Time Stands Still: The Many Layers of Sarah

Time Stands Still: The Many Layers of Sarah

Alicia Dempster

To me, the mechanics of performing a role come more easily than the character development. They are the parts of acting that are finite – go here, do this, say this. They provide the measurable side of bringing a character to life on stage. As I’ve indicated in previous posts, the mechanics can be daunting but, with discipline and hard work, you can be successful. I think that my extensive understanding of the logistics of theatre is what suits me (and my personality) more for directing.

I came to this conclusion following one of last week’s rehearsals. I was particularly wrecked – just physically and emotionally exhausted. Believe me, hell week is called hell week for a reason. Once we finished the rehearsal, Will, who plays Richard, said something about how he could tell this role was taking its toll. He then said, “There’s no rust on you,” eluding, I presume, to the fact that it’s been a very long time since I’d had to flex those acting muscles and that I was doing all right. Yet, somehow, I didn’t feel that I’d been able to fully flex and extend those rusted joints.

So there I sat, waiting for Dorothy to happen along with an oil can.

Later that evening, I emphatically stated to Aaron, “Acting is hard!” He found this proclamation to be pretty humorous despite the fact that I was being completely serious. Tapping in to your emotional stores in order to convey the proper feeling is tough, doing it repeatedly for two hours is positively draining. The interpretation, motivation and emotion required to create a dramatic character are so much more complicated and personal than the mechanics.

People who have known me outside of the theatre know that I’m not a really emotional person. I’m pragmatic, forthright, snarky and sarcastic, not unlike Sarah. These are the elements of her character that come naturally to me. As for the sadness, guilt, anger and fear that Sarah feels, that is a little harder to access. Like Sarah, I have spent a long time rewiring myself to suppress and desensitize myself to feeling these kinds of emotions. It’s a defense mechanism that has been in place for quite some time and it works for me, despite what any psychotherapist might say. The problem with this approach to life arises when I’m trying to summon some of the more difficult emotions demanded by this particular script and character.

One thing I have never been able to do is cry on command. I saw this video a few weeks back and it gave me such cry jag envy. If there really is such a thing.

Like Bryce Dallas Howard, there are some actors that can just recall real and genuine emotion in an instant. Erin, the actress who plays Mandy, does it so well. And I secretly hate her for it. Okay, maybe hate is the wrong word. I envy her for it. There are a couple of times in the show when her eyes just well up with tears and, like Sarah, I find myself saying, “I wish I could cry like that.” Fortunately, suppressing emotion is Sarah’s thing, so if tears never come, so be it.

Aside from the emotions, building meaningful connections within the scope of the play was something that was integral to my process. Connecting to Sarah, developing the relationships with the other characters and finding truth in her journey was critical as I worked to become Sarah. Beat by beat, line by line, moment by moment, I broke up the script and tried to make a personal connection to what was happening in the scene. Some of those connections are inherent in the relationships that I have with the three other actors in the play. Building upon existing friendships, making new ones and finding meaningful attachments within those relationships has been interesting terrain to navigate as I discovered both a closeness to and distance from each of the actors and characters.

Other connections are found in my personal life experience which I have attempted to intertwine with Sarah’s. At one point in the play, Sarah observes that her partner could have walked away from her after her accident, stating that he didn’t have to take on the responsibility of her rehabilitation. Every night, when I say that line, I recall my sister’s near-fatal car accident that happened over twenty years ago, specifically how her boyfriend dealt with her recovery. It was a long haul between the ICU and the six months she spent in long-term rehabilitation before she came home. Eventually her boyfriend walked away. Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what was going through his head and what was going through hers during that time. There are so many moments in Time Stands Still that I have made deeply personal and many really tug at those heart strings. It is a very intricate tapestry that ends up being displayed in Sarah each night. And weaving it is exhausting.

Another very important resource in the development of Sarah’s character was the research I did about photojournalists and why they do what they do. I found a great deal of inspiration in the work of Lynsey Addario, one of the few female conflict photographers whose work is primarily based upon stories unfolding in the Middle East. There is one picture that she spoke about during her book tour that resonated with me.

In this picture, Addario and her fixer happened upon two women on the side of the road, one of whom was in labor. The father of the child had lost his previous wife during childbirth, so he had rented a car to ensure that his wife would get to the hospital in time. However, the car broke down and he left the two women to go find another means of transportation. When she learned what was going on, Addario sent her fixer down the road to get the husband so that they could take the women to the hospital, which they successfully did. People have asked Addario why there were no pictures taken at the hospital or after the child was born and she explained that once she inserted herself into the story, it was no longer documenting it, it was participating in it. Sarah remarks that the photographer’s job is to “capture truth, not stage it.” I feel that this photograph exemplifies that notion and I look at this photograph every night to help me to get inside Sarah’s head.

Early on in tech week, I was struggling to reconcile all of these elements into what was becoming Sarah. It was really taking its toll on me. So on one of my commutes to work that week, I decided that I needed to get out of Sarah’s head for a while. I put on the original cast recording of 35mm: A Musical Exhibition. I just wanted to rock out a bit, not really thinking about how this particular show is based upon the marriage of music, words and photography (it is the brainchild of the brilliant composer Ryan Scott Oliver and his equally talented husband, photographer Matthew Murphy). I was humming along when one particular song came on that just hit me, like a ton of bricks thrown at me out of nowhere.

I listened to the song on repeat for the remainder of the commute, everything just twisting together in a painfully miraculous way. And I cried. Probably the only time I will actually be able to summon tears for Sarah. For me, all of my best acting and singing happens in the car. In his blog, Matthew Murphy discussed the photograph that he created for “Hemming and Hawing." He said, “I wanted to create a type of melancholy relationship apocalypse (you know...one of those) where one partner's stability is wavering, and the innocence and purity of the relationship is something only the other partner can embrace.” That statement encapsulates Sarah and Jamie’s relationship perfectly and I need to listen to it every night at some point before the performance. That picture, along with a few Addario shots, is taped to my dressing room mirror.

Certainly the process of embodying a character is different from actor to actor. There are some characters that are extraordinarily difficult to connect to and to spend extended periods of time with. Despite her challenging nature, I have grown to love Sarah. I empathize with many of the things she is experiencing and she has helped me to feel and appreciate some of my own emotions and thoughts. When all of this is over in a few weeks, I will have to say goodbye to Sarah and that will be very hard. But I’m ready to get back to Alicia, at least until the next role comes along.

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