Actors’ courage

I am in awe of my sister-in-law.  She’s a wonderful person, kind and thoughtful and we love her dearly.  Her kids are all performers–they all had leads in various high school shows, and her family has been very involved in their local community theatre.  My brother has build sets for that theatre for years, and has gradually become more and more involved, to the point where he runs the organization now, and has acted in a few of their shows.  And my sister-in-law finally decided to audition for a show too–their upcoming production of the Sound of Music. It opens this next week.  And she got cast, as did he.  He’s playing Max.  She’s playing the Mother Abbess.  Which means she gets to sing “Climb Every Mountain.”  This song, in other words.  One of the most memorable songs in the history of American musical theatre.

It will be the first time in her life she sings a solo in public.

I talked to my brother today.  He says she’s doing great with it. Great part for her, and he says everyone’s rooting for her, and she’s a little nervous, but she’s excited too.

Here’s my prediction:

She won’t sleep the night before the show opens.  She won’t be able to think about anything else all day.  She’ll be terrified and excited in equal measure, all day.  She’ll arrive at the theater early, get into costume and makeup, and she’ll be her usual affable self to the other cast members, but they’ll remember her as preoccupied.  She’ll sit off-stage, awaiting her entrance, and her knees will feel weak.  You always feel it in the knees. And she’ll go over her lines over and over again, and especially the lyrics to That Song.  And then she’ll hear her cue and just for a moment, for an indescribably brief moment, she’ll freeze, she’ll nearly panic, she’ll doubt herself, she’ll wonder if she can do it.  And then her legs will move, almost unbidden, and she’ll step out on stage, into the light, and she’ll find it momentarily disorienting, the light, and behind it, the sounds, the presence of all those people.  The audience.  Friends and neighbors no more, just a thing, a single frightening creature, this monstrous audience-beast.  And then she’ll hear her cue, and she’ll say her first line, just as she’s rehearsed it.  And she’ll forget, for just a second, the audience-beast, and she’ll connect with her fellow actors, the Maria, the other nuns.  And then the music will begin, her cue to start singing.  And she’ll begin.

And she’ll rock the house.

We use violent imagery in the theatre.  “We slayed ’em,” we say.  “We killed out there.”  Because what we killed, what we had to kill, is the audience-beast, creature of our own imaginings, that amorphous animal that threatens to consume us.

Unless we tame it.

By doing what we do.

1972, I was on my way home from school, when a cute girl I had a crush on stopped me on my way to the parking lot and said, “hey, auditions are tonight.  Why don’t you come with me?”  And I followed her into the theater, and auditioned for Bloomington High School South’s production of Barefoot in the Park, by Neil Simon.  And I was called back for the character role of Victor Velasco, and I went to that callback with two thoughts in my mind. I was more frightened than I’d ever been before, of anything, ever.  Also, more than anything, I wanted that part.  Two months later, I stood backstage, and just before my first entrance, turned to the actor playing the telephone repairman, and said to him, “I quit.” He literally shoved me onto the stage.  And I said my first line.  And the audience-beast . . . laughed. 

And I thought: Oh, man. Wow.  I could get used to this.

I love actors.  I love their courage, their tenacity in clinging to a profession that will never love them as much as they love it.  I love, above all, the magic that takes place when they step out on-stage, stark bare-naked except for a costume.  And transform.  Even in bad plays, even in awful nights where the playwright was an idiot and the director’s an idiot, and the show sucks and everyone knows it, even then (and it doesn’t happen often), maybe even especially then, the courage of actors is inspirational.  They dare. And when the show’s good?  It’s the Mona Lisa and the Sistine Chapel and Bjorling singing ‘Nessun dorma” and Hendrix doing “Bold as Love” all rolled into one.  Nothing, nothing, is better, than actors moving us, changing us, with their talent, their hard work, their sheer audacity.  It’s the greatest art form God ever created–its existence stands as witness that He loves His children. And that we are brothers and sisters together. 

And next week, my sister-in-law will join that unbroken line of heroes and heroines that stretches from Thespis through Roscius through Burbage through Duse through Olivier through Dame Maggie, to us, here, today. 

We love you, Dawn. Break a leg. 

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