I needed A Midsummer Night’s Dream to close, because my knees were sore. Are. They are sore, very much so, still. For all the diligent work of our fight choreographer and the gracious willingness of the costume designer to offer me knee pads underneath my costume, for all the attentiveness of our fight captain and my scene partners – for all the scrupulous storyteller work that we did together, crafting a fictional space, playing make-believe – my body perceived that I was doing her real injuries. And she’s usually right.
Fair Helena – bless the 400-year-old girl and her body made of poetry – has a habit of doing herself injuries. We often joked of her masochism in the rehearsal room. We joked less about her self-loathing. Intertwined, sisters, ferociously rooted in the same rich, fertile soil, but yet not quite identical. Helena craves every atom of her Demetrius, who is nothing short of despicable to her for most of the play. He snaps at her; she professes love and subservience to him. He spurns her; she reaches for him. He threatens to rape her; she welcomes the prospect with a wide open body, want lurching deep in her abdomen. These are simple progressions of feeling, for her. Reactionary, immediate. She quickly climbs to the precipice of must. No alternate words clamber close to her throat, no other actions will serve, no other love is viable. Self-respect is confusing, and therefore peripheral – a substance to be groped for and clutched at, shoulders torqued at strange angles, and then promptly released and abandoned in favor of reaching for Demetrius, a forceful forward fall. Helena has a scripted pursuit; it has been so for centuries. So when the voice tucked behind the text would whisper, Oh, Helena. Sweet girl. Sweet smart lovely strong courageous beautiful girl. Why are you kneeling before him? she never could hear me. So my insistence grew muffled, my reasoning muddled, as words like No, no: I am as ugly as a bear bubbled out of my mouth for months. It’s the repetition, I think, that presses, that stresses tissue.
Helena truly is smart and strong and courageous. She is relentless. She writes a story for herself and persists until it is concluded. The story does damage to her, is all, erodes her as she surges forward. So there is inevitable antithesis that forms, a feeling of being stretched in two. Doubt creeps into the places where she frays. Bruises change colors.
Granted: I myself am a bit of a masochist. I tend to emerge from painful expenditures with a sensation of satiation, if not a pleasurable high. Acting affords me a similar raw satisfaction as a good, hard workout, except it tends to be more emotionally expensive.
When I was younger, and a dancer, my skin would burn from running choreography over and over and over again against the grimy studio floors. A blister was a battle wound, a badge of honor, physical evidence of questions that hung over my head (Who wants it most?). I sprained my ankle on a trail run one morning before a performance. I was the show’s dance captain. My leaps were larger than they’d ever been that night. I think I was 15, and I remember wanting more attention, more recognition, for my efforts to push through my injury.
My first professional turn as a leading lady led directly to an accidental whipping. It was Spring Awakening – sometimes subtitled “a children’s tragedy.” The play is about adolescence, and as Wendla, I did not know where babies come from, nor the geography of my body, nor the distinctions between pleasure and pain, the intricacies of touch. I asked my childhood friend, Melchior, to whip me with a stick, and between the first and second weekend of performances, we got new props. The new stick was longer and more jagged, and my scene partner’s angle of safety was off. So the stings were hot fact as they made contact, and they lasted for weeks: I’ve never felt anything etched in fine pink lines on the backs of my thighs.
Every role has necessary physical conditions, characteristic of inhabiting a different world. My first college play was set in the Victorian era, and we wore rehearsal shoes, skirts, and corsets nearly from Day 1. Lactic acid accumulated in my calves in the hours split between Nike sneakers and heeled, laced-up boots. My lower back was swayed, and I could feel the perimeter of my corset on my ribs as I inhaled in bed after rehearsal each night, wearing t-shirts printed with old production logos or names of high school cross country meets. During the run of In The Next Room, the four actors in the women’s dressing room would nightly compare the patterns pressed onto our torsos after 2.5 hours of sweaty skin under bunched chemise under corset under multi-layered dress. We also compared breasts. It was strange.
Most of this strangeness can be attributed to muscle memory, because calves are muscles and so are hearts – I think the brain has some muscle in it too, even, and our senses are aided by muscles being muscles. We’re really just tender machines, probably, bolstered by occasional transcendence, and these occasions in my life are just as likely to occur onstage as they are off. It is these encapsulated moments that I allow to seep into my skin, a good preservation, a feast for the senses to savor over in moments of want. There are smells I remember, for instance. People’s smells. My parents’, my brother’s, my lovers’, my scene partners’. There has admittedly been some crossover in those final two categories.
Demetrius’ smell is a familiar one for me, as the same actor who played Demetrius played my love interest for In The Next Room the previous fall. So I’ve spent a lot of time with this person’s breath and with their body, snuggled between set pieces from different worlds and eras on the same stage. I stroke her hair as Sabrina drowses in one play, I fall asleep next to Demetrius in the next and stay splayed there for an entire act. My body remembers.
