A Big Life: Encouragement for People in the Arts –
It is good to be the Queen.
Until your new husband accidentally poisons you to death in trying to kill your child when he is home on a sabbatical from college.
Poetically, of course.
This was my first time cast in Hamlet, though over the years I’ve acted in several other shows by the Bard. This Shakespearean addition to my resume was produced in May at the Headwaters Theatre in Portland, Oregon. Out in Seaside for the darker months of the year, I commuted in to Portland to rehearse this plumb role. I learned helpful things about my own craft from new director Valerie Asbell and I got a chance to act with some excellent actors including Brian Trybom as my husband and Mike Jones as Laertes.
Not to mention that I am Danish. I still have cousins who live in Odense.
Performing in a stage play again after being in a number of film projects has been a good reminder of what it is to be in a long rehearsal process with a two week-end run. Disadvantages included nearby tracks on which a train ran outside the theatre during the show. Advantages included that every night I got to play off the impulses of my fellow performers coming up with a different kind of performance. Also, I got to die on stage.
Fun, huh? Well…
Generally it’s fun to die in a production. It is after all…drama. It’s not real. In the case of the Queen, I am murdered. I am poisoned by a drink meant for my son. Every night, I got to explore several different ways to hit the deck. Eleven performances. Eleven different ways to die.
Once there laid out flat on the stage under the fading lights, one would think it was all over. That it would be a calming experience. Relaxing. Just lying on the floor in empty-headed bliss while the other actors carry the show. Like at the end of my yoga class when I lie on my back while my instructor plays her crystal singing bowls. Just enjoying the vibrations. What is that position called? Ah, yes. Shavasana.
Dying should be an exercise in solitude. In mindfulness. In meditation. Shavasana. Corpse Pose.
However, once I meet my demise in Hamlet, the lights don’t exactly go out. I am only the first to die. There are three other characters who are murdered after me. Then there is a whole other scene after that in which Denmark is conquered by Norway. That scene is eight minutes long. All in all, I lie on the stage for at least twelve minutes.
Unexpectedly, that took practice.
The first night I died, I landed with my feet crossed. With my eyes closed against the glare of the stage lights, I congratulated myself on having done such a graceful job managing to die downstage left. But soon I became aware of the buckle of my shoe pressing on my ankle. I had chosen to lie in Shavasana with my ankles crossed. Who would have thought one spindly leg could weigh so much? The little square of metal from my high heeled Mary Jane became more and excruciating with every minute. Yet I was dead. I could not move. When the lights went out and I finally limped off stage, I wrenched the strap off my shoe to discover a bruise darkening on my ankle.
The next night I died, I was careful to keep my feet parallel before I let my eyelashes flutter shut. However, I had forgotten the sparkly butterfly clips that I had added into the back of my upswept hair that night. The clips dug into the back of my head as soon as I flipped onto my back.
How many minutes were left? Slowly I turned my head away from the pain, hoping that my movement was as imperceptible as a bloom opening in the sun. I justified my microscopic move: Don’t corpses contract after death?
The next night I died, I breathed my final words of warning to my son and he caught me in his arms as usual. However, this time, his knee landed on the hem of my dress. I grasped the material to keep my skirt from upending over my head. Trying to make this moment last, I touched my son’s face and add a few labored breaths as I pulled with my fist. If I didn’t succeed in dislodging the material when I keeled over, the whole crowd would get a picture of my maroon Victoria Secret’s. It did seem unfair to upstage Hamlet’s subsequent death scene in such an opportunistic way. I managed to wrench my short skirt out from under his knee before I went down, cursing the fact that even though we were doing the play in modern dress, I still don’t get to have a sword fight. All that stage combat training and Hamlet and Laertes are the only ones who get to spar with weapons! Bitterness, thy name is Queen.
As it turned out, these death throes added to my performance, so I kept them in the next night as part of a checklist. You know, like the one the mechanics give you when they look over your car. Skirt down. Check. Mouth closed (otherwise my lips will dry out). Check. Make sure my back isn’t twisted. Check. Are my shoulders hunched up around my ears? Yes. Fix them. Check. Are my ankles crossed? Woops. They are. Did I really do that again? Okay, one last death spasm so I can have an excuse to uncross them. Done.
Check. Check. Check.
Finally, I had death down. This was true corpse pose. Unfortunately, one night, I got so comfortable I drifted into a light sleep! Luckily for all of us, there is no more play once the Danish flag comes down. Now what else could go wrong? How about the night I headed offstage and caught my heel on the fallen Danish flag?
Picking up that flag on my way to curtain call is one more thing I added each night as a kind of vindicating resurrection.
My Danish cousins would be so happy.