Photo by Dininda Paranahewa
2 more days. It’s not enough.
Here I sit, on a Saturday morning, still bleary-eyed with sleepiness, with my mug of steaming milo sitting next to me, and I’m panicking.
Not in a hysterical, running-about-screaming sort of way. It’s a more insidious type of panic, lining your insides like a coat of paint which never really dries. It’s always fresh, it never really settles. It never screams out its presence but lurks around; nagging at you, reminding you discreetly that it’s always there. Waiting.
I’m panicking because of one word.
One word I am going to have to say in just 2 days. And it’s a word I have never been less ready to say.
In just 2 days, one of the most gratifying experiences of my life will come to an end, and I will have to say that awful, awful word to both the experience itself and to every single person that made it happen.
Even though I’m going to try, I don’t think I can do justice to everything that’s happened in my life in the past 5 months. It’s too much. Too close to home. Too personal for me to be very objective about it. I guess that’s part of why it’s so special.
For those who don’t know what I’m talking about…
On the night of the 1st of March 2009, Hamlet at Elsie’s Bar will close for business. And on the 2nd, I know I’ll be heartbroken that I will not be able to go back there again, to meet with my friends, my children, my family.
* * *
5 months ago, my heart broke and the pain of it was almost too much to take.
Even though I’d never acted before, I tried out for the play, desperate for some sort of distraction. I figured, even if I never got past the audition, at least, for a couple of hours, I’d have something else to think about it.
I still remember the song I sang: it was the old Etta James classic, At Last, which I had sung for my sister’s wedding a few months previously. It went off pretty well. I was then handed a little bit of the script and told to act it out and I had no idea what to do so I just read it out in a frightened sort of way. Not because I thought that’s how it should have been played, but because I was quite frightened at the time. I didn’t know the first thing about acting. I was the first to audition that day, and listening to the others act out that bit after me, I was pretty sure I had blown it.
Amazingly, I hadn’t. Well. Not so amazingly as it turned out – we were told that we had been cast mostly on our singing abilities since the play was a musical. If it had been the other way around, my life would be very different right now.
From then on, the practices happened weekly and I remember feeling totally intimidated. Everyone seemed nice but they all seemed to know each other and I felt as if I’d never fit in. Also I was terrified about having to act in front of all of them. Luckily I found one other person who was as freaked out about the acting as I was. She and I bonded over that, and the fact that we lived for singing, and I can now genuinely call her one of my best friends in the world.
Looking back, trying to sort through the whole experience chronologically, I find that it all seems quite a blur. I remember we all focused on learning the songs first and then on learning our lines. Both were fantastic. Every new song we did seemed even better than the one we’d learned previously. The acting part was difficult at first – it was hard to relax and get into character without feeling like an idiot but as time progressed, it became easier. Once you realize that no one’s gawking at you and that everyone else is too focused on their own acting to bother about yours, it makes you shake down and start concentrating on getting better.
It’s amazing how a play takes shape. Despite having just experienced it, I still can’t really describe it. The best way to describe it is as being this dynamic, fluid process that constantly shifts and changes form. We started with a sort of rudimentary skeletal idea of how we were going to do each scene and with almost every practice there were changes and improvements put in. Nips, tucks and tweaks were the order of the day at each rehearsal and it wasn’t until the last stages that it really took on a distinct shape, colour and texture of its own in all of our minds.
One thing that really struck me was how well the cast blended together. We were an assorted cluster of strangers thrown together for an intensive 5 months to create something beautiful and entertaining and it was really amazing how close that brought us to each other. And it wasn’t just the cast – it was the production team, the band, the backstage crew – everyone. Even though I started off feeling intimidated and inexperienced, not once did anyone make me feel anything other than equal to them in terms of both acting and singing. There was no drama, no fights, no petty issues. Only pure enjoyment of each other and what we were in the process of creating.
The real change happened when we moved from the practice room to the Lionel Wendt main stage. Something clicked into place and suddenly, more than ever, we were a family, gearing up to give birth to our baby – Elsie’s Bar.
