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Inside the Mind of an Actress

When I was a little girl, one of my favorite games to play was dress-up. I would invite a friend over, and my mother would take us to the attic, where she kept the evening gowns and fancy dresses she wore only occasionally. She would unzip the plastic box-like garment bags and pull out three or four that were old enough or out of fashion enough to stand up to the rigors of little girls’ play. And then my friend and I would start the great transformations that turned us into movie stars or princesses or some variation of Cinderella.

For my friends, dress-ups were all about the glamour—the satiny dresses that whooshed when you moved, the sparkling costume jewelry, the high-heeled shoes that were several sizes too big. But that was never enough for me. I always wanted a story. I wanted to be someone traveling the world, recovering from a broken heart, or disguising herself to get into the ball so as to speak to a visiting prince. It was the same when I played with my dolls. The story was always the most important thing.

I think of this when people ask me about acting. I suppose the seeds of my performing were sown way back then. Lucky for me, I’ve had the opportunity to be all sorts of different people and to act out their lives. And, happily, I’ve usually done a convincing enough job that audience members want to know how I do it. How do I become someone else? What are my secrets? How do I prepare? And, most often, how do I remember all those lines?

The last question pops up most frequently at my one-woman shows. Since 2001, I’ve been writing and performing plays based on the lives of historical women. I’ve been Galileo’s daughter, Amelia Earhart, Abigail Adams, Sarah Bernhardt and many others. For about an hour, I’m alone on the stage, subsumed in these characters and talking non-stop. And people are amazed.

The first thing that they usually ask is how I remember the whole piece. That’s probably the toughest question for me to answer. I can tell you that it helps that I write these pieces, that I know my writing style and how I tend to string words together. I can explain that each character assumes her own voice, and, once she does, I actually hear it in my head. But the simple truth is that I don’t know how I remember lines. Doing so has just always come easily to me—and that’s as true with a play written by someone else.

I learn lines by reading a sentence silently and then closing my eyes and trying to repeat it. When I have one line down, I move onto the next, stringing them together. For some reason, they eventually travel to their own "filing cabinet" in my brain and are easily recalled when I need them.

What helps in the process, more than anything, is the character’s story—who she is, what she’s like and what she’s been through. All of that supports the lines and makes them make sense. And when the lines are sensible, they’re much easier to remember.

I am currently performing in the Naples Players’ production of The Women of Lockerbie, a heartbreakingly beautiful play by Deborah Brevoort, based on the true aftermath of the destruction of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. I play the part of Hattie, a local cleaning woman who is deeply involved in the plan the women have developed.

The first thing director Anna Segreto asked each of us in the cast to do—before we even began rehearsals—was to read the play several times and then write our character’s autobiography up to our first entrance. We were to give attention not only to chronology and details of setting but also to emotions—what we were feeling and what the people with whom we interacted were feeling.

That was an extremely helpful exercise. Writing out "your life" forces you to get inside your character’s mind, inside her skin. You begin to think the way she does, and from there it’s a relatively easy step to standing, moving and talking the way she would. Hattie is not a refined or highly educated person. She’s a cleaning woman. Her posture would reflect that. No standing erect and confident for her—at least not until she starts to voice her convictions. Naturally, she speaks with a Scottish accent, not an easy one to master. But more important, I think, than getting the Scottish burr just right is finding her speech rhythms and the emotions that propel her words. And the easiest way for me to do that is to get to know Hattie intimately, so I can believe I’m feeling what she would feel.

In the spring of 2008, I was fortunate to be cast by the Naples Players in the lead role of Wit, a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Margaret Edson. For an hour and a half, I was onstage—without a break—telling the story of Dr. Vivian Bearing, a college professor renowned for her expertise in the poetry of John Donne. She was also undergoing experimental chemotherapy for stage four metastatic ovarian cancer. There is no stage five. That was one of my lines. It’s also a glimpse of what I had to portray.

As the play progressed, Vivian—I—grew sicker and sicker. The defenses, the personality, that had carried her through her life crumpled, and she—I—became a new person. Yes, all of that was reflected in the lines. But I had to remember to portray that physically as well. I had to look sicker and more vulnerable as the play proceeded. It was probably the most challenging role I ever had. It was also the most gratifying. Out of some 20 performances, I received standing ovations at all but two. People wept—and stayed in their seats or in the hallway afterward, just to thank me. Others told me I actually seemed to get more pale and frail as my "death" approached.

