Several years ago when I was still living in New York City, a writer named Jeff Wise got in touch with me, I can’t remember how he got my name but he was writing a book about fear and wanted to talk to me. We set a time to speak on the phone. He called and I began telling him about my terrible stage fright. In the midst of our conversation, I remembered playing Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Ernest, Oscar Wilde’s comedy masterpiece. Lady Bracknell is often played by a man but in our production, every role was played by a gender for which it wasn’t originally intended.
Lady Bracknell is considered one of the great comedic roles in the English canon. With lines such as:
“I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.”
“Thirty-five is a very attractive age. London society is full of women of the very highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty-five for years.”
Our production was performed at a small space on Sunset Boulevard in Silverlake, on the east side of Hollywood. Last time I was in the neighborhood, it was a fancy Indian restaurant. The entire neighborhood has changed dramatically since I lived there.
Our director was a bit of a mad genius, and was also the set designer and costumer. From the moment our show opened, it was a smash hit, packed houses, extensions, etc etc.
The theater finally had to close the run because they had another show scheduled so we moved the production to a theater on the West side of town called the Evidence Room. We put the show back up a month or so after our closing and our successful run continued.
As Lady Bracknell, I was a towering figure. I’m 6’2, and depending on the time, weigh in at 250 or more. Imagine me in full Victorian drag topped with a huge hat and large plumed feathers coming out the top.
Lady Bracknell has two major scenes, with some smaller business in a group scene. Her scene in the first act is the legendary interview where she asks Jack Worthing—who is interested in marrying her daughter Cecily—if he is in fact worthy of her. She asks everyone except for Jack to leave the room and the interview begins.
I was seated on a velvet settee at center stage, Cynthia Orthal, the actor playing Jack Worthing, was standing and we launched into the scene we had done hundreds of times.
I gravitated toward the theater when I was a kid for the structure it gave me and my life—walk over here, say these words, take these actions, enter now. Of course, flubbed a word here or there as actors will, and even occasionally dropped a line and had to cover for it somehow. But I was quick on my feet, able to be in the present and cover for those common errors.
In the theater, when an actor forgets a line, this is commonly called, “going up.” The origination of the phrase is believed to be because when you forget something you often look up, as if the thing you’ve forgotten is floating just above your head.
But there in the middle of the scene, I suddenly blanked. I was sitting there but entered a completely different reality. Some small part of my min knew I was onstage and that it was my turn to say something. But the larger part of me was elsewhere, or maybe it wasn’t elsewhere, maybe it was right there, next to the regular reality that we know.
I looked up at the stage lights, small dust mites floated there, a dim grey mist hung over the audience. It was unlike anything I’d ever felt before. It was as if I had been walking along the street and suddenly was transported into space where I was floating.
Cynthia finally fed me my line and brought me back. How long was I gone? A few seconds? More? A minute?
This morning I woke up I was backstage in a large theater, in the green room. I was in costume, dressed sort of like a ghost in white shredded cotton. Intermission had just ended and the second act had just begun. I heard the performance through the monitor backstage and knew I had an entrance pretty soon but I had no idea what I was supposed to do.
You could say this was the classic actors’ nightmare, only it wasn’t exactly scary, more like a great unknowing. What will the second act require of me? What will my role be? What will I say or do?
All of our attempts at remembrance keep us from floating away, into that twilight place that might be right beside us, all the time. What we remember—what came before, the people who’ve left, the ways of life that are no more—and trying to hold onto these things, anchors us. Staying just a bit in the past helps us live in the here and now.