Come with me…

walking-awayPeople 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.

 

 

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Her Head is an Exhausting Place to Be

069bccbbdc268f454d1cb4eac4664f2b So, I’ve been cast as Diana Goodman in a community theater production of the musical “Next to Normal”. I’ve been obsessed with this show for months, listening to the music, reading about the show, and really trying to understand all of the subtext. When I got the part, it was such an exciting moment. This really is a dream role…so meaty, so much depth to the character, and it’s topped off with the most gorgeous score.

If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s the story of a woman (Diana) who is struggling with bipolar disorder. Throughout the play, you see not only Diana’s struggles, but the struggles of her family and the impact that her disease has had on them. It’s not pretty.

As preparation, our director assigned us an exercise that was really one of the most exhausting experiences of my life. We were asked to do write an end to end character analysis for our character. I thought, piece of cake! I know everything about this woman because I’ve been studying her for months. We had to document everything from basics like height, weight, how they dress, wear their hair, etc. to a deep dive into their psyche. That last bit was the part that really did me in.

Diana is an incredibly complex character. She runs the full gambit of emotions and has so many underlying motivations to everything she does, that it was difficult to break it all down. I had to pick the script apart and tackle one scene (or song) at a time…Diana is in 30 of the 37 songs. Yeah, it was a long process. But rather than just try to describe how Diana was feeling, I decided to use this as a true character exercise and write it as Diana.

For each of the 30 scenes, I tried to think like Diana. A tried to imagine myself in her crazy, mixed up bipolar world, and I wrote her inner monologue. It took me a combined 6 hours over 2 days. And yes, Diana is a completely exhausting person. Here’s a few snippets to demonstrate her emotional shifts (without spoiling plot lines as much as possible):

Just Another Day (Opening number, you’re meeting Diana for the first time)

I’m a mom…just like every single mom in America. That’s all I want them to see. Typical mom, typical kids, typical husband, typical life. Never let ‘em see you sweat, right? I can do this, I can keep this family running, and do it with style and flare! I can! Just watch me! Oh shit, I can’t do this.

You Don’t Know (Diana’s husband Dan makes the mistake of trying to tell her he understands what she’s going through. Empathy, ya know?)

Is Dan fucking kidding me?! He has no idea what goes on in my head! He has no clue the anger and sadness, the weight of that! He can’t. He’s never suffered over anything in his life!  Not the way I have…and still do. He couldn’t give two shits.

Didn’t I See this Movie (Diana’s doctor and her husband have decided on an unorthodox treatment for her disorder.)

You want to do WHAT? Are you serious? And who made this decision? They did. Dan and Dr. Madden. They made this decision without me. TRAITORS! Well, hell no. This is NOT happening.

Wish I Were Here (The treatment, from Diana’s perspective)

Whoa, this is trippy! It’s like I got drunk, smoked a joint, and slammed about a six pack of Natalie’s Red Bull all at once! This is the best I’ve felt in years. The clarity of my thoughts. The weight that’s been lifted from my head. Hey, it’s Natalie! Wait, what? OK, maybe this is a little scary. I’m not sure I like this after all. When will it stop?!

A Promise (Dan is explaining to Diana why he fights so hard for her.)

Is Dan seriously saying that he’s stayed with me out of a sense of duty? I guess he’s finally being completely honest with me, too. I’m having a moment of true realization. We’ve built a relationship on a lie. We’re never going to be those people again.

And these are just bits and pieces. Not only does can she not keep a consistent thought from one scene to the next, sometimes she does a full 180 all in the same scene. This woman is…I really can’t think of another way to put it. She’s exhausting. It’s exhausting to be in her head!

Now, I’ll let you in on a secret…it’s also amazing. Every actor has a dream role…for musical theater guys, maybe it’s Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables” or Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha”. For the ladies, it might be Roxie Hart in “Chicago”, Liza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady”, or Christine in “Phantom of the Opera”. For me, Diana Goodman is every bit of that to me. She’s complicated, intense, funny, a little scary, and she sings some of the most amazing songs written for a female vocalist. It’s an incredible privilege to be in her shoes and in her head. It’s just also exhausting.

By the end of this run, I may need therapy…