pajama party -- guest entry by Dan
22 October 2002

I felt suddenly, unexpectedly lighter than air. I was slipping into a black sedan, slipping into a dream. The Los Angeles landscape passing by my window was like my erratic consciousness, blinking with neon awareness between mundane travel details and my bizarre, dream-like mission. I felt strained and excited. My thoughts lingered on Damian, my four year-old son. He’d just gone to sleep after a long day of playing with frogs and airplanes. I wondered if he would see his leapfrogging daddy floating though the dreamclouds above his head as I jetted to the east coast.

I’d spent the last week assembling – editing – scenes for the upcoming Halloween episode of the television series I’m currently working on. How strange to imagine that I’d soon be injecting myself into this world. I’d accomplish this with the help of a very large hypodermic needle, built by Boeing and furnished by U.S. Airways.

The plane lifted off so smoothly from the runway that I wondered at the pilot’s identity. This was no cowboy. Had anyone watching my show ever for a moment been so effortlessly transported by the editing that they wondered who I was? For once, they’d see. For once, I wasn’t just behind the scenes, but in front as well. How strange to imagine that my acting and technical credit would be completely identical – same role, same person responsible. How often has that happened?

It was already midnight – three A.M. really, where I was heading, and I was nowhere near sleep. I tried to dampen the strange ball of fluctuating emotions in my stomach with several glasses of Merlot. The steward was all to happy to oblige; my glass seemed to refill nearly before I had emptied it. I was giddy, fearful, tearful and in shock. I kept hoping I would latch on to one elusive feeling and hold onto it. I might have just as well hoped to handcuff a snake. Even as my head began to clear, my body twitched with irrepressible nervous energy.

This was an unimagined fantasy. A modest one, perhaps, to the many channel surfers of the world: a mere few moments of screen time, a couple dozen spoken words. If we’re each allotted ten minutes of fame, I’d reckon I’m owed another seven. But it was a big first for me, an opportunity to dabble in a profession that has alternately seduced and repelled me for most of my life: acting. It was an opportunity I’d pay a price for in lost time at my day job, but one I couldn’t pass up.

Flying though night and into morning blurs the line between sleep and consciousness. Had I slept, or married into a large Greek family? Was there a credit roll at the end of my dream? The woman seated next to me wore a two piece outfit printed with an oriental bamboo pattern that looked for all the world like pajamas. Good idea, I found myself thinking. I’m traveling to Dreamland – I should have a uniform, too. My producers had given me every other possible perk: a driver, a first class ticket. Why not a cozy set of flannels?

My executive producer has a long history of discovering and nurturing talent. Nearly all the stars of the series were virtually pulled from obscurity; some staff writers had their first shot on this show. It’s a role he clearly enjoys, and I became a lucky beneficiary when, during a story meeting in which the writers added the character of an editor, they remembered that I was currently studying acting. No, I hadn’t asked for a role. I nearly left the series a year earlier when a producer promised me the same opportunity on another show. That didn’t pan out, to say the least, and I ended up pounding the cold pavement for my next gig. I was very fortunate when my old boss hired me back. I still have a roof over my head to show for it.

I was awake again, or was I dreaming the cool morning air? I found myself in another airport, waiting for another plane.

And then, sitting at a gate.

Then, sitting on a plane.

It landed with a bump. Had it already taken off? I staggered off, found my way to the lobby; found a payphone. I hadn’t dropped the quarter before a large grey-haired man asked for my name. He’d been sent by production to drive me to my hotel.

Clearly, this was not reality. People unknown to me knew my name and where to find me. Not only that, they took me where I wanted to go without my asking. Before I knew it, I was entering a hotel lobby, where the desk clerk was presenting me with a key and a gift basket. I reflected on the strangeness of a culture that rewards you for your good luck.

But it was all a dream, after all. I might just as well enjoy it, because I was sure to wake up soon.

