Friday, September 16, 2011

Reflections on a Summer Spent Playing Next to an Old Yellow House

"There is no end, Believe me! 
to the inventions of summer
to the happiness your body is willing to bear." 
-Mary Oliver 

The 2011 HVSF Acting Company and Terry O'Brien, Artistic Director

How should I reflect on four of the most crazylovely months of my young life? Gabra Zackman shared this poem by Mary Oliver with us during one of her yoga classes. If there ever was a summer that encapsulated those few phrases, this was it.

I have always been an actor. But now I feel like an actor. I can live happily for months out of two suitcases.

My summer at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival was one of many "firsts" for me: my first professional acting job, my first time living in New York City, my first mention in a major newspaper's review, my first time playing a three breasted woman, my first time performing stand-up comedy and the list goes on... How fun was the three day party during Hurricane Irene? Trips to the waterfall? Six Flags? Running on the Appalachian Trail? The Batman Show? The Margarita Party? Pool parties? Chopper setting off the fire alarm? The Fourth of July? Stand-up night? Laying on the lawn at Boscobel? James Hickey? Matt's surprise party? Nights on the Rock at Graymoor?

MC Hamlet, Matt Amendt, an alum of the UM/Guthrie Program who played the title role this summer at HVSF, shared with us this insight on storytelling and leading a company of actors. He said: "When you are playing Guildenstern, (and I can say this because I have played Guildenstern) your job is to lift up Hamlet's story with as much humility and specificity as you can. When you are playing Hamlet, your job is to make everyone in the company feel like they are doing something special, together." Matt certainly practiced what he preached, for I have never worked with a more gracious, more positive actor... not to mention that his talent and work ethic are both overwhelming.

This summer for me was a summer of lifting up one of the greatest stories ever told (Hamlet) and one of the most absurd (The Comedy of Errors). [I also spent a good amount of time lifting things up, things like letters and cups. That's right, I was the Royal Danish Hander-of-Things-to-the-King.] I found such joy in playing fantastic small parts in these plays. I found joy in the actual storytelling, which I did not always have in school. In my conservatory program, we would be cast in each of the shows "prescriptively." That is, the faculty would choose a part for us and tell us what acting challenges they wanted us to work on in that role. For example, when I was cast as Maria in Twelfth Night during sophomore year, Steve challenged me to work on variety of actions & making bold, impulsive choices. In retrospect, I think this mindset led me to a sort of tunnel vision, where I focused on being the best Maria I could be, rather then collectively trying to tell the story of Twelfth Night in the most engaging and honest way possible. Now acting school is just that... SCHOOL, and those acting challenges must be identified and worked on in a specific way. And indeed, without a doubt, I know that my four years in the BFA Program, whether tunneled or not, prepared me to be able to perform, grow and listen the way I was able to at HVSF this summer.

This summer I discovered a shift in perspective. A shift from "What am I doing?" to "How am I telling the story?" Because I was not speaking, I learned to listen. To listen with ease.

After a summer of lifting up these stories, we, the apprentices, were hungry for the chance to tell our own... and what better story to tell than Romeo and Juliet? I was able to do many of my favorite things in this production of R&J, directed by Ryan Quinn: play a guy, play a complicated mom, roll in the dirt, carry Vaish on my back, sing The Foundations, carry a (really embarassingly small) knife, and get yelled at by Dave Klasko. I really enjoy playing multiple characters in a show because it forces me to have incredible vocal and physical specificity to differentiate them. And boy, did I fall in love with these two people...

I would consider naming my firstborn son Benvolio. We should all be so lucky to have a friend who loves us as much as Benny loves Mercutio and Romeo. He likes dancing and drinking, but can sense that this age of innocence is coming to an end. It's a coming of age story, as much as a love story. This group of childhood friends, of brothers is ruptured forever by one of them falling in love and the consequences that brings. To honestly and simply tell the story of Mercutio's death and Romeo's murdering Tybalt was tragic and heartbreaking and beautiful.
Mercutio (Vaishnavi Sharma) and Benvolio (yours truly) conjuring Romeo. Photo by Will Marsh

And maybe it's just all the Mad Men I watched this summer, but Lady Capulet has something of a Betty Draper about her, a bird in a cage. She is vain, but not the type of vanity that makes her think she's beautiful. The type that spends all day in the spa because she fears wrinkles and the inevitability of death. She drinks, but only in secret. Her husband hasn't touched her in months, not that she'd know what to do if he did. No one ever listens to her, and even if they do, they don't do what she says. She loves her daughter but doesn't understand how to talk to her. It was a blast to play these paradoxes of vanity and insecurity, love and total resentment, desire and repulsion. I found the key with her (and with Benvolio too) was subtlety... seeing how small I could play a big action, which I don't think I've ever really done before. The smallest tilt of the head or movement of the hand could tell her story fully. (Because if you know me... or you saw me play Arkadina, or Mamma Wahl, or Maria in the BFA... or Lucy in You're a Good Man Charlie Brown at West Cary Middle School... you know I have a flair for the loud and proud...)
Lady Capulet gives advice to her daughter, Juliet (Susanna Stahlmann). Photo by Will Marsh
This summer brought other changes for me personally. After two great years in a serious relationship, I find myself single again. I look forward to meeting new people, but more importantly to finding out more about who I am as an adult woman, an artist and a citizen. My brother Jeffrey went back overseas for his second tour in Afghanistan. I continue to keep him and our other servicemen and women in my prayers, as this year marks 10 years that the US has had troops in Afghanistan, that's longer than our troops were in Vietnam. My kid sister started college at UNC... that means Jen and Dave Clement are free birds! Just in time to lend me a car and take an epic road with me to my new home... CHICAGO.

That's right, the windy city just got windier. Maura is moving to town. I loved New York. I will be back in New York, but for now I want to work and I have a hunch that Chicago is the place for me to get non-Equity work so that I can continue to grow as an artist, without depleting my savings to zilch. But for now, thank you New York. Thank you Terry O'Brien. Thank you Hudson Valley Shakespeare acting company, production staff, company management, house staff, audiences, donors, and everyone in between. A humble thank you.

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