And so, we opened.
Thursday was a busy beautiful blur of nerves and excitement; double-checking props, striding about the space speaking my favorite Shakespeare, jostling around the dressing room jumping on one foot or the other, shaking out hands and legs and killing three minutes til go-time; a brief and fast group warmup to get us buzzed for the first fifteen minutes of the play (which needs to be launched like a rocket); and then the final high fives and fist bumps and deep breaths-to-exhale-anxiety that happens when the stage lights go out and the backstage bluelight is the only thing you can see and you feel your body start moving forward and oh-my-god-it’s-happening-now.
The right opening night crowd is better than any other you’ll ever have; responsive, loud, funny, listening, generous, supportive. (And almost every time you forget this, and think ‘oh god, it will always be like this!’ – and it pretty much never is.) And did we ever have the right crowd – laughs and laughs, quiet intent silences, and my favorite payoff at the very end of the play with a series of gasps at one truly horrific line (and therefore, a brief suspension of the moment to give the audience time to catch up.)
It’s tricky and marvelous, throwing the audience into the soup we’ve been cooking; it’s the final ingrediant, of course, and the basis and the foundation. The split focus between the people out there and the people in here is key to being an actor. (Duh, right?) And I’ve not had a play in recent memory where it has been so easy to forget there are people beyond our two walls, while at the same time, we’re listening to them constantly (should we hold this moment, should we power on, am I being loud enough and clear enough and using my text well? I love my words but everyone tells me I’m a mumbler and am I engaging my diaphram and pbbbbbbt I just totally dropped that line and oh shit I should be paying attention to what just happened over there across the stage . . . . and it goes on).
By yesterday, we’d been doing the play nonstop (well, one stop, our day off Sunday) for around 18 days.
Running the play is always a different beast than opening it; and opening it was almost entirely joyful. There’s always the second-night crash; “oh, the house is about a third of the size” “oh, they’re so quiet” “oh, wow, that’s right, we actually have to just do this sucker over and over” – and especially from opening, coupled with the fatigue of the cumultative tech days, (and potentially a hangover from your opening festivities) – opening weekend is a beautiful blessing, and also a reminder that the ship’s now launched and we’ve got to navigate the entire journey piece by piece. (There’s no autopilot for theatre.)
I love running a show; I love how everything deepens; how by the end of the second weekend, you’ve often sick of all the choices you’ve made, and start finding new ones (within the realm of the frame you’ve built); by the third weekend you fall in love with it all over again. I love how certain moments become cherishable. I love about this play that I enjoy something in every scene; that I try not to get too attached to any moment (a sure-fire way to overthink it and make it a mess), but that I’m still swimming through building it, piece by piece. I love pieces of text winnow their way into your mind and give you joy each time you hear or overhear them (“the glimmer of the half-extinguished light” “how one word can mean so much” “I was wrong”); I love the feeling alive that doesn’t happen for me anywhere but onstage.
And yet? Running a play is also a trip down the rabbit hole.
When I was in high school, I did, back to back, a very, very serious and beautiful play about a cancer patient – followed by Guys and Dolls. I didn’t notice a difference in myself, but my mother has commented, often, and a little with wonder “You are so quiet during the play; we’d never seen you so quiet; and then so bubbly and happy during the musical.” It was the first time I realized that of course, of course, the story you were telling every day would have an effect on your life as you told it.
Certain energies get depleted, or replenished. When I did the Greek tragedy, I spent much of my time alone; I’d walk two or three miles a day in the bitter Chicago cold, needing my personal space and distance from the world. I’ve been so often cast as the martyr that I’m actually very comfortable dealing with the fallout of constant sadness and destruction; I’ve found a way through that one, after trial and error; and the second time I did the play, I was (at the same moment) working on a daytime children’s Shakespeare show, so the two counterbalanced eachother.
There’s always an adjustment. During No Exit, I felt smothered by everything and as if I would never, ever get enough sleep; I still speak to and appreciate both of the actors who were stuck in the room with me (both of them are sharp and intelligent and good folk), but our bond was forged by loving and hating that stupid red room where we were trapped eight hours a week. There’s always an adjustment; there’s always fallout.
And so, as we go into running this bear, I’m noticing I’m gonna need some rituals for this one.
