by Juliana Nicewarner
“Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art”
A thirteen-year-old girl takes her first step under stage lights. She’s blinded. She’s woozy. She had been practicing all day. She sang while she vacuumed, she sang while she brushed the dog, she monologued and made dramatic faces while she fed the horses. She quivered in the car on the way to the theatre. She begged her mom to turn around. Now she stares down, hard, at the five steps in front of her. Five steps until she knows if she’s lost her ever-loving mind, thinking she could act. Now she walks steps one through five up to the stage.
Step one: remember to breathe. This is hard for her, a quiet bookish type who only sings when the house is empty or she has the sound of the tractor she’s driving to overpower her voice.
Step two: don’t make eye contact with anyone. She’s quietly satisfied with herself. She always suspected that there had to be other people in the world who made faces at themselves in the mirror and acted out scenes from movies. As she looks around the theatre at the other actors preparing, she realizes that those people live here.
Step three: don’t get scared. She glances up to make eye contact with her mom, a steady force of absolute confidence radiating from the audience. Their eyes catch each other – she sighs with relief that she hasn’t tripped yet.
Step four: be loud. She nods to her mother and puts a big smile on her face. One of those movie star smiles she’s seen painted on faces like Marilyn, like she imagines Daisy Buchanan would wear.
She’s suddenly on step five: sing.
There’s a firm feel to the stage, like it’s had experience supporting the frightened. She opens her mouth and “Silent Night” comes out, pure and soft. The director stands up and leans against the stage below her, looking up, smiling. She is suddenly conscious of her shaking hands, her heartbeat, fluttering loud enough to keep time. Red velvet shimmers in the half light of the house as hundreds of seats stare back at her. She gets a bit louder.
She thinks about how maybe she’s not as scared as she thinks. After all, she’s loud at home. She can match her parents and close friends in any matches of wit thrown her way. She’s inadvertently studied with the greatest – Jane Austen, P.G Wodehouse. She’s understood confidence from the best of women – her mother, Jo March, Scout. She thinks of all of them. She thinks of herself. And she lets her voice fill the theater. She opens her hands a bit, relaxing. The smile still painted on her lips feels more and more genuine as she realizes, she can do this.
This was the day she got hooked on applause.
The stage is set up like a living room. She sits in a chair center stage. She is sipping tea and dressed in sweatpants and a hoodie – a picture of a rainy day of writing. A spotlight settles onto her face as she is saying her first lines.
I’ve always longed for adventure, as Julie Andrews would say. I sought it out in novels. I climbed rocks and trees. I trained horses, riding bareback as often as possible (with varying levels of success – a fall on the ass and a cracked tailbone taught me that bareback with no bridle was going a bit too far). I explored. I tried new things. I had to – I was the daughter of a Marine, so we moved every couple of years. I learned to make friends quickly and to entertain myself. I learned to be great friends with my parents. My father served for twenty-one years. He was one of those magical service members who made the times he was home count more than any time he had to spend away from home did. He was fully present in my life every second he could be. That was part of the reason I was homeschooled from fourth grade on. I wanted to be with my dad and mom every second we were all in the same house. My mind (and my family) moved too wildly to accept regular schooling. I preferred being able to leave math class for recess whenever I wanted. Yes, I understood that eventually I would have to go back to it, but what was wrong with having a bit of fun first?
(She sips her tea.)
So I ran barefoot across the island of the Outerbanks of North Carolina where we lived, competed in piano competitions, devoured hundreds of books, and became best friends with my parents. The rest of my schooling was seen as just as important, but fostering my constant need to try new things was just as encouraged as Algebra.
