The way your heart thumps in your chest, pumping blood through your veins so fast that you can feel it pulsing in your ears and prickling your eyes. Suddenly you have no saliva and every hair is standing on end. Your eyes are wide and bright and there are swarms of butterflies tickling every part of you. As you walk towards the stage every sense is heightened. Your heart beats so loud you imagine every audience member can hear it. But it doesn’t matter because you can’t see them. They are a blur. Then once you get on stage they disappear entirely. The thumping subsides and everything slows down and you are there. In the moment. In a parallel world, not so far from your normal world, and yet at the same time so, so far away. All those lines you thought you would forget, all the audience faces you imagined would distract you, all the bright lights you felt might blind you, all of this just dissolves and there you are, in a hospital, and you have a job to do. You are no longer Siobhan Lumsden or Joseph Lambert or whoever else. Who are those people anyway? Forget them. Now you are Susie Monahan and you have a very sick patient to care for. You are Mr Bearing and you have a very curious, intelligent daughter on your hands. You are Vivian Bearing and you are dying of cancer and it is one hell of a journey you are all about to undergo. Action!
It’s hard to explain how I first knew. I think I was nine years old, but it could have been earlier. I was in primary school and once a week a colourful-clad, bubbly old lady with wild white hair would come to our gym/ dining hall/ assembly room/ concert hall and teach us this thing called ‘drama’. I remember the first time she asked me to stand up with a boy in my class and ‘pretend’ to have an argument over who stole the football. Pretend? OK, I thought, I can do that. I do that all the time with my sister. We are always playing make believe games. And so I did it. I felt shy to stand up there in front of everyone but the minute the teacher said “OK, you can begin…”, I didn’t even hesitate. I forgot who I was and suddenly all I wanted to know was why this little boy had stolen the football and why did he think it was OK to do such a thing? From that day onwards, I was hooked. I joined private drama lessons after school. I told everyone that when I grow up I want to become an actress. My granny laughed at me. She said my imagination is too active, and I better not make it even more so. She told me to read books, become a nurse (oh, but granny, I am a nurse now…well, at least in the play!) or a lawyer, and forget this ‘drama malarky’.
But I couldn’t just forget.
I absolutely thrived from being up on stage. I wasn’t and still am not, one of those overly-loud, limelight seekers. I don’t crave attention. I’m actually quite shy and introverted. I abhor competition. But despite all of this, I still absolutely love acting. I think some people think to be an actor you need to be a show-off, someone who likes prancing about on stage or in front of a camera, ‘pretending’ to be someone you’re not. Well, as I soon came to discover, acting isn’t about ‘pretending’. It goes much deeper than that. Those raw emotions, those traits that make a character who he or she is, that takes work. You can’t just turn it on at the flick of a switch. Well you can, but not if you want to really ‘feel’ that character. You have to dig a lot deeper, create a life for this person who is in no way or shape ‘you’. It’s very intuitive work, especially if you want to create the most realistic, vivid portrayal of your character for the audience, which is of course what we should all be aiming to do. There is nothing like being in an audience and being swept along on the journey with the actor, where you forget that it’s your friend up there, and instead you float along with the flow of the action and sometimes forget where you are- in a plastic, yellow chair in a chilly theatre in Shenzhen, China. For a second there, you might have thought you really were right in the centre of a cancer centre.
That’s really what it’s all about, for both the audience and the actors, for everyone involved. Creating another world that is so realistic that you actually forget for a little while that it’s not real. Or is it real? It’s a blurry line. A space where emotions jump from actor to audience and are fully absorbed, inspiring within both a chance to learn something, to feel something they might never have felt before or to acknowledge a part of them that they didn’t know existed. It’s about putting yourself out there, flying that flag of vulnerability and hopping out of your comfort zone. Simultaneously, it’s about feeling safe, knowing that no one is there to judge you. It’s a very intimate moment- the one between an actor and their audience. If you’re not breaking the fourth wall, you want to blur them out, but you also want to soak up their energy and spread yours, fueling the performance into the most ultimate experience.
There’s a difference between performing and being. Which do you want it to be? The one where you pop a stethoscope around your neck and perform as a doctor. Or the one where you pop a stethoscope around your neck and become a doctor. Nine times out of ten, it’s the latter of course. If you don’t believe you’re a doctor, how can you expect a theatre full of people to believe you. That applies to life in general too. You have to believe in yourself first and foremost if you expect to have other people believe in you too.
