I haven’t been an actor in a long time.
I had spent most of nearly three decades (I was a very, very young child actor…) working on one show or another before finding myself torn between those age-old female choices of nurturing myself or nurturing my offspring. Luckily, my first-born was a theatre, and I was forced offstage by its growth. My own inability to quiet my need to multi-task didn’t help. After coming to the realization that signing checks during fast changes and making exits based on the proximity of the fax machine wasn’t really fair to an audience, much less to my fellow actors, I took a break to work behind a desk instead of the curtain.
To the surprise of everyone who had ever known me I discovered that I didn’t miss performing. Whatever need I had to be in the spotlight was met by being the person who hired the person who ran the spot. I was quite content with supporting my theatre addiction by giving others an opportunity to work. I was still intimately connected – really intimately connected since I married an actor, on a Monday, at the home of a stage manager, with a playwright and marketing director presiding over the ceremony. But I was living a life much closer to those who inhabited the “normal” world, where days off were Saturday and Sunday, your workday wasn’t a night and you were regularly allowed to see the sun.
Our son arrived and drove a stake into any residual longing I had for the boards. I tried it a few more times but the juggling of diapers and scripts and sitters and stage managers made even my legendary energy inadequate. I was really done: I packed away my tackle box of makeup, and tossed out my highlighters and rehearsal skirt. Happy getting laughs at staff meetings, I felt delighted that there was no need to ever put my literal tap shoes on again.
Never say ever. Art is transitory and impermanent, and, so it turns out, are theatres.
So, following the close of the company I had spent a quarter century with, I was delighted to see an artistic director’s name come up on my caller ID. Imagine my surprise when his request was not for my vast knowledge of the industry or my expertise about producing theatre. He was calling to offer me a role. In a play. On a stage.
Suddenly, gratefully, I was back in a rehearsal hall. And I found myself looking at the process of creating a production with new eyes, observing the strangeness of the language and actions of the profession. What actors do is really pretty odd.
A person who you’ll most likely never meet has slaved over what you need to say, so you don’t have to come up with anything your own. However, you are expected to say the same thing over and over, exactly as it was given to you, word for word, but on command you have to change how you say it. You are encouraged to make repetitive motions: you are asked to sit, get up, walk out of a door, stop, turn around, walk back in, and sit, get up, and walk out again, sometimes several times in a day. It can be dizzying, especially when you are a part of a group, all coming and going and stopping and starting at the whim of a person who is not one of the walkers.
There is a person who happily sits behind a table and makes notes about everything you do. That same person tells you when to go to the bathroom, when to eat, and when to go home. Someone buys you clothes, fits them to you, and gives them to you, freshly laundered, each day. Almost always you are given something comfy to sit or lie upon. Many times you are even provided with food and drink (although a request for actual vodka in the vodka bottle is, I’ve been reminded, frowned upon.)
You don’t punch a clock, but rather sign in. It’s so much more polite, isn’t it? You get to sit in a room with people of your own kind, gossiping and reading magazines while sitting in various stages of undress. You hang out, drink coffee, and tell stories about the last time you were with others like yourself, hanging out, drinking coffee and telling stories with others like yourselves. Plus someone constantly keeps you updated on the time. (Warning: they expect you to say thank you every time they quote the clock.)
But where else can you, in all seriousness, be told to “pick up clitoris?” (so sayeth a director to an actress in Amy Herzog’s After the Revolution, which is what I’m doing now.) How about having a strike six times a year? Is there any other job where you are told to put on more makeup? Or to scream obscenities at someone you’ve just met? Or kiss your best friend’s husband like he’s yours? And in how many places can you tramp around in your pajamas, or underwear, or nothing, in front of people who have paid to watch you? (On second thought, don’t answer that one.)
And to top this all off – they give you a paycheck each week. It may not be a lot, but, jeez, what more do you want?
An audience! I had forgotten about an audience. They provide the proof that theatre is a collaborative and ever-changing art form, that there is no such thing as perfect, and that you can’t do it the same way twice. They are the reason that theatre is live and a living art. And a craft. Ah, sitting backstage and listening to the subtle changes in a performance caused by the vibe coming from the dark. I love standing on stage and finding that small tweak that makes the difference that makes it work. You’ve gotta love the bit that plays, the laugh that builds while you wait, riding its crest and then, just as it starts to lose energy curls back on itself to rise again. The feeling of power you get when you’re holding a few hundred people in your thrall – waiting for just the right moment to make the one small gesture that will send them into spasms of laughter or paroxysms of grief. The joy of getting it right, the rhythm just so, the moment that sings in its silence.
Oh, for that instant when you get it, they get it, and someone, most likely you, is transformed.
Of course there are the other moments. In this run alone these have included the patron who decides to yell over the final, pivotal line of the play, the tongue-twisted actor who said “Enema!” instead of “Emma!” and the stately, dignified grande dame of the region who did an entire scene with her skirt unzipped and a large piece of glow tape highlighting her crotch.
But those are the moments that live on in the stories told ‘round the coffee maker, in front of the mirror, and off house left, the ones that make you glad to be a part of this insane, brilliant, frightening, fabulous world. I am grateful to be back. I’m grateful to be in the rehearsal hall, the greenroom, the dressing room, in the wings and on stage. I am grateful to once again to be able to say “I am an actor.”