Stage Terror

Last night, we went to see a theater production of Arsenic and Old Lace, the second of three performances. Tomorrow’s matinée will bring the run to an end. We know several of the people who had roles in the play, including one of the main characters (a Brewster sister) who belongs to UUVC and is a member of the Village Writers’ Club. Some others with lesser, but still demanding, parts belong to the church and/or other organizations to which I belong. I can only imagine the amount of time, energy, and dedication required to not only memorize lines but deliver them so they convey the emotions and attitudes of the characters being played. I felt bad for one poor guy who played a relatively small part but who lost his lines on several occasions. He was an older fellow (as most cast members are) who just slipped and couldn’t seem to find his way back to the script. We were sitting in the third row and could read the frustration in his face. We could see the pain in the faces of other actors, too; they felt for him. Twice, at least, we saw other actors come to the guy’s rescue by feeding lines that covered for him.

I have acted in one play, speaking only one line, in my entire life: Little Women. I played a very minor character, a child, whose only line was a response to a question. I said, “Mutter.” Given my aversion to putting myself  in a position to be judged by large numbers of people for my lack of talent, I am sure I must have practiced for weeks just to be willing to go on stage. I was in elementary school at the time. The play was staged by a junior high class at a school where my mother taught English. I am pretty sure she volunteered me for the part. Last night, seeing the guy get lost in front of several hundred people, my stomach tightened and I had a great deal of empathy for him. I remember a poetry reading at which I decided to memorize my poem (see, I can’t even remember the words to my own poetry) instead of read it. Fortunately, I had a copy in front of me. But I got lost and had to stop and stumble. I could tell the crowd felt pain by proxy, the same way I felt for the fellow last night.

Public speaking once sent waves of panic pulsing through my body. It’s no longer particularly difficult for me and, in fact, I rather enjoy it. But I can’t speak from a script. When I’ve tried, I’ve stumbled badly. I prefer having bullet point notes to which I can refer; they give me sufficient prompts to speak extemporaneously, more or less. Memorizing lines, though…I shudder!

I know people who absolutely thrive on acting in live theater, though. Perhaps the rush they feel in the response from the audience in sufficient to make memorization tolerable. Or even enjoyable. I don’t believe there’s a rush of adequate magnitude to do that for me. I admire people who can do it, especially those who can do it well. But even the folks who stumble, like the guy last night, deserve my admiration for being willing to try and for living through the embarrassment of a bad breakdown. He had the courage to stay on stage. I might have crept offstage and crawled to the parking lot.

Back to the play. Though I’ll give credit to the actors, directors, stage hands, and everyone else involved, it wasn’t my cup of tea. The entire cast could have comprised seasoned professional actors and I wouldn’t have been deeply impressed. I was thrilled to see my friends and acquaintances act and to see their names “in lights” for their parts, but the play itself didn’t float my boat. I’m probably hard to please, though.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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