In this blog post by Tony Award-winner, BD Wong, THE ORPHAN OF ZHAO actor shares the concerns, demands and high emotion—anxiety, fear, hope, anticipation, worry—that often surface when bringing a production to life. (Please note that this entry was written during the Company’s time at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, our co-producer for this provocative Chinese epic.)
THE ORPHAN OF ZHAO is currently running at the Playhouse in the Weiss Theatre through August 3. You can purchase tickets by clicking here.
ELEMENTS OF THE DRESS REHEARSAL
By the end of Tuesday afternoon we indeed got through tech-ing the entire play, but there was no surplus time to rehearse anything additionally, let alone to run Le Whole Shebang before Tuesday’s dress rehearsal. This means that Tuesday night we will be running through the entire play for the first time. An invited audience will be present, which is good for finally gauging the response, but this of course means one’s adrenaline and stress are ratcheted up considerably due not only to the “unknown factor,” but to the dramatic placement of the process’s final puzzle piece—that long-awaited entrance of the actor’s cruel dominatrix: the audience and her judgment. It, of course, matters not whether the audience is made up of paying customers or your friends and family. The anticipation of judgment pretty much feels the same. There is a kind of “Stockholm Syndrome” phenomenon that often happens when you spend four weeks acting in a show (or even months working on a movie): you almost always fall in love with your captor. Any shred of objectivity you had when you entered the process is now colored by your chemistry with your fellow actors, affection for the costumes, even your comfort with the weather of your surroundings or the theater’s provided housing! I don’t think that there is an actor who, in some way or other, doesn’t become so immersed in the process of a production that she easily convinces herself it is wonderful across the board (or, at the very least, desperately hopes so). You try to be self-critical, you try to be objective about things you’d do differently (if only you were the director). But to me, these things pale in comparison to your invariable affection for what you’re doing. It’s very sweet, actually. It is your job to do your best work, it is your job to support the production and your fellow actors, it is your job to believe in every aspect of it and to, in fact, love it. Trust me when I say that most of the time, none of this is a gigantic leap.
More often than I’d like to admit, it is at this point in the process—that first fateful “open dress rehearsal”—that the gorgeous castle you’ve ensconced yourself in, complete with its impenetrable moat and frolicking koi fish, vanishes cruelly, leaving only, to your shock and dismay, you, a handful of well-meaning actors who are also all “making a go of it,” and an audience who doesn’t find the jokes amusing, isn’t moved by the drama, or simply doesn’t get it.
I believe, if I am an accurate polltaker, everyone in this acting company nervously feels the same way I do: that the play holds enormous potential, but that we need the audience to tell us what we’ve got (and what we don’t got). Some of us struggle with the language as I do; some of us aren’t sure if certain highly theatrical moments in the play that we are attempting to sell with great commitment will, in fact, be “bought.” But to our core, we do believe that we have an opportunity to co-create a rather special evening of theater, if we just keep trudging up the mountain of our process with our basket of humble, theatrical belongings fastened to our back, and don’t hesitate or drop the proverbial ball. The one person who I feel unflinchingly knows that it will all be great is director Carey Perloff. Of her many gifts, enthusiasm and fearlessness are two of her most amazing. She has impressive leadership qualities. She could sell you a bridge spanning two uninhabited pieces of land with no water underneath it, cars to drive across it, or people to drive said non-existent cars.
(No, I’m not likening A.C.T.’s production of The Orphan of Zhao, or my relationship with Carey Perloff, to a bad bridge investment.)
I am constantly pondering and processing all of the above, and feeling a fair amount of tension in my body as a result. My neck and shoulders are always stiff, often extremely so, and this condition is exacerbated by certain physical tasks in the show, which of course must be repeated. I am overwhelmed by: the play’s emotional demands, my nervousness as we run out of time to refine things before an audience comes, my default desire to give my mom and family face time, and the many press and special appearances that have come with the job (headlining in a play and then turning down the press requests because you’re too tired from rehearsal gives you no leg to stand on if your production is under-attended, so I turn down none).
I remember feeling a different color of the same tension when I was in Washington, D.C. with M. Butterfly (as well as previewing on Broadway), and during the Broadway previews for Face Value (both plays by David Henry Hwang). In both of these projects I felt some version of a responsibility to “make the play work.” I don’t mean that the plays were less than dramaturgically sturdy on their own; what I mean is that in both of those plays, I felt the weight of being central to its ideas and aspirations, and I felt, in some way, I could or would mess things up if I was sub-par. I feel a similar burden inThe Orphan of Zhao, playing a character that is spinning in its emotional core. There are also feelings that naturally come with being in plays alongside other Asian-American actors; our investment to excel and prove ourselves in an industry that often shuns us is palpable. To be one of the senior members in a play that features Asian-American performers, all who are hoping to disprove the intolerable notion that Asian-Americans are inherently devoid of commercial appeal, indeed comes with some stress. And it also happens that in the three projects mentioned above, I played some of the larger roles I’ve ever played.
As I described earlier, visits from donors and/or board members are a tradition at A.C.T., not only at the tech rehearsals once the show has loaded into the theater, but even earlier as well, such as in the exploratory process of the rehearsal room (or, as in our case, the rehearsals held at the scene shop on the set). I frankly find this extremely invasive, because for me the actors’ process is one that should be as private as possible—you’re so exposed and vulnerable because of anything from early failed attempts at comedy to emoting rather messily in order to try and find a character’s pain. You’re simply not ready to share what you’re working on with anyone. The whole point of rehearsals is to provide a safe place for actors to try and explore and fail.
