On Imperfection (or not being able to do everything you initially imagined).

“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

–Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

I’ve been training for my second Ironman for several months now– I did my first last year, and finished successfully despite rather dramatic (pun intended) odds, including getting knocked off my bike by someone passing me illegally and weather of truly Lear-like proportions. (And no, I’m not exaggerating. Ask me and I’ll tell you the whole crazy story sometime.) All of which is very satisfying, except in the places where it isn’t.

Yes, I can now point to that experience and say, “See that? If I can do that, I can certainly do whatever is being asked of me right now.” And that’s unquestionably a useful thing. But there’s no doubt that the experience was not what I had imagined, did not come close to what I could have done had circumstances utterly beyond my control not intervened.

Hence this year’s planned race: I’m on sabbatical, so I’ll have time to train,  I thought. This time I’ll get it absolutely right. This time everything will be dialed in. This time it will be perfect.

And Lear and the gods laughed.

I trained, just like the plan told me to. I did everything I was told to do. I worked hard, I ate right, I went to bed early.

And I got slower. My heart rate spiked higher, and earlier than it ever had before. I wondered what on earth was going on.

At first I blamed allergies– there’s no question that the trees on the east coast (where I spent most of this spring) were out to get me with their pollen. One weekend, my throat was so swollen with coughing that I couldn’t utter any sound at all. (Huge relief that I didn’t have an audition or acting workshop that weekend.) The planned marathon in May became a half-marathon with my sister, which was great fun because I love running with her, but very tough when I had to tug her sleeve at one point and gasp, “Stop. I can’t breathe.”

The moment passed, but it wasn’t fun. We kept on going, and finished in a respectable-for-us time, but I was wheezing and spent, wondering What on earth is wrong with me?

The litany of self-blame was endless: I’m fat. I’m horribly out of shape. The idea of completing a full Ironman is a joke. What on earth am I doing here? Round and round the chorus went, reinforced every time I went out for a run or tried to pick up the speed in my swim intervals.

I went and saw my doctor last week– initially to get a referral to an allergist, given the breathing issues earlier in the season. But I also mentioned the HR spiking and an article my mother had sent me about Paula Findlay (a fabulous Canadian triathlete whose heartbreaking difficulties at the recent Olympics became ultimately traceable to a serious ferritin-deficiency issue), so got a full CBC and ferritin test, just to be sure.

The very next day, the doctor called (note: when your doctor calls you the day after your visit, something’s likely to be wrong)– sure enough, I was anemic: the levels of iron in my blood are lower than normal, so not enough red blood cells can get made to distribute oxygen where it needs to go. And my ferritin levels (= the iron stored by my bone marrow) are particularly low. Hence (possibly) the high HR, difficulty breathing, and unexplained tiredness in the afternoons.

More tests are to come to make sure we know where the anemia comes from. But honestly, my first reaction was relief. Oh. So that’s what’s going on. It’s not my fault after all.

(Also, I admit that I thought, Hey, now I have something more in common with Paula Findlay besides being freckled female Canadian triathletes! Paula is, needless to say, vastly more talented and quick than I’ll ever be at this sport.)

There’s really something quite extraordinary about realizing that one really has done everything one could– it’s just that circumstances have intervened to put some parameters on what that means.

For the moment, for instance, that means that running is a run-walk proposition: run until my HR reaches the top of Zone 2 (out of 5), then walk until it drops about 20 beats, then run again. Repeat ad infinitum. Not only can I do this for a long time, I can now concentrate on form during the run segments, rather than on just hanging on for as long as I can. (That May half-marathon was mostly done in Zone 4, it turns out– one stage below flat-out. No wonder I was utterly spent by the end of it.)

So I’ll take my supplements, eat iron- and fibre-rich foods (though ideally not at the same time), and keep on training. Rather mundane, really. While the would-be-perfectionist in me is disappointed (dammit, the ideal plan eludes me yet again!), the rest of me is hugely relieved. I can still do the best I can– and that will be enough. It has to be, because that’s all there is. Anemia isn’t an excuse for complacency, but it is an explanation for exhaustion.

