Monthly Archives: September 2010

I Have A Confession

I have a confession.

I’m really worried that any day now Sean and Christy are going to fire me from the show.

I know, it sounds ridiculous.  Even as I type it, it sounds ridiculous.  (Right?  It’s ridiculous…right?)  Here we are, weeks into the process, a few previews down, teetering on edge of opening night, and I am succumbing to the oldest cliché of theatre life imaginable:  the actor’s insecurity.

I can’t help it. Even though I feel confident in my training, my experience and my creation of this character, and even though Christy and Sean have been great about giving constructive feedback and reassurances, this tiny little insecure actor part of me is completely convinced that one day I am going to show up at the theatre and some other woman – most likely some leggy brunette with great cheekbones – is going to be wearing my costumes.

Why the self-torment? Well, performing a Shakespearean play comes with a few intrinsic stressors.  Aside from the language, of course, you have the intensely dramatic nature of the story.  When compared with most plays, Shakespeare’s characters find themselves in far more extreme situations, commit themselves to far more extreme action, and are required to be – not merely articulate in these states of extreme emotion – but ridiculously eloquent.  Romeo doesn’t just say, “Juliet is so hot!”  No way.  Romeo says, “She doth teach the torches to burn bright!”  And burn bright she does.  Burn bright we all do.

While these extreme moments can be quite liberating (after all, when in life do you get to fall in love at first sight, do battle on a street corner, or buy drugs from a crack head?  Okay, perhaps you don’t necessarily want to do the latter), they also demand a foundation in truthfulness.  Therein lies the actor’s challenge, as well as the kernel of my own personal angst.  Was I truthful enough?  Did I respond genuinely?  Was I faithful to my character’s point of view?  These are the questions that haunt me after every performance and even the slightest negative judgment on my part can be enough to catapult me into visions of leggy brunettes taking my place.

I write this with a tone of jest, but the truth is that for most actors this quandary is very, very real.  There is not one actor in this play who doesn’t (um, spoiler alert?) cry over a dead body at some point.  How does one go about making these moments truthful?  Everyone approaches it differently.  Everyone is charged with the task of doing it honestly. And, in this play, no one gets a reprieve.

I’m not a mother in real life, but I play one in this show.  For me to grieve over the loss of a daughter (I told you! Spoiler alert!), I have to tap into something deeply personal, perhaps a relationship in my own life, to provoke a truthful response.  As rehearsals become more detailed and I begin to form real relationships with my fellow actors, watching them go through something tragic soon becomes genuinely upsetting, even if it is within the context of the play.  Now knowing Erin, who plays Juliet, as well as I do, it is difficult to even write about the fictional idea of something bad happening to her.

While my own process starts with identifying this emotional landscape, other actors will approach these deeply moving scenes from a very different perspective.  Howard, as Lord Capulet, prefers to focus on the externals first.  Before he can tackle the emotional context of his character, he wants to know where he will be sitting or standing, how long he is going to stay there and when he will exit.  He relies on outlining these external movements first, or “setting the blocking” in actorspeak, to give him a safe space in which to explore and inspire the emotion that will ultimately fill the movement.

Other actors go straight to the circumstances of the play.  Reed confided in me that he, as Paris, feels somewhat responsible in the story for what happens to Juliet.  Before certain scenes, he details in his mind every moment of their interaction and, as a result, experiences the guilt and loss of the situation. He is then able to respond truthfully.  He also pulls from his imagination.  What if the same thing happened to me? he asks himself.  The response becomes clear.

Savvy’s approach, as the Nurse, comes from a completely personal, completely visceral place. “The most creative thing I have ever done,” she said to me when I asked about her process, “is to have a child.” Because of this life experience, she said, the implications of the Nurse’s decisions throughout the play are thrown into sharp relief.  The roller coaster of emotions she experiences is completely accessible to her, because, as a mother, she is already intimately familiar with the extreme nature of what it means to be a parent.

Tonight, as I approach the theatre, I try to reassure myself that there is no leggy brunette wearing my amazing purple blouse waiting for me in the dressing room.  I take a deep breath and think about something that one of my grad school mentors, the late Arthur Penn, once said:  “Life is like nothing I have ever seen.” This is a truism that completely defines the world of this play, and though the path we as actors travel each to get there each night may be vastly different, it is a challenge you will find all of us undertaking.