Having said all that, the success and existence of a theater as an institution is made or broken by the enthusiasm, hard work, generosity and engagement of its donors and board members. They are the absolutely crucial entity that makes it happen. Their passion for the theater is also most often directly related to their affection for it as a “magic place”—and the rehearsal room is the most special place to experience that magic. So the rehearsal door is usually wide open at A.C.T. and we actors must embrace it, because it is a good thing. It is not easy to explain to people why it’s so uncomfortable, though! What’s the big deal, right? I guess I keep coming back to the idea that the acting process (like the theater itself) is made on elements of magic. And there ain’t a self-respecting magician who’s gonna let you into her little workshop and expose all her stuff! But again, somebody’s gotta pay for all of it.
The afternoon of the dress rehearsal, my inevitable, mounting tension crests in a meltdown of sorts. I realize in retrospect that, aside from the stress inherent in the process (and this process is tripping along without incident, thank goodness), I am also carrying around with me constant, dark, kind-of-awful feelings that are unique to playing this particular role. I have never experienced this before, the onstage feelings manifesting themselves in “real life.” But I actually find myself almost always upset or irritable and actually weepy. The worst thing is, I don’t even notice that this is abnormal! I just walk around most of the day feeling like going back to bed and starting the day over (not getting enough sleep isn’t helping, either).
One thing adding to my stress is a fear of being underprepared. I am confident we can do the play without much messing up tonight, but I personally don’t feel the performance is ready, that the layers of material have been fully mined. Some actors believe that this is okay, that you actually use that audience time to start mining those things, and I understand that. All I can say is that regarding this particular production, I was hoping to be much further along.
My three main sources of anxiety come from 1. The language of the play, which I have memorized but I can still feel my mind reaching for (that goes away after proper repetition, rehearsal, and performance); 2. Tracking the emotional path of the character I’m playing, knowing how the character is feeling from point A to point B and so on—this is something that really needs time, but again I wanted to have tracked it better by now; and 3. As the sound department continues do its work to set our mike levels and find the proper balances, I have a mistrustful anxiety that we might be “over-miked’ (over amplified). I have no proof that we are, I’m just worried we are. I think all of these things are actually related. Like all actors, I am on a quest for what I consider to be “the truth” of this play, and if these three things are not mastered, effortless, unnoticeable, and cared for properly, a sense of “untruth” can surface. When this is happening, I don’t realize that these things are all related to the same search for something real. It is only as I look back after the fact that it dawns on me.
The only thing I can think of is to use the dinner break, before the dress rehearsal, to walk through the whole play by myself on the set, quietly say all of the words, track my physical checklist in conjunction with my verbal, and give myself a little run-thru of my own. This is a normal thing for me. It appeals to my sense of logic and really can help a person iron out wrinkles. It’s also rather meditative. When one is not feeling in control, doing something deliberate such as this creates a semblance of it.
But as I start this simple process, I am ordered off the set by a crewmember who behaves brusquely. There is a rule that people can’t be on the set for insurance reasons, and of course my defensive point of view—that I’ve worked in X amount of theaters over X years and have never heard of such an absurd thing—means nothing to anyone (nor should it). I am also even more freaked out by her demeanor and the fact that she launches into kicking me out without an introductory explanation of who the hell she even is. My frustration escalates, and I actually succumb to what feels at the time like a perfectly natural state of being: sobbing. This is wildly entertaining to me now as I look back on it. I definitely still easily maintain that the gatekeeper was unnecessarily rude, but what amuses me now is how fragile I actually was.
Remembering that a huge contingent of drama students from Lincoln High School, my alma mater, and their teachers, and oh yes, my mother, are all coming to see the “invited dress” does not buoy me. I quickly realize that the dress rehearsal will just have to be what it is; there will be no heroic, miraculous opening night–style, transcendent performance. We will be happy if 1. We don’t have to stop in the middle; 2. We tell the story clearly and effectively; and 3. Nobody in the audience throws anything wet at us.
And that’s basically what happened. When a performance begins at this stage of the process, there is a scary, thrilling sense of danger fueled by the general human fear of the unknown, and the faith that you have indeed done most of the work necessary to avoid disastrous results. One does not normally dive off a rocky cliff in Acapulco without having learned how to do so properly (I hope), and even so, there has to be a first time. Will your lack of seasoned timing at this particular task cause you to plunge headlong into the lagoon when the tide is suddenly out? Will a sudden gust of wind blow your hapless body so close to the face of the terrain that it snags your thong, stripping you naked of your dignity?
No animals, actors, or divers were harmed during the dress rehearsal of The Orphan of Zhao. If there is one thing to be said about this company of actors, and the entire crew, both groups are extremely dependable. Everyone carried her or his weight. Everything went as smoothly as possible. I felt for the first time many small revelations about the continuity of the story as we stitched it all together as a team. At the end, as I greeted the Theater Kids and my mother (who clearly was very pleased with this show that she had been waiting to see with such motherly anticipation), I sheepishly felt we could’ve done so much better, but in fact we could not have, given the circumstances of where we are in the process. It was exactly what it was supposed to be. And we were all still safe, performing for our friends and family.
Before performing, the drama of acting can create surprising, disproportionate anxiety, but I often find it really easy to shake any nervousness I feel by remembering something rather simple; that what we are doing is not so monumentally important as to warrant such fear, and that furthermore and most importantly, “no one is going to die.”
In real life, anyway.