Part of the joy of being cast in this show for me, besides the subject matter/cast/director/location/quality of the play/everything, really, was that I’d finally be playing someone different than my usual martyr. I’d be a girl who was partially an agent of her own destruction; I spend the majority of the play being irritated and irritating.
One of my acting teachers – my favorite, actually – has always insisted on the use of the first person when describing your character. I bought into this wholly – “I’m behaving this way, I’m feeling this, I want this” rather than “she does” – and I only now, seventeen shows into my career, am realizing that perhaps this is too powerful for me.
I knew going into this play that it would be something of a rabbit hole; that I’d have to be vigilant about keeping myself apart from my character. That playing a woman whose entire identity and self was based on others wasn’t so foreign, but having it manifest itself in this loud and aggressive manner; this could be dangerous.
It’s such a weird thing walking around with a character inside you. It’s almost schizophrenic; you can find your responses altered, your patience changed, your instincts variable. Amy Morton once said “your body doesn’t know you’re lying”, and it’s so strangely true; that doing the play is like going through a really bad breakup, or a car crash, or a family disaster every night for weeks and weeks and weeks. Starting again at ground zero; erasing the knowledge you’ve gained every night; this becomes both easier and harder as you know the play more. And even as your brain trusts and loves the people you play with, your body starts to betray you, finding it harder to cling to someone having known that in two hours, you’ll be sobbing at their feet.
Unlearning – part of that illusion of first time – just part of the bag of trickery of being an actor.
And I’m trying, very often, these days, to leave every piece of baggage offstage. By this I mean to not cling to a moment, or try and stay in a state throughout the performance; but to merely focus on the action as it’s happening, to be in the room, and to relax and assume that everything’s going to be there. The less you think about a moment and the more you just do it, the better. The less intellectualizing and the more action, the better.
All that said – my freshman acting teacher opened our class once by saying “No one’s a good actor til they’re thirty.” She meant of course that we don’t have enough life experience to know things before thirty; that we can’t necessarily understand, and grasp the weight and complexity of things, of being human, until we’ve lived a little more than eighteen. (And naturally at the time I bristled and preened a little, and naturally, now, I understand, and agree.)
(And thank god I have four more years to figure it out.)
(This is part of my reticience about being a mom. You can’t have a two year old and be emotionally volatile, or absent for two months a year. You can’t be unable to keep a steady keel. )
All this beating around the bush? Is to support that I almost lost my shit this weekend.
By Saturday’s show, I was tired, and harried (like everyone), and seething with irritation (unlike everyone.) I had to remove myself to the greenroom for a while, I was so frustrated and annoyed. I knew, logically, in the back of my brain, that this was all silly and that I was being ridiculous, but I felt so overwhelmed with fury that I had trouble keeping any sort of a lid on it. I paced around the green room, listened to my most soothing music, and did my best to keep myself away from everybody, knowing that my bile wasn’t actually their fault, and that I didn’t want to be a complete asshole. And then it was places, and down the rabbit hole we tumbled, and spewing it out onstage – it felt wholesome, and good. By the end of the play I was able to look people in the eye again.
I felt ashamed, and annoyed, and furious with myself. “You can’t BE like this”, I kept repeating, reminding myself that I hate being someone who’s difficult to work with. That this is my whole life-long ambition; and I’ve got to find a way to be a person I like and am happy with, and still do work I’m proud of.
In the same way that when you fall in love with someone onstage, you always love them a little bit in the real life (you’ll carry a slight affection for them forever), or when you play sisters or brothers opposite someone, you’ll find a familiar connection for every moment (my show sisters remain people I feel comfortable confiding in no matter how long our time apart), when you repeat and repeat an action with someone, like any relationship, it permeates your reality with them.
The adjustment, then, is in finding how to remind your body, who doesn’t know, what’s real and what’s pretend.
I don’t have an answer to all of this yet. But three days off helps. (Even last night, I felt myself loosening up, letting go of the bitterness, shedding the fear; a few of the fancy cocktails I was consuming probably didn’t hurt)
It hasn’t changed that I still love this play. (/cast/production/experience/etc).
I’m just going to have to find the path through it that lets me keep the love and discard the dragging anchors.
(and major props to the ladies dressing room for their tentative kindnesses and hugs at intermission. Apologies, as ever, for being nuts. 🙂