I could sense the change in myself and I knew I was not alone. Practices were becoming longer and more intense. Tempers were flaring a little but it only served to focus our concentration and commitment. It was time to get used to wearing costume, to familiarize ourselves with the final set which was impressive to say the least. Lines were becoming easier to deliver. I could feel myself relaxing on stage as my confidence increased. The actors were playing off each other, trying out new ideas to make each scene more and more alive. The long drawn out practices leading up to opening night – although tiring – were in a strange way addictive. And when the time came to wrap up each night, I was loath to leave.
The nerves struck at about 3 pm, while I was getting ready to leave work and head towards the Wendt. Suddenly my breathing was laboured, I had whole armies of butterflies warring in my stomach and I wanted to stuff my face with food and throw up at the same time. My legs went heavy, my arms were numb, my face was flushed and I could feel the old stage fright punching me repeatedly in the gut.
With difficulty I made my way to the theatre. For a while, I just sat there, trying to relax and psych myself up. I closed my eyes and tried to listen to my breathing above the roar of blood rushing through my veins. My ears started to register other sounds – actors laughing and talking as they made their way down the corridors of the Wendt, members of the band walking in and tuning their instruments, people walking around stage setting things up, making last minute adjustments… And slowly, ever so slowly, I started to calm down. Hysteria settled and excitement shot up in its place. My family was here with me. What reason was there to be afraid?
After the bustle of wriggling into costumes and make-up, we gathered together, spoke quietly and said a prayer, for ourselves and each other. We were both hyped up and somber as we made our way into the cool darkness of the wings. Excited. Apprehensive. Focused. There was nothing but this.
The house lights switch off and the hum of the audience dulls into nothingness. There is minute or so of absolute silence. Potential energy hangs in the air as if every single person in the room is holding their breath. Watching. Waiting. Wanting.
The play beings. Magic begins.
* * *
When we all ran onto stage for the final curtain call song, I remember feeling happy enough to explode. I could barely sing for the grin on my face. After our bows, we ran away from the stage towards our dressing rooms, hugging each other with soundless appreciation for what we had all just experienced.
Since that magical opening night, we’ve taken each performance to new heights. It never mattered if the house was full or not, if there were people to watch us or not. The play was our world and we wanted to do it justice as a family. All that mattered was that we were there, making it come alive. Together.
Our lines are coming to us naturally now, as if we’re actually living the play instead of just acting it, the songs are as familiar to us as if we’d been singing them all our lives, our harmonies melt together and soar to the heights of the Wendt ceiling, and each time we run off stage, we can barely reign in our excitement.
Now, with just 2 days left, we’re trying to top our performances of the previous nights. Make it count. Do our director and production team proud.
I can’t believe that after 2 days, I won’t be singing those songs anymore. That I won’t be getting into that dress anymore. That I won’t be on that stage anymore, feeling those lights on me, hearing the swell of the music, waiting to deliver my next line. I can’t believe that I won’t be meeting those amazing people every day.
In just 2 days, my rather funny, rather large family will be no more. How do I say goodbye to these people? How?
2 days. It’s just not enough.
For those who don’t have the pleasure of knowing them, let me do the honours…
Meet my twin soul, who I am proud to know and who has helped me so much throughout the duration of the play. We are now practically joined at the hip, speak our very own language and superstitiously feel we cannot do justice to a scene without our customary hug and hurriedly whispered “I love you” in the wings.
Meet my big sister who amazes me with her enthusiasm and ability play mama hen to the entire cast. She claims to be loud, brash and one of the boys, but she is also incredibly caring, painfully sensitive and ready to go out of her way to help anyone.
Then there’s Nana who continues to inspire me with his amazing vision, dedication and talent. I have often quipped that I would love to clone him and watch him act every part in the play. I love that he has a personal relationship with each and every one of the cast and that he has the ability to make me feel good about myself even when I’m at my most discouraged.
