'But theater was the stressful, scary activity I chose '
by Brent Stansfield
This summer I am acting for the first time in 23 years and it has taught me something important about myself. Acting used to be stressful and scary: most things are stressful and scary in high school. But theater was the stressful, scary activity I chose. My school required us to engage in an athletic activity each term but allowed participation in a play instead. Most kids chose sports but I preferred theater because while both involved insecurity and fear, theater mixed these with serious themes: passion, character, soul, motivation. I remember motivation being particularly important. We thought a lot about motivation. I used to chop my lines into fragments and assign each a descriptive motivational infinitive: “to coax,” “to annoy,” “to confuse.”
This, so I was told, helped me speak my lines with force and direction. Phrase by phase I built my wise, important, crafty, motivated characters. It is sad though that teenagers (especially those like me who dodge athletics requirements) don’t make naturally convincing heroes, lovers, villains and gods. To make that happen, one needs a Director. The Director was the adult in the room. The Director pushed us about the stage like chess pieces on a board: told us how to walk and to stand on this piece of tape, to who to look at, how say the line, to think about motivation. Do it again. Do it again. It was serious and repetitive work.
The performance of a play was like the performance of a machine. Stand on the tape. Look at your wife. Say your lines. Remember your motivation. After high school, when I realized that real life doesn’t have athletic requirements or Directors (life is pretty much its own extra-curricular activity), I abandoned theater and did the sorts of things that real-life people do: I went to college, wrote music, fell in love, learned to ski, fell out of love, flew a hot air balloon, went to graduate school, fell in love again, got married, built a career, bought a house, had children. And through it all I never had to chop lines into motivated phrases. I lived in several states, drove across the country, and traveled Europe and Asia and I never had to stand on the tape. I talked to very rich people and very poor people, was very hungry and very full, felt elation and sorrow and never once had to remember my Direction.
But then theater came back to me nearly a quarter-century later. I was a 41 year-old man—talking to the in-laws and watching my wife coach my daughters’ soccer team—when a friend handed me her cell phone and insisted I speak to Jacqui Robbins. I knew Jacqui: her kids knew my kids so we had the sort of head-nodding mutual acknowledgement that passes for light friendship among busy parents. She was also a Director. Her theater group—The Penny Seats—strives to produce shows that cost the audience member no more than a movie ticket, to cast local amateur actors and to try interesting plays. My wife and I had seen one of their plays last winter: it was low-budget. It was performed in a local theater’s converted prop room: painted black and fitted with wooden risers for the audience’s folding chairs. At one point a spotlight went out and the sound-man had to use his flashlight. And it was delightful. The play was frantic, witty and racy. The actors were energetic and personable. It felt easy and silly and sweet. And now Jacqui the Director was telling me she needed someone to play a role in a musical this summer: a middle-aged family man with a baritone singing voice. I thought about it for a few days. I asked for some assurances from my wife. Then I agreed.
At the first rehearsal, I was uncertain how I would enjoy it. We sat in a cast member’s basement and did a read-through of the script. The cast was eager and the mood was light. And as we started to read out the scenes I realized something that I knew but hadn’t really felt about myself before: I had grown up. I now had some powers I didn’t have in my youth. I didn’t have to chop lines into phrases and assign them all motivations because I’ve learned how people talk and why they say certain things and the funny curves of inflection that imply happiness and confusion and anger. As we read, I realized that no one in the room was building a character from inexperience. No one was awkwardly grappling with how the characters in the script related to each other because each of us in our own lives had already experienced being lovers, friends, bosses and employees, salesmen and shoppers. Suddenly being part of a cast wasn’t so much about creating a persona as it was about sharing parts of our grown-up selves. I had a large vocabulary of voices and postures and reactions and, yes, motivations.
The trivia of the theater hadn’t changed and I was reminded of things I’d forgotten entirely: theater people like to play “theater games”; “stage left” is what the audience would call the right side of the stage; you have to pay attention to things onstage that your character doesn’t notice; it’s important to get “off book” quickly; the Director gives “notes” after each run. But what was once stressful about these things is now reassuring. The Director is no longer the only adult in the room and where rehearsals were once prescriptive they were now facilitative. Of course there were decisions about where to stand and where to look, but it wasn’t to make us do things that real characters do. We were doing that on our own.
Perhaps acting in high school was like writing in a language I didn’t know: I could form approximately correct words and phrases, and by using all the Director’s edits I could cobble together a coherent paragraph. Rehearsing this play was like realizing that I had learned that language and could all of a sudden write passably well. As the rehearsals progressed, I found I could tinker with my role to make it make more sense. The male romantic lead (Roy Sexton) started to play his character as more conflicted about romance so I decided to make mine more assured of it. The shopkeeper (Drex Morton) started to play his character as more easy-going so I decided to act less obsequious around him. As a kid, acting was an academic exercise of introspection and serious imagination but as an adult it had become play. And as Hamlet once observed that the theater has a way of rousing reality: “the play’s the thing.” I learned that quote in high school, but I understand it much better now.
The play is a light musical comedy: “She Loves Me” opened on Broadway in 1963. It is witty and cute and sweet and catchy. So I suppose quoting Hamlet was a bit much. I take it back. Still, my experience with The Penny Seats has been affirming and reassuring: I recommend it to any other adults who gave up (or never tried) acting in their youth. Trust me: it’s not like it was.
It certainly still takes a lot of time and a lot of attention and a lot of energy. Yes, there are still pre-show jitters and missed cues and long technical rehearsals But it’s been interesting that, when play once came more naturally to me, theater was so effortful, but now the effort of growing up has made it more natural to play.
Penny Seats Theatre presents "She Loves Me," July 26-28, August 2-4, and August 9-11 at West Park Band Shell, between Miller and Huron. For more information, please visit www.pennyseats.org. Find out more about Jacqui at www.jacquirobbins.com.
Brent Stansfield plays comic foil Ladislav Sipos in the production. Here is his bio from the program: Brent Stansfield (Sipos) can barely remember his most recent roles as Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors and Joseph in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat since both of those happened in the 1980s. More recently he is an assistant professor in the Department of Medical Education at the University of Michigan, a proud husband and father of three, and a member of the songwriting duo Hostess Mostess.