In case I haven’t pestered you enough on social media, I did some acting stuff two weekends ago. It kind of took over my life, so much that having even a few extra hours at night now seems like a terrifying abyss.
In my opinion, you can’t be an actor without liking the process of acting. Performances are only a miniscule part of this thing called theatre. In my case, we had approximately 25 hours of rehearsal every week for four weeks—100 hours of planning, staging, discovering—and a total of three hours of performance between our two performance dates. Don’t get me wrong, the adrenaline rush that an audience provides is amazing, but it would be hard to do this work without also loving the other 97%. What is the other 97%, you ask?
- Auditioning and swaggering forward
Some people hate auditions. I am one of them. I can’t separate myself from my anxiety, my self-consciousness, and the feeling that I am being judged against everyone else. Auditioning is followed by a sizeable round of junk food, always.
Callbacks, on the other hand, are gifts from God. There’s nothing better than staying up late to watch them flood in, marking each one on your calendar and relishing in the supreme busyness that your weekend has become. They are an event in themselves. This semester, I witnessed people building elaborate blanket forts in the theatre lobby, accepting steady deliveries of Jimmy Johns, chatting excitedly about the eccentricities of specific callbacks. These two days are somehow more lively, more happy, more energetic—everyone knows that they are wanted, and there are so many opportunities to explore, to play.
People have asked me if I knew during my callback that I would be cast. To be honest, no. I didn’t. When you’re surrounded by that much talent, it’s hard to tell where you stand in the director’s eyes. But it doesn’t matter. You play, and, if you’re very lucky, the director remembers you.
- “Is that my name up on that list?”
Elle Woods made it into a prestigious law group; I made it into a play. All of the anticipation, the held breath and constant refreshing of the theatre website, leads to that moment you see your name in black and white. Depending on the situation or role, I will likely start crying with disbelief. I double and triple check that yes, that is my name. No, there is not another person in the department with your first and last name. This stage is pure elation.
- Meet and greet
For a lot of people, the table read, and the meeting of your cast members, is one of the highlights of the whole process. It’s kind of like in Harry Potter—you’re sorted into your house, and from then on, in the words of our favorite cat professor, “your house will be like your family.” First impressions are inevitably awkward, as everyone is at varying levels of familiarity/admiration, but there’s a sense of tangy anticipation at the realization that these are the people you will be giving up a social life for.
The first stages of scriptwork are clumsy but useful. From table-reads of the script to the first days of blocking, script in hand, you start making initial discoveries, and you find even more questions. For this particular show, I made a page-long list of questions about my character that I clipped into my binder. Periodically throughout the rehearsal process, I would go back to this list and see if I could answer any of them.
Most of the hard work goes into these initial days of rehearsal, where, depending on the director, rehearsals consist of hours and hours of blocking. This is made even more challenging by the pesky scripts that you are tied to. But, for now, they are a comfort. Your script is the blanket that keeps you warm at night.
- Your script is taken from you, brutally, in the middle of the night
The day comes, and nobody is ready for it. “Off-book day” has been there, circled in red on your calendar, but the minute you walk into the rehearsal space without your binder, you feel so naked. There is panic, maybe. Fidgety hands. You miss lines on stage and stumble through clunky exchanges and miss cues, and it’s generally pretty sobering. But it’s a start.
Around this time, also, I find that I start the process of true discovery. Once you start becoming more comfortable without pages in your hand, you’re able to be in the scene more. Suddenly you can look your fellow actors in the eye, really look at them, and see a character instead of a person reciting words. It’s here that I find myself starting to feel. Every day is all at once a turning point. When I’m trying to memorize monologues, I will recite them every night while I’m showering. Something about being so alone, so focused, without any distractions, triggers huge realizations. I go into rehearsal the next day with fresh perspectives, and the process starts all over again.
Once you’re off book, people start coming to watch your run-throughs as well. It may be two extra people, other graduate students who come to offer their critiques on this rough play, but even having those two new sets of eyes is invigorating.
Theatre nightmares are also common for me around this point. I’ll wake up in a cold sweat, having just lived through the opening night of the play, during which I knew none of my lines. Or, in this case, the play is recorded and turned into a cult sensation on account of how terrible it was.
- Panic! at the theatre
Literally every show I’ve ever been in has included pure panic the week before, and the week of, hell week. With the performance date closing in, everyone gets a bit more tense. Difficult blocking is worked and re-worked for hours. Tensions are high. Personally, it’s around this time that I experience soul-crushing doubt about my own abilities. Does the director regret putting me in this role? Am I doing this character justice? Will anyone ever cast me again after seeing my work in this show?
But, like every show, things miraculously come together at the last minute. Hell week, the technical term for the week that a show opens, is the time when things start happening. You’re surrounded by lights. You shrug into costumes and practice quick-changes. Things start feeling, sounding, smelling like theatre.
Everything starts clicking. For this show, on our dress rehearsal, our run was better than we’d ever done it before. One scene, a short scene between my character and her old teacher, moved so smoothly that it evolved before our eyes. Afterward, I talked with the actress playing the teacher, and we were both shaking with excitement. “Did you feel what just happened in that scene?”
- Break a leg
At last, the performance hits. I’ve written about my love of theatre before, my love of the stage and all of the sensations surrounding it. The audience watches as you cry and sweat and scream, and for whatever reason that attention makes everything more real.
Still, it is a process of discovery. Opening night, I was disconnected from myself, wired completely into my character, and everything happened in the moment, as it is supposed to. It’s a feeling that’s hard to explain. But it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful emptying yourself out every night, feeling as though you’ve accomplished everything in a 90 minute time span. You go to bed smiling. Exhausted, but smiling.
One of my castmates likened the ending of a show to the death of a close friend, and I completely agree. One minute you’re immersed in the exhilaration of it all, every thought consumed by the show, and the next you’re waking up and it’s Sunday and you have nothing to do. It happens so suddenly. It usually hits actors the first time they would have rehearsal, the next Monday night or so, when they’re sitting in their rooms at 7:00 with four hours of freedom ahead of them. It hit me the morning after our closing night, and I laid in bed for a long time feeling the pain of it in my gut. Suddenly there is no need to remember those lines, because you will never say them again. You don’t need to think about your character anymore, because she is not you. You are not her. The closer you get to your character, the more you see her mind and feel her actions, the harder it is. And maybe you’re scared that now that you let go of her, she won’t make it. Maybe you’re scared of someone else picking her up where you dropped her off, even though life is the best thing for her.
Maybe you’re scared that you’ll never get a chance like this again. And maybe you won’t. But it doesn’t matter.
Because you had this.