Similarly, I can give all I can to the students who need me at the moment, but that’s all– and that will have to be enough. They really can do the rest themselves.

None of it is perfect, or even what I could have imagined. But, like every different night onstage in the theatre, it is enough. It has to be– it’s all I have. And that has to be all right right now.

“Speak the speech, I pray you…

…as if it wasn’t a speech at all. Mmmkay?”

(Alternate Versions of Hamlet #48)

I just saw two local productions of Shakespeare plays– both shows I’d not seen in a while. While there were many excellent things about each, one thing jumped out at me in both cases: the action would be moving along, and then one of the characters would almost visibly gear themselves up to tackle a longer piece of verse and the energy onstage would change. This wasn’t simply the case in one instance or with one character, but a tangible occurrence, a breath-holding of sorts, at occasional intervals. Each show continued on from that point quite smoothly, and I’ve no idea if anyone else noticed, or if this was only in my imagination or experience. The actors were all doing strong work, I hasten to emphasize; just a frisson of tension rippled here and there.

Hmm. This made me think about some of the ways in which actors find Shakespeare in particular daunting– since I’ve been teaching Renaissance drama for a number of years, my reactions to the texts are slightly different from those of my castmates or fellow audience members, I find. So just what’s so scary about his works, and how might we dismantle some of that fear?

(A huge topic, and one I’ll no doubt muse aloud upon over and over again. But here’s an initial attempt to play in this sandbox.)

One of the great challenges actors can have when working on Shakespeare’s texts, I find, is the cultural weightiness that comes with so many of the speeches used in auditions or prominent in each of the plays: rather than Hamlet’s “Words, words, words,” they’re known as “The ‘To Be or Not To Be’ Speech,” “The ‘Unsex Me Here’ Speech,” “The Saint Crispin’s Day Speech” etcetera. No longer new, these pivotal points can become monoliths, mountains, feats of endurance rather than moments of communication, the definitive article preceding them sending a clear message that There Is Only One Way To Do This Right And Woe Betide If You Mess It Up.

Pity the poor actor in this circumstance– what on earth do you do when faced with such a mass of expectation in front of you?

Season 1 of the brilliant Slings and Arrows presents the problem, and a possible solution, halfway through this clip:

Geoffrey makes several telling points here, not the least of which is the fact that actors are dependent on other people to do what they do. But his response to Jack’s frightened outburst is particularly useful: “It is not that big of a play.” What if we address the frozen-terror-of-canonicity problem by dissolving it?

To my mind, “dissolving” in this context means throwing expectations to the winds, flipping the bird to Cultural Import, and focusing entirely on what my character needs to say at any given moment: what is happening now? What do I want/need/desire? How best can I get it? What words and images will help me do so? (Note that this means I need to know specifically what the words and images in the script mean– a topic for a later post.) If some of those words and images are well-known, that’s nice, but irrelevant– all that exists is this moment, this need, this scene partner. Everyone else is just along for the ride.

This applies to the classroom as well, I think—so often students can feel bombarded by the cachet of famous speeches, having been told repeatedly how wonderful this stuff is yet unable to see just why that should be so. But once we unpack the immediacy of the moment, the human passions that drive these phrases, then their attention is riveted. (Watching the expressions on students’ faces change as we go through “Come, you spirits/ That tend on mortal thoughts…” as they slowly realize for the first time just what’s happening at this point is one of the most delightful experiences ever.) Then we realize all over again that nothing but these particular words, in this particular order, can express what’s happening. Yes, they’re famous, yes, they fit into larger patterns of image and metaphor and theme—but the language itself becomes alive. The characters need it to be.

To coin each phrase afresh, rather than falling into recitation, is dangerous– each time is different, the words and images might not work every time, and we must reshape the world every night. But as Geoffrey says, “there’s nothing more boring than perfection.” That’s why I work in and go to the theatre– for that risk, that aliveness, that transformation.