I prayed for adventure, and in times of drought, I grew frustrated. My mom is a woman of great passion, filled with a need to wander. She was born to teenage Irish Americans and adopted by Hungarian immigrants. She always says (with a mischievous glint in her eye) that she was born with the temper of an Irishwoman and the soul of a gypsy. The furniture in the house would start migrating more and more the longer we stayed put. I have no idea how many times I helped her swap the piano for the couch or the table for the coffee table in the living room. I always knew she’d be patient with my ramblings about the novels I was reading. I wanted to be just like Jo March, so I’d start writing constantly, and she’d help me come up with ideas. A while later, I’d decide that it was more admirable to be like Frodo Baggins, so I’d forgo shoes and talk to her about the possibility of saving the world from some great evil. One particular day as we mucked the pastures, I was feeling extra impatient.
“I want to do something as big as the story in Eragon,” I remember saying.
A week later my mom showed me a casting call for a theatre company for homeschooled high schoolers in the area. I looked over the flyer, noting the Greek masks pulled from Clipart paired at the top. There were no dragons on the page, but I was still terrified.
“That does sound great. But I can’t do that. I’m too scared.”
“No, you have to do it,” she immediately retorted.
“But I’ll be terrible!”
“You don’t get it – you ask for adventure, and here it is handed to you. You aren’t allowed to say no to something like this,” she said matter-of-factly with a little chuckle at the frown full of regret I shot back at her. I spent the following week swinging back and forth between overwhelmed excitement and total terror. During one of the overwhelmingly excited moments, she emailed the director saying we’d be coming. She’s sneaky.
(She gets out of her chair and begins to pace.)
That was how I found myself panicking over what song to sing for my audition. At first I leaned toward Norah Jones. I think I picked it because she sounds nothing like me. But I could hide behind my imitation of her smoky tones and maybe not be seen. I sang “Sunrise” constantly, sliding in perfect time with Norah. A few hours before the audition, I sang it for my mom. She advised as she folded clothes, “It’s beautiful, but don’t you want to go with something that sounds more like you? What about something simpler.” She talked about that scene from Heidi where Shirley Temple starts singing “Silent Night.” I tried it. She was right. I started singing “Silent Night” instead. I practiced until we hopped out of the car at the theater.
Everyone else had brought accompanying tracks to sing showtunes. They were all warming up, sirening in various corners of the theater as I walked in. My eyes widened as I looked up at my mom. She assured me that, if I was confident and did my best, it didn’t matter – I would at least be memorable.
Those five steps were hard. But my mom was right. While some of the other young voices cracked on some of the higher notes of their more mature ballads (we were all going through puberty, so vocal snaps, crackles, and pops were naturally abundant), my voice settled comfortably into my range, no mistakes. That’s how I got a lead role from singing “Silent Night.”
The company did all originals because the director was an aspiring playwright and his brother an aspiring lyricist. It sounds lame, but it was surprisingly great. In my time with the company, we did a play called A Thanksgiving Carol, and adaptation of A Christmas Carol set around a grumpy actor who has grown harsh in his fame. We did a musical called Screwtape B.C. based on the premise of The Screwtape Letters but starring Joseph from the Bible. I played the demon Vanity. That’s how it all started.
(Lights down. Exit in blackout.)
Lights up on what is clearly a group of actors – costumes should indicate artistic personalities. Blocking should be such that they create a series of tableaus related to the stories she is telling. She is to gesture to these tableaus as she tells her story. She begins by the first tableau – a man in silhouette.
Once, during my first college production, I was standing in the wings, waiting to make my entrance. I was facing the wall and running over my choreography. One of my favorite actors I’ve ever worked with was onstage singing a solo in his glorious tenor. He sang that song better than any Broadway recording. I looked up at the wall as I spun, noticing movement. The actor’s shadow was projected to ten times his size on the wall of the wing as his voice was projecting throughout the theater. I paused mid-spin and watched him performing as a shadow. His costume and makeup was of course not evident in shadow, so he looked more like himself. That’s what theatre is, I thought. You yourself become a shadow, only visible behind the scenes, and someone else takes the stage. Juli Nicewarner plays the character, but only from backstage. Whoever she is playing should be all that’s seen by the audience. Only the other actors get to see the person themselves, as they are, uncovered by a role.