The most common question I received afterward was how I could bring such emotion to the role night after night. For me, the question made little sense. The emotion was right there in the story. I was just telling it. Once I stepped on stage, Janina was gone. Only Vivian remained, and she had a tale to share.

That’s not exactly true, I suppose. I’m not a method actor who has to live the part even when I’m not on stage. Yes, I did get my hair nearly shaved off, but I didn’t have cancer and wasn’t going through chemotherapy. So I was pretending. But I drew on what I knew to create a believable portrait. I’ve known people who have died of cancer and who have gone through various treatments. I’ve seen how they looked and how they moved. And I’ve noted the emotional rollercoaster they ride. All of that helped, particularly the emotions. When Vivian finally accepts that she is dying, I found the tears. I felt them.

And I think that’s probably the most important thing for an actor: to understand the character enough to feel her emotions. Maybe the best example I can give is my Sarah Bernhardt one-woman show. After I had researched Bernhardt, I found I didn’t like her very much. She seemed terribly self-centered. Everything was all about her. And I worried that audiences would end up not liking her either. As it turned out, she became one of my most popular characters.

What helped was realizing that Bernhardt was probably well aware of her self-centeredness. She may have even felt a twinge of guilt from time to time. But she likely quashed that guilt by adopting her larger-than-life persona—and playing up her "innocence" for laughs. We all do that. We say one thing and use our body language to say another. And so when Sarah talks of bearing no resentment toward her mother for preferring her sister, I make it clear that she is, in fact, still seething with ill feelings. It works. Instead of dislike, the audiences end up laughing. And they laugh with her.

For me, audience response is an integral part of acting. When you’re up there, you can feel the energy coming back at you. The stronger it is, the more energetic your performance becomes. It’s like an endless loop connecting audience and performer. That’s why I prefer performing in small houses—the Naples Players’ Tobye Studio, the Marco Players’ storefront theater, libraries, country clubs. Acting on a big stage is fine and can be a lot of fun, but performing where you can see the faces in the audience, where you can direct lines right at them, is a real thrill. The energy is palpable.

Of course, when you’re in close quarters you have to be prepared for actual responses. When your character asks a rhetorical question, you just might get an answer. Sometimes you can ignore such comments, but other times you need to answer back or the illusion breaks. The key, I’ve found, is to know your character well enough to be able to think how she would respond. Sarah would be light-hearted and perhaps even flirty at an interruption. Abigail Adams would take a no-nonsense approach.

The same holds true when the unexpected happens—a phone falls off a wall (Wit), the lights go out when they’re not supposed to (Tale of the Allergist’s Wife) or a fellow actor forgets his lines or misses an entrance. The last happened to me most memorably when I was performing in the Players’ production of Noises Off. It was the top of the second act, and I was on stage with one other actor. I had a couple of lines and then a third actor was supposed to enter. He didn’t. I looked at the fellow on stage with me, and he gave me the deer-in-the-headlights stare. So I just kept talking—as my character, Poppy. As long as you stay in character, the audience will go with you. They may not even notice. After all, they don’t have a copy of the script. They only have a willingness to suspend disbelief—and they’re counting on you to keep them in that state.

Herein lays the paradox. You have to reserve enough of yourself to be able to recognize when you have to wing it. But you can’t wing it as yourself; you have to do so as your character would. And whatever the unexpected occurrence, your goal is to get things back on track. So when your co-actor jumps an important line, you circle back with something like, "Now I suppose you’re going to want to know why I have this gun in my hand" (or whatever is appropriate). When I skip something in a one-woman show, I make an immediate judgment about how important it is. If it’s not, I continue on. If it is, I devise a way to circle back. "Ah! How could I have been so foolish as not to tell you about my meeting with the King of England?"

When acting, my mind is going full speed the entire time—and often in different directions. It just might be the ultimate in multi-tasking. The play may call for my character to be sitting quietly in a corner or even to be sleeping or dead. But my mind is always working—listening to what’s going on, thinking about who I am and exploring options. That’s what separates live theater from film. Each performance is different—just like life.

Ultimately, that’s what I love about acting. I get to play dress-ups—but more importantly I get to merge myself with someone else’s story. It’s like living life, over and over again.

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