“What, you’re doing it again? I thought you said you were finished acting?” Words I heard more than a few times after agreeing to reprise my rendition of Saundra Dern in the play “Stretchmarks: Growing Into Motherhood” last weekend at the Children’s Creativity Museum. The play, co-written, produced, directed, and acted in by my dear friend Christine Armand, is a poignant, honest exploration of the varying experiences of becoming a mother for the first time. People who see it (mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and kids) find connection in the show’s honest, no-holds barred look at real life moms. One audience member called it “healing,” others express the shear fun of the roller-coaster that unfolds onstage. Many say, “That’s me you’re playing.” No one leaves unmoved.
As a classical musician with a degree in vocal performance, I have never considered myself an actress nor have I felt particularly comfortable onstage in a non-musical role. Even as Frenchy in Grease, I felt my singing made up for my lack of acting skills. I’ve always been a little self-conscious, especially if I can’t hide behind a big orchestra or well-rehearsed score. The only other time I’ve been on stage in an acting role was 25 years ago when a friend talked me into auditioning for Christopher Durang’s “Baby With The Bathwater.” He had the acting bug and invited me along. I went purely because I had a crush on him and thought it might be an opportunity to get closer. I landed the lead as the insane mother Helen which may speak for the first impression I make on directors. But exactly a year ago, after seeing Stretchmarks for the first time at the studio of MakeUp Gourmet, Chris Scott, I was hooked, and intrigued by the idea that I might be able to take on a role. Christine had been pestering me about it for awhile. A part of me really wanted to do it but I felt so inadequate. I could never do what those actresses were doing on stage. After all, they’d been doing it for years. I was at the cast party for the show which was on Mother’s Day and we were watching the solar eclipse. My father would be gone in a matter of weeks. I as in between work projects and I can’t really remember how I was functioning. I’d had a couple (okay maybe a few) marguaritas and my guard was down. Trish Debaun, the actress who brings “Mother Nature” to life so beautifully, came up to me, put her hands on my shoulders, looked me straight in the eye and said with authority, “Mary, we’re doing this at The Strand in Baltimore’, and you’re going to play Saundra.” “It’s small-time theater,” I thought. “I’d be doing my friend a favor. She’s already booked the venue, and hey, if I blow it, they don’t know me in Baltimore so what do I have to lose?” Deep down inside I just wanted to belong to something creative, to run away and have a big adventure. At the same time I was uncertain what would happen with my father but as with a lot of inexplicable decisions I’ve made over the course of my life, I heard myself saying yes and moving in the direction of extreme discomfort. In the meantime my work project wouldn’t start until mid-July and I had oodles of time to do whatever. Well, whatever turned out to be laying Dad to rest, spending time with mom, and then with just two weeks left to go, cramming for my role as Saundra Dern, the executive mom who appears to have it all together…but does she? I worked in a daze. Finding myself completely drawn into the process of learning to act, bonding with the other actresses, and suppressing my fear of putting myself out there. The other actresses were amazingly generous in their feedback and support as I limped through the learning process. Our opening night in Baltimore (where it was 108 degrees) we got a 5-star review from Broadway.com. I wasn’t quite an actress but I sure was on my way to faking it.
As a four-woman show with no budget, (it costs me money to do this) we all do more than just act. I help manage props, do marketing, make granola and brownies to sell for concessions, and clean up after the show. That first tour I was in physical and emotional pain. I just remember feeling exhausted beyond belief yet when the lights went on and the costumes came out, somehow I found the energy to bring it on with my fellow actresses. What I also felt was a real connection to my youth traveling the world with my father’s orchestra, setting up in strange venues and bringing the joy of music to new audiences. There was so much adventure and fulfillment in sharing through music, in the fellowship with the other musicians, and exploring new cultures. I felt close to my dad in Baltimore in ways I hadn’t for years. It was the catharsis I needed. But I still felt like I was merely posing as an actress. Surely someone would figure out that I wasn’t trained for this.
We did the play again in the fall in a super tiny box theater in the Tenderloin and I really thought, and clearly expressed to others, that this would be my last time. “I’m not an actress,” I kept saying. But then, Christine announced she was going big and producing the 10th anniversary show at the 175-seat theater at The Children’s Creativity Museum. Mary Jo Price, the actress who usually plays Saundra Dern is a Director at the museum so naturally, she would play that role. I was relieved not to have to make that choice and happily offered to help in any other way I could. As fate would have it, Mary Jo decided she would not be playing Saundra and the role fell to me, the understudy. “What the hell am I doing?” I thought. The first night in the theater I was intimidated. It was HUGE by my current standards. We only had 4 rehearsals with the gals, and two nights in the actual theater with a new tech who was learning the mechanics of that space as we went. Christine’s style as a producer and director is very organic. She has a sense for how she wants the final production to feel and things just sort of unfold. To some, this way of working is a little unnerving. Unlike my character Saundra who says, “That’s me, the planner, I’m really good at organizing things…”, Christine is really good at vision and allowing things to materialize. I tend towards Saundra’s more controlling view but have really enjoyed sitting back and allowing Christine to lead in her own way. It’s softening my corporate edges and showing me ways of doing things that might lead to more personally satisfying outcomes. It maybe even makes a little space for my own personal creativity to come through.
On Friday night, our opening, my kids were working the doors with Christine’s crafty daughter Bella who was selling her wares (I heard she made over $200. She’s saving for a fancy camera). My son Gilbert popped in and out of all the stage doors rattling around the theater as if he owned the place. A couple of times I was waiting to go on stage and the stage door would open and in would pop Gilly asking to play games on my cellphone. A few times when I was actually onstage, he popped in the side door or peered around corners. It was like my own little version of my character playing out in real life or my real life (I run a pretty loose ship at home) crashing into my acting life.
Aside from the warm, connected, family feel of last weekend’s performances, something else happened. Maybe it’s because I’ve now done the show 10 times. Or maybe it’s that I’m learning to relax or maybe the theater which is pretty cool to work in. But for the first time ever I felt comfortable onstage. I think I was actually acting. The audience was reacting to my performance. There were howls of laughter and gasps of sympathy. I loved it! At every moment I leaned deeper into the story and found real meaning in my character’s struggle for balance. I had empathy for Saundra. I know how it feels to love working and to love your kids and wonder how both of those things are supposed to fit together. I know how it feels to be forced to let my guard down, to let people see a dirty house, half-done projects, me in a state of overwhelm. This whole acting thing had become a way of experiencing my own life and the parts of me I sometimes try to ignore or try too hard to hold together. I love working with the other characters on stage too. Having authentic moments and telling a story as a team feels so good.
Yesterday we had our cast party and invited the extended community of the show including the other Saundras: Mary Jo Price, and Christine Garofoli who also wrote the role of Saundra. We had a blast looking at old photos of the original cast, talking about how to bring the show to life in different ways (ala Rocky Horror Picture Show) and ways to keep this lovely story and community together. Oh, and we got to see Chris Scott in his bathrobe singing Andrew Lloyd Weber but I’ll save those details for another post. Needless to say, this whole organic, collaborative creativity thing is really working for me. I think we’ll just keep the mommentum going!