The first time I saw him, I didn’t see an Artist. I expected him to ask me for change. So much so that I did my obligatory phony pocket-pat to show that I, indeed, had no coin to offer; in doing so I remembered that I was wearing a borrowed costume, that even if I had change on me it would have been in my damp trousers, which were wadded in the basement of an adjacent church. Clearly, first impressions were not among his highest priorities.
Speaking of priorities, planning in detail was also apparently not near the top of his list. He stood rubbing his unkempt beard, muttering suggestions to a youngish man with a Steadicam harness and a handful of women holding clipboards, each offering their own in return. We were garrisoned in the Viridian Building, a high-rise condominium structure in downtown Nashville, milling around the concrete loading dock area, solidifying the impression that the Man in Charge had actually just wandered in from the alley. The rest of those in attendance were all simply looking on, awaiting instruction, feeling slightly ridiculous. We were each of the dozen or so of us wearing frayed Civil War uniform costumes, complete with hats and gray beards. I shuffled from foot to foot, my shoes squelching, ready to begin whatever it was that we were beginning. Had I known what that was, I may not have shown up.
I had answered an email that had been forwarded to me by my girlfriend. She is involved in the Nashville art community, an entity with which I was only cursorily acquainted. The email had mentioned that actors were needed for a film shoot during this particular week, that the project involved Robert E. Lees (which is to say, Robert E. Lee in the plural sense), and that the project was being coordinated by and for a man called William Pope.L. I know next to nothing about contemporary art. I have never heard of this man or his work. His biography was longer than I was willing for my attention to be totally absorbed by, so I only read a few sentences, and here is what I remember: “The friendliest black artist in America.” Oh, I thought, how nice; finally, a friendly black artist. I responded to the email, agreeing to participate at 11 a.m. on a particular Thursday in June, which was my day off from work.
On the day in question, I arose with a mounting sense of dismay as I watched summer storm clouds pile on the horizon. Borrowing my girlfriend’s car, I left home just in time to catch the first few drops of what, in minutes, became a torrential downpour. At this time, Nashville was still recovering from the floods of the previous month, and drivers were staring grimly at the skies as if anticipating a race to the rooftops to wait for rescue helicopters. The two-and-a-half mile drive took twenty-five minutes.
I parked in a garage two blocks from the high-rise, my found and barely functioning umbrella mostly useless against the rain. The sidewalk flowed with an inch of water in places, and in bare minutes my sneakers were soaked thoroughly, as were my pants nearly to the knee. I had very little idea what I would be doing at this film shoot, only that I would be dressed as Lee, presumably with boots to match the attire.
I arrived quite late, unsure of where to go or what to do, not knowing even the faces of the people I was to meet, only the names of the artist and his coordinator, who is the director of the art galleries at a local university. I was finally directed to the Presbyterian church, a landmark of Egyptian Revivalist in the downtown area, where the participants were getting into costume. Feeling foolish for my lateness and quite out of place in such a capacity as Potential Art Subject, I found my way into the church basement and found a Civil War outfit that would fit well enough to walk in. There were no boots to complete the costume.
I quickly ascertained that I was something of an outsider among the other actors. They were all younger than me, about half of whom were African-American (I preferred to ignore the irony of their wearing costumes to look like Robert E. Lee), and the majority were college students. The stories had begun before I had entered.
“Pope.L handed me this piece of blood red bread that smelled like Play-Doh, and I had to break off a chunk and pass it around and then pretend to eat it, but there were flies all over the meatloaf in front of me and I kept flinching and having to shoo them off and start the whole shot over.”
“And that poor man stood out in the hot sun inside the snow-globe for probably an hour, holding his guitar. He was drenched when he came out.”
They weren’t horror stories, but they weren’t happy ones either. From what I could gather, the Man in Charge was rather aloof and didn’t offer much in the way of direction, but would instead give a basic instruction and leave the actors to fumble through the scene as they would. And fumble seemed an appropriate word, too; evidently a lot of sweat had already gone into these costumes, and it was only Thursday.
One thing that kept surfacing in the accounts of previous days’ worth of shooting was Pope.L’s love of discomfort. After doing some amateur research on my own, I found that he freely admits this. And although many of the other volunteers-in-uniform for this shoot were actors or students of acting, he didn’t want us to act uncomfortable. He wanted us to be uncomfortable. He was convincing.
