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.

Becoming Sarah: Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (A.K.A. Act I, Scene 3)

Alicia Dempster

When working on a show, regardless of your contribution to it, there are points in the process where you begin to doubt yourself or question your choices. Generally speaking, everyone is working toward a common goal – to put on the best production possible. However, as humans who are putting something out there to entertain or connect with other humans, those inevitable moments of uncertainty are bound to appear. There are the universal questions that we all ask: Will the show be good? Will people come? Will they like it? Then there are the personal moments of doubt that we deal with throughout the process.

The first time I heard about the “FUD factor” was in my role as a marketing professional in the corporate world. Regardless of its corporate roots, the “FUD factor” – or Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt - has certainly been alive and well in my journey to bringing the role of Sarah Goodwin to life. I’ve already talked about the daunting task of learning a ton of lines and thankfully I have somehow managed to rise to that Herculean undertaking. Yet there remains other points in the show where I find myself more vulnerable than others. In my ever-obsessive mind, I have dubbed a particular scene in the show as TheFUD Scene, where seemingly trivial fears, uncertainties and doubts seem to crop up in quick succession. I always breathe a sigh of relief when those moments in Act I, Scene 3 are over and I can get out of my head a little bit.

Fortunately, these moments come in quick succession and are over within five minutes of performance time. The first moment comes when my character has to fall to the ground. Having been injured in a roadside bomb in Iraq, Sarah is outfitted with a fair share of medical equipment, including a full leg brace, arm sling, wrist brace and crutch. To make the fall even more exciting, I have spent the better part of the last eight weeks recovering from foot surgery. Every time I fall, I am painstakingly aware of how I will fall, how I will land, where the crutch will go and, most importantly, if I will feel any pain in the recovering foot. So far, most of the falls have been without incident.

OK – so I’m on the ground and presumably have not broken or bruised anything. Now I have to get up. Remember, I have a full leg brace and an “injured” arm, so I can’t just bounce up like a Mexican jumping bean. This is where Aaron, the actor playing my boyfriend, has to help me up. Let me tell you, my right quad muscles have gotten quite a workout while trying to assume as much of the effort of raising 150 pounds from the ground as possible. But does it end there? Oh, hell no! Now he has to lift me up and carry me across the stage. As someone who has spent the better part of her life worrying about her weight, that 30 seconds is generally spent in silent prayer hoping I don’t end up on the ground again. Thankfully, I haven’t been dropped yet. And now I’ve been transferred to the bed for what the producer has affectionately dubbed “sexy times.”

As someone who has spent the majority of her acting career as the sidekick or in a supporting role, I have managed to generally evade the need for any romantic interaction onstage. My first onstage kiss was in The Fantasticks when a 15-year-old me was portraying Luisa. My last onstage kiss was about 20 years ago when I was doing an irreverent mash-up Christmas comedy and, as it would happen, that kiss was with the man who became my husband. The reality is that I haven’t kissed another man onstage or off since. Now let me tell you, musical theatre and comedic kissing is very different from kissing which is meant to come off as believable and is generally not set to music. Yeah, I panicked about this a little. It gave me a newfound respect for all of those actors in Spring Awakening, who had to take onstage intimacy to a whole new level. The reality is that onstage kissing is less about romance than it is about mechanics, like blocking, finding your light and being aware of volume and projection during the dialogue. It is also about having mutual respect for your scene partner and maintaining a sense of humor, which thankfully exists in my situation. Most importantly, it is about avoiding onions, garlic and tuna fish. Thanks to Liam Hemsworth for the reminder!

So, I’ve made it through the fall, the transport and the sexy times all with what is perhaps my biggest underlying fear, which unfortunately does not go away at the end of the scene. As a Type 1 diabetic, I am constantly thinking about my blood glucose levels, hoping they don’t plummet to the point where I pass out onstage. Mind you, this has never happened in my six years as a diabetic but the thought is there, nagging at me like a child pulling on my pants leg. In this production, I spend very little time offstage. Fortunately, there are Skittles stashed in the dressing room, in offstage spots and I diligently test my levels when I can to avoid any kind of dramatic medical situation. I honestly don’t know how Elaine Stritch or Victor Garber did it. I have such a newfound respect for them and I breathe the hugest sigh of relief when I’ve successfully made it through the final scene of the show.

The thing about fear, uncertainty and doubt is that they are surmountable. When you face your fears head on, you become a stronger and more agile performer. Thankfully, conquering my fears in The FUD Scene has given me a new respect for both myself and for performers that overcome similar uncertainties, if not more challenging ones. In all honestly, I feel taking a little risk and exposing yourself more than you normally would is what makes for an interesting and memorable performance. So by the time this performance is over, I will no longer fear The FUD Scene but embrace it for all it has done to develop my character and me as a performer.

Becoming Sarah Part 4 : Divorcing the Director

Alicia Dempster

When directing a show, there are certain types of actors that are hard to direct. The divas, the drama queens and the slackers provide obvious challenges. It is also difficult to direct an actor who has already portrayed the role you’re directing him in or someone who has been involved in previous productions of the same play. Perhaps, though, the most challenging person to direct is another director.

