As I wrote yesterday, I recently participated in my first play as an actor. Writer that I am, I am putting my experiences in words.
I left off at the dress rehearsal where we actors would have to perform for an audience of ten that included our senior minister, and where I’d chosen to perform on stage by myself since one of my two co-stars had obligations that prevented her from attending. Now, the real shame of my fellow actress missing dress rehearsal is that the audience did not get to see her perform her monologue. I know she was disappointed to miss the rehearsal, and the audience definitely missed her presence on stage.
So did I. I’ve made no secret that I was extremely happy to have been paired with other actors rather than be given a monologue. Had I been assigned a scene in which I was the only person on stage, my worry level would have risen quite a bit more than it did. For one thing, having another person on stage means that the audience is only looking at you half the time. Whew! More importantly, however, we can help each other. Forget a line, the other person can finagle something to prompt you back on track. I needed the practice on stage with mics, even if that meant reciting both sets of dialogue.
I spoke both parts. It was weird, talking to a person who wasn’t there. I rushed through the lines, but did a passable impression of a dialogue. My “woman” voice—the slightly whisphery lilt I gave myself when I recorded that MP3 to help me learn my lines—rapidly decayed into my own voice for both male and female. Frankly, I think I confused the new audience members, but I got in the practice.
The rest of the dress rehearsal went well. Me and my other co-star—also a rookie in this acting business—performed well together in our skit (the driving one). We stage hands honed our prop moving abilities and our camaraderie backstage, and the entire cast did great. Driving home Thursday night, I was excited. I couldn’t wait until 3pm the next day when I’d leave my office and prepare for my first time under the lights. I felt good. All was well. Until 3pm on Friday.
Worry About the First Performance
When 3pm rolled around, I left my office and the butterflies swarmed into my stomach. You know that feeling you get on a roller coaster when you drop on that first, huge hill? Yeah, well, multiply that by ten. A great big ball of stress descended upon my shoulders and just hung there. Walking down the five flights of stairs from my office to the parking garage, I felt lightheaded. When I got to my car, I did the one thing I knew to do that would help: prayed. I prayed to God to help me and everyone involved to do their best, to help me remember my lines, and to calm my nerves. And, literally in the span of a minute, most of the stress and butterflies vanished. There were still a few, stray butterflies, but that was to be expected. I’ve read from just about every actor or singer who goes on stage that if you don’t have any nervous energy, you’ll likely do less than your best. As I drove home, windows open, classic Chicago blasting out of the speakers, my good feelings returned.
We all arrived 75 minutes before show time to get our makeup applied. Now, I don’t wear makeup and I had already made arrangements to have one of the ladies pretty me up. I watch “Project Runway” every week and there’s always the shot of the models getting their look applied. The auditorium where we performed isn’t huge—approximately 200 seats—so it surprised me and a fellow male rookie actor that we’d have to wear makeup. But, from the images I’ve see taken from the vantage point of the audience, it does help show off the face and lips. My markup artist did a great job on me and, naturally, some of the girls promptly informed me, upon my transformation, that I looked like a girl. Examining myself in the mirror, with foundation, a spot of rouge, eye liner, and mascara, yup, they were right.
My fellow co-star, the one who had missed the dress rehearsal, and I ran through our scene a couple of times. Interestingly, there’s a bit of dialogue where she corners me, and she told me she was going to hold her intense stare while I gave my weak rejoiner, and then flip her hair and stalk across the stage. My writerly instincts were amazed again. Here we were, backstage, less than an hour before going on stage, and we were changing things up. It made the scene funnier, but, darn, I’d have to remember one more thing.
As I said, the best part of my two scenes was that I had another person on stage with me. The second best part is that the eye-wandering husband scene was the first overall scene. When the lights dimmed and the opening monologue started, we were on deck. We were first! It’s wasn’t going to be a situation where I’d go on after a half dozen scenes were in the can—where I could hear how the audience reacted to things, where those butterflies might return in earnest—my co-star and I went in cold. To be honest, just writing this and remembering that feeling, a few of those butterflies have found their way back to my stomach. The seconds slowed down, the butterflies fluttered, I could feel the sweat trickle down my back and in between my fingers as I held the shopping bags that formed the basis of the scene, the house lights dimmed, the opening voice over started, and then it stopped, and then it was time to go on stage.
And everything changed.
Think of any movie in which a character has one of those moments of clarity and the special effects wizards dampen the sound down to almost nothing. In the movie, all you can hear, maybe, is the character’s heart beating, all the other people in the scene are talking as if they were underwater. That’s how it felt going up on stage Friday night for the first time.
I said the opening bit of dialogue (“Come on, honey.”) to which my co-star replied, “Don’t ‘ah honey’ me, you know you did it.” She then proceeded to drop her bags on my foot, spilling the contents on the floor. That didn’t happen in rehearsal, but it worked because it allowed me a few extra seconds to say my next line as I cleaned up the mess. What happened next surprised me and proved one of the key factors that helped me during that first performance.
After my co-star’s next line (“Then explain why you tripped over the bench and fell into the planter.”), the audience laughed. To date, no one had ever laughed at that line. Like you see the actor’s do in sitcoms that were filmed in front of a live, studio audience, I had to wait to deliver my comeback or else have the line be drowned out. Those few seconds reminded me that there was another component in the mix heretofore absent: the audience. After all, this entire performance was for them, right? It’s why we rehearsed and practiced. Now, the audience was present. And they were laughing, at the moments I expected laughter and those I did not. Organic is an overused word to describe the delicate interaction of performer and audience, but it’s a cliché that’s true. For the rest of that scene with my co-star, we finally were not just two people reading lines and walking across the stage. We were actors, conveying a story, for a receptive audience. And it was magical.