(She walks over to the second tableau – a group of actors getting into makeup and costumes.)
I walked backstage during the last rehearsal before my first show. I was in costume and petrified. Music started with a bang onstage as the next scene came in with a dramatic duet. I reached the stairs that led down into the green room, and a cacophony of voices erupted from below. I stopped. I took one step backwards – all I could hear was the music onstage. I took one step forward – all I could hear was the Les Mis singalong happening in four-part harmony downstairs. Even within the theatre, there are multiple worlds, all intimately connected. Reality and make-believe exist more in tandem in a theatre than perhaps anywhere else.
The theatre attracts a menagerie of personalities. Going backstage is kind of like visiting the Zoo for Slightly Neurotic Extroverts. They all almost invariably have one thing in common – an abundance of quirks. I knew a girl who kissed every stage she walked onto. “For luck,” she’d say as she knelt to the ground. I knew a kid in a Christian theatre company who became a gay Jew shortly after a production of a comedy based on the biblical Joseph and his many-colored dream-coat. His rendition of Potiphar, the Pharaoh’s palace guard who is in charge of Joseph, in our production of Screwtape B.C. was hilariously flamboyant – a crowd pleaser.
(She gestures to the third tableau – two people hugging.)
I was crying. It was backstage at a rehearsal for Oklahoma!, and I was overwhelmed. I’d gone into the hall so that no one would see me – I didn’t want to distract from what was going on onstage. I heard footsteps and was in the middle of hurriedly scraping the tears off my cheeks when one of the actors came around the corner. Oklahoma! is a very ensemble-heavy show, so I had a lot of scenes with pretty much everyone. But I didn’t know this guy well; I was embarrassed. I saw concern wash over his face as he saw me.
“Hey, do you need a hug?” he asked. I felt incredibly silly, but the tears came back as I nodded. He didn’t need to know what was wrong. I guess he figured that if I wanted to talk about it, I would say something. All he knew was that I was somehow hurting, and he decided to help.
(The fourth tableau – one person kneeling to cry surrounded by comforting friends.)
We were twenty minutes out from our entrance at a dance exhibition of West Side Story. Everyone was sitting backstage doing homework or messing around. The mood was light. I was reviewing choreography with a friend when I heard someone gasp. One of the girls was looking at her phone in horror. Her mom had just texted her. Her mom had just been diagnosed with a life-threatening disease. Everyone surrounded her in an instant and placed a comforting hand on her shoulders. She did the show anyway. She’s strong like that.
(She moves center stage.)
Many people idolize actors. The ones they see in the movies – the glamorous film stars with the perfectly coiffed hair. They idolize Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jonathan Groff, the theatre people from the more mainstream productions. But they actually meet “theatre people” and are immediately terrified. Terrified of these projecting monsters, lit from within with glitter and melodrama. But what these scared civilians don’t understand is that, if they were given the chance to spend time with theatre people, they would find them to be some of the most caring, emotionally aware people in the world.
(Backlights up onstage to create a stage full of silhouettes.)
No one can spot a person who’s hurting like an actor can. Well, a well-adjusted, not-self-involved actor. I readily admit that there are divas in this world. Every company I’ve been in has at least one, and sometimes, the biggest divas are the guys. One of the best actors I ever worked with once stormed out of a dress rehearsal, throwing his hands in the air and shouting “I can’t work like this!” But the vast majority of actors, while, yes, they can talk your ear off about the brilliance of Les Miserables and Arthur Miller scripts, are some of the most diversely educated people I know, well-versed in many things from the habits of the psychologically disturbed to the emotional pain of their scene partners. They have received special training in putting themselves in someone else’s shoes, and they are good at it.
Lights up on her seated at a table. She sits poised among an array of props from nineteenth century England, serving a group tea in the traditional style.
