Deep Breath

In light of my recent return to the stage, I thought this excerpt from an old essay I wrote would be an interesting addition to the collection. It was written quite a few years ago, but the basic idea behind it most certainly still rings true today. I think any actor with a love for the theater can relate to the convergence of the three worlds....

Deep Breath

Deep breath. Blink eyes. Smooth the skirt. Deep breath. Go.
"Good Morning, Doris. 'Morning, Mother."

There is nothing like the feeling an actor has right before he walks out onstage for his entrance. All the months of preparation blur together in a single moment. The brain goes into overload. The major screw-ups from rehearsal meld with the lines that produced the biggest laughs. All of the director's instructions echo in the background, while a quick run-through of the lines and stage directions slide by. Every private joke, every misspoken line runs through the actor's head. The smell of the makeup, the voices from backstage, the moisture from the sweat, mix with the glare of the lights and the actors' words onstage. This is a crucial moment for the actor as he listens for his cue. He is standing in a zone that is both on and off stage. He is not seen by the audience, but often the actors onstage can see him. It is the area in which the real life person and the character meld together. The actor must lose himself and put body, mind, and soul into the character, yet at the same time, he cannot forget his lines, movements, relationships, etc. The cue finally comes around. The actor takes a deep breath and morphs into another being as he walks onto the stage.

I remember one show that I had a fun part in. The show was Dear Ruth, and I played the part of Miriam, the troublemaker of the show. Even set in the 1940s, Miriam is the type of girl that can just walk into a room and cause a stir. Every night before the show started, there was such an energy backstage. The potent smell of the wet pancake makeup penetrated everywhere. Actors were running around wearing half costumes and half "civilian" clothes. Curlers were wrapped up tight in various hairstyles. The men sported the smell of cologne and hair mousse. I remember the slime of the wet sponge as I smoothed on the makeup while looking in the mirror. There were three worlds converging right there before my eyes. There was the modern 1990's world. But at the same time, I was looking at a world of the 1940s. And holding the two together was the magical world of the theater.

Before I knew it, I was standing backstage in that zone. My heart jumped with excitement as the curtain opened, revealing the beautiful set of a well-off family's home in the 1940s. I watched Doris the maid scuttle back and forth under the harsh lights, setting up the breakfast. My heart pounded in my ears. My stomach had a feeling of joyful glee. I took a deep breath, smoothed down the plaid skirt, fixed my beret, took another deep breath and descended the stairs into a whole other world.

A little while later, I was back in the same spot backstage. The play had been going wonderfully. The crowd had been one of the best yet, encouraging each one of the actors to do their best. Now, the play was approaching its closing. It was right before my "big drunk scene." It was one of my favorite scenes to do, and it had also been one of the audiences' favorites during each previous performance. I stood on my spot backstage and spun around and around, while listening to the lines onstage. I knew I couldn't mess this up. This time had to be the best I had ever done this scene. I messed up my hair, rumpled my clothes, took a deep breath, tried to control my thumping heart, spun around once more and then stumbled down the stairs. The roar of the audience tickled my ears with delight. I saw the smiles on the faces in the front row, the eyes twinkling with laughter. A rush went through my whole body.

"'My candle burns at both ends.
It will not last the night.
But oh, my woes, and oh my friends,
It is a lovely sight.'

Uh, Ruth, I don't feel so good."

But I felt good. The unexplainable thrill of the theater was within me, mingling with the fibers of my soul, rushing through my blood to every vital part of my body.
Breathe in, breathe out. Deep breath.

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