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Exactly thirty years ago this week, I was living with my grandparents for a while in the Florida panhandle, not far from the area that just got pounded by Hurricane Michael. Despite having two jobs at the time, I’d taken on a challenging role with the local community theater, playing Annie Oakley, in Annie Get Your Gun. My grandmother would regularly “tut-tut” her two cents over the pace and schedule that I was keeping but I waved her off and blithely assured her that I was fine. Until that Monday halfway through the run on our one night off, when suddenly, I wasn’t.
I woke up feeling a bit woozy but I figured it would pass and went on in to work, where I lasted about 2 hours before my boss told me I looked like hell and ordered me to go home. Thank goodness for meddling grandparents because mine dragged me off the couch, packed me into the car and rushed me to their doctor who diagnosed a severe case of gastroenteritis.
Two IVs of fluids and and a 14-hour nap later, I woke up to find my worried mother at my bedside. She’d come in to see me in the show and had no idea until she arrived that she’d be stepping in to her familiar role as nursemaid as well.
The show went on, of course. As Mom said, I’d basically have to be missing a limb before I’d miss a performance — but she insisted on putting an air mattress in the back of her Caravan on which I was ordered to lie still and rest as she ferried me to and from the next few performances and I can still remember the gentle lecture I got on the way back home, that first night: “You always do this. When you’re doing something you really love to do, you have no concept of how much energy you’re expending on it. You get so charged up while doing a show that you don’t even realize that you’re tired until you’re past the point of exhaustion.” I tried to argue with her — but I kept dozing off . . .
She was right, though. And 30 years later, as I’m finally coming up for air after losing myself in another show, I can see that I’m still a bit of a zealot where theater’s concerned.
Mind you, I’m not talking about some sort of weird “method” thing where I so immerse myself in a character that I forget who I am (and frankly, actors who profess to do such a thing on every role really scare me), I’m just talking about a single-minded sort of zeal that takes over, every time I dive in to a show that I really enjoy doing. Everything else will fall by the wayside when that happens and the play becomes the thing. Even when it’s not “the role of a lifetime”, even when I’m not the lead. Even, as it turns out, when I’m not even on stage.
There’s a fleeting moment in the movie, Dead Poets Society that has always stayed with me. It’s when Robert Sean Leonard’s character, Neil Perry, walks into the theater for his first play rehearsal and he takes in everything that’s in front of him — the beautiful old stage, the bits of scenery, the quiet chaos of clusters of actors talking or running lines while the crew goes about their business — and such an overwhelming sense of joyful anticipation takes hold of him that it looks as if he actually has to stop a second to catch his breath before proceeding into the house. That’s the zeal I’m talking about — the excitement of starting a new production, the sheer love of every aspect of the art. It’s exactly how I remember feeling when I walked into my own first rehearsal back in college, even though I was just playing a bit part in a comedy.
I felt it again the next year, when I poured my heart and soul into my first stage-managing gig, which is the very same “role” I just finished reprising for the first time since, on the show that I closed this week. It made no difference that I was on the other side of the scenery for this one. It just meant that all the thought and time and energy that I’d normally be investing into a character now went into my work on props and set and lights and sound, instead.
Weeks of late nights and early mornings back to the day job eventually took their toll and Mom’s little lecture of yore came back to haunt me as I got through the final week of the run with a raging case of bronchitis (my only real concern there being that an inopportune coughing fit might erupt from the lighting booth during a quiet moment on stage). Fortunately, I know myself a little better now so I’d already arranged to take some time from the day job toward the end of the run. True to form, however, no matter how groggy and sick I’d feel each day upon waking, I’d be full of energy the moment I walked back into the theater each night and I even managed to stick around and toast the cast after the final show on Sunday.
That said, what I wouldn’t have given on closing night to have crawled into the back of my mom’s car to be driven home and put to bed instead of hauling all my gear home on the First Avenue bus. A few days’ rest and, aside from the lingering cough, I’m just about back to normal. Got a couple days to clean up this apartment that went completely to seed before I hop on a plane to go visit the folks for my dad’s 80th birthday next week.
And when I get back, I’ll buy a case of Zicam and some vitamins — then start looking for my next show.