How Does a Demanding Role Take Its Toll?

Photo Features   How Does a Demanding Role Take Its Toll? In these original before and after photos, you can see it written on their faces. Four actors share how they prepare for and cool down from some of the most emotionally taxing roles on Broadway.
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Tyler Lea Monica Simoes

A life in the theatre is a known difficult one. Eight shows a week is not for the faint of heart. Still, some roles are particularly daunting not just because of time spent onstage, but due to the mental and emotional energy necessary to portray characters who endure trauma. In a season of gripping dramas (plays and musicals), Playbill.com photographed four actors before they took the stage and again after the curtain call because, as it turns out, the effort can not only be felt in their energy and presence, it’s written on their faces.

Tyler Lea
Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

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Tyler Lea Monica Simoes

Lea spends the majority of the near three-hour show onstage, creating Christopher’s world. It’s an incredibly physical part, from frenetic moments assembling a city of model trains on the floor or dodging an oncoming train to moments of physical constraint as Christopher’s tendencies on the spectrum make human contact uncomfortable. The energy pulses through Lea’s body, but it also takes gargantuan mental effort to execute the emotional rollercoaster of the play.

Before the show: When you walk into Lea’s dressing room before the show, it is a sanctuary: a light smell of incense permeates the air, his lights are dim. His puppy, Daisy, lazes in the corner. “Usually, I come here, and I have to shave, and then I make some tea and I just sit down and relax. I have to just let myself chill out and come in from the outside world,” says Lea. “It’s chaotic out there, so I have to come in and let all that go, and then focus and concentrate on all the physical things that I have to be prepared to do. I do stretches and squats and stuff to warm up my joints and voice warmups.” Unusually, the cast of Curious Incident warms up as a group. Then Lea returns to his den. “I sort of have to mentally prepare for the show as a whole, but mostly that first moment and the rest propels me through the story as I go along.”

After the show: Lea is drenched in sweat and breathing heavily post theatrical marathon. His energy buzzes. Even Daisy can feel it as she barks in the corner. The first thought in his mind after the curtain falls? “I think, ‘Oh God I hope they liked it.’ And then it’s just like a relief that I made it through that. I feel good about making it through it, sometimes it’s a challenge to make it through, and then I’ve accomplished something for the day. I definitely feel way more energized, it’s all of the excitement of it and exhausting myself.”

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time plays at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre through September 4.

Purchase tickets here.

Jessica Hecht
Golde in Fiddler on the Roof

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Jessica Hecht Monica Simoes

Most people think of Tevye as the demanding role in this tale of a father struggling against societal change, trying to maintain his power as father over daughters and the threat to his way of life as a Jew. Tevye isn’t the only challenge: Golde may not stand onstage as much as the pensive dairyman, but she deals with all of this and more. In fact, the image of Hecht collapsing into a squat, rocking back and forth, sobbing at the loss of her daughter, Chava, to an interfaith marriage burns in the brains of the audience. It’s the image of a mother destroyed. So how does Hecht get ready to climb that mountain each show?

Before the show: “I actually am not a huge fan of a pre-show methodology that takes you to another space,” says Hecht. “I’m very interested in, ‘Here you are, you’re going to perform in a few minutes, get your energy up.’ It’s really about getting my energy up because my normal energy is quite even. I very often have kind of hectic pre-show days with my family. I took a long walk with my daughter right before I arrived today, I try to get my energy to a bubbling point rather than to zone into ‘We’re in Anatevka it’s 1902.’” Hecht plays music from the likes of Van Morrison, Randy Newman and Nina Simone to help.

After the show: Opposite from that bubbling pre-show pulse, you can feel the percolating has cooled. Hecht walks in mellow, sort of moving through space without too much conscious thought. “When I’ve made it through the show, I actually just feel very zoned out. I can’t really think of another way to describe it,” says Hecht. After her bows, her thoughts go far away from Anatevka. “I feel the second act is so emotionally charged, and usually my mind goes to something extremely mundane, ‘Oh Joey’s mother is coming’ but I’m mostly just a total space cadet.”

Hecht thinks she’s so even-tempered because of the emotional work she does. “There was this great Audrey Hepburn quote when someone said to her ‘God, you play such complex parts, how do you work through it? Do you go to therapy?’ She said, ‘No that’s why I don’t go to therapy because I play all these parts.’ I play a lot of crying mothers, to be honest, screaming people, crying mothers, dying people, so I usually get it all out. I’m pretty chill.”

