This time last year, before a matinee of a holiday show, I could not stop crying. I had circled the block for half an hour, my precious pre-show time ticking away. I got close to the stage door and then had to crouch behind an electrical box, sobbing, while audience members already started to arrive at the theatre’s doors. When I finally made it in, I still couldn’t stop, wiping off tears to apply makeup, drying my eyelashes enough to glue big fake ones on top. At warm-up, a fellow actor asked if they could try something, and I said sure. They placed a hand on my back and closed their eyes. I imagined them pulling whatever it was that wouldn’t let me go out of my body and into theirs, and then casting it down into the stage, down into the earth. They shook it off. I stopped crying.
In the last 12 months I had the privilege of spending over half of my year in rehearsal or performance, more than I’ve ever had before and more than I ever expect to have again. It had been two years since I’d been on stage. This was the life that I’d dreamed about as a kid, the immersive devotion to a life on stage. It’s harder in reality. The work of an actor is both romanticised and denigrated to the degree that it can become indecipherable when you go to talk about it. Stay grateful, but don’t be precious. Work your guts out but remember that it’s just a job.
To me, the work of an actor hinges on the vulnerability of shared imagination, building worlds, investing in them, believing in them and making them manifest. Working in a way that is at once intensely personal and relentlessly public, we try to craft something that is both delicate and durable, repeatable and spontaneous, generous and restrained. It’s impossible. If you don’t love failure, it will eat you alive. If complacency comes easy to you, you’ve doomed yourself to a Sisyphean nightmare of pointless repetition. Sometimes the delicate web of emotional investment and psychological believability is the essential ingredient in a show. Sometimes you just have to be loud enough and let your costume do the rest. The recipe is different every time.
And then there’s the reality of presence. Relentless physical and emotional presence with one another while tired, while sick, while hungry, while grumpy, while excited, while preoccupied, while stressed, while hyper, while sleeping, while sneezing, while coughing, while barfing, while menstruating, while pregnant, while grieving, while shaking, while sweating – it’s intimate, embarrassing, comforting and unavoidable. As I grow to know myself better, I realize that this is both what attracted me to this life, and the hardest part. Some are great at keeping their space. I’m not. Non-stop exposure to the lives and feelings of others leaves me feeling like a blown-out speaker sometimes. I’m still working on figuring out how to keep the volume low.
You have your tool kit – your body and mind – and fight off the lack of sleep, the proximity to communal bacteria and viruses, the struggle for healthy eating, the temptation of ‘decompressing’ late nights out, the repetitive physical activities, the exhaustion of community politics, the contagion of complaining, the fear of punishment, the anxiety of imperfection, and at some point you get yourself through the stage door in whatever state you’re in, and set down to work. This to me, is where thinking of the work of an actor as some mystical incantation to creativity is absolutely useless. This is where it feels like a trade: practical, skilled, pragmatic. Prepare the workspace and the tools, and get down to it. Because it’s not magic every day. Sometimes it’s humiliating, or boring, or annoying. Sometimes it’s like drawing blood from a proverbial stone (or making an audience believe you’re doing so, as a prop falls apart in your hands and someone’s cell phone goes off, twice). Sometimes it’s transcendent, miraculous, transporting. It’s often not. You will never know what it will be and why. You must love the mystery.
It’s the end of the year now. It’s quiet. I’m off contract and ready for some alone time. I have this particular feeling I get sometimes – like my skin is hot, like every set of eyes that looked at me this year as I sang or danced or cried or did whatever is still on me, every touch from quick changes and rehearsal hugs and onstage love is still pressed onto the surface of my skin. I’m so glad not to be acting for the next month. I can’t wait to get back to it.
Like all great loves, this one shifts with age, reveals new facets, asks to be proved worth it or not, renews itself over and over again. I have a photo of me at the stage door of the Vancouver Playhouse at 11 years old, shaking with nerves and excitement, waiting for the actors to come out. Dying to know what was on the other side of that door.
The mystery still lives.