"Line by Line" : Performing When Your World is Falling Apart
"I got out of the taxi, grabbed my bag, and someone calls my name from behind me. I turn around and a young man is standing in front of me. As an actress, a myriad of thoughts run through my head in an instant.
Is he looking for an autograph? A selfie? Or he is going to mug me? He didn't do any of that. He just handed me a packet of papers which notified me that my marriage was over. And this was two hours before I was about to perform."
Having been both a performer and a director, you don't ever have to prove to me the intestinal fortitude of actors. I've seen performers go on stage with injuries, sickness, and other issues. But then there are some moments where I've seen performers go through tremendous tragedy or distress and I wonder how they were able to breathe let alone get on stage and perform a two-hour show.
I spoke to two actresses who I know went through situations like this. While they might have performed in two very different venues, both were given devastating news just hours before a performance. While their perspective worlds were falling apart around them, they were able to get on stage and perform as if nothing was wrong. Here are their stories, I've changed their names, at their request, for privacy purposes.
Three years ago, "Lisa", was about to have one of the biggest nights of her life. She was about to make her Broadway debut. After moving to New York after college, auditioning, doing every odd job you can imagine, she had finally climbed the ladder to make it onto a Broadway stage. It was a long climb too. It had taken her over a decade. During that time she met "George", a financial analyst at a neighbor's St. Patrick's Day party.
"We hit it off, you know? There was something about him that made me want to talk to him for hours. It was like everything he said was interesting."
To say the romance was fast might be an understatement to some. Within six months they were engaged and a year later married.
"Maybe that was our first problem. But at the time, everything felt great. It was wedded bliss."
George did well enough that they could live on the Upper West Side and Lisa could focus on her acting career without having to find day jobs to support herself. It also allowed her to take non-paying gigs in hopes they would lead to bigger things.
According to Lisa, the first three years of their marriage were fantastic. George supported her, worked long hours as well so this way she didn't feel too guilty about rehearsal schedules. But after one particular failed audition, she started to notice something different about her husband.
"I didn't get the comfort I used to. Instead of the usual "you'll get 'em next time", I got "So maybe this is a sign this isn't for you" talk. He also had a hard time getting past smaller non-paying roles because he felt it wasn't worth my time or the time I was sacrificing being with him."
The tension only got worse when the topic of children would come up. George wanted kids but that would mean Lisa would have to put her career on a massive hold. Needless to say, things started to go downhill really fast after that.
"Conversations became debates. We were almost looking for fights because we know they would be inevitable."
But things suddenly started to look up. Lisa had made some good contacts through a play she had done which eventually led to an audition for a Broadway revival. After an extensive audition process, she had gotten a role in the ensemble. While she thought this would make everything better, it was clear that their marriage was a sinking ship.
It all came ahead just about a month later, the same night of the show's opening night. That's when, as Lisa was getting out a taxi, she was served divorce papers from George. This was about two hours before she was to make her Broadway debut.
"George never understood the concept of previews versus opening night. So I don't think he was so cruel as to do that on opening night. But he was cruel enough to do it because he knew where I was going to be and at what time."
After phone calls to family and close friends, Lisa realized she still had a show to do.
"My head was spinning, heart racing. It was the strangest mixture of sadness and anger. But I wasn't shocked. I kind of knew this was eventually going to happen."
So given that she just found out her marriage was essentially over, how did Lisa pull herself together to perform effectively?
"To start, I didn't tell anyone. I kept it to myself. Everyone was excited and getting in their own headspaces and I didn't want to distract from that with something that only affected me. So I just sat back, took a breath and let the adrenaline of the evening take over. I concentrated on my blocking, cues, quick changes and everything else I could to not think about it. That worked for most of the night."
Performing on stage wasn't a problem for Lisa. But it was the moments between where things got very hard.
"Waiting in the wings, that was the toughest. Because I'm just standing there and it's hard to keep your brain from thinking about it. I would come off stage and all of the sudden I'd feel that pit in my chest."
But Lisa was able to get through the performance just fine and she performed in the show for its entire run into the following year. Looking back on the experience, what advice does Lisa have for anyone in a similar issue?
"Breathe, I can't stress that enough. Oxygen is your friend in those moments. But the next thing is to prioritize. Remember what your job is that night and dive into it. Take the Scarlet O'Hara approach and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow. Tonight you've got a show to do."
Ever since Susan was a little girl, she had wanted to be an actress.
"I saw Meryl Streep in "The Cherry Orchard" in 1977 and that was it for me. Since that day I always knew I was going to be an actress."
One of Susan's biggest supporters was her mom, Marie.
"It didn't matter if it was a school play or a local show, she was going to be there. I went to college six hours away from where we lived and she still came to every show I was in."
Her mother's support followed her even after college, even when Susan's Broadway dreams didn't come true, her mom still supported her love of performing arts.
Last summer, Susan was performing in a local production of her favorite musical. Not only that, she was playing the lead, a dream role. Her mom, now living a state away, had plans of coming to see the show and stay with Susan.
"She was going to come up on Saturday morning and spend the weekend seeing both final performances. I hadn't seen her in a couple of months so I was really looking forward to that."
On the Friday before, Susan arrived at the theatre and walked into her dressing room and began to get ready for the show. That's when her phone rang.
First it was her husband, which she ignored because her husband knew what time it was and that she was getting ready for the show. Then her sister called and then her brother right after that. Worrying that something was wrong, she called her sister back and was given earth shattering news.
Her mother had died in her sleep that morning. She was found by her brother when he came over to her house that night for dinner.
"You know in the movies when someone receives news and they drop the phone? I always thought that was so over-the-top but I dropped the phone."
Devastated, distraught, and panicked Susan didn't know what to do. By now, her cast members who were in the dressing room with her at the time could see what was happening.
"There were lots of hugs, tears. But never once did I consider not performing. My mother, of all people, would never have wanted that."
So an hour after being told her mother had died, Susan went on stage and performed one of the roles she had dreamed of playing, "Mama Rose". What was it like playing a mother, moments after being told you had lost your mother?
"It wasn't as bad as you would imagine. Mostly because my mother was nothing like Mama Rose. But there were moments where it was really hard, especially in the more tender moments. It was really tough. I needed tissues every time I walked off stage. But I know my mother would have wanted me on that stage."
The following night's performance was even harder because Susan could see the empty seat where her mother was supposed to be.
"She always liked to sit in the same seat, towards the front, on the house right aisle, so she could stretch or get up without disturbing anyone. I could see that seat every time I was on stage. It was like seeing Tiny Tim's cane in A Christmas Carol, and it killed me."
So how did Susan get through a performance with all that?
"Line by line. I couldn't ignore it or block it out. So you just have to do it one step at a time. My mother was the biggest supporter in life and I know she was watching me that night, cheering me on. In those moments I think you have to wrap yourself in the positive and the love. Lean on your cast members for support, mine were the best that weekend. And trust yourself. You're stronger than you think in moments like that."