Lessons from Vivian, Part 1.

The last coherent thing Vivian Bearing says to her empathetic nurse Susie near the close of Wit is “I’m a teacher.” (She’s just explained that “soporific” means “makes you sleepy,” and Susie, generous character that she is, thanks her for teaching her something new.)

It’s been just over two weeks since we closed Wit, and I’m still learning things from Vivian. No doubt I’ll continue to do so, but I want to start articulating some of these thoughts here– if only for me to look back on later and consider how these ideas might have changed over time.

The first lesson is both the simplest and the hardest, and the one I learned over and over again as I stood backstage trembling in the dark before Vivian’s entrance: Memento mori.

No matter what else happens, we are all definitely going to die. Now, later, nobody knows, but the moment itself will happen. In the face of that incontrovertible fact, everything else gets put into a rather stark perspective: what are you going to do with your time? What really matters?

I was lucky enough to get at least one definitive answer to this question virtually every night of the show: in the sounds of people weeping as the inevitable end closed in on Vivian even as her carers did all they could, the stunned silence that often preceded applause at the finale, and the remarkable audience members who came up to me in the lobby afterwards to thank me for our company’s work. People I’d never met were so moved by what we’d all put together that they clearly needed to talk to me: about best friends going through Stage 4 cancer, about dealing with end-of-life issues with loved ones, about losing friends and family members to this infuriating disease, about living this life themselves. I’m sure my castmates had similar encounters.

It was a deep privilege to listen to them, to hear their stories in exchange for the one we’d told them, to discover repeatedly that because we’d told our story well, these people felt that they could tell theirs.

What really matters? Art matters. Storytelling matters– because these create moments when true connection can occur: reminders of what it means to be human. To contribute to this process in the company of such an amazingly talented and generous group of people (onstage, backstage, and in the audience every night) was, for me, a gift of extraordinary grace.

I wear two bracelets these days: the first is one I acquired during rehearsals in support of ovarian cancer research. be brave, it says. The second is one I had engraved once we closed the show: Memento mori. Do what matters most.

*Deep breath* And so it begins…

It’s very strange to get to do something I’ve long wanted to do– a mixture of delight and sheer terror, of hallelujah! and oh shit! simultaneously.

Oddly enough, that queasy feeling is exactly how I know this is something I really should be doing.

Today the process began that will culminate in my theatre company’s production in May of Margaret Edson’s Wit. (Fear not, there will be links posted to the website and all that jazz once it’s all up and running– show doesn’t open until May, so we’ve got some time.)

I’ll be playing Vivian Bearing. (The central character, for those who don’t know the show.*) She’s been on my bucket list of characters ever since I first read the play over ten years ago, so when I got the phone call offering me the role, my reaction was “Hell yes!”, much to the amusement of my Artistic Director.

My director (whom I absolutely love and trust, thank heavens) just sent out a first set of ideas for us to play with, and he and I will sit down to chat about the show in the next week or so.

So I’m excited.

And terrified.

But excited.

Yet scared mindless.

So what this means is that I’ll probably be nauseous for the next six months or so, right?

Great.

*deep breath*

Bring it on.

*Yes, I do know that the play was recently performed successfully on Broadway. And yes, I’ve seen the wonderful HBO film– I’ve forbidden myself from watching it again until after the show is over, lest I end up curled up in a corner whimpering at Emma Thompson’s brilliance. Fortunately, I’ve had a little bit of practice at this, since the last major show I did was Doubt— so replace “Emma Thompson” with “Cherry Jones and Meryl Streep,” and you get the idea. (Remind me why I do this again??)

In the words of Gloria Estefan,

“Get on your feet!”

(Cue 1980’s dance sequence. Go ahead– I’ll wait.)

This time of year, when everyone’s drained, classrooms can easily become swirling vortexes (or vortices) of exhaustion, and my students appear to have been replaced by a collection of open-mouthed dead fish…I take Gloria’s advice, and get everyone on their feet.

(Yes, they’re mostly English majors. No, they’re mostly not actors. Don’t care. Up everyone gets.)

All my undergrads have to do oral performances each semester, where they have to get up (in a random order determined by my literally drawing their names out of a hat) and give a memorized rendition of any segment of any play we’re discussing in class. So that certainly gets them up on their feet– and before we even begin, I make everyone stand up and we do a few stretches and silly moves to warm and wake everyone up (what else is the hokey pokey for, I ask you?). When the light comes back to their eyes and the energy in the room rises exponentially, we’re ready.

Then theatre– as an action, not just a subject of discussion– can happen. Everyone learns far more that day than they expect to, in ways they often don’t anticipate.

Performance day is tomorrow. Tomorrow will be a good day.

Smartest Thing I’ve Heard All Day

From a student after I’d explained to her and her group-mates why some aspects of their recent presentation were problematic:

“So, in the paper we have to write about this, is it okay if I write about what I learned because I got things wrong here?”

I answered that it absolutely was. And gave her a high-five. And may well have uttered the word “booyah.”

Somehow it’s so very easy to lose sight of this fact, but this really is what we all do, ideally: we try new things, make mistakes, and learn from them. Repeat ad infinitum

Exactly the same practices apply to theatre: when I trained at the School at Steppenwolf a few summers ago, I ran smack-bang into the wall of my long-ingrained perfectionism. Repeatedly. But after enough repetition and my own messy meltdowns in Meisner class and hearing the improv mantra “If you’re gonna fuck up, fuck up big!” day after day, it finally sank in: perfection is boring. It’s stagnant. People don’t go to the theatre to see perfect creatures– they go to watch human beings be fully human (including screwing up) in all kinds of ways. Oddly enough, the “messier” and more imperfect I became, the better my acting seemed to get.

