driver departed the scene. ‘How did you do that?’ asked Nasu. ‘I totally believed it.’ ‘That’s because I felt it,’ said Druj. ‘As an actor, I consider my body to be my instrument. Everything we’ve experienced is lurking within, locked away. That’s how we deal with life.’ ‘I don’t want to keep my feelings bottled up, I’m ready to use them.’ Druj nodded a single time. He smiled with all of his being. Then his face became as serious as seriousness itself. ‘Come to my class at the Magic Theatre. It’s in the basement under the record store. Tuesday and Thursday from eleven.’ ‘At night?’ Druj nodded a single time. ‘I’ve got to go now.’ Nasu stood on the stained sidewalk until there was a chill in the air. He checked in at a hostel and slept soundly, despite the din downtown. ‘Things will be great,’ he dreamed. ‘Downtown.’
Nasu spent the next day smoking cigarettes and playing pool. The sun beat down and bleached his whiskers. Many a conversation came and went but he struggled to engage with anyone or anything. He could only pot ball after ball. The clock struck eleven and he made his way through the record store to the Magic Theatre. Druj sat centre stage on a back-to-front steel chair. His baseball cap was in the traditional orientation to shield his eyes from the spotlight. ‘I’d like to begin tonight’s class with a very warm welcome to our newest recruit.’ Nasu joined a ragtag pair of actors on stage. A young man with floppy hair and a ghostlike complexion displayed a tattoo of an owl on his chest. An extraordinarily tall woman with long blonde hair completed the line-up. Druj sized up the trio and scratched a pectoral. ‘It’s playtime,’ he said. He stowed his chair behind a velvet curtain and returned with a boombox. ‘This is the music of my people. I want to shake off the day and get into my body. Who cares what it looks like? Let’s dance!’ He flicked a switch and voices could be heard. Some laughed. Others screeched in agony. A frenzied fusion of instruments chimed in and the teacher let each one seep into his body, as though through his very skin. He jigged and jived in a way so fluid yet jerky, so beautiful yet grotesque, that it was impossible to look away. The disparate amateurs followed exhibiting varying degrees of authenticity. Nasu was hot and sweaty by the end and Druj thanked him for his commitment. ‘This is a safe space. I’m glad to see Nasu is already comfortable here in the Magic Theatre.’ The theatre was truly magical. Druj led his charges through an array of exercises intended to dislodge one’s innermost feelings. At one stage, the teacher played a monkey, which he did with unswerving conviction and an uncanny attention to detail. Just when it seemed he had completely and utterly inhabited the mind and body of a primate, he reassumed a human stance. ‘Now you go!’ All manner of beasts took to the stage: a llama, a lion and a leprechaun. ‘Let’s stick to animals,’ called Druj, orchestrating the class according to his every whim. ‘Love the fear, Miss Llama! You’re scared of Mr Lion, aren’t you? Let’s hear that roar!’ Nasu roared from the depths of his diaphragm and did so with such conviction that he even surprised himself. The other animals dashed behind the curtain and hid. ‘Great work. Let’s call it. Shake it off. One thing before you head — I run a slam poetry event every Sunday. If you want to be part of it, get writing. Make it the truth or forget about it.’ The group gradually came to and disbanded into the night. Outside, Nasu and the man with an owl tattoo smoked. ‘What’s slam poetry?’ ‘It’s spoken word. Not necessarily rhyming and stuff, more how we really speak, you know? Oh, by the way, I’m Kevin. It’s Nasu, right?’ The men bumped fists and went separate ways.
Nasu, Kevin and Druj continued to meet at the Magic Theatre. Sometimes the extraordinarily tall woman with long blonde hair was there and other times she was not. She was working on a poem and wanted to perform on Sunday should her schedule free up. ‘That’s fine,’ Druj would say. ‘Just make it the truth.’ Nasu revelled in the classes, which became ever more intimate. One time, the actors brought in precious possessions to hone their concentration skills. ‘Sometimes there’s a rowdy crowd in a theatre,’ said Druj. ‘Film sets are invariably chaotic places. We need to concentrate so that we can summon the required emotion at will.’ He emptied a drawstring sack of special objects on to the stage. There was a framed photograph of his niece. A leather-bound book. A necklace of beads. Nasu took a stone from his pocket. It was engraved with a pictogram of a monk. He held the stone in the palm of his hand and learned to evoke long lost emotions by retracing steps to the past. After some practice, he was able to summon amusement and anger. Then all the emotions flowed. In time, he did not need the stone at all.