I began to unpack. I quickly realized that I was missing one of the four reels of video I’d brought with me for tomorrow’s video playback. The film that would be a part of my scene tomorrow. Had I brought it with me? Had it disappeared in the piles of laundry I had sorted through while packing? I called home, work, everyone but 911. Reality was returning in a huge, rude tsunami, preparing to sweep away this extraordinary opportunity in a wall of shame. No one would be wishing me well now. I’d likely have to play my scene with a paper bag over my head.

My assistant called from L.A. "Dan, you have the film with you. There are only three reels."


Somehow in my fear of being unprepared I’d imagined a fourth reel that never existed. The beauty of sheer panic is that the relief that follows promotes deep, restful sleep, even under the most pressured circumstances. I slept well for three hours. Now I’d be functional for the rest of the day.

The afternoon was spent meeting people I’d known only by name for the last five years. Our line producer, our associate producer. I meet the makeup and wardrobe staff, and was given a Halloween costume for my final scene. I sat in on a production meeting with a member of the cast. A face I’d only seen previously in two dimensions. Familiar and yet unfamiliar. I went to the edit bay stage and set up the playback. I was doing the same editing on nearly the same equipment that I might do back home. Only it wasn’t for real. It was part of this big pretend. But since I was doing what I normally do, I’d be pretending to pretend.

I had dinner with my aunt. She’s lived in this town some twenty or thirty years, and I hadn’t visited since I was a teenager. I was in a place both unfamiliar and yet, dimly familiar from boyhood memory; I had the sense that I might awaken at any minute. We sat on the outdoor porch, and I experienced yet another familiar yet strange sensation: being eaten alive by mosquitoes. Oddly, I was grateful for all the distractions, since the thought of shooting tomorrow was making me increasingly nervous.

I retreated to my hotel room at about 10:30 PM, unable to relax. I called Tamar, I flipped channels on the TV. I imagined what I’d confront tomorrow: a room full of strangers; the peculiar metal machine pointed at my head; someone yelling "Shoot!" Would I remain sitting lifelessly in my chair, or could I rouse my spirit to defy this terrible firing squad? I finally decided that the only way I’d sleep would be to befriend my demons. I did so by sitting at my laptop and pounding out my stream of consciousness thoughts:

    It’s almost midnight on the east coast, and I’m sitting alone in a hotel room feeling very nervous and vulnerable. Scared, frankly. About what? A few lines of dialog, easy to cut around if the performance isn’t great. Why am I so nervous? I was reading a book about the explorer Roy Chapman Andrews on the plane coming east, and he describes witnessing prisoners being wheeled out to a public square for an execution, and it struck a nerve. Performing is like a public execution, and if you bleed people enjoy your pain. That’s kind of it, isn’t it? Nothing more interesting for people to talk about and enjoy than other people’s failures. Seeing others fail makes you feel better than, brave than, smarter than, more clever than. Is it the failure that does it, or whether I own it or not? Because if I own the mistake I take away the opportunity for someone else to feel smarter than me for seeing it first. So let myself feel vulnerable, and don’t run away from it. ADMIT TO YOURSELF THAT YOU’RE NERVOUS, AND OWN THAT FEELING. I’M SCARED. IT MIGHT SEEM A LITTLE DUMB TO YOU, BUT YOU MIGHT BE SCARED OF SPIDERS, OR FEINT AT THE SIGHT OF BLOOD. We all have our phobias, and my biggest is revealing myself. And yet the more I do, the more I discover how interesting I can be in all my weirdnesses and quirks. It’s just like [my acting teacher] says – being nervous is being alive!!! Life is challenge!! The trick is learning to embrace the risks, so that we get the rewards as well!! No risk, no payoff. It will go fine tomorrow. Better than fine. Have fun, and be interesting, and have a life and activity in each scene – probably the most important thing.

I awoke the next morning feeling rested and calm. Strangely so. I made coffee and ate cookies from my gift basket. My stomach felt fine, but I wasn’t hungry. Transpo picked my up at eight sharp. I was brought to a trailer with three dressing rooms. Each one had a shower, toilet, TV, VCR, CD player and couch. I felt like I was sitting on the boss’s big leather chair, feet on desk, about to be found out. My costumes were neatly laid out on the sofa. They’d bought new sneakers in my size just for the scene, since wardrobe hadn’t any in my size. It was wonderful to be awake, breathing the sweet morning air, exhilarated and relaxed and in the moment.

