How to Be a Staircase



Neighborhood: East Village

How to Be a Staircase
Maureen Fleming by Lois Greenfield

So you want to be a Staircase. Not just any staircase, one simply doing its duty, getting the job done. No. Like narrow Incan footpaths terracing the open expanse of the Andes or the ancient, airless passageways descending into Pharaonic tombs, you want to serve in the tradition of Great Staircases that have come before you.

You want to be the best Staircase She’s ever known.

Recognize the Call.

It’s August. You are to arrive two hours before show time to rehearse at La MaMa’s renovated Galleria on East First Street, just off Bowery. This is not the large performance space on East Fourth Street where just a few months previously you laid onstage in a nude body stocking that made you and a group of identically-clad youths from Rhode Island and Korea genderless pods in a giant human mandala while the Famous Dancer birthed the lot of you from her brain.

No, you are not going back there. The Galleria, La Mama’s pristine, white art space on East First Street, is more modest, easy to miss among the glassy new apartment high rises and condos, the sparkling double-decker Whole Foods Market, and the recent proliferation of coffee and wine bars, all sporting white walls and dark wooden furniture. As you pass these, do not be distracted. Dressed head-to-toe in stagehand black, remember: you and that apparent drug deal gone bad outside of the Chase Bank ATM kiosk on Bowery (shout-punch-oof–sudden running) are the shadowy remains of what the bohemian Lower East Side used to be.

Identify your task.

Once you arrive at La Mama’s Galleria, familiarize yourself with your task. This is a solo show consisting of two dance works. The first involves a long white drape. The second involves a tall black staircase. In the second piece, you, the Staircase, must move across the backstage in profile during a blackout. There, you wait for the Dancer to mount your highest stair. Then, you must whirl quickly to face front as the light fades in. After she dances slowly down your stairs, you, the Staircase, roll back on a different path to your starting position.

That is all.

However, you, the Staircase, must move slow enough to seem as if your giant black frame had the ability to float, fast enough not to make the audience impatient, and smooth enough not to fling the Famous Dancer off the stairs as she climbs in the dark. In fact, flinging the Famous Dancer off the stairs would put you on the fast track to being the Worst Staircase she’s ever had.

Memorize your cues.

Your first cue: the patter of her bare feet. While standing inside the Staircase during the blackout that follows her first piece, you will hear her run offstage. With that, heave your great frame forward, staring dutifully at the glow-in-the-dark tape made into Xs marking your path and stop center back stage where the glow tape is shaped like an L instead of an X. Wait.

Your second cue: the sound of the Dancer’s hands grabbing the rungs on the back of your frame. As she starts climbing to the top, whirl the frame to front center stage, so that, in the blackout, the audience does not see her climb. When the spotlight rises for her second piece, she must simply appear: a vision of lightness on your highest stair.

Her dance down the stairs is a descent in the slowest of slow motion, her bare body painted white. The Famous Dancer moves so like a dream, the audience, spellbound by her first piece, must not be distracted by the squeaking, whining tower you’ve moved to center stage. They must not wonder how awkward and heavy the frame is. If you do your job well, the audience will not think of you, the Staircase, at all.

Your last cue: the light fading on the back wall. As it fades, slowly pull the frame back on a second path of glow-in-the-dark Xs. Make her vanish, her hair a sprawl across your bottom stair.

Identify your tools.

The rectangular Staircase frame, twelve feet tall, perhaps, at its peak, rests on four wheels similar to supermarket cart wheels, which are perpetually out of alignment. The padded stairs are covered in soft black fabric, creating a darker darkness inside the frame. Between one of the stairs, there is an eye slit. If you are too short for optimal use of your eye slit, do not despair. Though you may choose to stand on your black covered toes to peer at the audience during “The Staircase,” when you are actually traveling, you will look on the floor at glow tape X’s to guide your frame.

Your work is tremulous, wobbly, an attempt to stabilize the unstable. Unlike those solid, ancient stairs you’ve admired and photographed before establishing your current kinship with them, this Staircase is designed to be taken down and reassembled and has been taken down and reassembled on stages on nearly all of the seven continents. Withhold judgment. Don’t ask when the steps and the wheels and the squeaky metal Staircase frame were constructed. Don’t ask if the Staircase has ever collapsed during a show. Remember, the great frame is bigger than you. It has gone and will go places you’ll never go and has lasted and will outlast you in videos and famous photographs that already appear in popular calendars.

Though a Famous Photographer titled her famous photograph of the dance “The Stairs” and the Dancer herself calls the dance “The Stairs,” know what you are: the unnamed base, the faceless capital.

You are a staircase. The Dancer is the dance.

Be humble.

She’s had other Staircases. She’ll have many more.

You’re just a number in a long line of Staircases that have rolled underneath her. In fact, a few years back, you were one of her previous Staircases and when you volunteered this summer, she didn’t even remember at first the two of you had Staircased before. That time, when you were a novice, you traveled by Amtrak to an old horse farm transformed into a dance theater just outside of Tivoli, New York. It was November. The late afternoon train skirted the Hudson River blanketed with fog broken only by the dark silhouettes of trees and a half-submerged castle—the stark remains of someone else’s dream discouraged, like most, by time. Beside that vast, haunting view, you felt miniaturized, your ego chiseled to a sliver, as if Nature itself had conspired with the Great Truth of Staircases to prepare you for the task lying ahead.