It’s incredible what random tidbits one picks up while studying for a part. There’s the more obvious ones – accents, methods for quick memorization, the lyrics to every song from Chicago. And then there’s the ones that are perhaps a bit more surprising – intuition, knowledge of the political situation in fourteenth century Denmark, and everything that should be known by a modern major-general. I once had a conversation with an actor about the history of the German tradition of the Oberammeragau Passion Play and how that affected the progression of Christianity in many forms of art. I’ve had countless conversations about the social histories of both European and American subcultures as they relate to clothing and custom. If you’re performing on a set that has various items from a far-off century in a far-off place, you’d better know what everything is for.
(She doles out crumpets.)
While the other skills make good party tricks, the intuition gained in theatre is, quite simply, an essential life skill. How can you be in relationships without being able to have a sense of someone else’s emotions? Backstage, you are given a few dozen roommates of all ages and backgrounds, and you are expected to get along. You are given a chance to train in putting yourself in other people’s shoes and then practice it. Right in front of you is a group of people as surprisingly diverse as the day is long, each going through a myriad of difficulties. Actors wear their emotions close to the surface. So everyone generally knows what’s going on in the others’ lives. Sometimes it doesn’t go well. Sometimes you are too close, too involved in each other’s emotions, and it becomes unhealthy. And then you have to be willing to End Scene and move on. But we get to care for each other, relate to each other, and then go out and apply that in the rest of our lives, to our great joy. Not only do you have to learn how to live with them in constant and close proximity, you have to be able to trust each other, unwaveringly.
(Lights down. Exit.)
She stands on a platform about fifteen feet above the stage. A thin wire links this platform to one on the opposite side of the stage.
Stepping onstage is akin to stepping off a cliff. You can never be quite prepared for that sensation of falling. No matter how constantly you study your lines, how often you run your blocking, there is never a guarantee that the script won’t be blown out of your head when the lights hit your face.
(She walks to the other side as she speaks.)
If this happens, you have to know that without a doubt your scene partner can bail you out. And it is your responsibility to do the same thing for your partner. Most directors make their actors do group exercises such as trust falls and improvisational techniques to foster this kind of trusting environment among the cast. But in the end, it boils down to the professionalism of the actors – are they able to get out of their own heads enough to make others feel at ease with them onstage? People sometimes picture Broadway littered with monsters in five-inch heels, five-inch sunglasses, and head scarves so pretentious they make Gwenyth Paltrow look like a humble pauper. In reality, these actresses don’t last long. Oh, they may be talented enough to get one good role. But the effect they have on the spirit of the cast gets them fired before they’ve done a full run. It is just as necessary to learn how to support those around you as it is to study the art itself. Because of this, theatre people are some of the best, some of the most intriguing, some of the kindest. If you can get past the jazz hands, you’ll find the most understanding hug waiting for you.
She is surrounded by an unfinished set. Sawdust is strewn about the stage, and various tools are also scattered about.
Every night, crew members throw on black shirts, pants, shoes, gloves, the whole shebang. They learn how to have frantic conversations entirely in whispers. They can use any power tool, find any missing prop in a total blackout, figure out any lighting system, and fix all of your problems with gaffer tape. They get paid loads more than stage actors ever could for one simple reason – when it boils down to it, anyone can memorize lines, but only the few and the proud can run scene changes. More often than not, the people behind the scenes are the most important.
(She picks up a paintbrush and begins painting a piece of the background as the lights fade out.)
She stands still on an empty stage in a spotlight.
Regardless of whether you’re working behind the stage or on it, we all do theatre for the same reasons – the rush, the stakes, and the art. People factor in other aspects as well (for instance, I and many others do it at least in part for the aforementioned comradery). But pretty much anyone you talk to would agree that those three things are central to their love of the theatre.
The rush is addictive. Performing a soliloquy or doing a quick scene change have a special charge to them, a sort of electric pulse, metering out time and adding a heightened awareness of senses to them. Everything feels more intense in a theater. This is often palpable to the audience as well – something about theatre is much more raw (almost invasive) than watching a movie. We all (actors, crew, audience) are experiencing the story together.