I exit the stage. I go to the dressing room. I take off my costume. I put on my clothes. I go home. I take off my clothes. I stand in front of the mirror for a while. I feel my knees on the ground where I was kneeling in the theatre a mile away an hour ago. I smell Isabel. I feel Helena’s words vibrating restlessly in my throat. Spaniel is smudged with green and yellow bruising on my pelvis. Spurn me, strike me, neglect me, lose me spirals purplish on my knees. My armpits are stained inky black from the way the tight, sheer top from my costume bleeds onto my skin.
I listen to “Little Black Dress” by Sara Bareilles and exfoliate one layer of Helena off in a scalding shower. But she stays. These girls, these women, these figments, these creatures always stay – when I paid an artist to tattoo Juliet onto the inside of my finger in the shape of a sun, I did so only to make tangible what I knew to be true. I felt a little like I was being poisoned as it was happening, but she was beneath my skin already, and as the scab began to peel away weeks later to reveal the permanent stain of yellow and grey, I just whispered to the icon, welcome home.
I do have existential crises about this, or I wouldn’t be processing it. But acting isn’t even a large enough vessel to house this phenomenon. The questions I interrogate myself with when I see the colors of Helena on my limbs are the same as the ones that arose when I received my first hickey. Essentially, do I want evidence of this person on my skin?
Helena is no more insidious than the individual who marked up my neck and collar bone, and in fact less so, because her intentions are fixed. Helena burrows from underneath my skin, in fact, for it all could be pretend if I’d read her lines in the play and connected to none of them, as a Strong Modern Woman. She could hardly have infiltrated me if I didn’t already contain the beginnings of all the infinities she expanded with her centuries-old poetic insecurities. Speaking her speeches activated all the latent inadequacy, jealousy, desperation, and hunger that I’d like to think I’d grown out of, at least in all their urgent intensity, once I’d crept past the threshold of teenager. I maybe couldn’t find words to describe them myself, but that doesn’t make them new. Shakespeare, the old fucker – he left his words here for me.
In my inner monologues, I attack myself with you need better acting technique in the same tone of voice as you need better living technique. I’m not certain if I’m writing about a problem or not. I know that bruises are widely considered to be unpleasant and unappealing, and that the soreness leftover from my twisted, bowlegged physicality onstage should annoy me now that the show has closed. It does. Additionally, though, as a dear friend who sat in the audience asserted, I do think it’s important to find a way to be empowered by what I’ve created onstage, however ugly. Because Helena is beautiful, too. And it’s also empowering to be ugly, for me. Symmetry is exhausting. Beauty is effort. Helena gave me permission to be everything weak and ugly and twisted about little young me. And I had magnificent poetry at my disposal with which to express all that.
We just received the album of production photos. They are, for the most part, not pretty pictures of me. This is in part because I refuse to wear adequate stage makeup (it takes too long, irritates my skin, and makes me feel like a clown, and no one has reprimanded me thus far). It’s also in part because, in most of the photos, I am performing facial athletics to articulate Shakespeare’s verse to the audience members furthest from me. Helena’s first scene and soliloquy is all vowels, like her name. There are many photos in which my mouth is rounded in an O. Helena and Demetrius’s scene is full of ssss. I am your spaniel…spurn me, strike me…your wrongs do set a scandal on my sex. The lover’s quarrel is packed with hard k sounds. Confederacy, conjoined, conspired, contrived, counsel, keen, kill. It’s all delicious. But it’s work.
The third reason that the production photos are not pretty pictures of me is that you can tell Helena believes she is ugly. You can see it in her shape and her eyes and the way she holds her hands. You can see it as she’s forming vowels and consonants. You can almost hear it in her breath.
Helena knows she is not ugly. She’s been told many times otherwise. But Demetrius, in the words of my director early on in the rehearsal process, has managed to flatten her. Or rather contort her. She’s shriveled herself into something that’s deserving of such a mangled form of love. We can only hope that, in Act Six, she will put her shoulders back and tell him that if he raises a hand or a voice to her, she’s getting a divorce. We hope she’ll realize she deserves better. We’re doubtful that she will.
I adore Shakespeare and I think that his deft and deceivingly simple ending to this great comedy is perfect. It’s shadowy. Contradictory. We can choose to believe in the good vs. bad, pain vs. pleasure, night vs. day version of the play and sort all its characters, all its tangled relationships and plot lines, accordingly. But I don’t think that’s very interesting. I think it’s all knotted together. And I think Helena and I are knotted together – masochism, self-loathing, virtues, vices, bruises, poetry and all – with muscly branches of a tree four centuries old. For a while we will stay that way, and I will cry for her in the shower, as I would a sister or a daughter or a friend. And I will scream her name in elevators, because DEMETRIUS felt wrong as it burst out of my throat the first time I tried that. He’s a dick, but he isn’t the problem. She wanted him. She chose him.
And like a sister or a daughter or a friend, I am upset with her, but I respect her choices, as she’s family still.