As a kid I used to sing my heart out while I washed the dinner dishes. I’d gaze at my ponytailed reflection in the window above the sink as a soundtrack blared from the tape deck on the counter. I can chart my childhood by the shows I was in. At age eight it was Amahl and the Night Visitors. At nine it was Annie. At ten it was Phony Island and Hansel and Gretel. You get the idea.
My stage was a community theater in Kainaliu, Hawaii, but I never gave up on the notion that some Hollywood bigwig might magically discover me. I remember singing to myself in the aisles of Long’s drugstore just in case a passing customer had connections.
When I was 13, a gargantuan production team came into town to film Kevin Costner’s epic flop Waterworld. I went to the cattle call for extras but never heard back. Rumor had it they were looking for waifish types. I’ve never been mistaken for a waifish type. A year later, I auditioned for a television show that never aired. Didn’t hear back from them, either.
A couple years ago David insisted on watching an old VHS tape of me playing Wilbur the pig in Charlotte’s Web the Musical. A delightful glimpse into my childhood for him; a wince-fest for me. “I wish I could travel back in time and coach myself,” I sighed. I’ve rarely seen a performer work so much harder than she needs to. A prize ham, if you’ll pardon the pun.
Needless to say, adulthood has disentangled the dreams of fame and glory from my theater life. I tally the inefficiencies and discomforts of my endeavors more than the ego strokes I relished as a child. Whether I’m directing or acting, I’m forced to make prolonged eye contact with my control issues. The rehearsal process, as maddening as it is productive, eats up appalling quantities of time. I inevitably find myself wondering why I bother. Shouldn’t I be writing or meditating or planning my wedding?
Tech week for Sound of Music hurtled forward like an eighteen-wheeler, and I wasn’t driver or passenger but cargo. By the time we finally screeched to the curb of opening night, I didn’t feel excited so much as exhausted. Please God, just let me not screw this up.
At the top of the show, the cards are stacked against me. The nuns begin their ethereal chanting while I’m hunched on the floor of the itty-bitty Community House balcony. I try to imagine green grass and the majestic Alps. Heart kerthunking, I rise into the circle of the small spotlight. The first lines of music tremble from my lips. I feel the audience turn in their seats. Then I’m running down the stairs to the side door to fling my arms wide. “The hills are alive . . .”
Next I’m gliding down the center aisle, trying not to flail audience members with my expansive gestures. We only blocked this a week ago. My confidence is as ragged as my breath. Aren’t we all thinking wistfully of Julie Andrews? The twinkle in her eyes, the spin of the mountains around her, the flawless vocals.
I was thinking of her still this week, washing dinner dishes and singing my heart out. There’s this one part in particular that I wish I could do like Julie does. I want to elide like a lark who is learning to pray into I go to the hills when my heart is lonely. I want to do it without taking catch breaths. Wouldn’t I feel impressive then? Wouldn’t I feel I’d gotten it right?
Our amazing clarinetist/flutist Stephen Bates learned of my hang-ups from his wife Isabella, who plays Sister Margaretta. Before last Sunday’s matinee he spoke wisdom to me. I wish I had a transcript of the conversation. Something about the beauty of actors who fully embody both themselves and their characters. Something about the love of the cast and the musicians and the audience holding me through that song, while I feel so vulnerable.
With the soapy sponge in my hand Tuesday night, it finally occurred to me that I don’t need to be Julie Andrews. I can unhand my notions of perfection just as I surrendered my childhood dreams of celebrity. I can trust that what I’m offering still matters, perhaps all the more by virtue of its imperfection. It’s in that Leonard Cohen song:Ring the bells that still can ring Forget your perfect offering There is a crack, a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in.
Opening-number angst aside, last weekend I remembered why my heart keeps pulling me back to theater even as my head sputters in protest. Friday night, depleted and dubious, I stepped onto our pintsized stage and felt the old, familiar energy surge: the uncanny magic of finally having an audience to receive our story.
The audience is like the solution to a complex equation. You apply your formulas and theorems; you scribble and erase and wear your pencil tip down. And when you finally come to the answer, it’s nothing fancy or esoteric. x=3. y=7. The answer looks so much simpler than you would have wagered, and yet its simplicity is precisely what confirms to you its truth. The performers and the production team bustle about on one side of the equation; the audience sits still and watches. Somehow they balance each other perfectly.
Let me throw another metaphor at this. Let’s say the songs and words you memorize are clay that someone slaps into your hand. You’ve got your own keen ideas of the vessel you’d like to sculpt; you’ve got a director at your shoulder correcting and reshaping. You’re all intent on coaxing beauty from the contours of the clay.
You forget that a thirsty person doesn’t care what his cup looks like. You forget that all your effort is preparation for a grace you’ll never understand: filling and pouring out and refilling. If you’re still grasping for lines or fudging the blocking you won’t experience this. If you don’t put in the work you’ll feel the adrenaline but not the surrender. Eleven-year-old Hannah in her pig-suit was on to something after all. The work is the only place to start.
But then comes a letting go. Then comes the energy of the audience, the love of your cast and crew, the musicians buoying your voice. You’ve practiced enough that it feels sturdy and familiar: not like your old dreams of glory, but like something far better. Like real life. Like washing the dinner dishes while singing your heart out.
(Special thanks to Laurel Joly for her lovely pre-show pictures)