Archived Story

Being in a play is harder than it seems

Published 10:19am Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Column: Pothole Prairie

Acting, directing, stage managing, costume designing, music making and the other theater jobs might sound like loads of fun — and, to be sure, it is — but it is tough, too. The people who take part in a theater, whether it is community theater or professional theater or a big movie, work harder than we in the audience might guess.

I was the destitute husband Peter Greenlaw as part of a production of “A Christmas Carol” last December. There were two acts, and I had to be on stage at three times during the play, with a few lines in each act. Not much, really, when all is said and done.

Everyone I know asked me what it was like to be part of the play. I told them it was fun — I loved it — but it was exhausting, too. I’ll back up and explain.

I hadn’t been part of a production since high school. During my four years at Pomeroy High School down in Iowa, I was in two school plays and two community plays. In college, I took some acting classes and was the sound manager for a Greek comedy. Eventually, I landed at the student newspaper and the student radio station, so I no longer had time for acting. After college, newspaper work became my career. Acting eventually became something I did a long time ago.

So for our magazine, Southern Minnesota, I needed to take a photo of Glen Parsons, who happened to be acting and co-directing in “A Christmas Carol.” We agreed to meet at the auditions at the Marion Ross Performing Arts Center because that’s when he was available in a stage setting. I mentioned I was thinking about auditioning for the part of the Ghost of Christmas Future because I thought I would make a tall, bony and intimidating ghost. So he welcomed it.

I arrived and took the photos. Then Parsons and the other co-director, Gordy Handeland, had me audition by reading some lines for Mr. Fezziwig, lines they were making everyone read.

Wait! The Ghost of Christmas Future has no speaking parts, I thought. What am I doing this for?

They even had me sing some Christmas songs. Oh, great. I like to sing, but I just can’t seem to do it well when other people are listening. I’m great alone in the car on a long trip. But I tried my best.

The stage manager later notified that I had the role of Peter Greenlaw. That’s a speaking part. Whoa! OK. Let’s do this.

So I had some obstacles to overcome: memorize lines, speak them in an English accent, be away from family, stay up late weeks on end and become a completely different person every night.

The beginning weeks of the play were a breeze because the directors were working on aspects of the performance. Some nights actors could be at home when they weren’t needed. Normal bedtimes. Characters weren’t quite developed yet.

As the performance dates closed in, our cast and crew did full runs. The early ones had stops, when the directors direct, and were slower because the performances weren’t quite refined yet, so they took quite a bit of extra time than what audiences saw at the December shows.

Folks in the play still had to get up and go to work. I usually arrive somewhere between 6 and 7 a.m. to finish putting together your daily newspaper.

So even if an actor is tired, the character cannot be tired. The character has to be a person in merry old England in 1843. So I gathered all the mental energy I had left that day to be on that stage — in character and fully awake. What helps is that once you are out there acting — on stage, in front of people, under lights — the body must produce endorphins, or some sort of waker-upper. Time on stage became the time of day I was the most alert, most excited, some sort of extra super bright and circumspect. Is there a word for it? Maybe it is fulfilling the duty of having stage presence. I don’t know the word for that. “Bringing it,” perhaps says it well.

After the practice, there was feedback time, and then we went home.

Well, I couldn’t just go to bed. I had to wind down. The other actors said they often had to do the same thing. Watch TV, eat a snack, read from a book, something. So that means the next night, we were even more weary. It’s a cycle. However, the sleep factor didn’t affect overall performances because we got better every night, I swear.

Before long, the rest of our lives were just the time in between those performances. Tim Engstrom reserved his day’s amount of energy so he could be Peter Greenlaw. And that was a small part compared to what Parsons had to do — be Ebenezer Scrooge. Imagine the daily physical and mental drain that brought the man.

All those lines. All that time on stage. All that bringing it. Phew!

It’s a great escape, to be someone else. But if anyone ever says being in a play is easy, I will disagree. Those guys look like they are having fun, but they work their tails off.


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.