When you arrived at the dance theater in Tivoli, the first thing you learned was that a Famous Dance Critic would be sitting in the audience the first night, and the pressure to be a good Staircase was on you. Well, not just you. That job was so important and complicated, there were two people beneath the frame. In that performance, the Staircase had to roll from one side of a large stage, slide toward the audience for “The Stairs,” and then roll off the opposite side, making a giant U-shape.

Initially, the other stagehand seemed practical and task oriented. But, as rehearsals progressed, he revealed himself as the Classic Stagehand. While logging long Staircasing hours dressed as twins in the dark, the Classic Stagehand misread your dutiful focus, your mindfulness to the Dancer’s music, your concern with cues and glow-in-the-dark Xs for interest in his stories. He didn’t take into account you could not leave.

Like all Classic Stagehands, this Classic Stagehand had many stories.

After listening to him throughout first evening’s rehearsal, he asked: “Do I have a book or what?”

You said nothing.

After the second day’s rehearsals and performance inside the Staircase and a second round of his stories, the Classic Stagehand offered to let you ghostwrite his stories for him.

You said nothing.

On the third and last day, as you rolled in tandem, he pelted you with tales even faster, knowing your partnering was coming to an end.

The story you’ll remember most: a Famous Dance Producer flew him and another Classic Stagehand to a mansion in the South, handed them little axes, and locked them outside on a stone balcony. There, the two Classic Stagehands had to go after the giant nocturnal rats that were infesting the property. Because this story was told on stage during “The Stairs,” a spotlight streamed through the folds of the black velvet stairs. Though the two of you were to remain utterly still, the Classic Stagehand pulled on your shoulder until you turned and saw the shape he was making with his arms. Though he appeared to be a regular guy cradling an infant inside a Staircase, you understood his intention was to demonstrate the size of the rats he’d personally wrestled in the South.

Outside your wheels and bars and wooden frame, the people in the audience and that Famous Dance Critic were experiencing the Dancer’s transformative vision as her hair spilled down the black velvet stairs above you.

“We got paid very well, killing those things,” the Classic Stagehand whispered.

You said nothing.

A good Staircase does not tell stories. Silent and focused, a true Staircase does not betray the dance.

Relish your anonymity.

Remember: most of the staircases you’ve relied on throughout life go unnoticed until they fail. Therefore, in keeping with character, it is best to not to mention your abilities to anyone. Refrain from such phrases as: “What did you think of the Staircase?” or “Did the Staircase look okay?” If, for example, a Famous Dance Critic happens to pass by after a show in Tivoli, and the Famous Dancer graciously introduces you as a dancer, an invaluable help backstage, do not say such ridiculous things as: “I was the Staircase!”

The Critic’s eyes will rest politely on you for a millisecond, her smile a flicker before she moves on.

A true Staircase prefers to remain unnoticed, a member of the unseen majority of caretakers, animate and inanimate: the stock clerk lining up fresh apricots at 2 am on First Avenue; the teenager feeding a pre-mature kitten with an eyedropper on Ainsley Street; the elder-nanny who lets the very old man rest his hand on her inner-inner thigh in Washington Square Park and the bench they sit on; table; cello; chair.

Know thyself.

Of course, you’ve heard this one before, but have you ever applied it to being a Staircase? Those great staircases in your mind’s eye, the dark granite in the Cathedral at Canterbury worn by centuries of pilgrims, the stone steps spiraling around the minaret at Ibn Tulun, Cairo’s oldest mosque—let those be inspiration rather than role models. Polished by centuries of human hurts and prayers and dreams, even the best of your Staircasing days will offer the faintest gleam in comparison.

Resist temptation to philosophize.

Inside your frame, stay present with the simple Staircasing task before you. If self doubt nags–the inevitable “why?”—stand on your toes during the middle of her dance and look through your eye slit at the audience gathered on folding chairs on East First Street on a hot August night. They will be middle aged artistic types, mostly female. They will be wearing loose clothes and handcrafted pendulum necklaces. They will have piles of wild hair. Thoughtful, quiet types, eager to be moved, they sit watching the kind of show you would attend if you weren’t already inside the staircase. They need a Staircase even if they don’t know it.

As you leave the Galleria, transformed back into a small shadowy figure in stagehand black, you’ll be overwhelmed by your sudden sensitivity to an entire world of staircases you’ve never noticed. On East First, a modest flight serenely binds a brownstone to the sidewalk. Another offers unsold garage sale items from its curved banisters. Through a glass window, a polished white marble escalier rises elegantly behind a trussed up doorman. For the first time, you’ll see how the staircase at the Bleecker Street subway station resonates with patient generosity: steps crumbling beneath the constant weight of the masses, metal rails hosting a limitless array of germs and grime.

Start at the top. Slowly make your way down.

Jennifer Sears (Thalia) performs and teaches belly dance at NYU and other New York City locations. She is a frequent contributor to Gilded Serpent: Journal for Middle Eastern Music, Dance, and Belly Dance. Also a fiction writer, her work has appeared in So to Speak, Fence, Ninth Letter, The Boston Globe, is anthologized in Lost and Found: Stories from New York, and was cited in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007. Her blog is

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