Act II

by Jenny Madorsky

The beauty of live performance is in the changes. No matter how long and hard one rehearses and prepares for a live performance, things will inevitably change once the lights go up and the audience locks in. Breaking character is no longer an option. Any discomfort, unexpected technical mishap, or personal thoughts/feelings have to be directed into the character and the performance.

I became quite aware of this fact on our opening night. As the play began, Nora’s words flowed from my lips with very little effort, but my mind was in a completely different place. My thoughts raced on a completely different wavelength than Nora’s. “Why is that man yawning? Don’t lock eyes with anyone in the audience. Look at empty chairs instead. Is that my friend in the second row? They aren’t laughing. Why is that man yawning? Oh god, what’s my next line? I’m forgetting my gestures!” All the while, my mouth is telling Mrs. Linde about my trip to Italy. There were moments when I would snap focus back to my fellow scene partner, at which point the lines seemed to go blank in my mind and I would need to find Nora again. Luckily, I found it easy to trust my cast mates to pick the scene back up during these moments. After the shock of opening night, once the novelty of having people watching wore off, I found it much easier to keep in the moment on stage and focus on the people in the scene with me, as opposed to the observers past the fourth wall.

Unfortunately, not all live performance changes are under the actor’s control. Technical mishaps are completely unavoidable, and part of the fun. As an actor, one must learn to react to these accidents in a believable way and not let it detract from the progress of the show. On a Saturday performance during Act II, as Mrs. Linde walked through the door to Nora’s exclamation of “There’s something you must help me with, Kristine!” the Christmas tree fell down. Immediately I replied with “You must help me pick up the Christmas tree!” As the two of us struggled to put the tree upright, the audience burst into laughter, knowing full well that this was probably not part of the play, but relieved that it did not stop the show. Another such example happened on the last show, when the doorknob broke off the exit door. As Mrs. Linde existed to the hallway, Torvald declared “Finally, we got rid of her,” only to hear Mrs. Linde’s frantic knocking on the door once again. “Excuse me, Mr. Helmer, it seems your door is broken. I’m afraid I will need to use your other entrance.” She briskly crossed the room and exited in the back to Torvald’s utter annoyance, and again the audience’s relieved laughter.

It is moments like these that help us, as actors, stay in the moment and remember to think on our feet—or more likely on the characters’ feet. It is the thrill of the changes, discoveries, and accidents that make live performance so exciting. On to Act III…


1 Comment

  • Jules Odendahl-James says:

    My favorite line in this post “As Mrs. Linde existed to the hallway” : )

    I’m very intrigued by how you describe the dual consciousness of acting esp. as it encounters a live audience. Interesting how your “actor” thoughts about the changed dynamic of performance in front of an audience seemed to buzz at an even higher frequency than what was animating “Nora’s” hurly-burly and how those actor thoughts almost became a distraction for you rather than a feeder into Nora’s performance. I’m always fascinated to hear actors process the changing barometer of performance circumstances from early to late rehearsals to dress/techs to perf. for “the public”.

    Taking up that vein of actor “consciousness,” as someone who is living in the shared space of science & theater, I wondered if you might not find this book by Rhonda Blair, Professor of Theater at SMU, food for thought. It is titled *The Actor, Image, and Action: Acting and Cognitive Neuroscience.* (New York: Routledge, 2008 — Duke Library doesn’t have it right now but you can request it from either NCSU or UNC via TRLN). In it she examines mainstream actor training (from Stanislavsky to today) in light of recent developments in cog.neurosci. particularly how the human brain understands and expresses feeling, creates, stores & uses memory, and the role of imagination in consciousness and identity formation. Rhonda’s scholarship is rooted in theater practice but with a great awareness of history & theory. She’s been one of the major voices in bringing acting science to bear upon natural science (particularly neuroscience) and vice-versa. Given your work on Nora and with Jeff on Chekhov this semester, I think her book might be a terrific (if challenging) read for you.