Loss of Faith

I used to not believe in theater.

It was a short period of time—and I eventually got through it—but it happened.

You may ask, what is so scary about that? Plenty of people don't even see theater, let alone believe in it. But when you've been loving something with your entire existence for your whole life, doubting it is not only upsetting, it's debilitating.

It was my sophomore year in college. My time was divided between a rigorous international relations program and a directing class.

The IR program focused on the horrors of the twentieth century: the disappearances in Argentina, the war in Yugoslavia, the genocide in Rwanda, Stalin's great purges, the Holocaust, etc. Each class featured a speaker who had been on the ground in at least one of these crises.

The teacher would talk to us about how, as the leaders of the next generation, it was our responsibility to prevent future crises. I was inspired, I was motivated, I... had to run to directing or I would get a point off my grade.

En route to directing class, I would make notes about what I wanted to do with my actors, with the lines, with the scene. Unfortunately, what I wanted to do never foreshadowed what actually got done, as I had the misfortune to work with several cocky actors. (Not my choice.)

After spending several hours trying to turn a caustic junior into a sanguine Ophelia, I would be exhausted. And pissed off. And wondering why all my energy was going into trying to turn a snotty bitch into Ophelia when it could be going into saving the world.

That's when I lost faith—convinced my intellect and energy would be better applied working on foreign policy, on conflict resolution, teaching children at an orphanage in South America.

But I came back to theater, to acting, mainly because I couldn't stay away from it.

I still don't think that all theatre serves a higher purpose. Only certain theater and certain films make you think hard enough to take you above the level of pure entertainment, to lead you to question government, society, and even yourself. Those are the pieces of art that serve as social aids.

I started thinking about this in preparation for a callback I had for "The Columbine Project" (currently running Off-Broadway). I went to see the show in order to get a context for my sides, and to figure out what they wanted from my character, Rachel.

Rachel was the first victim in the shooting, the one who, in the accounts of the incident, was reported to have been shot immediately after espousing her belief in God.

Watching the play, I remembered Columbine. I remembered the horror that rippled through the country—the hows, the whys, the sudden emergency routines where we would have to huddle into a corner or evacuate. I remembered the copycat acts that ricocheted through the country, the bomb scares, the death threats. I remembered the social ostracization faced by kids who wore trench coats, who liked heavy metal, who dyed their hair twice a week and had so many piercing one couldn't help wondering which one hurt the most.

Later, watching the play, I can't say that I understood the killers, but I was able to recognize some of the factors that drove them to commit such a horrific act.

It was particularly ironic that here I was preparing to read the next day for the role of a victim, when I myself was about to step on another Off-Broadway stage in the shoes of a murderer. My character is Susan Smith, a young mother who drowned her children in 1994 by rolling her car into a lake, her two small boys strapped inside in their car seats.

My job as an actress is to tell her story, to explain through her words and actions, through her moments, how a mother could kill her own children, as Susan was neither evil nor insane. It is also my job to show the aftermath: the beating oneself up, the guilt, the remorse.

Nothing will excuse or condone what she did, but it is important to understand that nothing happens in isolation; her actions are as much a reflection on society as they are on herself.

The factors that I think contributed to Susan's actions—and they are many, as things like this are never simple—were the stress of single motherhood, her resentment of tiresome young children whom she hadn't wanted in the first place, her lust-filled infatuation with a man who didn't want her, a history of being molested by her stepfather, and the fear of never being wanted as a woman again just because she was a mother.

Susan was also only twenty-three years old. In the time it took me to get my bachelor's degree, Susan had already been married, divorced, and given birth twice. Put simply, she was immature, emotionally and otherwise.

If you add the exhaustion and depression that she was battling at the time, her act becomes more understandable.

Single mothers face many difficulties in our country, as I discovered researching the role.

And doing this show, living onstage as this character, has caused me to have a lot of questions, all which boil down to one thing: How could this woman have been prevented from doing this?

Can we, as a society help single mothers cope with their difficult situations, financially and otherwise, and feelings of frustration? Can we reduce the stigma placed on single mothers? Can we prevent girls so young from having babies and keeping them?

Although I don't know the answer to any of these questions, it has made me realize that I am doing my part as a socially conscious human being by raising these questions through my portrayal of Ms. Smith.

Portraying this character onstage, I may not have solved the Middle East crisis, but I am giving a voice to desperate young mothers, and by default giving a chance to their children. I hope.

Through Sunday, August 30th, Samantha Karlin is performing the role of Susan Smith (in tandem with another actress) in Van Dirk Fisher's "Rock-a-My-Soul" at The Theatre at St. Clements, 423 W.46th St., NY, NY (between 9th and 10th). Tickets are available at www.therianttheatre.com, or call (646) 623-3488.

Samantha Karlin works in film, television, and theater. She is also a senior executive at meezoog.com, a dating website, where she writes a dating advice column and develops new content for the site. She studies acting with Peter Miner at Terri Schreiber Studios, voice with Doris Yarick-Cross of the Yale School for Music, and works with Ingrid French Management. Samantha is a graduate of Tufts University. Samantha can be reached at samanthabackstage@gmail.com.