Another thing helped me through that first, crucial performance: my co-star. She has experience on stage and it showed. Immediately. For all of the rehearsals, I thought that the audience was just going to watch a domestic scene and find a few chuckles. I never knew we were supposed to engage them in the conversation. She taught me—without words, there on stage, live, on the fly—what it was like to act on stage with an audience. There is an ebb and flow to all scenes performed in this production. With one line, one character gets a laugh, the next, the other character gets the laughs. It was like that throughout all 28 skits, and all of us learned to adapt. Some of us rookies learned under the lights which, frankly, might be the best possible way.
The rest of the Friday performance went amazingly well. By the time it came to my second scene, I had already done the first one and I had moved props on and off the stage as a stage hand. Interestingly, the mere presence of being on stage even in the dark carrying something helped to ease the nerves. My second co-star, also a rookie like me, cut her teeth in her Act I monologue. For all the nervousness I had of being on stage with another person, she went up there by herself and nailed it. Our scene together went fantastic and, seeing as the subject of the vignette was a man and a woman in a car, driving, the laughs came naturally. So did our interaction between each other. The lights helped, too, as they blinded us and we literally could not see the audience. For all intents and purposes, the world came down to just the two of us.
The first night rocked, and all of us actors, transformed in our costumes, aced our scenes. I drove home on a high I’ve literally never felt before. Finally, after months of preparation, I knew I could perform on stage. Now, there was only one more hurdle to leap: perform in front of my family.
For whatever reason, all during my preparation, I learned my lines without my family seeing or hearing any of the dialogue. Once, my son heard me rehearse the driving scene with my co-star and his only verdict was “There’s a lot of sass going on.” I’m not some Brando type who only wanted to rehearse with my co-stars, but that’s ultimately what happened. It worked out well, and it allowed my wife, son, friend, and parents to see the entire thing on stage and it be fresh.
Unconsciously or not, in the minutes before the second curtain, I located my family in the audience and took note of where they sat. And promptly made a decision not to look their way. Not that I could see their faces in the dark, but, with only one performance under my belt, I didn’t want a stray glance from them to throw me off.
Joelle Charbonneau, a fellow writer over at Do Some Damage, has performed many times on stage. I had emailed her after the first performance about my experiences. She gave me two great pieces of advice that late Friday evening. One, audiences are all different, especially second ones, so be prepared to adjust. Two, go to sleep and get some rest. I did, but I kept turning over in my mind the things on which I could improve.
And improve I did. The second night’s audience was different. The laughs came at different times or not at all when compared to the first night. Having learned about interacting with the audience on Night #1, I tried to do a few things differently on Night #2. A fast talker normally, you get any sort of nerves in me and I speed up. The director called me on it a couple of times and I slowed down my delivery. I didn’t succeed as well as I would have liked to, but I did learn. Above all, I just had fun. We all did.
I’ll admit something: as soon as the house lights came up after the second performance, I already started missing the experience. For weeks, this play and my part in it occupied a lot of my waking moments. And, just as easily as the house lights came on, it was gone. Truth be told, after my second scene on Night #2, some of that wistfulness left. As I told many of my fellow actors, I would have loved a third performance, a matinee, to top off the entire experience.
Alas, we only got two. But those two nights of theater arts ministry were pure magic.
I’ve experienced what it’s like to graduate from a school, say “I do” to the woman I love, hold my newborn baby after delivering him myself, finish a novel, see something I wrote published, and many more things. Each are special and without equal in their own way. They cannot be compared and I don’t even try. But, after this past weekend, I can happily add one more thing to the incomparable list: performing on stage.
I’ve performed on stages countless times with a saxophone in my hands, but never like this. To date, I’ve enjoyed entertaining people with my written words or my saxophone. With my horn, I don’t necessarily tell a story. With acting and writing, I do. My God-given storytelling instincts took over during this entire acting experience, widening not only my part in the blessing that is the theater arts ministry at my church, but also my outlook on my writing. Even in these early days after this first acting involvement, I can tell that my approach to writing has changed. How and in what form, I don’t know yet, but I just know.
There is also the high of knowing that I can do anything I set my mind to do. Back in June, acting was a whim. Sure, why not, let’s give it a try. As the date got closer, the ominous nature of it, the knowledge that I’ve never done any acting and who knows if I can or should, slowly slithered into my thoughts. With enough practice and preparation, however, I overcame those doubts, and was rewarded more than I’d ever would have imagined. This kind of dedication—to the rehearsals, to the learning of lines, to the interaction with other actors, to accepting constructive criticism from the director—is addictive. I plan to parlay these good thoughts first, to my writing life and later, to my next acting work.
Finally, there are the people with whom I shared this remarkable time together. Shared experiences bring people together. Some experiences are dreadful—war, disaster, unforeseen events—while some, like this production, are much happier. A bond formed between all of us in this group—the actors, the directors, the sound folks, and the stage hands. In a big church like mine, we formed a little mini family brought together for a common cause: to share the talent which God gave each of us. To laugh, and to cry. And, most of all, to share in the telling of stories. Those of us in this production gave of ourselves and we got back blessings that cannot be counted. They can only be cherished.
And cherish them we will, when we see each other in church hallways, the pew rows, or happenstance at the grocery store. With each glance and a smile, we’ll remember this wonderful time we had together. With good fortune, we’ll all return, together again, for another production and another set of memories.
As for me, I’ve had a mountaintop experience, one that I’ll be talking about for a long time. It changed me. A new part of me I didn’t know existed is now open. I’m thankful for it, I thank God for the talent he gave me, and I want to continue to share it.