Opening the Door

My favorite moment of performing A Doll’s House (and there have been many wonderful moments) is when, after our cast warms up together, I walk down the brightly lit hall, enter the dark backstage area through a door on the right, hike my maid’s skirt up as I climb the stairs and face a large screen, glowing with the yellow wall paper projected on it. Set into this screen is a little gray door. As I quietly pass the dusty books in Mr. Helmer’s library and catch sight of the paper dolls hanging on the walls of the nursery, I feel myself entering another world. The anticipation of entering the stage and entering the Helmers’ living room seem to mesh and as I open the door and walk into the room. The murmers of the audience beyond the brown wrapping that shields the stage from their view fade away and it feels like I’m returning to a place from the past, my past, a kind of memory. I can almost feel the draft coming from the door, smell the musty air and while I feel at home here, nothing in this room is mine and it’s lonely in a way. Then, Mrs. Helmer, Jenny, walks in. And I fix her coat, bring her purse and adjust her hat. There is a moment when it’s us again; we smile and silently wish each other luck. But by the time Jenny walks over to her place  on the other side of the room, I watch her with the mix of admiration, anxiety, resentment and awe that Helene feels for Mrs. Helmer. The music starts, Mrs. Helmer arranges her packages and I pick up my duster and let my mind wander to the place where Helene grew up, the lines blurring between inventing and remembering. The music changes and we freeze as the wrapping comes down.

There is something so special about that room. Well, there was. We tore it down two Sundays ago. But it never really existed to begin with. It was something we held as a cast. Some energy, some imaginary world we inhabited and created together. What I found through our two weeks of performance was that it was always a mix of feeling real and totally pretend, snapping out of character mentally and falling back into the world of the play. I would always leave the stage disappointed with something I forgot and making resolutions to be more on top of things when I entered next. And backstage, I would be going over lines and gestures and trying to prepare. But each time I approached that door, the door to another world, it all kind of fell away and for a moment I wasn’t thinking so much as I was just doing what Helene does and living in the world. Of course there were moments when I would stand on stage listening to Mrs. Helmer and be thinking, “Now you should fidget. Touch your face–wait, almost do it. Now she’s going to say, “I’ve never been more unbored!” But there were also moments when it all felt so natural. Once when Jenny was correcting me about calling her husband the “lawyer” when he was really the “bank director” she seemed more off balance, more over the top than I was used to. And I found myself nervously laughing at her in a very Helene kind of way. And every time she cornered me, desperately warning me to keep Mr. Krogstad’s entrance a secret, there was no time to think about how a line should be said or what I should be doing. I just had to be in the moment, trust my training and character work and do it. I think that was really the goal of the rehearsal process: to learn and practice how to be our characters without thinking too much. To create this other identity we could slip into at a moment’s notice. This identity was so richly developed that I will always think of those moments in that room as a kind of dream, a memory from someone else’s life.

1 Comment

  • Jules Odendahl-James says:

    I love the way you describe the “room” or set as something you “held together as a cast.” That’s so true. Not to slight Torry’s amazing playing space, but the “work” of transforming that space into a place is largely the job of the actors. There’s an interesting set of liminal spaces in a theatrical performance. One exists between the stage and the audience; I loved the way the bow & wrapping of the set really set off that distance between the audience and the performers. One exists between the backstage and the on-stage space. As you describe, there’s often a figurative and literal transformation that happens as an actor moves from back to on-stage. And then one exists between performers on the stage itself as they exist (as Jenny’s noted in her previous post) both in their characters and still conscious of their role as actors.

    It’s interesting to hear you characterize your character work on this show as “a kind of dream, a memory from someone else’s life”, considering our discussion of Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”. There’s no end of allusions about acting as a kind of madness. Certainly the deeper you commit to a role the harder it is to detach yourself from it; however, I like the notion of “dream” and the way you might carry the kind of shared consciousness of you & Helene with you after the stage time is over,