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)