Monday, August 25, 2014

Beyond the Barricade

"Fire!" Enjolras shouts from the top of the barricade. Our final shot for freedom. After 55 nights, maybe we'll actually win this time. My foot digs into Susan's waist. Willow takes a blow to the stomach and collapses center stage. Zane leaps to catch the flag. He screams and for the last time, I stumble, flop, and drop, dead on the barricade. I channel each breath, as my director told me, and wait for Javert to hit his suicide note so I can breathe normally again.


This past summer, I had the honor of performing in the revival run of Les Mis at the Academy Playhouse of Performing Arts in Orleans, MA. Sixty times I have formally died on the barricade (four times in my high school production of Les Mis and 56 times at the Academy), but I have spent more than 366 hours in the theatre performing the show. This doesn't include the time I spent outside of rehearsal memorizing lines and music, and developing my character. It doesn't seem possible that it is over.

I think everyone in our cast was expecting our director to make some changes from last year. We certainly didn't expect to run Act I right off the bat in our first rehearsal after ten months being away from the barricade. It was a test of muscle memory at its finest. Apart from a handful of new cast members, the performance was more or less the same as last year as far as our director's artistic vision went. But the show was tighter. After 28 shows last summer, we no longer needed to worry about remembering our lines and blocking, so we could dive into the hearts of our characters.

This summer, I journaled before every performance––about the show, any pre-show anxieties I needed to flush out, dressing room observations. I also became obsessed with Yogi Throat Care. The inspirational messages on the tags were like fortune cookies. Finding out, "What will Yogi say today?" soon became a favorite part of my day. Sometimes the messages were apropos to Les Mis. Other times they were good pre-show soothers––reminders to live in the moment, be kind to myself, and breathe. I started saving the tags and taping them in my journal.

Below, I posted some highlights from the 28 shows. I picked them for their variety. As I was flipping through my notebook, I travelled back to every day of the summer: how work was that day, what I had for dinner, what backstage drama was going on. Some nights I was in a better place than others. There were times I had difficulty motivating myself to go the theatre––I was tired; I ate too much; I wasn't invited to go the beach. I hated those nights, because it made me question whether I am going into the right field of study. But then I would have the great nights, and I would remember there is nothing else that fulfills me more. I tried not to edit the journals too much to keep the heart of the moment, which is why they sometimes jump around a lot. Sometimes they're meditative rambles to myself, sometimes they're a list of observations, and other times they're more reflective. I also switch between using character names and real names, but the essence of the journals doesn't depend on knowing who these people are. Taking the time to journal helped me take stock of where I was before every show, address any obstacles that would taint my performance, and settle into my theatre zone.

Opening Night: 7/23

Opening night #2 of Les Mis at the Academy, my third opening night of Les Mis ever. Katie (the stage manager) just called ten minutes until places, which means I still have thirty minutes before I go onstage. The factory girls lace up their corsets. Marius kids around with Eponine. In about two hours she’ll die for him on the barricade. As the minutes tick by, I slowly travel to France. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your places call for the start of Act I. Break a leg,” Katie says. It’s time to push this snowball down the hill and let it roll.

Night #2: 7/24

I don’t know how Enjolras waits so long to go onstage. I’m costumed. I drank my tea. I had my cinnamon Altoid. I peed. I just want to go to France. It reminds me of the feeling before a race, except I don’t want to go onstage to get it over with. I want to go onstage because I want to be in it.  

Night #5: 7/27

“It’s strange,” I told Mom. "Normally I would be getting ready to settle in for the night, but the most energizing part of my day hasn't even begun.” While Mom curled up on the couch in her yoga pants and glasses, my face was caked with makeup. I drank tea not to settle in for the night, but to coat my throat before I performed. This is my life six nights a week for the next month. I’m so lucky.  

“Do you ever get tired of performing the same thing?” Mom asked. I would be lying if I said there are never nights I would love to stay home. There are days–many days–when I’m tired from work, my shoulders sore from yesterday’s swim, my eyes still stinging from the makeup I wiped off half-heartedly at 11:30 the night before. But it’s like exercise. Of course there are days I don’t want to do it. But I have to get out there. I have to keep myself conditioned. 

“It’s like a sport,” my high school director says. “If you don’t do it for a season, you set yourself back.” Theatre is part of my rhythm. If I go too long without it, I get antsy. So even on the nights I may not be thrilled to go to the theatre, I go––because I have to, but also because I know I’m going to feel great after it’s over. I’ll feel that natural high.  

It’s different performing a show 28 times. It’s not the same adrenaline I get from my high school performances. It feels more rhythmic. It feels more natural. Because it’s a natural part of my rhythm. I can’t live without it.  

Night #7: 7/29

"I am beautiful, I am bountiful, I am blissful." 

Thank you. Thank you Throat Care. I should wear this tea bag on a chain around my neck. Breathe the mantra during my sun salutations. Stroke it in the water. Pedal it up the the hill. Pound it on the pavement.  

Tonight I had grilled tuna, $25/lb. In about fifteen minutes I’m going to go begging on the streets. It’s not exactly method-acting, but if I were to have a last meal, grilled tuna would be a fantastic one to end with.

Night #8: 7/30
"Love is where compassion prevails and kindness rules." 

