People often ask me how I can possibly enjoy being on a stage, in front of a theater full of strangers, and willingly perform for them. The answer is simple: it feeds my soul. There is something so freeing about telling someone else’s story, and taking an audience along for the ride.
There are also moments, as an actor, when you’re on stage completely immersed in your character, and you’re not even aware that there’s an audience out there anymore. You are so deeply invested in your character, feeling what they’re feeling, that you are in your own world a million miles away. Then, something happens…a reaction from somewhere out there in the dark…that brings you back, but in a way that lets you know that that the audience is with you. They’re walking with you. They’re feeling what you’re feeling. They, in turn, have become so invested in the show, that they’ve forgotten they are watching live actors on a stage.
I’ve been done with Next to Normal for almost two weeks, but one of those such moments came back to me today. If you haven’t seen Next to Normal (and if you haven’t, you should), it’s the story of a family struggling to cope with the mother’s bipolar disorder. She has tried every treatment option including a wide variety of medications, talk-therapy, and hypnosis, but through circumstances and escalation of her disease, the doctor determines that her only option is E.C.T. One of the side effects of E.C.T. is possible memory loss which, unfortunately, Diana (my character) experiences in spades, losing over 19 years of memories. She has forgotten her marriage, her daughter, her home and her life, but also the painful loss of her infant son which served as the initial trigger for her mental illness.
In the show, there is a song in the Act II, after the therapy, where Diana is expressing her extreme frustration to her doctor. She is incredibly upset that she can’t remember her life, but she feels that it’s all right there on the edge of her mind. The doctor asks her if she has talked to her husband, if he has told her about her son. This is the first time anyone has mentioned this to her and she’s visibly shaken by the knowledge that she had a son. As soon as the doctor mentions the son, everything on stage just stops as Diana realizes and absorbs.
It was at this moment during one of our second run shows, that I was so completely “under” as my stage manager called it (think of a state of hypnosis…I wasn’t me, I was Diana), and the moment was so emotionally charged. The second the doctor asked if I knew about my son, I heard several audible gasps come from the audience.
Now, that may not sound like a big deal, but consider this: Making an audience laugh is often a matter of comedic timing. Making them cry can be as simple as a well-delivered song with incredibly sad lyrics; they songwriter has done the bulk of the work. But to elicit something like a gasp…the audience must truly believe what you are doing because YOU truly believe it’s happening.
During that split second, the real me poked her head out for just long enough to give a virtual fist-bump to Diana. We had this. They were in the palm of our hand, and completely along for the ride. Then, Diana pushed “me” back down and said “Let me handle this.” But in the back of my mind for the rest of the show I knew I’d done my job. Those are the moments you live for. That’s the high an actor gets from performing in front of an audience.
This is why I go to rehearsal for weeks on end, hours a night, and work my ass off to memorize, analyze, and deliver. It’s why I get on that stage every night. There’s a pay-off. It’s not monetary. It’s enriching. It feeds the soul. And for those two hours in front of a full house, I can bare that soul to the audience. I can bring them with me, show them my world, tell them the story, and send them home haunted by the memory of what I’ve shown them. We’ve been down a road together, and we will both forever be changed by the journey.