As an actor, I have been privy to the most incredible conversations with my fellow artists. The dressing room may as well be our confessional: safe, private, and, if not anonymous, sacred. From the moment stage management calls “half hour” over the intercom, giving us our 30-minutes-to-showtime warning, something happens backstage at a theatre. There is a calm that envelops you while putting on makeup and costumes. We cast away our defenses and we share truths. Deep truths that come out about love, fear, joy, disappointment, and family and hilarious stories about auditions gone wrong or onstage mishaps.
Three years ago, as I was reflecting on my career, I decided I wanted to recreate the dressing room atmosphere in order to share deep truths about what it is to pursue a life in the arts, and so I started my podcast, Little Known Facts With Ilana Levine. Over the course of 180 conversations, I have gathered a mountain of wisdom from my guests—some life advice, some lessons on perspective, but also the tricks other actors use in their craft. Three years ago, I wanted to bring the essence of the theatre to the recording studio. Now, as I return to the professional stage in Richard Greenberg’s new play The Perplexed at Manhattan Theatre Club (beginning February 11!), I want to bring the lessons of the recording studio back to the theatre to help me with this world premiere of a play by a man I have admired since I first saw his Three Days of Rain two decades ago.
Back in the rehearsal room, I’m struck by how much of what guests have said stays with me. Here are a few of the practical guidance and inspiring words that helped me the most as my worlds converge:
Bill Camp told me that when he started working with director Ivo Van Hove, he was asked to come into the first rehearsal entirely off-book. So, I am doing that for this play—something I had never done before. Bill said that, for him, eliminating the distraction of searching for the next line changed the way he rehearsed and gave him a freedom to just get to work and really connect.
Karen Olivo shared that after being in play after play, she needed to take a break and do something different for a while, to reconnect with her creative soul. She went to Madison, Wisconsin, for about three years and just returned to Broadway this past summer for Moulin Rouge!. Similarly, I feel like, having created my podcast, I return to the theatre with a fresh perspective and a huge desire to be part of this beautiful, challenging collaborative art form.
Celia Keenan-Bolger told me, while she usually approaches a rehearsal room with this idea of “I don’t want to be difficult or I’ll figure it out on my own. You don’t have to worry about me,” for To Kill a Mockingbird, decided to just share her concerns or questions early on and that opened up a new channel of communication between her and the director that she really hadn’t had before. I am not going to pretend I know everything or fear that I am taking up time in the room with my questions. Lynne Meadow, our director, keeps saying, “There are no dumb questions.” I hope she means it.
Laura Benanti talked to me about a “perfectionism mentality where you have to get it right immediately, and so then you’re afraid to fail—which is a pressure I think every actor has faced. It gets really, really robotic and then I’m not talking like a person.” This time around, I vow not to be a perfectionist. I want to be okay living in the awkward, trying things that might be messy and not perfect right away. I want to be brave like that.
Another thing Laura shared about keeping her performance grounded and fresh is she explores her character through a dream journal. “I ask my dream for whatever question I might have about the character or to align me closer to the character.” She records her dreams and, according to Jungian philosophy, she then tries to draw connections between her dreams and questions she has about her character. I have a journal by my bed now.
Allison Janney talked about her way of learning lines: write the first letter of each word in the sentence. If the first line is “Hi there,” you write “H T” on the page. You do that for every line. It works.
Katie Finneran learns lines by memorizing for 15 minutes at a time then doing push-ups and jumping jacks. It’s been proven that the exercise between concentrated memorization helps tremendously. Plus, exercise is good right?
Allison Janney also started to meditate when she came back to Broadway in Six Degrees of Separation. It was so hard for her to turn her brain off at night between the show and all the other things she was handling. Meditation allows you to clear you mind and then go to work on a play without all that clutter and noise. I downloaded the Headspace app on my phone. I would also like to de-clutter my mind when I enter the rehearsal room.
I was so moved when Donna Murphy shared that, after 35 years in the business, there are still times when she feels like she has no idea what she is doing. The idea that someone with her body of work, awards, and singular talent can find herself at a loss in the work gives me permission to feel lost. She also shared she often carries something personal in her pocket onstage if that helps her connect. I have already asked the designer for a pocket in my costume.
Cynthia Nixon shares that in her 40s she began to have stage fright. When she stood in the wings waiting to make an entrance, she would have this terrible feeling of wanting to bolt. Of course she didn't, but just to know that the two-time Tony Award-winning actor, beloved by all who work with her and the person who Mike Nichols cast in two plays at once (Hurlyburly and The Real Thing) has experienced stage fright gives me tremendous permission to be scared but show up anyway.
I asked Julianne Moore if she is the kind of person who likes to stay in character before acting or if she talks to her castmates as Julianne and then begins the scene. She likes to feel like herself and then move into the scene. When I was young I thought if you weren’t Daniel Day Lewis—walking and talking in character at all times—that you weren’t a real actor. There was a time in my life when I tried to do that. Julianne (one of the most extraordinary actors of my generation) does not do it, so it grants me permission not to judge myself stepping out of character offstage .
Lastly, I want to leave you with something the magnificent Judith Light said to me that I think about all the time: “Work should be within the context of our life—the context is life—and there are all these different things we do within that context, and work is just one of them. That’s what this is about. It’s not about the next thing you’re going to get, the next career move, and the next thing you think you should be doing, which is all I ever thought about, which is why I was so miserable and unhappy. When I started re-framing everything, re-contextualizing everything, it all started falling into place in a way that it was supposed to work. That it’s not magical, it’s not, ‘If I do this, I’ll get that.’ That’s not the way it works. And I wish that I had known that then, but I had to go through the process.”
The Perplexed, a world premiere, will play Manhattan Theatre Club Off-Broadway at City Center Stage 1 beginning February 11 with an official opening set for March 3. The cast also features Patrick Breen, Margaret Colin, Gregg Edelman, Tess Frazer, Anna Itty, Eric William Morris, Zane Pais, JD Taylor, and Frank Wood, directed by Lynne Meadow.
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