I rode to the set with another guest actor on the back of a golf cart. We had two line rehearsals, and then the cameras rolled. I did just what I’d do in my own cutting room back at home. I felt relaxed, grounded. Before long I was having fun. I felt my closeup camera in my peripheral vision, and like an attentive audience, it fed me. My greatest challenge was to push away the director’s anxious vibes. He’d had a hellish shoot, working around huge cast availability problems, and was visibly unraveling. On top of that, I had a technical role to fulfill: I had to recut the video that played on the monitors, even as we rolled, so that it properly timed out with the scene. I felt hugely satisfied that I was keeping a lot of balls in the air without fumbling.

The second scene was far more challenging, while seemingly simple. I had to deliver a line with the camera three feet away while looking at a piece of blue tape about two inches from the lens. Then look over my right shoulder to the star of the show, whose face was about a foot away from mine. Never mind that we really didn’t have a chance to get acquainted, and that I was intimidated by his cool confidence, and he was after all, The Star. The same young actor who had seduced me in Season One with his schoolboy earnestness, who came to embody my adolescence in sepia tones. Whose heartbreak at the hands of the girl next door was my own.

While delivering my line to said star, I was to turn my head with slow artificial grace back to camera at just the right word. Beyond all of that, I had to try to be truthful and create some semblance of imaginary reality. I won’t say this was easy.

Was I nervous? We ran the scene once for rehearsal and my tongue felt larger than both my feet in my mouth. I paraphrased my line, since I could remember not a word of it. I rode with the star back to my dressing room for a costume change. I let him know I was open to pointers, and he had a good one: don’t act. That was pretty much what my acting teacher suggested as well. The point is to Be, to be real in imaginary circumstances. I’d accomplished that in the first scene. Could I pull it off again?

Back at the dressing room, I found that my next costume had been laid out for me, along with fresh socks. I was to wear a prisoner’s outfit. A witty inside joke for anyone familiar with an editor’s life or lack thereof. It was soft and covered my body in stripes from head to toe. Finally, I’d gotten the pajamas I’d hoped for earlier. I’d completely entered the dream, uniform and all.

I rode back to the set, and the cameras rolled. There would be no mollycoddling from my frazzled director, who had a schedule to keep. Knowing that he was working with a non-professional, he designed my moment to be easily discardable. What would it be like, I wondered, to have to cut myself out of the show? It seemed unjust somehow: imagine a doctor operating on himself, a cop locking himself into prison. Clearly a classic conflict of interest. Or perhaps this was a just karmic fate, one to which everyone in my profession should be subjected to keep us humble.

I felt myself stumble on my first try. Camera stumbled as well. We were shooting the rehearsal, in a literal sense. Lights and props were being adjusted around me as the camera rolled. The director printed this first run for reasons that I still can’t fathom, and we rolled again. The star was very gracious. When my discomfort became obvious, he fed me a line to help create a more casual tone for the scene. More than the line itself, his kind support turned the moment for me, and I was able to refocus. The director and camera crew were fine with my last try. I would have liked another, but this would be the one I’d cut into the show a few days later.

And then before I knew it, I was jetting back to Los Angeles. A little happy, a little unhappy, but finally, truly awake. The show’s star was on the same flight. The plane landed, and he sidled over to me while we retrieved our luggage.

"Was that really your first time in front of the camera?"


"You did a really good job."

I was stunned. I was sure he of all people was mortified to have to worked with such an amateur. Perhaps this was an act of compassion, or even more strange, perhaps I’d actually pulled it off. I’m not sure I’ll ever know for sure.

Those of you who know me will have the chance to judge for yourselves. And the rest of you, well, who knows? Maybe this is all just a little daydream I cooked up to pass the time.

Damned if I can tell the difference.

If you want to send Dan mail about this entry, write him at daniel (at) berkeleyplace dot com.

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