Reflections on being in the skin of my character, Wendla, and in mine throughout my experience in Riverside Repertory Theater's production of Spring Awakening.
Cautious, mechanical repetitions of "Can I touch you?" compose the strategy one adopts during early rehearsals for an onstage sex scene.
When you're playing Wendla Bergman in Spring Awakening and your scene partner takes this approach, you nod. You say, "Sure. Go for it." You flash him an awkward but casual smile with which you tell him, "It's okay. I trust you." Even though you met him a week ago and no human has ever been this close to your body before. But you do it. It's what you do.
I had (have) an extensive, convoluted set of reservations and anxiety triggers about playing Wendla Bergman. I'm 5'9" with a butt and I don't think I can pass for 14. I'm 18 with no driver's license and no experience as a contracted professional actor and I don't think I can pass for an adult. I’m an ardent feminist with a deep-seated compulsion to imbue the tragic Wendla with strength and agency, yet I’m also a literary snob and feel the need to strike a balance between modern feminist ideology and respect for the classical constructions in the text. I’m a teenager who endures routine existential crisis, as well as bouts of persistent acne. When I took on Spring Awakening, I was made to reflect thoughtfully upon the woes of adolescence, despite the fact that I’m not out of the woods yet myself; I lay awake for hours after rehearsal every night, lyrics on loop in my head, the truths of Spring Awakening clogging my consciousness. Wendla Bergman haunts me.
Note how I mentioned nothing, just now, about boobs.
Now, the sex scene did scare me - let’s be clear - and I did have a solid stance on the nudity, stemming from the artistic interpretation I was comfortable with. The audience is witnessing a monumental but private moment between two young people - they aren’t at a peep show, and I didn’t want anyone involved to feel as though that’s what the scene was. But that was a consensus that the actors and creative team arrived at almost immediately, so it wasn’t a lingering concern. Nipples? Most of us have them. I hope no one in the audience was shocked that my scene partner and I were among that population. So let’s not place too much emphasis, here, on the boobs. They’re pale as can be and size 34B. And they’re not the most valuable thing I can show you or talk about.
We can talk, though, about skin.
Fearing the exposure of one’s skin to the people out there in the dark - the whispering audience, all various breeds of stranger - is understandable. Sensible, even. And my scene partner, Eric, is nothing if not a sensible guy; of course he feared that. We had a lovely conversation mid-way through the rehearsal process, via Facebook messaging, about the pressure we felt regarding the scene. He wrote of his own meticulousness and commitment to a good performance, and how accomplishing that task half naked was daunting for him. Sensible. But I wrote about skin, and about microscopes. I called him, half-jokingly, The Great Microscope of Eric.
Eric is six years my senior. He has a college degree and a glorious, well-controlled falsetto. Eric just returned to the United States after a nearly year-long contract with Disney in Japan - he worked as a performer and also navigated an unfamiliar culture and scaled Mount Fuji. So I am sure it sounded ridiculous to him when I expressed how I saw his body as a foreign country. For in the grand scheme of things, how difficult is it, really, to navigate skin?
Ask the writers of Spring Awakening, or better yet, the characters themselves - ask Wendla Bergman - and she might tell you that sometimes, and for some people, skin is the grand scheme of things, and it’s a labyrinth.
When you’ve never experienced open heart surgery, or a loss that shook your entire skeleton, or had a steady boyfriend, or driven a car without an adult in the passenger’s seat, skin is a summit. When you’re Wendla and you’re inching onto the precipice of womanhood, or when you’re me and you’re only truly comfortable with the smells and the textures of a few key people, skin is Mount Fuji. Mount Fuji rising tall and dangerous underneath your ribs, its crest pressing up into your throat, laboring your breath, daring you: Choke, little girl. Choke. And the anxiety, and the fear - it fills every pore and repels any contact. Suddenly a cautious, mechanical, professionally-phrased “Can I touch you?” morphs into a philosophical debate in the wee hours of the morning. Can he? You repeat to yourself. Should I let him? And when the answer, in a professional context, has to be yes, and you have experiences in rehearsal that are new and shocking, but also choreographed and artistically contrived, the question then becomes: How do I feel this? On my spectrum of sensory experiences, where do I put it? To what extent, when I let him touch me, do I let myself be touched?
How do I feel this? On my spectrum of sensory experiences, where do I put it? To what extent, when I let him touch me, do I let myself be touched?