Going into this production of Time Stands Still, I knew that I would have to fold up the director’s chair and do my best to view the project solely through an actor’s eyes. In many ways, I have found myself greatly liberated by having to tend only to the responsibilities of the actor. I am working hard to know my lines, remember my blocking and develop a memorable character.

But there are times when it is difficult to suppress the directorial urge. One of my cast mates can attest to this because apparently you can “see it on my face” when I want to say something. Fortunately, though, Sonnie is a very open and collaborative director and we have had a very open dialogue about character choices, blocking or other business. I do, however, make a point to speak to her privately on those occasions.

I am enjoying the different perspective being behind the footlights brings. It has been interesting to see how easy (or difficult) it is to practice what you preach when it comes to rehearsal protocol. When I am directing a show, there are a few ground rules that I lay down at the beginning of the rehearsal process. Though not all were articulated, per se, I suspect the director of Times Stands Still (and most others) would agree with these simple rules:

Start On Time
When I direct a show, I tell the company that I expect them to be on time. Just as the actor’s time is valuable, so is the director’s. A properly managed schedule can be very productive and can even afford some actors a “night off” here and there. I also think it is important to be respectful of a call time, both for the actors and the creative team. I maintain that actors should be onstage and ready to rehearse at the scheduled time. It is equally important for a director and crew to, as best they can, tend to production-oriented tasks outside of the rehearsal window. Naturally, there are times when circumstances or the point in the production process preclude this. And all bets are off during Hell Week.

Remember Your Blocking
This one seems like common sense, right? When you are stumbling through and/or fine-tuning blocking, it stands to reason that you are expected to remember it and/or have it written down. Especially if you still have your scripts in hand. I can’t tell you how many times during our rehearsal process I’ve had the stage manager remind me that I had to cross to a certain point or sit or stand. When this would happen, I would look at my script and see no blocking notes. If this occurs more than once, as it did with me, it is inevitable that you will hear the director say, “This is why I tell you to write it down!” What is even worse is when you go to write it down and the director rushes up to the stage to hand you a pencil. This also something I’ve done as a director and, mortifyingly, something that happened to me as an actor. Which leads me to…

Always Be Prepared
In early rehearsals, always bring your script and a pencil with an eraser. Highlight your lines and/or blocking so it is easier to find your place when you are running scenes or have to backtrack to a certain spot. In later rehearsals, when you are told to be off book, be off book. If you are asked to bring a prop or costume element, bring it in when it is expected. Likewise, the creative team and crew should be prepared by having blocking notes or ensuring that the technical elements come together as expected. When you are prepared, it is a much smoother ride. If you are constantly scrambling, then you better buckle up because it’s going to be a bumpy ride. 

Pay Attention
When in rehearsal, pay attention to what goes on around you. Listen to your fellow actors when you are on stage. When you are off stage, listen for your cues or prepare for your next scene. Time spent waiting in the wings should not be spent checking your Facebook or chatting with your friends. During notes, pay attention to what the director is saying. Oddly enough, this is the one that I have the hardest time with. It is difficult when you are building a camaraderie with your cast mates to resist making conversation or share little inside jokes. But, truly, timing is everything with that. There is nothing more frustrating to a director than having to repeat themselves because someone wasn’t paying attention.

Don’t Give Other Actors Notes
I hate this as a director. I hate this as an actor. This is where building a good relationship with your director and your scene partners is key. Having a conversation or forming the thought as a question is far more productive then telling another actor what to do. There is nothing more annoying, for the director or for the company, than an actor telling fellow actors how to interpret a line or their character. Except for maybe the actor who takes that direction.

Respect Everyone Involved
There are many theatre maxims that relate to respecting everyone involved with the production, no matter their role. There are no small parts, only small actors. Be nice to the lighting guy because he controls the “off” button. If you mistreat a crew member, your prop could be missing or your quick-change costume might not be there. It truly does take a village to build a successful production. From the producer to the director, from the crew to the front-of-house, from the actor to the audience member, every person plays an integral part in the theatrical experience. Never forget that, no matter who you are.

Hatena Ftolife, https://commons.wikimedia.org 

Hatena Ftolife, https://commons.wikimedia.org 

This latest project has really broadened my appreciation of what it takes to bring a theatre production to life and it has refreshed my memory of what the actor experience is like. Acting is completely different from directing in terms of how you reap the rewards of bringing a performance to life. I have to say, I am really loving it this acting gig. I’ve joked with friends that I might never direct again. Of course, we all know that isn’t true. So, I guess I’m not really divorcing the director, it’s more like a trial separation.  And I’m okay with that.

Times Stands Still is playing weekends at TheatreWorks New Milford from July 10th to August 1st. For tickets and further information, visit www.theatreworks.us. 


Source: Hatena Ftolife, https://commons.wikimedia.org 

Becoming Sarah: Part 2

Alicia Dempster

Back to School

As you can imagine, I have a lot of friends who are in theatre. Over the past decade or so, I have heard a lot of them use the phrase “first day of school” to describe the first day of rehearsal. I only recently started to use the phrase, being the lemming that I am, and I find it a perfectly suitable analogy for the rehearsal process.