Here.  At the Roundabout Theatre.  Burning bright nightly

Tiffany Tang (Lady Capulet)

The Show Draws Ever Closer

The show draws ever closer.  Rehearsals have ceased to be snippets of small moments in the script and have evolved into full run-throughs of the show.  This is both exciting and nerve-wracking.  Not only does it require that the actors remember the entire sequence of the play, but it also means that now the entire cast will be watching each other’s scenes, ones we haven’t been privy to thus far. For instance, I am on stage with Sean Cox, the actor playing Mercutio and also our other fearless co-director, exactly twice in the entire play and neither time, for various reasons, do we exchange a single word.  Therefore, I had never really rehearsed with Sean and, before we started running the show, had yet to witness his banter with Benvolio, his taunting of Tybalt, his ridicule of Romeo.

But these days, I see it all and everyone sees me.  Even though we are all professionals in a safe, creative space, I can’t help feeling as though we are performing for each other a little bit, that each time we get on stage, we are holding the work we have been doing these past few weeks away from the entire cast up for critique.  While I’m sure this has no effect on Sean and his aforementioned fearlessness, for the rest of us…well, let’s just say it can be a vulnerable time for an actor.  Gosh, I think.  If only we had a really good distraction.  Maybe some, I don’t know, youthful banter kicking around the theatre to keep our minds off of the perfectionist tendencies that can be so preoccupying… Oh, wait.  We do.  Thank God for the interns.

Intrepid Shakespeare has done a really cool thing.  As part of their contract with San Dieguito Academy, whose theatre has become their new home, Sean and Christy have offered intern positions to the students who attend high school here.  This means that these students have the chance to come in and work with award-winning designers, learn about stage managing, help with set building, and yes, even act in a scene or two of the play.  Last week, we finally got to meet them.

As they were filing into the theatre for orientation, Durwood, who plays our Prince, just shook his head.  “No one gave me the chance to do Shakespeare when I was a teenager,” he said.  “These kids are so lucky.”  I nodded in agreement, although the fact is that someone did give me the chance to do Shakespeare when I was a teenager.  Mrs. Bennett, my eighth grade teacher at Blessed Sacrament Parish School, directed an evening of the Bard each year and cast every single student in a scene.  There I was, at 13, playing one of the best characters ever written, before most kids even knew who Shakespeare was.  I remember that experience, and I have no doubt as to why I find myself in this particular play today.

Durwood and I scan the sign up sheet on which the students have listed their first and second internship position choices.  Most wrote down an interest in acting or some sort of design option as well as an alternative choice if their first was taken.  Halfway down the list, though, we can’t help but marvel at one student who has brazenly scrawled “Significant Acting Role” by his name and left the space for a second choice completely blank.  We chuckle over that, although I think that we are secretly envious of the confidence and courage that this student has apparently cultivated at the tender age of 16.

As the week goes on, our interns are integrated into the show.  I walk in one day as three of the students are about to start a fight call.  Dakota, Zander, and Ben are playing Sampson, Gregory, and Balthazar and the three of them carry the first few moments of the play all by themselves.  I can’t help teasing them about this fact.  “You know, the beginning of the play is all you,” I say to them very seriously as I pour a cup of coffee.  “I mean, you guys are pretty much responsible for how the entire show goes each night.”  They just look at me for a moment, as if they can’t decide if I am being serious, and then they quickly break into their macho teenager grins.  “No problem,” Zander says.  “Gotta start the play with the best, right?” I seriously heart them all.

I have now seen all 15 of them take on their respective responsibilities of assistant stage manager, design intern, actor, or tech crew and I marvel both at their tenacity to get things right as well as at their remarkably mature awareness that things will probably not be perfect the first time.  I watch them work and crack jokes with the cast and talk about the dance they will be missing because it is scheduled on the same night as our first preview. The way everyone smiles when they are around, I wonder if it is actually the interns who are doing most of the learning here.

Tiffany Tang (Lady Capulet)

Romeo Is One Of Those

Romeo is one of those roles that most young actors would kill to play.  And why shouldn’t we kill for it? I mean, its got everything an actor wants: incredible passion and desire, fearlessness, and plenty of heart. Oh, and did I mention desire? Yeah. Tons of it.  This is one of those roles that many young actors would kill to play for the sheer fact that it is like climbing a huge mountain.  You know its gonna be exhausting but it’ll be such a great feeling when you reach the top! Right? I think….It helps that I have a great support group with this company.  Having such admiration for the people I am working with allows me to feel safe to climb this enormous mountain.

When I first started memorizing my lines for the show, I kept thinking “How do I make this sound like actual words coming from an actual person in response to actual events as opposed to sounding like I am reciting beautiful prose?”  Not easy.  But possible! The lovely Erin Petersen (Juliet) and I are side by side on this journey and will be until closing night.  We’ve dedicated a few rehearsals to building trust with one another and opening ourselves up for the other to love.  It certainly helps that we get along so well.  From day one I felt extremely comfortable with her.  We understood one another from the start. Granted, there is a difference between liking each other as friends and playing the two most famous lovers of all time.

