Repetitive stress

[I am neither an actor nor a playwright, and yet somehow I have wound up in a theater company full of actors and playwrights. I wrote and performed this for Theater Oobleck‘s 25th anniversary bash June 19, staged at Uptown’s beautiful National Pastime Theater as part of the Pivot Arts Festival.]


I come before you tonight as an impostor.

A pretender. A humbug. A sham.

Because I don’t have 25 years with Theater Oobleck. I don’t even have 20 years; or 15. Or 12.

I do not know the answer to the question: “When Will the Rats Come to Chew Through Your Anus?” I cannot say who triumphed in the battle of “Godzilla vs. Lent.” I did not attend the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. I’m not a playwright, or an actor. I didn’t even move to Chicago until 1995.

The first Oobleck show I ever worked on was the 2004 Election Play, “The Passion of the Bush,” in the studio space at the Western Avenue theater formerly known as the Viaduct, and now the new home of Links Hall and Constellation.  The first Oobleck show I ever saw was maybe a year earlier, the 2003 remount of “Known Unknowns” – at the old Curious Theater Branch space on Glenwood in Rogers Park.  Which is now I think a yoga studio. And this itself was just a few weeks after I had first encountered several members of Theater Oobleck around a table at the Heartland Café. Which, against all odds, is still the Heartland Café.

But the first time I became aware of Theater Oobleck was actually a few years before all of that. It was here.


This is what the Reader looked like in 1998. And on the final spread of Section One every week there was a calendar – a selection of recommended events for the week to come. I later went on to work at the Reader, and I edited this section for many years, but that’s not the point here.


The point is that, on the left-hand page of the calendar spread for the week of March 20, 1998, are two stories: One, on a benefit for the zine I published in the 1990s, and another about a benefit for Oobleck founding member Danny Thompson, who had broken his leg while rehearsing for his new play, “Necessity,” and who, according to author Jack Helbig, had racked up more than $17,000 in medical bills as a result. And since I didn’t care to relive the particulars of my story, which involved the somewhat embarrassing experience of being arrested at yet another benefit party for the zine – I read Danny’s story instead and thought, “wow, that sucks.” And marked the name – what does that MEAN? Theater Oobleck? — in my head for future reference.


Now, as I said, this was the late 1990s, and while I was off not knowing anything about Theater Oobleck, I was keeping myself busy publishing this zine. It was called Maxine and, under the subtitle “a literate companion for churlish girls and rakish women “ it was an unintentionally annual forum for writing by and about women and their various issues.

And in 1998, my issue was my hands. They hurt, so much, my hands. They hurt.

As I wrote, in this, the final issue of Maxine, “the Body issue” :

“Within 20 minutes of sitting down at the computer to write my fingers would invariably go tingly and numb. Pain shot darts up through the joints of my ring and index fingers. My wrists throbbed gently and a dull ache cramped the muscles of my palms. I couldn’t write for more than a few minutes at a time before my fingers cramped into crooked little claws and it was time for a break. “

The essay goes on to talk about the disproportionate spike in the rate of repetitive stress injuries among women working low-skill industrial and clerical jobs, to chart the rise in the acceptance of RSI’s as a legitimate workplace safety concern, and to note the generally inconclusive results of efforts to diagnose and treat them. Somewhere in there I also worked in reference to Evil Dead II, and as this was maybe the third or fourth nonacademic essay I’d written in my life, I was pretty proud of that.


But, looking back on this piece, not 25 but 15 years later, I’m struck by something weird. My hands? They still hurt. They hurt all the time. They go numb and tingly and throb and I run cold water on my wrists and stick my hands under my butt for a break if I’m on deadline. I’m sure whatever’s going on in the carpal tunnel – a semicircle of eight bones in the wrist that are connected on the palm side by the transverse carpal ligament – is not pretty. But I don’t really notice it. I’ve written many more essays since then and I’ve accepted the pain as just part of the deal.

Can it be that, over time, you just acclimate? Go numb to the numbness? Or is there something else going on?