The Magic Theatre was at capacity on Sunday night. It burst at the seams with actors of stage and screen, poets and writers, musical artists and even a dancer or two. The theatre hummed with anticipation. Druj and his clan stood arm in arm behind the curtain. ‘It’s showtime. I want you to go out there and tell the truth, however it looks.’ Tell the truth they did. The truth about rape. The truth about drug addiction. The truth about war. The poems were well written and honest. The performances were punctuated by moments of authentic emotion. There was a standing ovation at the end. But Nasu was unsatisfied. He confided in Kevin after the show. ‘As thrilling as it was, that’s not my idea of truth.’ Kevin lit Nasu’s cigarette and then his own. ‘How do you mean?’ ‘I dream of playing a character because characters are archetypes, free from the awkward nitty gritty of real life. They instantiate the truth more purely than any of us.’ Kevin appeared to understand the rub. ‘So, like, what you’re saying is, characters are more truthful because they’re totally unfiltered?’ Nasu nodded. ‘We were honest tonight but not truthful. How could we be? We represented ourselves. The whole charade smacked of ego.’ The men put out their cigarettes and Kevin suggested they go for a drive. Nasu retrieved his bag from the hostel. ‘You’re welcome to stay at my place for as long as you need,’ said Kevin. ‘Thanks. I’m more interested in a drink right now, though.’ They drove into the night leaving the Magic Theatre behind.
A desolate landscape ached with nothingness. Traffic lights flipped from red to green. Kevin burned along deserted roads, block after block, lapping up the monotony. ‘So, you wanna be an actor?’ he said. ‘I want to learn to act,’ said Nasu. A neon sign flashed LIQUOR. They took a timeout and picked up a large green bottle and shared it on the roadside, accompanied by towering palm trees, slender trunks swaying, leaves tossed, lost in the darkness. By now in a neighbourhood with unstained sidewalks, they happened on a saxophone solo that trickled out of a bar named Hardware and into the street to greet them. They ordered liquor, neat, and watched a man of mountainous proportions dance with his instrument. He became one with its brass. The music was so sweet that it defied all wisdom. An old dame nursed a glass of water at the next table. ‘Commitment to the moment,’ she whispered. Tears emerged in her eyes, luminous as the moon. She let a single tear drop into her glass. She wiped away a second before it could fall. ‘That’s Asha, she was in a hit show about the mob, remember?’ Nasu did not. ‘Anyway, this place is cool but it’s not really my vibe. So I’m gonna, like, head.’ Kevin departed the scene. Asha turned to the next table. ‘You see that, kid? Truth is truth is truth.’ Nasu nodded a single time. ‘Whatever you do in this town of vice and virtue — well, mainly vice — don’t fall into the trap. What use is trust if it’s abused? Who cares about honesty if it’s a mere indulgence of the ego?’ Nasu nodded a single time. ‘Look, kid, I see you licking that poison off your lips. I was you once. But our work is about control.’ He put the glass down. ‘You are relaxed in the body and concentrated in the mind,’ she continued. ‘The question is — are you ready to commit to the moment?’ Nasu squinted through the dim lounge. ‘I’m ready to commit to the moment and bend that moment to my will.’ Asha frowned. ‘Light touch, kid, light touch.’ She smiled kindly and knowingly. ‘If you’re as serious as you seem, you’ll join me at Marilyn’s. It’s a theatre next door. I’ve got to get some sleep, you should too. See you tomorrow.’ Nasu stumbled out of the bar. He would pass out at some time or other.
‘The stuff’s poison,’ growled Asha. She was occupied in the control room at the summit of the theatre, demonstrating lighting protocol to a young actress. ‘This one’s the main spotlight,’ she said. ‘You don’t need to move it. Just turn it on and dim it using the dial if you like.’ ‘OK, got it.’ Nasu was blinded and jumped to his feet. Golden letters glimmered. They spelled MARILYN’S. The actress joined him on stage. She had a glassy stare like a discarded marionette no longer of interest to its master. ‘Kat is working on a character called Madeline,’ said the teacher. ‘She’s unwell. Never leaves the house. It’s haunted. Et cetera.’ ‘You are Roderick,’ said Kat. She handed over a script annotated with words like fear, terror and beat change. ‘My last two partners quit, they couldn’t hack it. You will be fine. Don’t overthink it.’ Nasu scanned the pages. He learned that Roderick takes a trip to visit Madeline and the character unravels over the course of the play. Nasu and Kat began to hang out. They would meet at nightfall and walk around residential neighbourhoods, smoking cigarettes. Kat observed that Nasu did not smoke them to the end. ‘Why don’t you finish cigarettes?’ she asked. ‘I don’t like to,’ he said. One time they were outside a burger joint and Nasu asked if she was hungry. ‘I don’t eat meat,’ she said. ‘Why not?’ Kat stared at her shoes. ‘I don’t like to.’ They bonded in this way and rarely rehearsed lines. They reported to Asha and showed her their work whenever they made progress. The teacher would reiterate truth is truth is truth. She guided them toward the method. Then, one magical day, they met at Marilyn’s. Roderick entered stage left. Madeline waited centre stage. She stared into the spotlight, her eyes glazed over, her body stiff. They danced a dark tango. It was a twisted tale. Minds were lost. Ghosts engulfed them. They emerged on the other side. ‘Madeline!’ called Roderick. ‘Madeline!’ he called again. ‘Madeline!’ Her eyes twitched. He dropped to his knees. Asha appeared in a puff of smoke. ‘Keep sacred the art of acting. You’re about to embark on a beautiful journey.’ The roof of Marilyn’s theatre opened and Nasu ascended. He flew home over land and sea.