The scene that I find myself struggling with the most is the balcony scene. I mean, everybody knows the balcony scene!  The dialogue in that scene is so exquisite but I am doing everything in my power to forget that fact.  Yes, its gorgeous. And because of that it is easy to fall into the trap of sounding too gorgeous when performed.  A few times I’ve done the scene during rehearsals and I instantly become very self-aware and overly analytical. Its hard not to!  Like I said, EVERYONE knows that scene. It’s hard to approach that scene as if it were totally unfamiliar without any preconceived notions about it. Then I remind myself that Romeo does not lead with his head.  But , rather, with his heart and soul. He never analyzes or over-thinks (like I so often do).  Everything he does and says in the play comes from how he feels— not thinks. I’m in the process of discovering what that is.  No over-thinking…well, as little as possible during rehearsals.  Just heart.  No rational thought.  Just impulse.

I thought I was going to hate the stage combat because I hated taking the class in school.   But its actually been fun.  Working in the space has been mostly a positive experience. While we are very close to the audience, I don’t feel like I am too close like I’ve been with certain performance spaces in the past.  It’s intimate but not actor-spitting-on-the-audience-during-intense-scenes intimate.  I’ve learned that I don’t need to talk as loudly as I am accustomed to. With this performance space, everything can be heard without much effort from the actor.    Part of the fun of playing Romeo is that I get to feel almost every emotion imaginable in the span of two hours. Scary?  Yes.  Invigorating? Absolutely!

Michael Salimitari (Romeo)

I Am Leaning

I am leaning against the entrance to the Roundabout Theatre, in Encinitas, sipping a cup of coffee. We are on a ten minute break from rehearsal, so I am taking a moment to catch a bit of the sunset.  It’s beautiful today – bright and golden and setting the clouds in the sky on fire with streaks of pink and orange.  I can see a little bit of the ocean from where I am standing, shining and silvery, and I can’t resist texting an actor friend in New York.  “Please note: I can see the ocean from the theatre door.”  The reply I receive is basically an expletive and I smile, knowing my mission of jealousy-making has been thoroughly accomplished.

Howard joins me at the door and we watch the sunset in silence for a moment.  I smile at him and think to myself how strange it is that we have become good friends already.  In the world of the play, Howard and I are married – Lord and Lady Capulet – but in life, we met about ten days ago.  I had arrived at rehearsal in the middle of a walk–through of the Capulet party scene in Act One.  Christy, one of our fearless directors, silently pointed me towards my entrance so I could step into the scene.  Howard was onstage at that moment, a bombastic Lord Capulet entertaining “multitudes” of guests.  He spotted me as I took my place and immediately approached me with a tender gleam in his eye, his words paving his path: “…which of you all will now deny to dance?…” and that was it.  We were married.  I smiled and shook my head at him knowingly.  I mean, he always gets this way at parties.  He’ll be three sheets to the wind before dinner! In a matter of moments, our history had begun, our relationship had been established, and the world of the play had sprung up around us.

This is one of the things I love about theatre: the process of collaborative creation.  We both know that we have a part of this story to tell.  We haven’t said one word of introduction to each other, and already we’ve been married for 15 years. (A few minutes later, Christy stops the scene to correct some blocking and I take that moment to say hello properly.)  Acting is about saying “yes”: yes to the world that we are creating together, yes to an imaginary relationship, yes to jumping into the middle of it all and playing a part in a much bigger story.  Where else in life is everyone so completely agreeable to things you make up in your head?  It’s fantastic.

But, the process is definitely not without its rough patches.  Howard joins me today to watch the sunset probably because he knows I’ve been having some challenges with my character.  There are questions I haven’t been able to answer about my own history and it is affecting my ability to work through a scene.  This is part of the job, though.  It’s my task to answer these questions in as many different ways as I can and then determine which solutions work best for the story.  So, as we sip our coffee together, we begin to talk about our “relationship” – how we met, what our marriage has been like, our point of view on our daughter, Juliet.  In these discussions, we haven’t always agreed, but Savvy, who plays the Nurse, thinks this is as it should be.  “You are married, after all,” she said to me after rehearsal one day.  “Why would you agree on everything?”  The sun dips below the horizon and I think about her words as I am listening as my “husband” share his thoughts on our marriage. All of a sudden, I think I’m beginning to understand what it means to be a wife, at least in the world of this play.

Tiffany Tang (Lady Capulet)