Opinions, Column

On the Boiling of One’s Blood as Art

The task is simple: 48 hours of rehearsal, 10 days left in production, four performances. It is tech week for the theatre department’s production of Dreadful. With a mixture of necessary hope and certainty, you know that it will be anything but. 

You begin—as with all great endeavors—with caffeine. Lots of it. You’ll get to know the baristas at the Market by the time all this is over. Indeed, I’ve heard it said that Odysseus—seeing his behemothian mission spread out before him like the vast Mediterranean Sea—bespoke to his second in command, with Stoic reservation, “where is my goddamn triple shot iced americano?” 

The first two days are the hardest, proper caffeination notwithstanding. These are not days for improving the actor’s performance. You are present merely in a physical capacity. These are the days for layering on technical elements. Actors repeat transitions many, many times to allow stage management to practice technical elements. The play staggers forward from cue to cue–200 or so cues for 16 or so hours, only 15 or so percent of your spirit present.

You won’t be alone in it, which is nice. Your friends will face the same struggles. You’ll come up with “funny” bits to entertain yourselves with during breaks in the action. You’ll suffer together, or so your director tries to convince you.

But truthfully, you will be pained. The lights will be much too bright, and the costume will be just itchy enough to induce a semi-panic, and those excesses of yester-night will reduce you to a slab of meat left out to dry in the hot sun.

But remember Odysseus! When the sirens played their ivory trumpets and cracked their cats-of-nine-tails, or what have you, did he despair? Did he capitulate to his passions and begin screaming in tongues and tearing up the very floorboards on which he stood? No, no he did not. The production manager would have become nonplussed. You don’t want to upset Russ. 

Away, then, with the thoughts of quasi-vandalism. If you are to psychically survive, you must meet the challenge on its terms. Negotiate with the pain. Introduce yourself. Get to know the despair. Reorient your instincts to the challenge. Write yourself a program, and follow it. 

<//–//>

if (pain == “manageable“){smile}

else if (pain == “the scorching heat of God’s indifference to your plight, or perhaps hot pokers inserted under the fingernails”){smile, submit.}

<//-//>

You are entering the series of mechanisms that create a small world unto itself. Lose yourself in it. You no longer depend on navigational strategies—they have become your instincts.

You aren’t alone, either. That whole suffering together nonsense? Your director was right all along, which does makes you a little ill. All those “funny” bits you made with your scene partners? Now, you get to bit-ify the show itself. 

With Monday comes the first dress rehearsal. You have become accustomed to acting as a machine, but now you are also a physicalized-astral projection of the story. The world of the play has been built. Let it all in. The slight citronella of the fog machine. The musty-leatheriness of the gloves you wear. The gloomy gray of the set.

Drink it in ’til you can feel it in your bones, ’til you can’t help but jitter with the realness of it all. You were an actor, now you are the enacted. The character speaks through you. Flex your psyche just such that the rage, the love, and the humor comes screaming out of your spine. You won’t be able to resist the urge to crawl across the stage when you reach the climax of your character arc or to request—demand—to eat real bugs rather than candy fakes. 

You push into the imagined world. A snake swallows its tail. You allow the play to subsume you. Where does the snake end? 

It’s time now. Opening night. The proper chemical balances set. The precise physiology of your body calibrated to the character’s physicality. Navigate around the blocks. All thoughts outside the story dissolve into pools of pure emotion. You draw from them at will.  

This is the moment of calm when you regard your actor friends with such love, as they have engaged in this great game of make-believe with you. You might not tell them how much it all means to you, per se. You do what you two have learned to do best: walk into the foggy, elegantly warped world on the stage with them. Lights rise. Murder and mystique. Tyler Dean speaks that one line that makes your spleen shudder, “And today, on the streets of London, who does not?” You become the story, together. 

Repeat, repeat. Each night the Great Machine self-oils, self-actualizes. The show calculates its own moments because it is not a show. Rather, it is a world gasping for breath. You get to know its every niche. You notice the slight differences in how Ellie holds a blade, or the precise alterations of Cam’s outbursts. Each detail will change the story.

We are the great pretenders. We push on each other, hard. With the right troupe, you feel the sturdiness of a great forest. At home among them. 

On Sunday, the set comes down, and it’s over. You take down the very set you worked so hard to build a world atop. There is a cast party, and you smile. This time, it is not a programmatic expression. It is not a construction. In other words, you are not acting. You feel warm contentment. 

In a few months, you will do it over again. 

I have used the second-person pronoun “you” to implicate you in this story. Likely, you do not have personal experience with this subject, or so you might think. I believe that most students, even if they are not acquainted with the particular details of the theatrical process, are familiar with a similar cycle of activity, a drive towards a goal, or dare I say, the grind? 

This term–—the grind—can often carry with it a connotation of dread: grind culture, grinding through Aktiv chemistry problem sets. Perhaps that dread is not unfounded. But I would argue that there exists an equal euphoria attached to the losing of oneself in their practices. Dedicate yourself to a project. Learn its niches. Discover the particular smell of its solutions. Consider how to navigate about the dread.

It is a balancing act for which I have no one solution to offer. I will, however, offer you, my dear reader, a few guiding questions.

What is your practice? Why have you chosen to practice? Is it truly your practice? When you hit the flow, where do you feel your blood boiling? Do you? And (a question you likely already ask yourself) is the pleasure worth the pain?

October 30, 2022
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