The theater is where I learned to pray the “Please help me not to suck” prayer. This is an important prayer that many, I’ve found (religious or not) have prayed at some point in their lives. It builds confidence. Something about sending a call for help out across the cosmos gives one a bit of courage. The process is simple – you close your eyes, you whisper your fears and your need for help with a bit of desperation, and presto! you don’t feel quite so alone. The fact that the God of the universe cares enough about a girl who was, in reality, in no actual danger (other than danger of embarrassment), to give her a little boost of courage made me love Him even more.
The stakes are deceptively high. For an actor, the stakes are embarrassment, failure, etc. For a crew member, the stakes can be life or death (melodramatic but nonetheless true). If someone is going to be dancing on a twenty-foot-tall platform that you set up, you have to make damn sure you’re doing it right. These are two very different types of stakes, one emotional, one physical. But both are high in their own way, and both are chased as thrilling.
The art – as mentioned above, everything feels more intense in a theater. The level of escapism is heightened for the audience. They often feel more uncomfortable. Cringy scenes onstage are much worse than cringy scenes in a film. The emotions are heightened for stage actors as opposed to film actors – the give and take, the push and pull between the actors and the audience. Quite simply, it’s just raw.
In the months leading up to that first audition, in my eternal quest for adventure, I’d been experimenting with rebellion. I’d spent time with crazier and crazier people. Keep in mind that I was thirteen, so all of my experiences were fairly watered down. But nonetheless, I’d wandered – from my faith, from my parents. I was lashing out at everything that loved me, raised me. And it all felt wrong.
I’d come back quite a lot immediately before the audition, apologizing to my parents. But I hadn’t felt the need to come back to God. For whatever reason, as I stepped under the lights, I wanted to pray. My heart was beating more wildly than it had in a while. It could have been that I felt like I was going to pee my pants in terror. Maybe it was that my (rather tame) chase after adrenaline had finally been satisfied. I was glad that my mom had dragged me here. I was glad that I was scared out of my wits. I finally got what I craved. And I prayed not to fail. I prayed out of thankfulness. As I trained in the arts (both of acting and of loving people well), I felt myself coming back to what I knew in a whole new way.
The really influential people that came into my life through the theatre entered (stage left)
in my college years. After rehearsals, no matter how late it was, or how delirious we were, we’d go out and adventure. We played on the playground at midnight. We went bowling. We cooked together and played games. Four of us drove to Utah together one day to go to In-and-Out, then parked in the dark to spend the night at a National Park, woke up to find that we had parked by an inland beach, ran across the sand and drove home. One of them became my boyfriend.
Theatre has given me some of the most important things in my life – a part of my personality, my faith back, my boyfriend. But it also taught me how to let go. By the end of a show, everyone is sick of the script. They’re ready to move on. But when it actually ends, people are devastated. Actors of recently closed shows can often be found in their cars, crying while belting the songs from the show. Shows end, casts change, and you move companies. I had to say goodbye to the people who introduced me to theatre. I went off to college and met a new cast who became even more influential in my life than the last one. But theatre also teaches you about life – what it means when things are over. It teaches you how to understand that ends lead to beginnings, that the death of one thing means new life for something else.
That thirteen-year-old girl stepped onstage not knowing what to feel. All of the emotions were coursing through her, interwoven like fabric. But as she acted, she learned to identify each one, how to separate it and truly feel it. She learned how to feel those emotions for others. She understood how to help. And she stepped off that stage a more whole version of herself. The curtain opened, and she stepped off that stage renewed.
About the Author:
Juli Nicewarner is a senior at Colorado Christian University. She is studying creative writing and plans to become a teacher and a writer. Her work has been published at her university and in local travel magazines. She has also taught summer courses in both theatre and creative writing.