Theatre Series: Act

“Never the luck, and never the lead, and “never-you-mind” they say. In time we all taste, the lime in the light, and I’ll have my night someday.” – Bazzard, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”

Let me be completely transparent here. Every actor–yes, I’m making this blanket statement–every actor wants to play a big part on stage. If there is an actor who is completely content with five minutes of stage time and two lines to memorize, I certainly haven’t met them. We strive to be the best. Sometimes we know we are the best, and things still don’t go our way. Theatre, especially in the acting realm, is a hardscrabble, competitive life. Even at the collegiate level I have seen friends cut down friends because casting didn’t go their way.

Now, while what I have just described is a large facet of what happens between actors, it is not the only facet. I prefer to air the dirty laundry at the beginning, and then get to the good stuff.

There is an immeasurable bond that is created between cast members. During every show I have been cast in, there was a sort of communal experience that is unique to theatre. To tell a story with our bodies–our faces, vocal cords, arms, legs, clothes–and to create beautiful art together is priceless. The theatrical community as a whole shares a fantastic bond, but the actors knit especially close together throughout the process of creating a play.

I have spoken about Snow Queen before, in my entry about design. Let’s revisit that show, shall we?

The characters in Snow Queen consisted of a band of lost children, a ragtag gang of Orcs, the Storyteller, the Snow Queen, the Ice Warriors, the Snowbirds and the Wolves. A Prince and Princess also make an appearance. These characters were brought to life by myself and a few dozen friends of mine while at community college, and it was amazing.

In this show, I played the first role that I truly loved. I was a loud mouthed girl who was part of the lost children in the forest. My name was Gerda, and with the help of a slew of others, I ended up saving the world. It was a truly magical show, and let me tell you this: the friendships that were formed and strengthened during that show have not been broken. I am still in contact with many of those people, even though we’ve all moved on in life. The other day I saw a couple of the middle school actors who had been in the show (two years after our performances) and we reconnected as if we had never been apart.

I have a hard time putting it into words just how I have been changed by the shows I’ve been in. It is a process that is difficult to explain, but anyone who has ever acted knows what I mean.

For those of you who’ve not acted, here’s a scenario: Imagine that you have grown up in a single room. You have everything you need: sunlight, food, water, toys, internet, etc. You are content in this room, and would live out all your days there without complaint. Then one day, someone opens the door. The room is flooded with sound, and a warm sort of light you’ve never felt before. This person pulls you out into a room full of people. You are uncomfortable, all you want is to crawl back into your room and lock the door. The person who has dragged you out begins introducing you to people. There’s a dancer, and she shows you a bit of her art. A juggler, a mime, a basketball player, circus performers, accountants, inventors. People of all shapes, sizes, colors and professions. Your mind is overwhelmed with all the new information these people are injecting into it.

At the end of the night, you go back to your room, and the person who took you out of it quietly closes the door. You realize, suddenly, that all you want is to be back in that room with all those people, and so you wait anxiously for the next opportunity. You are no longer content in your small, enclosed world. So you sit with your ear to the door, and wait for the people to return.

This is a small illustration that shows what theatre did to me. It got a hold of my heart, of my soul. It will never let go, and I never want it to.

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Theatre Series: Direct

Surprisingly, as long as I have been in theatre, I never directed until this very semester. Not a thing. It wasn’t just that I had never had the opportunity (although I hadn’t), it was also that I had not felt compelled to direct. I was always the one acting, the girl who wanted (and occasionally got) the lead.

However, all of that changed when I enrolled in “Directing” at York College. The class was a requirement for my degree, so I knew I was going to take it, but I had no idea what a profound impact it would have on me.

The first major project we had was the direction of a ten minute play. I chose “Brother” by Mary Gallagher, and once I had my cast we were off. I enjoyed plotting out the movements and studying the dialogue, but there was one rehearsal—a week or so into the process—where a sudden realization hit me.

We were sitting in the basement of our theatre building—Gurganus Hall—myself and my two actors. They had been prepared to run through the show, but I had other ideas. “Let’s chat for a minute first. I have some questions for you.” I had prepared those questions earlier that day, and in asking them I hoped to lead my actors to understand their characters more fully. We talked for about half of our rehearsal period, and they came to some brilliant realizations. It was in that moment that I recognized the fragility of these people.

I held in my proverbial hands the very heart and soul of these freshmen actors. They wanted nothing more than to please me, to do what I wanted, and to be good. Every actor wants to be good. I know, from an acting standpoint, the deep and burning desire to hear words of affirmation from my director; but I had never been in those directing shoes before. I realized that with a single word I could smash their egos into the ground, or make them soar to even greater heights. It is a terrifying, but exciting, power.

Now, I had no desire to hurt my actors’ egos, but realizing the potential for that made me choose my words very carefully. If I had a critique, I put it as gently as I could. Not so gently that it was misunderstood, but gently enough that I didn’t sound more harsh than necessary.

I think every director, or at least every good director, realizes this strange power they have over the men and women who act for them. Many people see the director as a puppet master, pulling the strings left and right, up and down. But we are so much more than that.

A puppet master needn’t worry about the emotions of her puppets—they are inanimate, she animates them. A director realizes that she is molding real, live human beings; human beings with hearts and pride and such fragile self-esteems.

When I realized that, I looked back on what I had learned in the class so far with new eyes. Everything we were being taught was coming from a man who had been doing this for longer than I have been alive (or nearly so). My filter for his words was changed after that. I am no longer simply an actor trying to learn about directing; now I am a director who desperately needs the guidance and instruction of someone who knows more than I about this strange adventure.