Will the teacher like me? Will I know anyone in my class? Will the other kids like me? How much homework will there be? Am I smart enough? What will the classroom look like? What kind of grades will I get.

As I stated in Becoming Sarah: Part One, I haven’t been on stage in quite some time and I haven’t experienced a legitimate rehearsal process as a performer since 2006. The first thing I learned is that It is very different starting a new class being the student, as opposed to the teacher. The first day of school as a student is pretty nerve wracking but it can also very exciting. If you’re lucky, you’ll find yourself in a class where you can grow and thrive.

The cast for Time Stands Still is comprised of four actors (the other three being Aaron Kaplan, Will Jeffries and Erin Shaughnessy). Fortunately, none of them are performers I’ve directed, reviewed or acted with. It really is nice to have a clean slate upon which to start the rehearsal process. It truly gives us the chance to explore and learn our personalities and characters together. This is also the first time I have worked with the director, Sonnie Osborne, as an actor.

We had our table read a couple weeks ago. Being the Type A person that I am, I spent the time prior to the rehearsal highlighting Sarah’s lines in my script. I was so prepared, so excited and ready to begin. Then, around lunch time that day, I had a major panic attack. Unfortunately, I’ve experienced them in the past. Fortunately, those experiences have helped me to tell the difference between a panic attack and a cardiac episode. A few hours and a Xanax later, I was right as rain and on my way to the “first day of school.” As my friend Will pointed out, this return to the stage might have induced a little more anxiety than is readily apparent. Perhaps he's right.

As I write this, we are about to begin Week 3 of rehearsals. Thankfully there have been no more panic attacks. I am happy to report that I like the teacher, the kids in my class are pretty awesome and I'm loving the material. I’ve a feeling this is going to be a class where I learn a lot – about myself, about my character and about the relationships I will be cultivating with my classmates. And I can’t wait to see all of our names on the Honor Roll!

Becoming Sarah...Part One

Alicia Dempster

As most of the people reading this know, I am a theatre person. Not just someone that likes theatre. Theatre has always been my jealous mistress and her art, from page to stage, is something that will always tug at me, pulling me to her. I spent my formative years hanging around my father’s theatre and as soon as I was able to be a part of a production, I was hooked. I did shows through middle school and high school, graduated with a Theatre/Musical Theatre double-major from Ohio Northern University and have continued to pursue it in some way, shape or form since I left college. 

I spent most of my educational theatre experience on the stage. However, I the latter part of my college years saw me dividing my time between performing and stage managing/directing. The older I got, the more I found myself shifting from the performing side to the artistic/production side of things. Since the mid-90s, my resume is largely comprised of directing and producing credits. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve appeared onstage since 1994.*

I don’t audition for shows because I truly love directing and, generally speaking, my directing schedule eats up a good chunk of my calendar. The other reason is because there are a few age-appropriate roles that resonate with me. As the mother of three with a full-time job, I have to be selective about the projects I take on. As it would happen, there were a few shows with roles that piqued my interest: Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire and Pam in Oblivion. As luck would also have it, my directing schedule calmed down a bit. So I auditioned for both and was cast in neither. I was disappointed, yes, but as a director I am very pragmatic. I was able to lick my wounds in short order and move on. As my husband says, “There will always be shows.”

Then in November 2014, TheatreWorks New Milford announced that they were doing Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still. The play is a drama about a photojournalist and her reporter boyfriend dealing with their changing relationship while she recovers from injuries sustained in an Iraqi roadside bombing. The role is Sarah Goodwin, which was originated by Laura Linney in both the Off-Broadway and Broadway productions. And, miraculously, a few weeks ago I was cast in that role.

Gulp!

With great excitement, I took to Facebook and posted that obligatory humble brag: I am so excited to announce that I will be portraying the role of Sarah Goodwin in Theatreworks New Milford's production of Donald Margulies' riveting play TIME STANDS STILL! This is my first significant dramatic role in over 20 years and I am thrilled (and terrified) beyond measure to sink my teeth into this one! (Roll your eyes as ye may, I felt that in this instance a little boasting could be withstood by my friends and acquaintances, most of whom are theatre people. Naturally.)

The reality is, after reviewing my performing resume, I haven’t had a leading role in a play in over 30 years. Not since my high school production of Life With Father. I’ve had leads in musicals and some great supporting roles in plays but not a principal role in a play. The last time I was cast in a lead was in 1995. Ironically, it was as Sarah in Children of a Lesser God at TheatreWorks. Sadly, the production ended up being cancelled and I never had the chance to portray Sarah. Now, 20 years later, I will bring a different Sarah to life on the TheatreWorks’ stage.

Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing my thoughts on easing out of the director’s chair and returning to the stage. I will also be discussing the process of developing a complex character from both the technical and artistic perspectives. What lies before me is one of the most challenging and invigorating experiences of my life: Becoming Sarah. And I can’t wait!

* Gladys, a gender-bent role in The Diviners, Ensemble in Barnum and Assassins and Annie in A Christmas Twist. I also stepped into a production of My First Time that I was directing when one of my actresses had to leave the production the night before opening because of a family emergency.