A friend recently told me, "I wish I could understand how stage performance makes you feel." Well, I just can't resist a challenge like that.
So, what's so great about theater? Well, let me tell you. (Oh, and I do warn you - this is rather long.)
I arrive at the theater, pumped, eager. Greet people I've grown to care about, people I didn't know (or hardly) at the beginning. Marvel at the fact. Run into the dressing room. Smother my face with makeup, while mentally going through my props and costumes to make sure I haven't forgotten anything. Talk with the other actresses, in a light, hyper kind of way. Figure out the hard way that this is not the time to debate over free will - my mind is in a tizzy.
Anticipation. It covers all other emotions.
I throw on my 18th century underclothes and run into the house.* Get a small chill, seeing the big place full of empty rows of chairs. Just an hour from now they'll be filled with people. Get my mic taped on my face in four different places, do a quick test. Run to another room to warm up. Feel the energy vibrate through the room as all the actors sing through scales. All focusing their minds. All feeling it - the anticipation. All struggling to leave the problems and stresses of their normal lives behind, determined to bring a magical show to an eager audience. The expectation is there. The thrill is the challenge to fulfill it.
I make my way to the dressing room to get the rest of my costume on. Spray static guard into my hair, make sure my fake eyelashes are tightly glued. Give a few hugs. Meet in the hallway for a quick prayer. Everyone is really energized by this time. But this is the most important part of the night. We thank God for the opportunity, for the audience, pray that all would go well and be to His glory. "Amen." We part.
I go to stage right and fist-bump the actor who plays my father, waiting there. We smile as the lights go down and we're in complete darkness. This is when my heart gets ready to fly. I can hear the murmur of the crowd; I try to imagine how big it is. Then they hush - I stand up, too excited to sit. The announcer begins. His three minute speech seems to take ages. I take the opportunity to stretch and jump in the dark, getting ready for the dancing. I tone the announcer's voice out and send up my own, final prayer to the One audience that counts. And then - "Enjoy the production of ... Cinderella!" The audience claps, and the stage behind the curtain lights up. Excitement reigns. I can't not smile.
Anticipation. The moment has come. With a loud opening chord, the orchestra breaks the silence and the curtain parts. It has begun. I can't wait to get onto that stage.
After the first scene I have a little quick-change. I fly into the dressing room to do it, then rush back out, grab my props from the stage-hand and calmly walk out. "Cinderella!" My stepmother calls, and I run up to the front of the stage. I can barely see how full the audience is, but I try to find out anyway. Then my step-family leaves, and I am in the spotlight. There's dozens of other people onstage, but they are frozen and I know that almost every audience eye is looking at me. The piano starts tinkling and I know I have four measures till I sing. One, two... excitement builds higher and higher in me. The moment has come. I take in a deep breath and begin my song. Vibrato, I'm focusing on it, and making sure I look happy enough. I look out at the blackness that the audience is, barely able to make out peoples' heads. As I sing about waiting for my true love, I stare out at the red exit sign in the back of the house, hoping passion is flowing out of me, hoping I'm drawing in the audience, hoping I'm as in-tune as I sound. Then comes the best part - the orchestra swells as the strings join in, filling up something inside of me, and I crescendo with them, giving the note all I have.
Then it's over, and I feel a little less adrenaline flowing through me. But I was never nervous - no, never. I've done these lines too many times to be nervous. No, it isn't even that... I'm just too happy to be nervous. This stage, these lines, this costume is like my home. And who's nervous at home?
You know, a million things race through actors' minds while they're saying their lines. I can attest to that. My face is totally in character, but as the line flows out of my mouth out of habit, I'm thinking "whoops, I was too far downstage, now the hatbox tipped. I hope it's okay. He's doing good tonight. Oh hooray, the audience laughed at that line! Nuts, I said that one weirdly." When I'm singing my solo in the next scene, I'm thinking of the poor mouse who's ears fell off when he ran in, or how fast the conductor started it, or how I forgot the leave the fan on the table, so I can't use it during the song. Oh well - I improvise, and the audience will never know. The song ends and I, out of breath, wait for the lights to dim. I can feel the heat leave me as the spotlight dies, and I hurry off stage, hoping I don't trip on any set pieces in the dark.
The crying scene is next. I quick-change into my dress and get there just in time. This time I know I have to focus on giving an moving emotional performance, so I struggle to not think about how much the audience laughed at the stepsisters, or whether my hair is sticking up. The stepmother rips my dress sleeve, and I struggle not to smile with joy when the audience rewards us with a loud gasp. I need to look heart-broken. In order to make up for my near smile, I give the next line with extra emotion, almost crying. When the curtain closes behind me, I barely remember it is only me, with nothing but a red curtain behind me - it is up to me to bring tears to people's eyes. I muster all the strength I can manage to finally break down in "tears" and fall to my knees. I don't have time to think how strange it is that I am doing this in front of all these people who are mostly completely strangers - and when I do, it almost makes me laugh it seems so unreal. Quickly I focus back on the task at hand.
The rest of the first act passes too quickly, and soon intermission is over. As I stand waiting to come on, behind the audience seats, beneath those red exit signs, I think once again how beautiful the scene looks - a gorgeous palace backdrop behind rows of elegantly dressed (and wigged!) men and women, dancing away to the swell of the music. The whole scene is lit warmly in yellows and pinks. Then the moment comes for me to enter the ball. I stand on the stairs between two columns of audience seats and wait for the heat of the spotlight.