I recognized this dilemma and these questions as the ubiquitous, immobilizing fear that grips us when the time comes to reach out and touch someone else. What if they flinch? we mutter to ourselves. What if they cringe? It may be a sweeping presumption to make about the human condition as an 18-year-old, but this particular statement isn’t driven by an elevated sense of self-importance and premature wisdom (at least, I don’t think so), but rather observation. I simply don’t think it’s just me.
I think all of us, at some point and to some degree, feel trapped inside our bodies. And when we converge, skin on skin - or mind on mind, for that matter - it takes a moment for us to open up our pores to the influence of another person. We tense at the prospect of melding our scent with theirs or widening our sphere of understanding. We fear that person will leave, and they will have changed us, and then we won’t be able to recognize ourselves.
Eric and I met for coffee before rehearsal one day and we talked about the show. We talked about our interpretations of the scenes, and I revealed that I was 18 and virginal as an infant. “But it’s not us,” he reminded me, gentle. “It’s Wendla and Melchior.” But three weeks later, on opening night, they were still his hands, and they were still my breasts, and skin on skin is skin on skin.
By that time, we were well-rehearsed. Confident. Comfortable with the characters and each other. I still trembled a bit when we kissed, but I wasn’t sure if the hesitation was Wendla’s or mine, and it stopped being relevant. And what a liberating sensation it was to feel air on my chest - to release the stuffy layers of our 1891 costuming and forget to worry whether or not my sweat was ruining the adhesive of my mic tape, if only for a second. And his face - God, Melchior’s face when he uncovers Wendla’s breast, the uncensored response to unblemished, unadulterated skin - there was something pure and gleeful about that moment. I am not sure who the glee belonged to - Wendla or I. All I know is that it surged through my body, and I only have one. I know that it existed, for that suspended moment in time, and that I might as well claim it, because nothing so beautiful should be left without a home.
I am not sure who the glee belonged to - Wendla or I. All I know is that it surged through my body, and I only have one.
Moreover, as an actor, I don’t make it a practice to relinquish my spirit for two hours every night. I may surrender sections of my identity that don’t serve the piece, and I most certainly try to leave all the petty parts of my day offstage and focus, but Madeline doesn’t disappear in favor of Wendla. Madeline can’t disappear. She’s my greatest resource. Madeline is what gives Wendla’s story a body. Madeline’s fears are what Melchior - and Eric - uncovers when he unbuttons Wendla’s dress.
Madeline can close her eyes right now and draw, with remarkable likeness, the architecture of Eric’s face. She’s memorized the curvature of his eyes and the straightness of his nose and the path his lips travel when he’s speaking. She’s scrutinized Melchior through Wendla’s lens, admiring every detail, yearning. She can conjure up love for him at any point in time, because she remembers how throughout all of Act II, Wendla savored every detail she could remember, replayed their intimacy over and over again in her mind, decided that her decision to let him love her would be her story, though she never saw him again. And Madeline, in turn, decides to let herself be touched, and let herself be wounded, because she thinks that’s a beautiful story, and she thinks there’s no good reason why it has to be fake.
I know that I am fragile in a lot of ways, and that I could so easily protect myself by stopping my life for two hours every night and withholding what scares me, filtering it before it seeps onto the stage. I could build a coating around my skin that would deflect with such efficacy that I’d forget what it feels like to be two the second I exited in blackout. I could furiously scrub all remnants of my castmate off in the shower at midnight. I think, though, that if I went to those lengths, I’d be sadder. Emptier. I also think that Wendla would be hollow, and why would I tell that story?
Perhaps better actors have a better solution for this duality. Perhaps older actors do. I’m not convinced, though, that my youth makes me wrong. Youth brings about an unquenchable desire to feel - to grow and experience newness. Does it really matter the source? And has any 18-year-old ever perished from touch?
It is possible that after Spring Awakening closes, I will never touch the human who was once Melchior again. It is certain that after Spring Awakening closes, the synergy that our cast, crew, and creative team has cultivated will never come to complete fruition again. That’s fine. I wish them all love, light, and purple summers. And I don’t intend to clutch onto what we created in those onstage moments, because that’s not how theatre works. There’s something intoxicating about the transience of it all - how it’s different every time and then always a little too gone.
There's something intoxicating about the transience of it all - how it's different every time and then always a little too gone.
The touch, though, will last. The kisses will stay; I’ll remember. The bruises will hurt. It will sting for a while, because I’m letting it sting and I want it to sting and I want to feel it imprinted on my skin and underneath. I am proud of what I created, grateful for what I stripped away and what I gained.
My breasts will be tingling for weeks - so thanks, Eric. And to the hundreds of audience members who saw them, and the rest of our shining show - you are all quite welcome.