I have made a whole host of mallis (brother’s I’ve never had but always wanted) who I adore and want very badly to adopt for real. Cutie-pie, Apple-cheeks, R2 & G2 – you know who you are!
I have also had the honour of making friends with…
The Gentle Giant – (compared to me anyway) who amazes me with his sensitive performances, his husky voice and utter lack of arrogance despite being one of the best performers in the entire production.
The Tickler – who has been known to turn me into a screaming, cowering heap in a corner, begging not to be tickled. Again.
The Stage Manager – who has quickly become a close friend ever since he sweetly agreed to drop me home on the nights I didn’t have transport, despite the weird coincidence of coming across dead animals on the road each time he did.
Pretty B (don’t kill me) – who I wrestle with over Nana’s yummy Tabasco drink; who serenades me with country songs; who never fails to make me giggle when I’m feeling low; who gives the best hugs; who has become very special to me in the short time I’ve known him.
The Guitar Maestro – creators of music have always amazed and inspired me and he is no different. I love that he never seems to tire of playing; that even so late in the whole play, he came up with a fabulous new opening sequence last night; that he managed to play non-stop for 4 hours when we wanted to have a singsong after a performance night; and that he has perfected the art of chain-smoking uninterrupted while playing guitar. Genius.
Mr. Man Child – Our fantastic vocal director who we all started out thinking was heaps older than us. Turns out it was the other way around (I won’t publish his age here as he would never forgive me). This both tickled us and filled us with awe that he could have got us through the musical part of this entire production all on his own. During these five months we have all become intimately acquainted with the sharp intakes of breath and distorted expressions that accompany a badly sung song or note. After each performance night, we’d rush out into the dressing rooms and hang around in the corridors with bated breath, waiting for his arrival and when we’d see his smile and his thumbs up we’d know we’d done fabulously.
Energizer Bunny – She’s the tiny little thing that bounces. I am in awe of her energy. Actually I am more in awe of the fact that so much energy can come out of such a little person. If there was an award for the cutest person in the cast, it would be her.
Diva – I called her this purely because of her fantastic voice. In every other way, she is anything but a diva. She’s insanely modest despite being one of the most (if not the most) successful female artist in this country, has a cheeky sense of humour and reminds me startlingly of my best friend when she runs around smiling at people with hideously chocolate-coated teeth. What I hate most about her is that, even with the chocolate-coated teeth, she still manages to look stunning.
Mr. Happy Times – who is one of the earliest friends I made in the play. The thing I like most about him is his never-failing ability to laugh at himself. I used to never be able to do any scenes with him because he made the funniest faces that just cracked me up. With much practice I’ve managed to hold a straight face when we have scenes together. Diva still hasn’t.
Innocent – who has been given this name because everyone insists that she cannot be vulgar even if she tried. But despite being the one who exudes sophistication and elegance (even in track pants, damn her); despite always looking like she’s just stepped off of the cover of Vogue; she’s surprised us with the occasional fantastic comeback. Oh, and she’s also an active participant in our crazy backstage go-go dancing during the last two songs of the play. Who says dead people can’t party like there’s no tomorrow??
BJ – My little pet :) He’s a funny mix of quirks. Young but with the voice of someone much older. A laugh that has the potential to be the most evil sounding wicked-laugh in existence. Unabashedly politically incorrect and just fun to be around.
Gosh, there are so many others but I don’t have the time to mention them. But I love them all. If I get a chance, I will write about them too. Until then, though, thank you everyone for making this happen. It has helped me more than you’ll ever know. I don’t mean to be melodramatic (although if there ever was a time for it, it’d be now!) but this experience and meeting all of you has given me a new lease of life. I am so incredibly grateful. I will miss you and I hope that the regulars at Elsie’s Bar will never really stop gathering at a waterhole of choice to have a good drink, gossip, dance and singsong.
To the stage. To the lights. To the magic.
Photo by Dininda Paranahewa
* This post probably has heaps of mistakes and things in it so I apologize in advance. It’s a bit rushed.