It looks a lot easier from the audience.That’s one thing I’ve learned by returning to the stage after years on the reviewing end of community theater.
Musical theater and opera were my first loves.
Now I am captivated more by non-musicals, because I realize that actors who can’t lean on song and dance to sell their stories are the bravest performers of all.
How would I fare, on stage, without my singing voice to pave my way?
The opportunity to find out presented itself in Mrs. California, now playing at Colonial Players, a company I’ve often reviewed.
Its premise seduced me, and I fit the casting call: a comedy with a serious message about housewives in a 1955 homemaking contest. I knew these ladies, and I knew I was destined to play one of them. I was born in that decade. My mother was a home economist who taught me to cook, sew and iron like nobody’s business. I didn’t have to be a great actress; I just needed to channel the role models I’d grown up with.
How hard could that be?
Curtain call 12 weeks:
I spout monologues about my husband, my seven children, my meatloaf and my hope for the future in the shadow of the atom bomb. I’m funny and attractive, and I know it.
I am cast — as the one contestant I don’t identify with, the one who reminds me of that prickly, persnickety old boss I never understood. That’s okay. I’m an actress now. I’ll figure it out.
Curtain call 10 weeks:
First group read-thru
Everyone is so good. Am I good enough? I barely speak in Act I and spend most of that time fretting about how I am going to deliver my big monologue, the one with THE message. No pressure or anything. I bomb.
Curtain call 8 weeks:
First blocking rehearsal
This director is very clear about her vision: Pose, pivot right, pivot left, parade clockwise, pageant wave. And that’s just my entrance. Why are script margins so tiny, and how am I supposed to jot this all down?
Curtain call 7 weeks:
Spring break in Puerto Rico
I memorize lines under the shade of a palm, script in one hand, mojito in the other. I walk the beach reciting my monologue, choreographing my body language to my words, trying out dozens of inflections for every phrase. People look at me like I’m crazy, but I don’t mind. I’m rediscovering the joy of discovery. I research my character’s biography and write two pages on her life. I am going to be wonderful.
Curtain call 6 weeks: Bonding
There’s a lot of downtime as we finish blocking. When not on stage, we swap stories, finding our common ground, marveling at our progress and bitching about our problems. We four contestants are like sisters. What is it this time, ironing or sewing? What’s our entrance line? What’s our order? The memory exercise alone keeps me on my toes, and we’re not even dancing.
Curtain call 5 weeks: Insomnia
Conflicting artistic visions have me feeling conflicted. My big monologue is “coming along.” Isn’t that the dread phrase the boss writes on a failing evaluation?
At least our set is taking shape. We each have our own workstation complete with oven, gas burner, sewing machine, ironing board, drawers and cupboards. It’s smaller and more compact than a sailing galley, and we have to know it like the back of our hand. We’re off-book now, the heat is on and we are cooking with gas, as my mother used to say.
Curtain call 4 weeks: Transformation time
We get wigs and bits of costumes along with written theses on make-up and style trends of the 1950s. I get re-accustomed to heels. My character gets a new element of fun added to her serious demeanor. It calls for a bit of slapstick. I never knew I was so funny.
Curtain call 3 weeks: Choreography
There may not be any dancing, but our every competitive move is synchronized. Learning to set the table to music, in a specifically sequenced order of events, is grueling. We run it over and over again, and by the end of two hours we are all drenched with sweat and breathless from the aerobic workout. I recall that my mother used to tackle her housework so vigorously at times that she would fling open a window in winter just to cool off.
Curtain call 2 weeks: Panic
Fifteen days with only two nights off. I carve out time for a nap, only to be awakened by a phone call. My stupid monologue is stuck in neutral. Where are my costumes, and why don’t they fit? Even this stupid girdle they make me wear doesn’t help. Women really wore these things?
Curtain call 1 week: Arrival
I can cook a gourmet meal in 30 seconds flat and make it look convincing. My costumes arrive, sophisticated and tailored. I get a new prop for my monologue, and suddenly all the pieces fall into place.
I call my Dad, and when he asks what’s new, I say just rehearsals. He’s forgotten again what I’m talking about, so I tell him for the umpteenth time.
“Oh yeah,” he says, “and you lose.”
“Well, yeah, I guess you could say that. I’m one of three losers.”
“She’s younger, right, the winner?”
“Not much,” I tell him, “but that’s not the point. It’s a homemaking contest, not a beauty pageant.”
“But she’s prettier, right?”
“No Dad,” I tell him. “I’m the most beautiful woman on the stage.”
I don’t tell him I’ve found my acting chops as well. I know it, and that’s all that matters.