Now, surely here there are all sorts of jokes to be made about the repetitive stress of creating theater over 25 years with the same group of people and the same directorless structure. Or for that matter, of publishing a zine. Or throwing benefit parties in general. And if I actually had 25 years with Theater Oobleck under my belt I could maybe pull off something very smart involving Sam Shepard, a Fragonard painting, Thomas Edison, the Pope, and some public sex.

But I’m not up for that.

Rather, I’d just like to take my waning time here to tell you that 15 years later I have come around. And for all the pain repetition can bring – all the inflamed median nerves and flexor tendons and all the creative ruts and the monotony and the bad habits left unbroken … for all of that, I now believe, repetition to be a force for good.


I mean, repetition is the building block of the natural world. Consider the fractal perfection of the snowflake; the arrangement of leaves around a stem, spiraling at neat angles to the precise steps of a Fibonacci sequence; the pure two-note call of the common chickadee, mocking and relentless.

Pythagoras, famed for his study of the triangle and its hypotenuse, believed that the very foundation of moral philosophy lay in repetition.  Or, at least, it did if you wanted your philosophy to have, like geometry, or birdsong, any hope of a real-world application.

Through daily repetition of a litany of maxims governing personal relationships and conduct – “Friends share all things;” “In anger we should refrain from both speech and action”– he and his followers believed they could train their minds to call up such rules for living without thinking, and thus tame and master their irrational selves.

We repeat things to know them, until we don’t know we know them.

We repeat things to know them.

A sentiment echoed in the words of noted Blake scholar Bernard Barrow, “We read poems, so that we can repeat them – with the childlike wish we might become them.”

Or, as no less a philosopher than the Fall’s Mark E. Smith once posited: “Repetition, repetition, repetition. We dig it. We dig it. We dig it.”

Alright, so Pythagoras was sort of nuts: among his other maxims were the commandment that one must spit upon one’s fingernail clippings and a famously stern proscription against eating beans. And Professor Barrow is actually a folk singer, not to mention a fictional character in a play by Mickle Maher. And Mark E. Smith is Mark E. Smith. But, still. They’re onto something.

Because do something over and over again, enough times and, as – as when doing reps at the gym – you build muscles, reinforce connective tissue, steel your nerves.

Who can deny that repetition lends structure and definition to projects beyond the body? To music. To poetry. To art.


Paging Andy Warhol.

Paging Andy Warhol.

As a rhetorical device, repetition can Drive. Your. Point. Home.

Now, many of you here tonight are probably familiar with the Meisner Technique and the Repetition Exercise. For those who aren’t, it’s an acting exercise in which two people face each other and repeat objective statements about each other’s appearance and behavior.

“You have blue eyes.”

“You have blue eyes.”

“You have blue eyes.”

The goal of this undeniably dull conversation is to teach the actors to be, rather than to think. To train them to respond spontaneously to events unfolding around them and, in Meisner’s words, “Live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”

Which, I believe, could perhaps be analogous to the Pythagorean maxim: “Fake it till you make it.”

Working with Theater Oobleck actually did give me a repetitive stress injury. In 2009, after two days up a ladder hanging lights at the Storefront Theater for Jeff Dorchen’s “Strauss at Midnight,” I was standing, thankfully, not on a ladder but a chair when my tired shoulder slipped under the weight of an ETC Source Four elliptical spotlight.

Like Danny — who didn’t actually fall off the stage but broke his leg saving himself from the full-force fall – I did not fall, exactly. But I stumbled and teetered, and as the light dropped to the floor something went ‘pop,’ right here.

I emailed Danny this morning and he told me that “aside from the immediate pain the hassle of doctor trips,” he has very fond memories of the incident. And that the delay caused by his injury was ultimately very good for the show, and that to this day, every time it rains, he is happily reminded of the production by “a twinge of nostalgia above the right ankle.”

I get that twinge sometimes as well. Because it still hurts, my shoulder. I’m sure that whatever’s going on in there, in the inflamed supraspinatus tendon of my tired rotator cuff, it is not pretty. But I don’t think about it anymore. I’ve learned to just let it be.