During the finale of the Tony-nominated new musical Fun Home, Emily Skeggs turns to her co-star Beth Malone, and knows, in that moment, that her character, a 19-year-old version of the cartoonist Alison Bechdel, turns out to be a proud, successful, out, artist. Fun Home, based on Bechdel's graphic novel of the same name is about the cartoonist's struggles to understand her sexuality and her closeted father's suicide through three different interwoven stages of her life represented by Malone, Skeggs and the 11-year old Sydney Lucas (all of whom are nominated for a Tony Award).
"At the end of the show when [adult Alison] gets relief and finds what she's been searching for, it's really satisfying for me as the middle Alison," says Skeggs. "People always say, 'This must be such an emotionally wrenching show for you to do. It must be so hard.' Yes it is, but I get to decide who I am each day and I get to watch my future self find solace. It's a really uplifting way to end the show."
It's a rare experience for an actor to face exactly who his or her character has become onstage each night, but this season on Broadway there are many young performers, including Skeggs and Lucas, who get to do just that. Sadie Sink and Elizabeth Teeter are sharing the role of the teenage Queen Elizabeth in The Audience and John Riddle and Michelle Veintimilla are portraying 17-year-old versions of Roger Rees and Chita Rivera in The Visit.
According to these actors, observation and collaboration are the two key elements involved in successfully playing a younger self — from learning how their character walks to sharing a dance with their older self. In this way Sink and Teeter are very lucky ladies, learning to play the young monarch from Dame Helen Mirren, who won an Oscar for playing Elizabeth II in "The Queen." "Helen showed us how the Queen walks," says Sink. "She has kind of a funny way of walking — she waddles." The girls have also learned to fold their hands like Mirren — as the Queen — does and to rock back and forth on their heels at the same time as Mirren when they are on stage together. These movements help the audience make the connection between a 14-year-old princess and an 88-year-old queen, but sometimes coordinating the movements can be tricky.
"I have to look out of the corner of my eye at Helen and we cue each other," explains Sink. "One time I went up [on my toes] first and then [Helen] did. The audience was kind of confused because we didn't do it at the same time." Mirren, who has said she studied the queen as a young girl in order to play her as an adult, has helped to give the young actresses context when playing princess Elizabeth. "[Helen's] so devoted to being the queen that it really helped me feel more sure about my character," says Teeter. "In rehearsals we really studied the queen's circumstances. [Elizabeth] wasn't supposed to be queen, so Helen helped me connect to [how she was feeling]. She would explain things like, 'When you're looking out the window, this is what we're looking at. This is how we're seeing life going by.' It helps connect us if we're thinking the same things."
In The Visit, Veintimilla as the 17-year-old Claire Zachannassian shares an intimate waltz with her older self, played by Chita Rivera. When rehearsing together, Veintimilla says, "Our director John Doyle encouraged us to keep an eye on each other; watching each other's gestures and studying each other. I would watch Chita and the way that she moved and I would have to figure out how that movement would have manifested itself when she was 17, and vice versa."
Many people have imagined sitting down with their younger self and telling them not to worry so much or to study harder in school, but these actors, thanks to talented writers and directors, actually have the opportunity to feel what it might be like if their older and younger selves got together. It can be a surreal experience. The first time Rivera met Veintimilla before the Williamstown production of The Visit she exclaimed, "I know you!" She had watched Veintimilla's audition videos and recognized someone familiar. "She gave me a huge hug," remembers the recent Carnegie Mellon grad, "and she was like, 'I know that body. I used to have that body!'"
Things got really weird when Rivera showed the cast a photo of herself rehearsing for the original production of West Side Story. "Chita and Michelle look exactly the same — like they even have the same jawline," says their costar John Riddle. He and Roger Rees embody the young and old versions of Anton, Claire's ex-lover. "It's almost creepy how similar they are." Riddle experienced the same phenomenon when he met Rees. At first they couldn't agree on who was more attractive — "He was like, 'You're much too handsome to be playing the younger version of me,'" laughs Riddle, "and I said, 'Roger you're one of the most handsome men in all of Broadway history,'" — but then Riddle realized how much they had in common beyond their striking good looks.
"It was really interesting getting to know Roger and discovering that we share some sort of energy. It's one of those weird universe things," says Riddle. "They say that for actors to get a job, you have to be the right fit. I think this is a good testament to that principle. There's something inherently similar about who Roger and I are as people and the way we think and view the world. When I walked into the audition room I guess that kind of showed through. It's very comfortable and easy to play the younger version of him."
As Riddle points out, playing a younger self onstage is not just about embodying that character, it's also about embodying the essence of the older actor. To play the young Claire, Veintimilla picked up a few of Rivera's signature moves. "She taught me how to flip my skirt," she says. "That was really cool." For Sink, Teeter and Skeggs, playing a younger self also requires taking the real-life subject of the work into account. With all of these influences, the actors have to be careful not to suffer from the equivalent of having too many directors in the rehearsal room, but Skeggs says the layers of people and characters have made her job much easier. "I'm an actor who really loves having resources to pull from," says Skeggs, "so this show is like the ultimate, because I have Alison [Bechdel], I have her book and I have Beth and Sydney. I have so much I can work off of and build from. I feel like I've been given a set of building blocks, whereas in a lot of shows you're just the one person and you have to build it and figure it out yourself."
Sink agrees. She says sharing the rehearsal room and the stage with the older version of your character — whether he or she is played by an Oscar winner or not — is an invaluable tool. "You get the best advice and ideas," says Sink. "It helps you build your character from just watching your older self."