OnStage United Kingdom Columnist
It blows me away the acting ability of the people I know and work with on a daily basis. I found myself watching Heathers and I thought “Wow, JD is a jerk” but then I almost immediately remembered: “oh right, that’s Bambi, he’s the nicest person ever!” Even as an assistant stage manager on The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, I would sometimes be listening to the final speech of our leading man (the title character, who is supposed to be like Hitler), I would have chills listening to him. But twenty minutes later, back in street clothes he was the nicest guy, giving everyone compliments about the performance.
I think many people have had moments like this. Even being backstage on a show, there are still moments when the actors are no longer my peers, suddenly, before my eyes, they transform into the character. I was a set designer for Heathers, so I was intimately familiar with the script. And yet, I saw the production twice (opening and closing) and our “Martha” brought me to tears in “Kindergarten Boyfriend” both nights. It amazes me when the actors are able to make me forget who they are and really pull me into the plot of the production.
This may all sound quite trivial. I mean, it is the job of an actor to make the audience react. They are supposed to be believable. Any actor worth their salt will embody the character. That is not what I am talking about. As a theater major in a small(ish) program, I am very familiar with my “theater family”. We have classes together, we do shows together, we party together, we get groceries together, all of that. And I know some very talented actors, and some not-so-talented ones. What I’m talking about is not their abilities as actors. This is a personal thing. I’ve talked to some other techies and we all agree: there is just something different about seeing someone you know as a good actor, versus seeing them as the character.
I have seen (and been in) dozens of musicals in my short life so far. I have seen everything from elementary and middle school productions (which many would consider the worst of the worst), all the way to the best of the best (Broadway). I have not always liked the Broadway performances. Some people were really good actors, but I didn’t look at them and see the character. I saw them as a talented actor that I wanted to see in another show. A girl who goes to high school with my little sister is very talented, and I am always entertained when I see her in a show. I start to look forward to their annual school musical because I want to see these kids act and have fun. I feel like I get a good value out of watching them perform.
I love musicals, so I listen to musicals all the time when I work and study. I’m really familiar with certain shows, even though I have never actually seen a production of those shows ever. Listening to certain soundtracks over and over means that I tend to picture how I think the characters look and behave. I can appreciate any actor that can give me a good rendition of “Sue Me” from Guys and Dolls, but I have my image of what Adelaide and Nathan look like, and so far I haven’t seen my imaginary Adelaide on stage.
However, when I’m watching “Martha” dance around the stage and she suddenly transforms, she is no longer the person that sits next to me in class, she is my imaginary Martha. Every time that I listen to the music of Heathers, I now find myself inserting her. I have a fondness for her voice over the Broadway recording. My peer is now the new face of my ideal Martha.
That’s not to say that I will never again enjoy another version of Heathers, that just means that when I listen to the music, or think of the show, I’m going to have my imaginary cast playing the rolls, and now I have a new face for my imaginary Martha Dunnstock.