The following is the first in our new series, Backstage Stories. Where we get unique behind-the-scenes perspectives from local productions. This story is from one of our main contributors to the site, as well as moderator, April Fossen. April recently performed in the amazing Plan-B Theatre production of She Was My Brother (read our review). Here is her experience…
Oh, I should also mention this particular story was recently posted by April in her personal blog, April Showers, and is reprinted here with her kind permission.
It’s difficult to figure out where to begin writing about my experience working on Plan-B’s production of SHE WAS MY BROTHER. Do I begin with the story of the harrowing day of my audition? Do I begin before that when I first read the script? Do I begin with our road trip to Zuni? The timeline is jumbled in my memory, so maybe I’ll just let it be jumbled as I write about it.
Being in Zuni is like being in outer space. Time is distorted: a day and a half seems like a week and a world away. I don’t know if it’s because of the isolation, the silence, the massive amount of things I want to see, absorb, and learn about, or just because it’s not home.
Jerry is the perfect director for this play. He’s not overly sentimental and can spot falsehood a mile away. From a bullet train. He insists on truth in every moment. The fact that he’s not necessarily gentle about that insistence is fine for me. I know there are actors who require more careful handling, but I prefer candor and bluntness. I guess because I know that when he gives a compliment, that too is sincere.
Tullis is not an easy character for me. I feel like maybe I’m like her in some ways. But not in the ways that would really inform my portrayal of her. At the first read-through Jerry and Julie seem to have a lot to say to me about her. That makes me nervous because they don’t seem to have much to say to either Jay or Joe. I’m confident this is because I’m the one who needs to step up my game and prove why I was cast.
I think it’s telling that I was completely distracted during my audition. I was not counting on being cast in this show. I loved the play and I loved the idea of working with Joe and Jay, but I certainly didn’t think it was a real possibility, so I didn’t get too attached to it. I think that’s why I was cast. I was relaxed and open and not tied to a particular interpretation of the character. I need to remember that for future auditions.
Joe is a silent enigma. I adore him as a person, and I love being on stage with him. I always feel like we are in exactly the same moment with one another. Sometimes when you’re on stage with another actor there is a sort of miscommunication, a crossing of the wires. From the audience it feels like the actors are in different plays. I don’t know what the audience’s experience is with me and Joe on stage, but I know that from where I stand (or sit) I feel like there’s a tiny string connecting our minds and keeping us on the same wavelength.
I realize much too late in the process that I probably should have done some real research into dialects from North Carolina. A generalized “Southern” is sort of a cop-out, isn’t it?
I hope the audience is able to understand what happens with Tullis. How she changes. Some nights I’m not sure they’re “getting it”. They laugh at strange moments, or I just can’t feel them. That sounds very touchy-feely. And I guess, in a way, it is. But it’s one of the things I love about performing live; being able to feel the audience there with me, going along with the flow of the play, and being able to guide them in the right flow. But some nights they’re just not with me. And there’s not a whole lot I can do about that.
I think about Jimmy and his family every night before the show. Such amazingly generous and open people. Jerry gave me a fetish made by Jimmy. Every night that little bear looks up at me and I think of him. It’s almost time for Shalako.
There is good fodder for my imagination in this play. Generally, I think about what happens in the moment before I enter to give me a context for what I’m about to do on stage. In this play, I think more about what happened the day before, the week before, the month before. Time is expanded in this world, travel takes so much time and some of my entrances come at the end of a long period of travel. So, before I make an entrance I tend to think about what I imagine has happened over the past several days, which opens up a lot of possibilities. I especially like to imagine what might have been the conversation between Tullis and Lamana before I come to the pueblo for that last scene with Wilson.
Once we’re in run-throughs, I find that I can’t watch the last scene. I have to stay backstage while the guys do it. It’s too much. It’s heartbreaking. During our last performance, I can barely even stand to listen to it. I’m over-emotional already at the thought of putting the play behind me.
It takes so much energy and focus to perform this play, especially for such a short and relatively simply staged production. Every word and every silence has to be precise. Every movement has to be precise. It’s hard to be completely present and 100% focused for even 10 minutes at a time, but it’s necessary. I find that the thing that helps me maintain it when my mind wants to wander is to really look my scene partner in the eye and say to myself in my head, “what are you trying to tell me?” It forces me to listen to them rather than thinking about what I have to do or say next. And then my lines just come out when they’re supposed to. Because the play is all there in my head, if I trust myself and get out of the way of it.
It’s strange to have to confront some of my own prejudices in relation to this play. I’m a pretty open person, but I haven’t always been. I’ve said and done things that were wrong. Intolerant. Judgmental. Every person I meet and every experience I have is stripping that away. I think.
It’s such an unusual experience to have been able to visit the very place where this play takes place. Especially because it is so much about that physical space. I can stand on the set and look out and know exactly what I would be looking at in the real world version of that space—the top of the Mission in one direction, Corn Mountain behind it, the plaza below, the dwellings on the other side of the plaza, the open land outside the area of the pueblo, the clouded sky as a storm rolls in. And I also know what the place smells like and sounds like. It is so complicated to try to convey a sense of place when you’re in an imaginary setting on stage. The experience of being in Zuni is priceless, and key to us being able to recreate that for the audience.
Julie is like god. Really. She is the creator of the story, the world we inhabit every night. She has created something that is so beautiful. It’s a privilege to speak the words she has written. I try every night to get them all in there and to do them justice.
I want to walk like Tullis. I want to “stomp through the swamp” as Wilson says of her. But there isn’t a whole lot of walking to do in this production or, for that matter, a whole lot of room to do it in. I have to find that feeling of stomping through the swamp in the way I use the rest of my body. Ultimately I’m not sure if I’m successful.
Cheryl’s sound design brings everything together perfectly. All the other pieces were there, but once the sound came in, they all just locked into place. The violin music is sad and beautiful, the Zuni songs are haunting, the atmospheric sounds bring just the right element of place. That, to me, is pure magic. I don’t know how she did that.
In spite of my initial trepidation, I’m glad we had audiences early and often throughout the process of rehearsing this play. Some of them were friendly audiences, beaming positive energy towards us, others were just shy of hostile, and were there for an entirely different reason. The fact is, it prepared me (and us) for what it would be like to actually do the show in front of people. That took some of the nerviness out of the first few “real” performances, because we’d already spent some time rehearsing in front of an audience.
Jay’s Wilson is the perfect foil for my Tullis. He dishes it out when he should and he cowers and takes it when he should do that. My favorite moment between us is one I don’t think the audience even gets to see completely. My last line is “She is a lovely teacher, as you yourself said. And I, like you, am a diligent student.” When I say it I’m looking down at Jay and his face is turned fully upstage to look at me. Something is happening between us. We’re communicating without words, and it’s just for the two of us, and I love it. I love that my journey within the play ends there. And I love that every performance we both were committed to a moment that we didn’t even necessarily share with the audience.
I wish everyone could see this play. This production of this play.
I find that I need a lot of evidence, after the fact, to convince myself that a thing that happened was really real. It’s especially true for the process of working on this play. It’s so focused and intense for such a concentrated period of time and then it’s just…gone. Never to be seen or experienced again. I both love and hate that about live theatre. And it’s amazing how quickly I am able to just go back to regular life. I think I’m changed, though. I think I’m more thoughtful, more careful, more observant, more connected, more silent. I hope so.