Then it comes from the right, blinding my right eye. I can see heads turning toward me, hear little girls' whispered exclamations, feel the eyes of everyone on me. But I can't look at any of them. I stand tall, pretending a string is pulling me upwards. Then I begin to walk, slowly, making sure not to trip as I can't look down. When the prince sweeps me into the waltz, I get to relax a little, now focusing on letting him lead the dance. When the other couples join in to swirl around us, I take a moment to enjoy it - the blur of dancing people, golden set, dark audience, dancing people, golden set - rushing by in a dizzying circle. Then, the ending pose, and I try not to breathe too hard.
It's time for the romantic scene. I take advantage of the prince's proposal song to slow my breath and get ready for my own part in the song. I concentrate on the orchestra which I have been taking for granted all evening - it sounds beautiful. I see sweat on the prince's face, but he can't possibly be as sweaty as I am. But no time to think about that - I must focus all my energy on looking utterly in love. I stare in the prince's eyes and pour out my voice - and then it's midnight. Secretly glad to finally get out of this wig and heavy dress, I pretend to be horrified as I run from the ballroom... and into the dressing room. Before two minutes have passed I'm back in my rags, with the help of my incredible mother and friends. I see my water bottle and realize how thirsty I am; I have enough time to swallow several gulps before running back onstage. As I wait for the drop to rise in front of me, I take a moment to relax a little and really "live" the moment.
Next thing I know I'm singing and dancing again with my stepsisters. That is, until my stepmother decides that's enough of that and gives me a vicious rebuke. It's one of my favorite parts, looking at her intense face as she tells me I'm a little fool, and then to once again be solely responsible for conveying my emotion to the audience, without the help of words. As I sing the last note, I savor it, knowing it's my last song of the night. I have just two more short scenes left.
When I finally reveal myself to the prince and he takes the glass slipper to try it on, I watch intently, hoping it will slip on easily. It does and to my joy the audience claps. I smile brilliantly as he carries me off, but all I'm thinking about is my quick-change. As soon as the light goes out we run down the hall. A minute later we regally walk back onstage, in wedding attire. This scene is bittersweet - it's the last, and I know the show is almost over, yet I'm determined to enjoy every last minute. And then ... the music cuts off and confetti bursts from all around. My heart is bursting as well, and as the carriage brings me and the prince on for the bow - and the audience roars - my heart takes wings. I am filled with gratitude. There is nothing quite as satisfying as the thundering sound of a pleased audience. It's not the praise itself - it is the fact that I have won the challenge, that I was part of fulfilling the expectation. It is the fact that I have just brought joy to hundreds of people. That I have brought joy to my King. There is no feeling quite like that.
Then the curtain closes. I feel the strange mixture of intense happiness after a good show, and sadness that the show is over and I can feel the adrenaline dying. I accept many a hug and compliment - so many compliments that they all meld in my mind. It's numbing, really. I just spent the last two hours in bliss - and yet have also pleased those who watched me! God created humans in wondrous ways. The very people who admire what I have just done are the ones who can do all sorts of things I could never excel at. Thus, there is no reason to be boastful in the praise. Just to smile and say "thank you" ... it will suffice. I only hope my smile shows how radiant I feel inside.
One of the things that makes live musical theater so glorious is the fact that it isn't all rainbows and sunshine. It's months of work - of dancing until feet ached, and acting with imaginary props, of trying to give all that emotion when there is no crowd to stir up the adrenaline, of going over the same song phrases again and again and again. It's the glamor and the grime. There's the nights of rehearsals where everyone is tired, the times when someone's feelings get hurt, the 11:30pm rehearsal end times. There's the fake eyelashes to peel off and the mic-tape to forcefully rip off. There sweaty costumes, stinky feet, hot lights... and the glory of never letting the audience know any of it.
After all, it is in fact live. You never know what can happen - it's a constant risk that something will go wrong... and having to cover up for it as if it never happened. Although we all hope nothing will go wrong, we always laugh about it afterward. Every show is different. Every single moment is a unique experience. And I love it all.
As an acquaintance nicely said, "Theater is wonderful because you're being someone else while totally being yourself." And she's right. Although the emotions and words I said onstage weren't really mine, they were - in a funny sort of way. Because no one could have done that performance as Cinderella exactly like me. I brought the character to life in my own way, and - here is the miracle that God is so good to have let me experience - I can pour my own passion into those very words, songs, and emotions that are not mine. Isn't that incredible? Somehow, God made it so that I can take all my excitement, happiness, and adrenaline and use it to bring soul and life to the character. There's really no way to fully explain it. It is indeed a miracle.
So how does all this bring me so much joy? Because it is the outpouring of myself. Every note, every word, every glance is given my everything. I am a creature of passion. I long to find a way to release it, to give it to others, to present it before the Lord. I have yet to find something that is a better instrument of pouring out myself and giving as much "Ariel" ... as this. Ironically, that very friend who didn't understand how it felt summed it up perfectly by saying, "I have never seen you be more fully you."
So that's what's so great about it.
*"the house" is the theater name for the area where the audience sits
photo credit: J.S. Eddy Imagery
photo credit: J.S. Eddy Imagery