Very apropos for Les Mis. "To love another person is to see the face of God." 

Night #17: 8/10

"Let your manners speak for you."
Maybe “Let your mannerisms speak for you.” I know I sometimes give off the "stay away from me" energy. I don’t mean to, usually. And then people go away and I want them to come back, but they’ve already formed their cliques. I’m starting to miss my home friends.
Night #19: 8/12
"May this day bring you peace, tranquility and harmony."
Lots of rain tonight. Sweatpants and a baggy rain jacket. I wish I had the tighter-fitting TriFury jacket.That’s okay. I’ll just accept the bum.
Night #21: 8/14

"There is nothing more precious than self-trust."

As the revolutionary, I need to trust the cause I am fighting for. Trust it regardless of what my mom thinks, regardless of what others say. I will not throw my life away.
I dined like the bourgeois tonight––mussels and pasta with homemade tomato sauce, and garlic bread to wipe the plate. 
My hairspray exploded in my backpack. The floor reeks of hairspray. 
Crystal tries to fit her corset around Enjolras.

Night #22: 8/16

50th performance tonight––if the performance happens. Five minutes until we’re supposed to start and Jean Valjean is still in Wellfleet. There was a big accident and traffic has been backed up for hours. They’re working to get a police escort for him. I really hope the show goes on tonight because 59 shows sounds a lot lamer than 60.

Night #23: 8/17
Night #51, and I don’t want to be here. I’m tired, my throat is clogged from lunch. Our director gave a really nice speech tonight about how proud he is of us, how he knows most of us would’ve killed to be back. But I don’t feel that way tonight and I feel guilty that I feel that way. 
Channel the tension. In “At the End of the Day,” channel the tired eyes. In “Lovely Ladies,” channel the self-hatred. In “Innkeeper,” let yourself be free and don't care about what others think. In the “Beggars,” channel the anger. On the barricade, channel the tears.

Night #27: 8/22

"Life is a gift. Experience is the beauty." 
Two more shows. Enjoy them. It hasn’t sunk in that I might never perform Les Mis again. I’ve begun to take it for granted. Enjoy every moment onstage. Speak every word with honesty. Make every interaction real. Live in the moment. Be in the moment onstage. Breath. Breathe.  
Jean Valjean's wife stencils in “24601” with liquid eye liner on his chest. Fantine curls her hair; she parted her hair differently tonight. “Does it look more period?” she asks. Marius drinks his Odwalla. He has the "Original" flavor tonight. They were out of chocolate. He likes the chocolate one better because it has B6 and more protein––and it’s chocolate, so that’s nice.  
I’m actually organizing a cast breakfast at Hearth n’ Kettle. I’m organizing something social!  
Jean Valjean paces around the room, unable to sit still. I understand the feeling.   
I have a chocolate chip cookie sandwich waiting for me when I get home! I just can't think about it on the barricade. 

Closing Night: 8/23

This is it. My 60th performance. Tonight I will live the moment I wrote about in my college essay. It doesn’t seem possible that this could be my last Les Mis performance ever. It got to a point where it seemed like I would always be performing Les Mis. But tonight, for the last time, I will ascend the stairs for “At the End of the Day” and watch Cole and David do interpretive dance as Valjean sings, "What Have I Done?" 
I want to remember everything. The pain that rushes through my leg when I stomp in “At the End of the Day.” How I tuck my skirt in for "Lovely Ladies"––I need to make money on the docks somehow, and my breasts certainly don't do much for me. The creak of the stairs under my bare feet. The ratted hair that sticks in my mouth in “The Beggars,” and the indifferent faces of the audience members as I beg them for a fraction of their privileged lives. Cole’s mockery of Marius in “ABC CafĂ©.” The harmonies in “One Day More.” The cinnamon Altoid during intermission. The backstage toilet that pees out the side every time it’s flushed. The backstage "hurrahs" when the boys stampede the stage at the top of Act II. Dressing Melanie’s battle wound. Tucking up Susan after she dies. Crying after Gavroche is shot––I love the moments I can cry onstage. “Bring Him Home.” “Javert’s Suicide.” Watching Jen’s mouth in “The Wedding” to make sure we get the timing right. The blinding lights in “The Epilogue.” Holding Thea’s hand during the bows. Katie's air kiss from the sound booth as the lights fade and we head backstage to hang up our costumes––tonight for the last time. 
Last warm-ups. Last double-checking my props. Jean Valjean gave everyone a yellow rose––very apropos for his character. Melanie and Katie ordered Les Mis shortbread cookies for everyone from Thea. It’s going to feel really great eating that after the show tonight.

It did.

I already picked where I want to sign the wall. I decided to tape tonight's Yogi message on the wall next to last year's signature.

"To be calm is the highest achievement of the self." 

Enjoy tonight. “One last ride,” ThĂ©nardier says. “If I got one piece of advice from my theatre teacher in college, it was this: ‘Leave it all on the stage. No matter what’s going on in your life, leave it on the stage and hold your head up high.’”


Stage right, I hear Javert ascend the stairs to his death. As he hits his final suicide note, escaping a world he no longer knows, I get up to clear the barricade one last time, ready to "discover what our God in heaven has in store" beyond these crates, barrels and broken sofas. 

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