When we first began this journey of ‘Wit’ written by Margaret Edson, directed by Tre Tennyson, Tre invited us over to his apartment for a first read-through of the play. High above the city in his New York style apartment, we sat in a circle around his coffee table and we read the play out loud from start to finish. Afterwards we started working independently on developing our characters where we embarked on answering a series of questions set by Tre. These ranged from talk about a memory your character will never forget about his or her parents, to when was the last time your character made love? Was it a remarkable experience? So, here, you see what I’m talking about. It’s not as simple as just reading a script, memorising a bunch of lines, walking on stage and reciting these lines and robotically going through a series of actions. It is SO much more! It is about creating an entire past for your character, including his or her deepest secrets and desires- from what they are most scared of to what they daydream about when they are sitting on the train. It is everything. Of course, if you don’t want to do so much work, you don’t have to. But then what are you really getting from the experience? If, like me, you get a thrill from fully embodying another personality and making it come alive on stage, then you will want to do your homework. If I enter the stage with any remnants of ‘myself’ still lingering, it’ll be extremely obvious. There will be a sort of glaze across my eyes and my lines will sound like lines, as opposed to the real, natural dialogue between another human being that it should sound like. I might stumble or I might just be blank. That isn’t acting. When it’s real, you know. You can feel it in your very core, but also you can’t feel it, because it feels so real that you don’t even ponder for a second that it’s not.
It’s a special feeling, and it’s one that I haven’t felt for a long time. It’s not the kind of feeling that fades when you exit the stage. It stays. I can still feel it today, even though last night’s performance ended almost 24 hours ago. It’s the greatest form of adrenaline that inspires and ignites everything within you. I want to act every single day now. I am lucky to have a job that involves acting but it’s not quite the same without a live audience. There is nothing quite like that. And it’s absolutely not about the elation I feel after being on stage. It’s about how the audience feel. It’s about knowing that the world you just created tapped into something in the audience’s hearts and minds. That maybe, just maybe, the feelings and lives you just embodied may have seeped out and echoed around the room, entering the audience and giving them something to think about. That’s what theatre is. And literature, and films, and art, and everything really. It’s about giving, teaching, and ultimately feeling. If you felt something, even if it was just discomfort or a light relief, then we, as actors, as directors, as stage managers, as lighting designers, as sound guys, did our job.
I sometimes feel that my chosen path in this world is actually just about living. I chose acting, or maybe it chose me? But either way acting is just living. It’s about highlighting aspects of our lives that we might choose to hide from because it makes us feel uncomfortable or intimidates us or scares us. It’s about facing up to those things. It’s also about making people smile and cry and laugh and shift in their seats. It’s about feeling ALL the feelings. It is teaching and learning and reflecting and observing and being. It is life. That’s all it is. It is quite simply just living.
To Tre, our director, thank you. Thank you for choosing us to undergo this incredible, transformative journey with you. For trusting us and believing in us and allowing us to have the freedom to create these characters for ourselves. I will miss the rehearsals, even the ones in my tiny apartment where I’m pretty sure the neighbours thought I was murdering someone with all that yelling (haha!). From a beautifully written script by Margaret Edson, to intimate moments shared between the actors, to actually ending up in hospital in the process (oh, the irony!), to riding the metro and sharing taxi rides with you all after our late-night sessions, and of course actually ‘living’ up there on stage with you, I will miss those moments. I am so grateful to have this chance to work with you all and to be reminded that acting is what makes me who I am. It’s not about being the best or competing with other actors, it’s just about being. Being ‘me’, being a character in a play and blurring the lines. It’s the most rewarding process, truly. You get to have fun, whilst learning- about both yourself and your character and the worlds you both belong to. You get to teach, to spread a profound, meaningful message. Sometimes though, you just want to laugh and make someone else laugh. It’s the middleground- somewhere between striking a fine balance, of entertaining but also moving someone so much that they leave the theatre thinking. Their minds open a little, their hearts beat faster, the hairs on their arms stand on end (and not just because the theatre air conditioner is blasting freezing air, haha!). They felt something. You felt something. That is theatre, and finally, life.
Here’s to life, both on and off stage. It’s a sweet, precious thing. Let’s enjoy every moment.