Later in the day, drenched in our own well-earned sweat in the air-conditioned (finally!) penthouse and common area of the high-rise, Pope.L began to position us in various poses that would apparently signify death. Draped awkwardly over sofas, lying bodily on top of bar counters, splayed out on the carpet, each of those lucky enough to be thus positioned inside were placed with casual care. Of course, I didn’t realize that they were the lucky ones for another half hour, which I spent waiting outside with the other half of the acting crew; I made the realization of my own lack of good fortune as I was asked to lie face down on the blisteringly hot concrete next to the rooftop pool (the rainclouds by this time having vanished, replaced by a June afternoon sun of particularly unforgiving intensity), right arm and right shoe dangling in the water, mere feet away from bathing-suited high-rise dwellers. Others of the cast were positioned, more or less miserably, around the pool in deck chairs and over potted plants. I could not stop myself from panting. I probably was not such a convincing dead Lee.
In the cool dimness of the downtown Presbyterian church that night, around 8 p.m., we sat, a larger group of us this time, with fake blood dripping down our fake beards, the nightmare march of the Viridian stairs a lifetime away. Reprieve from the heat, the sweat, the pool-water filled shoes, and the adrenaline, and presumably, from the discomfort. It was very quiet, and Pope.L had us pretending communion with the clay-smelling blood-red bread. Over and over, in phases across the church auditorium. It seemed innocuous enough, until I noticed, three pews in front of me, a confederate hat, subtly and for the barest moment, droop in the manner with which I myself had been made so familiar in my churchgoing youth; the wearer of that hat was fighting sleep. And losing.
For a man who was so bent on the prospect of his subjects’ physical and mental distress, Pope.L, although himself quite fatigued, seemed very much in his element dabbing blood on our faces and organizing camera locations and suggestions of action. He had had a longer day than all of us costumed rabble, and he had been calling the shots, dealing with unforeseen circumstances, costume and camera malfunctions and misplaced keys and oppressive weather, and still managed to carry himself with patience and aplomb. During the day I had him figured as a genial, if slightly sadistic, Artist of Renown, a man churning out art by the seat of his pants to fulfill some benign psychological obligation. But as I observed him that night, watching his weary cast slowly begin to doze in the dim light of that auditorium, positioning camera shots anew to incorporate this new wrinkle that his Lees unwittingly introduced into his piece, I saw something simpler and greater: joy. He was not some prehistoric native scraping stones together for the hopes of some sparks to fly, but rather a man taking delight in the fire he had spent a lifetime stoking. In that moment of realization, I became jealous, and knew that this green pang was from sheer admiration. I suddenly ached to feel that same joy.
I would like to leave the scene there, in the quiet solemn church with the gorgeous Egyptian decor and cushioned seats. Sadly, I cannot. Because from now on, when I relay the story of the Day I Was Lee, I will not be likely to admit so freely my sin of envy, but will instead rely on the more visceral Story of the Staircase. Having entered the Viridian’s utility stairs by way of its loading dock at around 11:30 a.m., we were, two hours later, a mere five floors from the roof, from fresh air and cold water, from respite. Pope.L. had asked (ordered? the word now seems more appropriate) that we backtrack certain shots for several flights at a time, and had by this point executed a march of about fifty floors worth of stairs. And now, so close to the top, he asked us to run. We Lees were thoroughly beaten and bedraggled, and a third of us were carrying another third on our backs or in our arms. Run? Up these stairs? If we could not run, he said, crawl. I stretched, attempting to disguise my shaking knees and nearly useless arms in another shameful display of the sin of pride, and turned to my partner-in-arms, whom I had agreed to carry those last few flights. “I’m not crawling. Neither are you.” On cue, we began the final sprint. After one flight, I began to lose my hat. After three, I was panting raggedly, sweat now almost totally obscuring my sight. And after four, my vision began to close in with what I recognized as the precursor to a faint. Just before I dropped the girl who was my charge and passed out face-first in a lunge up that final flight, the sound of mercy pealed from below: “Cut!” There on the topmost landing, we whipped off our beards and heavy jackets, gasping from exertion and exhilaration, awaiting the key that would mean the exit from this florescent-lit hell into sunlight, summer, glory.