Threads In Theatre Tapestry

by Florence Ondré

 

My friend, talented actor, Ashley Grantham, posted on facebook, these profound and grace-filled words of newly passed actress, Marian Seldes, from one of her interviews with James Grissom for his book, “Follies Of God:”

“The theatre keeps presenting to me the wonderful experiences of learning to tell time and falling in love for the first time.   I get these experiences-these feelings- every time I work on a play.  I get to start all over and relearn things, and I get to meet new friends– family, really– to whom I can give and receive love.  And this rejuvenates me, and it keeps me strong to serve the writer, to serve the play.  I guess I’m saying that I am always loving and I am always bending  time, and that’s as good a description as I can manage of a life in the theatre.”

Reading this perfect description of work and purpose in the theatre, simply stunned me with the accuracy of what it is all about and how fortunate we are, both those of us who do this work and those who experience the soul and life touching in the witnessing.

Over the years, I’ve struggled with the my own high respect for all aspects of theatre and, as time moves on, feeling a bit like performing has slipped into more a personality contest; worth minutes of limelight and too light an affair of single dimension, than a craft with depth in the endeavor.

I think to myself as I read Ms. Seldes words of wisdom, garnered from years of experience and well-earned success, ‘Who speaks like this anymore?

Who waxes multi-levelly on ever-expanding understanding of the depths and heights of their work with such careful and honest thought?

Who shares, with such kindness and generosity of heart, the inner workings to inspire and give how-to-gifts to co-worker-family with regards to spending well the coin of their realm of time upon this stage of life?

Who ‘gets it’ on so many layers of understanding lessons come to fruition by humble work ethic and love of profession?’

To be able to ‘start all over,’  ‘relearn things’ and know family of choice shows up in family of work for the claiming, if one is lucky enough to be awake and aware; to go beyond what one can see and touch to ‘always being loving’ and ‘time bending,’ both of which we are all capable of if only we would be open to that inner viewing, knowing and relishing.  How fabulous is that?!  How fantastic is the possible zest and willingness to see our own lives and work and days filled with this kind of love, service to chosen craft and be in awe of the time-bending we do in our mortal moments?

For me, I have to go back to my roots to see how far I’ve come on my journey and what light of clean scrubbed-faced-wonder still lives and breathes in me and whatever work I do.  What integrity, such as the above, was in me at the beginning and what wisps of wonder waft through my being today?  What nugget of motivation fuels my creativity and how have my perceptions changed or remained the same?

Surprised by  MS. Seldes beautiful, oh-so-acurate description of acting as ‘bending time,’ the breath of complete understanding and new realization hit me like Cupid’s arrow to the heart. These wonder full words, cobbled together, describe the indescribable; the intangible.  The very reading of the words is an ‘aha’ moment.

This is what work in theatre always felt like to me….working in wonder.

In my early, tenderling, formative theatre years, I fairly glowed with this shining light and thirst for learning and giving; for exploring one’s nugget of skill to be willing to be of service to the skills and talents of others in cooperative creation.

In a world of so much great talent, it is easy to be have humility and keep practicing; working while still searching for one’s own best defining talent.  One can be told by respected teachers what they see before their wise eyes and yet have depth of understanding dawn down the road.

It is only later , I learned what my team of master teachers in my first summer stock, at Dorothy Shay’s Duke’s Oak Theatre, where I was a most grateful apprentice, meant in their end of season review and assessment of skills learned and strengths discovered.

As I stood along on the bare stage, with only a work light for company, I heard their individual report cards.

“You are not the best of the dancers.”  “You may not be the greatest of the actors.” “You do not have the best voice of all.”

Time stopped.  My young heart sank because I was the last of the apprentices to be reviewed and the others, with family lines tracing back to theatre royalty of Lunt and Fontanne, Windust and Ritter had received high marks for at least one of these areas of performance.

It seemed forever in moments, standing statued still in my leotard and tights, waiting for their collective summation.

My mind raced hurdles with fear.  Did I have a career ahead?  Would I be good enough in this life of endeavor which I’d always known since childhood was my passion and lifeblood; a part of me like breathing; a place in the world to contribute and make a difference with my own gifts; to be of service?

Or had it all been in my own head; a fantasy land from which they would flunk me?

Breathe and smile, breath and smile your tremulous teen smile.

“…but you have ‘it,’ ” I heard  director, Mary Ann Dentler, of Broadway’s “Peg O My Heart,”  say.

“It?”

After politely thanking the board of theatre owners and master teachers,  I exited stage right in confusion and disappointment.

What was ‘it’?  Could I put that on a head shot and resumé?  How could this be an attribute when ‘it’ sounded like the plague?

“How did you do?”  my enormously and validated, talented singer, dancer and actor apprentices, excitedly asked as I stumbled into the wings.  “What did they tell you is your best attribute or strong suit?”  “What did they say?”

In a soft, quiet, uncomprehending, green voice, I replied, “They said, I had ‘it.’ ”

They hugged me.

I never knew if they understood anymore than I, what this invisible gift from the gods was, they were simply my first family in the theatre. It was these dear ones I loved; who loved me back in that special energy of unconditional acceptance which I came to know as extended family with each show and cast I’ve been privileged to join.

A life in the theatre is endless learning and growing; transcending all barriers; ascending and plummeting the roller coaster of emotions.

And, when you can touch an audience, even when you are not the best singer, dancer or actor; yet reach into hearts in the dark and move  people to tears and laughter and give them pause for thoughtful looking within, there beyond all wishes otherwise, is the best gift one can bring and give in the theatre, “it!”

You can study til you’re blue in the face, but this odd nugget is what you are either born with or not.

…The incandescent warmth of connection; tender, always loving, time bending, in the ever-expanding family and leaps of learning…. honest to goodness, ‘it!’

 

 

 

 

 

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