Moral Of The Story: “Getting it right” is only useful if you learn something along the way, and how can you do that if you don’t realize what doesn’t work? So make those mistakes: show us what you got! Doesn’t work? Try something else!

The one ingredient…

…that no performance, paper, or race can do without?

Passion.

All the technique in the world won’t mean a blasted thing without that energy animating the action. Precision is wonderful, but if the actor, writer, or athlete doesn’t care about what they’re doing, nobody else will.

(Why yes, it’s late-term-paper season. And fall-show season. And end-of-race season around here.)

I do my damnedest to come up with potentially interesting essay topics for my students to work with, but at times I could absolutely weep at the dry-as-dust formulaic responses I get in return.

I suppose it’s a useful reminder of the limitations of teaching: I can model reading skills, work on writing technique, and show my classes just how passionate I am about what I teach, but that’s it. Ultimately, I have to let go and see what they bring to the process. Sometimes that will be less than I’d hoped. (Sigh.) But sometimes, the result will be far beyond what I might have guessed– I guess that’s the hope that keeps the process going, even when we’re all tired at this time of year.

(Lo, NaPoWriMo continueth apace amid the dreaded Mountains O’ Grading. More about passion anon.)

Look again. Look closer.

I’m always amazed at the number of people who are content with the “general gist” or “main idea” of a text or topic. I’ve had both students and fellow-actors tell me in all seriousness that they use published or online summaries of Shakespeare “just to make sure [they] understand what’s going on, otherwise [they’d] never get it.” 

I understand that impulse, or some part of it at least: Shakespeare is uber-canonical, everyone’s told they have to read his works, and 400-year-old plays aren’t necessarily simple to pick up and grasp at a glance.

But I grieve for what these people are missing.

In yesterday’s class, for instance, I showed my students the two stories Othello tells about the famous handkerchief he gave Desdemona: he tells her midway through the play that a female Egyptian charmer gave it (with strict instructions) to his mother, but then tells the men crowding in to see the aftermath of her murder that the handkerchief was “an antique token/ My father gave my mother.”

Hang on, I said, these two versions are diametric oppositions of one another. Why are they here? Did Shakespeare fall asleep?

In the subsequent discussion, the class came to a much greater understanding of the role of storytelling and the importance of knowing one’s audience in the play: Othello’s success as a lover is due largely to his ability to woo a woman with tales that sound straight from the Arabian Nights, yet at the end he attempts to justify his actions by referring to the values of lineage and honor dearest to the noblemen listening to his account. By extension, though, his downfall is at least in some small part caused by his own dependence upon stories and by Iago’s improvisational skill in telling him new ones. Appropriately for the tragedy written next after Hamlet, the play can be read as telling the tale of a man who acts too quickly, undermined by the “pestilence” of lies that Iago “pour[s] in his ear.” [And doesn’t that make you rethink Claudius’s famous poisoning of his brother? If aural poison can be verbal as well as viscous, what might Claudius have told Hamlet Senior in that offstage orchard to make his blood literally congeal in his veins?]

Judging from the looks on students’ faces, Othello as a play that revolves around storytelling was an entirely new idea to them– and yet, the keys to that thought are right there, in the text. No summary can give them “the gist” of that.

In the words of Linda Loman, “Attention must be paid.” Failure to do so leaves everyone in the room (including the audience) poorer.

What acting, scholarship, and triathlon have in common.

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(Royalty-free image by Shutterstock)

Though technically I did sleep in this morning, I still got up at 6AM– go figure. But I was restless and irritable: it was one of those mornings when even the most calming morning rituals did nothing to stop that itch in the back of the mind that I just can’t scratch no matter how many contortions I put myself through.

Finally, I’d had enough. Fuckit, I thought, I’m going for a run.

The sun had finally come out, but it was still decidedly chilly when I stepped outside. Nonetheless, I overrode the whiny chorus of It’scoldoutherewhaddayameanIgottarunIdon’twannaaaa and headed off on my usual route. And as usual, the whininess shut up and buggered off after about a mile or so, so I could enjoy the spectacular explosions of tree-colour against the blue sky and be glad of the cooler weather as I heated up.

The process, though, made me realize one of the key commonalities between three important parts of my life: discomfort.

Let’s face it: no matter how much one loves theatre (and I do), getting up onstage and being truthful is fucking scary. There’s always a moment backstage before I go on when I forget my lines and wonder whether I can run away screaming.

Similarly, coming up with a new idea, or a new way to think about Stuff People Have Thought Plenty About For Four Hundred Years, is a brutal business. As wonderful and welcoming as many people in my profession are, there are plenty more who aren’t and will make no bones in establishing that fact, so the question of Does anyone really need another article about this? tends to show up when I sit down in front of my keyboard.

As for triathlon, in every single race I’ve done the same thought has crossed my mind at some point (usually early in the swim): This is insane. Why on earth am I doing this??

In each case, it’s a matter of discomfort. I come up against what I think are my limitations, and the encounter isn’t pleasant. If allowed to fester, it can lead to persistent anxiety and/or total panic.

But as I’ve found in triathlon (and am increasingly applying to theatre and scholarship), if I can just recognize what’s going on and tell myself Ah– this is discomfort. Not pain or injury, just discomfort. That’s all. I can deal with this., then magically, it seems, I can. I enter the scene, finish the paragraph, get into my swimming groove, and get on with the job as fully and honestly as possible, without worrying what anyone else might think.

Because ultimately, nothing else will do.