Pictured: Hillary Clemens. Photo by Mike Tsai.
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By Hillary Clemens
“Do you bring it home with you?”
I’ve heard variations of this question many times in my career, usually in a talk-back following a performance in which something terrible has happened to one or more of the characters. They want to know if onstage trauma starts to infect an actor’s offstage life, and I always appreciate the questioner’s combination of artistic curiosity and empathy.
As we get closer to welcoming our first audiences to “A Doll’s House” at Kansas City Actors Theatre, this subject feels particularly pertinent. I recently joked to a friend that playing Nora each night is essentially performing a three-act panic attack—in a corset!
So do I bring Nora’s anxiety and heap of other troubles home with me? It’s complicated.
Like Nora, I have a husband and two small children at home (and unlike Nora, we have no nanny doing most of the child-rearing), so it’s especially important for me to leave as much of Nora’s neuroses at the theatre as I can, for the sake of the people who live with me. So I make a point of using my drive back home to decompress and shake off what I can before I walk through my own door.
I’ve also never been an actor who likes to be in character when I’m not actively rehearsing or performing. You’re not going to find me Daniel Day Lewis-ing around my house, immersing myself completely in the world and mind of the person I’m playing. (All due respect to Mr. Day Lewis; clearly this approach works great for him.)
I don’t do a lot of emotional “psyching-up” before I go on, and I don’t find that it’s helpful or fun to consciously keep swimming in a character’s troubles once I’ve left the theatre. In fact, doing that would be counterproductive for me—it would drain the resources I need to do my job.
But here’s the thing: our bodies do not know the difference between real trauma and pretend trauma.
So if you spend a significant amount of time of your day “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances”–as Meisner put it—involving anxiety, heartbreak, fear, despair, or rage, that’s going to take its toll in some way. If you weep and scream and beg for your life as Desdemona every night, your body is going to feel the effects of weeping and screaming and feeling mortal fear eight times a week, and your mood is going to be influenced too, no matter how mindful you are about compartmentalizing.
This is why it isn’t indulgent but actually necessary for actors to take care of ourselves as well as possible when working on a role that takes us to dark and difficult and exhausting places, and to be hyper-aware of what physical and psychological stowaways may have insidiously hitched a ride home from the theatre.
Nora tries to dance the poison out with a desperate tarantella every night, which is not exactly my preferred method. And with a toddler and a baby at home, getting a lot of rest is fairly impossible. But I’ll be spending the run of this show looking for little ways to be kind to myself, paying attention to moments when Nora might be subconsciously twisting my perspective, and doing what I can to stay physically and emotionally healthy–because that’s my personal and professional responsibility.
And probably I should also take a lot of bubble baths while my husband empties out the diaper pail, right?
Hillary Clemens plays Nora Helmer in Kansas City Actors Theatre’s production of “A Doll’s House,” which is now playing at the City Stage in Union Station through August 25th. You can get tickets and info at kcactors.org or by calling the Central Ticket Office at 816-235-6222.
Clemens has previously appeared for Kansas City Actors Theatre as Sally in “A Lie of the Mind.” She was most recently seen as Viola in “Shakespeare in Love” at the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, where she also appeared as Ophelia in “Hamlet.” In Chicago and elsewhere, she has worked with Chicago Shakespeare, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Court Theatre, Writers’ Theatre, The Gift Theatre Company, Indiana Repertory Theatre, Seattle Shakespeare, ACT Seattle, Asolo Repertory Theatre, American Players Theatre and the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival.