‘Because I want to live a thousand lives I’ve never had, to be tall, beautiful, feminine or small, homely and adorable, or to be able to climb a trapeze. And to know that even though I’m just me I can become all the others and that gives me the power to make all the heroines of the world more human and transform myself into an ever-changing kaleidoscope.’
These lines caught my attention when I was reading Fernando Arrabal’s play Garden of Delights for the very first time, before the audition. The quotation is a reply of the main character Lais, when as a child she is asked why she wants to become an actress. I like it very much, because it beautifully sums up a lot of my own ideas – and ideals – about acting. Lais will eventually become a very successful actress. However, that does not enable her to cope either with the life she is living as an adult, or with the terrible past of her childhood in a Catholic orphanage.
For me, playing young Lais in the flash-back scenes in the play, a central point of this character is her unsteadiness. Lais is absolutely unbalanced, she knows only emotional extremes which can undergo sudden changes, easily triggered by seemingly tiniest events or words. So this role comprises strong aggression, sheer horror, laughing happiness and complete desperation, all of them in the same scene. Thus, it is important to find the turning points of her emotions and to embrace those extremes in order to be able to perform the quick mood changes thoroughly and not only on the surface.
Lais’ role is quite physical. I spend about half of my time on stage kneeling or in crouched stance. Then again, I’m running, rolling on the floor and dancing hysterically. Especially the rolling led to a long series of varying bruises on my knees, hips and elbows; Christina, playing the adult version of Lais, ended up with bruised and swollen wrists. This physicality can be pretty helpful to enact the emotions, so one of the first important things for me was to develop Lais’ own special posture, her way of standing, walking and moving. Her shoulders are slightly pulled up and held to the front – a gesture of protection as well as fear. She is always tense, never fully relaxed.
Then there is the text. As ‘Garden of Delights’ is a surrealistic, absurd play, one cannot rely as much on the written words as one could in a play by, let’s say, Goethe. When dealing with lines like ” ‘But first tell me, how many doves there are in one wish?’ – ‘Seven and eleven. But in my wish right now there’s only room for you,’ ” it is obviously necessary to focus even more on the subtext of the sentences, their message and their intention. Sometimes, the conversation can be highly symbolic. In my opinion, it is exactly this special language that gives the play its very beautiful moments full of strange and sometimes dark poetry.
Another point is the video and shadow projections. They not only show nice pictures, but some scenes will be completely displayed on video during the show. Thus, one of my first tasks, two weeks after the audition was to meet the camera/video team and shoot outside for a few hours on a cold and windy day at the end of September, playing, running and rolling around in nothing but my thin dress. (I added some more bruises to my collection on that occasion.) I think, it is pretty interesting to have a scene starting in a video and make it continue on stage or to interact with the giant shadow projection of a nun.
In our production of Garden of Delights, the parts of young and adult Lais are split up into two roles played by two different actors. That means that everything what adult Lais shows, feels, experiences, is already existing in me as young Lais, sometimes in the same measure, sometimes just as a seed that will grow eventually. This actually bestowed a fascinating experience on me during a rehearsal: I watched Christina as adult Lais on stage and could nearly see with her eyes, feel her emotions and thought, that this was my life. I take this as a very positive sign: We are all being sucked in into Arrabal’s garden of delights.
Rahel Schöppenthau is a German exchange student in Helsinki University who recently joined Thespians Anonymous for their autumn production Garden of Delights. She has been working with theatre for the last ten years and acted in seven plays of two different theatre groups in Germany.