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Playing Depressing Roles

Playing Depressing Roles

In a recent New York Times review, critic Charles Isherwood wrote that actor Vivien Parry, in Jonathan Lichtenstein's play Memory, "makes you realize how actors may live so fully in the minds of their characters that a trauma endured onstage can open a searing wound in the actor's soul too." True enough. For the actor to remain emotionally healthy, that wound needs to heal nightly.

Armand Volkas, son of an Auschwitz survivor, had to go someplace dark and painful years ago when he appeared in a play in Los Angeles about the legacy of the Holocaust. Between the Saturday matinee and evening shows, the cast would lounge around relaxing -- and making Holocaust jokes -- even as audience members popped in to thank them for the moving performance. But what if you're an actor who can't disengage from a painful role so quickly and comfortably? What if you unconsciously absorb the play's atmosphere of tragedy and have trouble pulling yourself together for the curtain call, at the end of the day's shoot, or even by the time you get home?

And what if the heavy material has personal meaning for you? Before she went into rehearsal for the docudrama The People's Temple, about the religious cult of Jim Jones, actor Velina Brown confided to me that she was worried about how she'd feel throughout the run. After all, she lives in San Francisco, as most of Jones' doomed followers did. In fact, Brown's castmate Margo Hall (who co-wrote the script with lead writer Leigh Fondakowski, Greg Pierotti, and Stephen Wangh) lost family members to the Jonestown tragedy.

Now, two years after the show's run, I asked Brown how she fared. "It was a very fulfilling show to do," she says. Many audience members wrote letters saying they were touched by the play, which "certainly helps when you have to go to a sad and tragic place" every night. She adds, "Every single actor at some point got pulled up short at some onstage moment." When it happened to Brown, the grief hit her when it would have made no sense for her character to cry, so she turned upstage. But by the time she got on the train to go home each night, she was herself; audience members often approached her in transit to talk about the show, which she was happy to do. It increased her feeling of fulfillment.

Jami Simon doesn't feel she's the type of actor who can't disengage from a traumatic role, but when she appeared in Lanford Wilson's The Rimers of Eldritch in New York and her character had to slowly fall apart emotionally by play's end, odd things happened. Usually a sound sleeper, Simon found that during rehearsal and the run, she tossed and turned every night. She also developed a nervous tic in her eye that occurred only when she was at the theatre, so colleagues who knew her only from that show thought it was a permanent affliction. She also concedes that at curtain call she couldn't instantly snap out of her debilitated state, though she says she was back to herself by the time she left the theatre.

Given her involuntary response to a painful role, I asked Simon if there are any roles she'd refuse to play. "Largely, no," she says, though she mentions that she might hesitate over Wit or Marvin's Room -- that is, playing a character with cancer or a caregiver to someone with cancer -- because she has lost family members to that disease.

In the Service of the Role

Actor Lorri Holt, who is currently appearing as Queen Elizabeth in Richard III at California Shakespeare Theater, says this is the fourth play in a row in which she's appeared as a mother whose children die -- and she herself has a teenage son. Play after play, she has had to dredge up horrifying personal material to embody the emotions of these grieving women. Holt was ambivalent about accepting the role of Elizabeth, which involves grief of mythic proportions. She says it's harder for her to find those dark places before coming on stage than it is to leave them behind at play's end, but that wasn't always the case.

"The more I play someone who has these great losses," she says, "I find that if I look at my connection to everything -- the world, the universe -- it's helpful. I don't feel so isolated. I'm tapping into something that belongs not only to me but to everyone. It feels like it's not my specific burden to carry; I'm carrying it into the show as a representative. If I look at it that way, I see that we [actors] are all providing a service." She adds, "We're in a service-oriented profession‌. And it's okay to let go [at the end of the performance], because you've performed that service, and it's an honor. As I get older, I see it that way. When I'm done I say to myself, 'Now I can let go of this until tomorrow.' "

Says Volkas, who has gone from actor and director to therapist and drama therapist, "In psychodrama, when you take on a toxic role in somebody else's psychodrama" -- that is, participate in another group member's therapeutic process by role-playing -- "whether a rapist or an abusive partner or whatever, there's a necessary process of 'taking off' the role -- a detoxifying process." In that process, the "actor" is thanked for playing the other person's mother, for example, and is told, "You're not my mother; you're ___." Then the "actor" talks with the group about how the role is like him or her, how it's not, how it does or doesn't connect to his or her own life. Of course, real actors don't need to be verbally reminded that they're not their characters. But I'm sure there are times, when you're stirring up your darkest fears and fantasies, that you'd be happy to hear that reassurance from others.

Volkas notes that the curtain call in a way is a ritual that fills that purpose, a symbolic way to tell the audience (and yourself) that it was just a role. Your dressing-room business -- taking off makeup and costume -- can be a comforting ritual too, separating you from that altered state. Still, I've often noticed actors stumble on stage for their curtain call looking shell-shocked, while others in the same cast are instantly transformed into their smiling selves. Maybe there are two types of actors: those who can disengage instantaneously and those who can't. "You can say a brilliant actor needs to have blurry boundaries to be able to inhabit a role so completely," Volkas muses. It's a form of sacrifice, he thinks -- and not necessarily a healthy process.

Holt observes that she sometimes has a nagging thought: "If I let go of this great grieving feeling, will I be able to get it up again?" But, she says, "I think, ironically, the greater the ability to let go, the greater the ability to find it again. It's about being in the moment. You can never repeat anything, any feeling -- it won't work well when you try to dredge it up from memory. You have to allow whatever's happening around you to work for you that night."

She adds, "If I can tell myself, 'Just be here right now and see what happens,' if I can find the feelings and then let go of them just because I can, then it'll allow me to be fresher the next time. The more I trust in that, the more it happens."

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