As an actor, we're told from our very first performance that the light projected onto the stage would protect us from the intrusive look of the audience and create a safe place, calming our nerves until the inevitable judgment. The reality is quite different and lights are rarely this strong. I personally like to peak at a face or two and spot a reaction. It's a tricky move that can easily either lead to a much-welcomed confidence boost or end up damaging my performance altogether. Then again there is always the risk a projector will break, crash and annihilate me onto the stage. There is always a risk. We don't think about it. We are here to play.
At 32, I had had my fair share of acting gigs from the few sinful mistresses, some raunchy assistants, the odd intellectual physicist and the unavoidable deceived wife. Putting your body through repeated emotional turmoil is exhausting and I've had my heart broken on stage more often than I can remember. Despite it all, there was nothing like performing on stage. I was of those who are convinced that characters learn less from us than we do from them. Up until this year, each role had created in me a wonderful sense of joy. I was all set to transform into one half of a soon to be an engaged couple when things started to unravel drastically. Never had a role and never had a play, given me less joy to play than this Christmas eve's theatrical festivities.
George and I had decided to spend Christmas doing the thing we love and agreed to perform ”Engaged” at the Isis Theatre. An actor too, George and I had been together for 3 years and 8 months in counting. You could say we were in love or at least that the taxing jitters of early relationships were long gone. The past year had been stable and rather uneventful which made the decision to spend Christmas eve performing, all the more easy for both of us. We invited my sister Greta and her new beau, Felix, for dinner, the night before instead.
Having both previously performed this play, the few weeks of rehearsals went by like a London sunset, They're had been talks and concerns about our private life intruding on our performances but they were quickly brushed off. George and I had performed together countless times and always managed to avoid any unpleasantries, in fact, we proud ourselves on being able to bring such chemistry and intensity to our roles, sometimes even exceeding that of our private life.
Christmas, like war or break-ups, is a time where emotions get the better of us. Garlands go up, trees are groomed and boundaries are unfortunately crossed. Celebrations often take a dramatic turn and everything feels just little extra delicate. From the moment the holly wreath was ushered to the theatre's modest entrance, I saw that dreadful Christmas prophecy heading for me. I was unconditionally and irrevocably convinced, I was getting dumped before the end of the year, if not sooner.
“It's good but it's not quite cheerful enough? At least, not Christmas cheerful.”
We spent Christmas eve day, rehearsing and rehashing the proposal scene, that was to end our performance and hopefully lead to some jolly clapping. George knelt down and took out the tiny silky box with the plastic ring. Ready to reveal my all requited love, I stood up, opened my eyes when I heard it. Stuttering. It suddenly became clear to me that, my own partner of almost 4 years, the almost too confidant, George Lansky, was nervous.
“Are they here yet? They should be here. I'll open the Champagne. I'll wait. Let's not waste those bubbles. What time is it? “
Actors prepare for roles in different ways. In the days leading to an opening night, I like to behave and dress as my character would, to ease the transition while George usually spends his days and his nights entirely and exclusively ignoring me. The world around him simply shuts. I've never, in all honesty, found it rude. Greta and Felix were late and when they finally got there they were soaked from the rain and still panting from climbing the five flight of stairs. To my surprise, the dinner was George's idea and so were the guests. The last time I spent Christmas with my sister I still expected Santa to eat my homemade mud cookies. I disregarded the whole thing as a sudden Christmas cheer and got the turkey ready while George worked on his famous pecan and apricot pie. George never could enjoy the company of people with too dissimilar interests. He called it creative selection but most understand it as snobbish pride. An opinion, I strategically chose to keep to myself. A little mystery was needed for the flame to withstand time, I thought. Felix was an airline engineer and to this day, I am still not entirely sure what Greta does for a living. Something to do with energy. What I knew is neither of them had ever stepped foot in a theatre of their own free will. There was no sensible and logical reason why George would suddenly start enjoying people's company.
We ran the scene a second and third time. He started off gently but I was too hasty. He followed with a more direct approach to which I apparently reacted unevenly. I didn't want to alarm anyone but I felt as if George and I had somehow lost our perfect chemistry. On his second kneel, George rushed to stand up, almost gobbling half the proposal with it.
“Why would you look into my bag? Do I mess around in your knicker drawer? ”
He doesn't, in fact, I can't remember the last time, he realized I was wearing any. I was looking for a bottle opener for the inappropriate non-alcoholic cider, Felix brought. I knew George kept one on his key chain. Felix was timid but well-spoken which surprised me as Greta usually went for the loud and swanky type. Felix was a pleasant surprise with his fine navy suit and vacant collar. When we first met, George was amused by my chaotic sense of style. I dragged him to thrift shops for ruffles and velvet. It reminded him of wilder times and invigorated me. Nowadays we happily did without and frills and glitz were repudiated to the stage.
The fourth time George knelt down, his leg hurt which made the whole thing come out angry. It was partly my fault, having made the foolish mistake of sharing my doubts with the person I spend my life with. Silly me. I was gratified with the assurance that I had, indeed, lost it and that if anything was going on, it should be discussed after the play. On any other day of the year, this would have felt terrible, but on this particular day, it struck me as a declaration of war.
“Old is best, it's reliable”
George was telling Greta about his collection of Spanish wines, reserved only for the most worthy. He was more than a few years older than me. It never matters much as we were both settled on focusing on our career. Kids, ex-wife and allow money, George already had the whole lot. I tended to think it was a win-win for me. I enjoyed their company just as much as I cherished their absence. When Greta revealed she was pregnant, hence the atrocious bottle, I took the news rather well and went for the rare family hug. I was delighted Greta had finally made a decision for once in her life. It felt like progress that could lead to more. George looked at me with surprise and a little distress like I had just played ball with his collection of old flasks. It was all very innocent on my part. I rarely take the time to differentiate the reason for my outbursts which is perhaps where l went wrong this time. George cut the discussion short and redirected the conversation on Felix's uneventful Irish childhood.
The performance was now minutes away and we had, sadly decided to wing it. As expected, George was nowhere around and I had finally turned into a cracked barrel, exuding both sweat and tears. I tried to remember the last time George and I went strawberry picking. I made a list of things I was certain of, like our ten-year lease or next month's opera night, booked weeks ago. I recited all the things I loved about George. His determination. Never had men seemed to know more about where he was going than George. It was refreshing and what first drew me to him. When we first met I was more than a little confused about my own direction in life. His confidence was passed on to me and drove me straight to where I am today. I walked on stage, furious at the idea of losing something that was rightfully mine.
We were edgy and tensed, thus brilliant. Clapping and cheers all around. The hell with snowflakes and old Santa, fabricated love is what people really want for Christmas. I left the stage, strangely calm. The adrenaline and the doubts were all gone and I felt as if an incredible weight had been lifted. The usual sadness that comes with the end of each first performance wasn't there. Following the curtain call, George did what he always does, he left to go wash his face. When he came back, I let him put his arm around me and stroke my hair. I felt nothing, if not a little embarrassed that it took five disastrous proposals for me to realize I no longer loved him.
When the lights had gone up earlier, I looked in the audience. Everything was unusually dark and blurry but I could still see a white-haired woman, seating in the front row with her daughter. She looked at me with a nervous smile. She probably thought she was safe, seated in the audience. I carried on.