Fiddler on the Roof plays at the Broadway Theatre through December 31.

Purchase tickets here.

John-Own Jones
Jean Valjean in Les Misérables

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John Owen-Jones Monica Simoes

Jean Valjean may be the original “taxing role.” Even the role’s originator, Colm Wilkinson, admitted, “It was pretty daunting for me, that part.” Jones must capture the strength of a prisoner, the unease of a self-made man forever on the verge of Javert’s grip, a loving and protective father and a dying man—all in the span of three hours.

Before the show: Like Hecht, Jones uses his pre-show time to raise his energy level. “Primarily I listen to heavy rock music. Currently I’m listening to Led Zepplin. That and a cup of coffee,” he says. “I don’t really [prepare mentally] to be honest, the show takes care of that. It’s like getting on a rollercoaster, the half hour before the show is climbing up the lift hill and as soon as the music starts we’re going over the first drop. If I start thinking about the mountain I’ve got to climb, I’m never going to be able to step foot on the mountain.”

After the show: Jones keeps his dressing room stocked with the items he needs to come down from the show, including a dart board. “The dart board just helps me zone out from the show. It helps me wipe scenes clean from my head and things that might go wrong, then helps me forget about it,” he says. When Jones reaches the top of the mountain, he describes the feeling that washes over him as “delighted relief.”

Les Misérables plays at the Imperial Theatre thorugh September 4.

Purchase tickets here.

Beth Malone
Big Alison in Fun Home

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Beth Malone Monica Simoes

Fun Home’s adapted coming-of-age story is an emotionally fraught one. Between Alison’s own journey finding herself and coming out, her closeted father trying to push her into the closet, and the guilt over his eventual suicide, Malone’s narrator (adult Alison processing her childhood) is an exercise in mental strength. Malone relives Alison’s traumatic and confusing childhood each night—and has for four-and-a-half years. With few lines, Malone’s work is in the thinking and observing.

Before the show: For Malone, preparing to play Alison relies on her ability to “quiet down all the noise in my thoughts and just get really focused on the task at hand,” she says. “Because the show is so quiet, and because I don’t have a lot of lines, it’s easy to sort of relax into just watching, and that’s a trap that makes a really huge difference in how the whole show behaves and comes to the audiences. For the show to really work the way it does, I have to be constantly leaning in and reaching forward and being very front foot about going after very specific memories and things that are just elusive, just out of reach.”

“In order to get myself into this space where I would walk onstage with this ‘search,’ I would have to journal. I would go out in to the hallway and sit in the alcove and just quietly write down anything I needed to get out of my mind. Put it on paper so I could put it aside,” says Malone. “I would also write things about how I wanted to attack a certain moment, how I wanted to bring a joyous buoyancy to the search or a sense of humor to the audacious task of trying to reconstruct your childhood. I would give myself these little tennets to go after daily, just one a day. I would give myself a little assignment.

Unlike the other performers, Malone has to steer clear of her dressing room. “I have such an amazing cast, and we have such a blast together if I want to get anything serious done I have to leave my dressing room because it’s just too fun in there.”

After the show: “There is a moment where I’m like woosh, and I can just let it go,” says Malone. “The intensity of what the show is about, it kind of holds onto you through the very very last possible note of the show, and there’s a relief to having that final chord pass through you and go out through the walls and be released.

“There’s an effort to making yourself remember things that are unpleasant, making yourself remember things that are necessary but deeply, deeply sad, that you need to reprocess in order to move on with your life,” she continues. “That’s what this show is about and in order to do the show properly, you really have to do it, because it provides catharsis for the audience and through your pain, you’re helping the audience get to something of their own. So to do the show right you have to do it all the way.

“Stepping away from the desk at the end [of the final scene] and saying, ‘I’m done writing this now, I release you, I exorcise you, I absolve myself of the guilt of carrying this around anymore, I’m done.’ And as I get to the end of my own journey with Fun Home, and I step away from that desk at the end I’m like, ‘Ok, I did this journey. I did this Fun Home from beginning to end, and I went there, and I absolve myself from having to do it anymore.”

Fun Home plays at the Circle in the Square Theatre through September 10.

Purchase tickets here.

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