If you could choose a character, any character to play on stage, who would you choose? Even five years ago my answer probably would have been George, a hairy middle-aged truck driver and a part time homeless guy with substance abuse problems. When I was younger and doing theatre, I used to always play the parts of men. Huge, low voiced old guys, with big laughs: the bigger the contrasts with my real nature, the safer I felt in the role.
But with age came the roles of women, which surprisingly contained more demands than lowering my voice and being something that I wasn’t. It might sound funny, but being something that I was and transforming parts of it to fit the stage turned my world upside down: I didn’t feel comfortable hanging out with these roles of women with realistic relations to my real life. The first female roles filled me with a thick mixture of vanity and shame. I got myself into a strange state of trying not to look uncomfortable as well as trying to look uncomfortable. The disturbing thought running through my head was, “What the hell is this woman doing and how can I make it clear to everybody that she isn’t me?”
Charles Darwin described my feelings pretty well around 1872. In The expression of emotions in man and animal, there’s a chapter titled Movements and gestures that accompany blushing:
“Under a keen sense of shame, there is a strong desire for concealment. We turn away the whole body, more especially the face, which we endeavor in some manner to hide. An ashamed person can hardly endure to meet the gaze of those present, so that he almost invariably casts down his eyes. As there generally exists at the same time a strong wish to avoid the appearance of shame, a vain attempt is made to look directly at the person who causes this feeling; and the antagonism between these opposite tendencies leads to various restless movements in the eyes.”
So what happened when right before hitting the stage, right at the moment when I should’ve been open to the world, I was overwhelmed by the feeling of wanting to cover myself? As hiding behind the curtains wasn’t, according to the directors, an option, I went with fight instead of flight. As shame is a form of control, the stage offers a release. My women chose to look into the eyes of the audience, even though in the beginning it caused various restless movements in their eyes.
Luckily I’ve had the chance to work with some good directors, who’ve made all the lingering discomfort more comfortable. And I’ve been able to not take my female roles that personally, but rather, more seriously (though most of the ladies have been demanding, needy and aggressive to the point of frustration). My latest women conquers are Aphrodite from the Speksi of the Faculty of Social Sciences in 2010 and Betty in the FELT IF festival last year. Both have become dear to me and have made me love theatre even more.
Jenna Parmala is a new member of Thespians Anonymous who loves to see inspiring women around her (as well as hairy middle-aged truck drivers).
This is the fourth entry in a series of blog posts entitled “My Approach to Acting”. In the series, members of Thespians Anonymous write about their individual approaches to acting and creating characters.