av·o·ca·tion [av-uh–key–shuhn] : something a person does in addition to a principal occupation, especially for pleasure; hobby: Our doctor’s avocation is painting.
My avocation is acting, and it tends to generate a fair bit of curiosity and mystery for others. It’s amazing what preconceived notions some folks have about the craft! Here, based on the most frequent questions I receive, is a tour through hidden joys and challenges that one encounters as a working stage actor.
Yes, we do our own makeup. This always seems to surprise outsiders, but I’m pretty sure this is standard across the board in theatre. Except for age makeup or character makeup (like the Beast). Nearly all of the film shoots I’ve done involve someone else doing my makeup, but makeup for HD is an entirely different ballgame from theatrical makeup, which optimizes for distance viewing. And most makeup knowledge is acquired by doing, unless you have a degree in theatre.
My least favorite makeup task is fake eyelashes. Trying to stick something on the very edge of your eyelid with glue and only the thinnest of threads to hold the glue? Unpleasant. To make matters worse, I have hereditary hand tremors (my hands shake when I try to hold them still.) It’s like trying to attach eyelashes in an earthquake. I often have to enlist the help of other ladies, or skip them entirely. Another makeup problem is the persistence issue. I can wash my face 2-3 times and sometimes not get all the eyeliner off. You end up at work with weird shadows around your eyes. Or glitter still stuck to your face.
Another actor problem: once you’re in performance for a show, and routinely putting intense makeup on your face, you begin to hate your normal washed-out appearance in comparison. Until the run of a show is over, I often catch myself going all crazy with the blush or something along those lines. This is not helped by the fact that stage makeup is probably going to make you break out, and you will need makeup to cover that up – a vicious cycle that can end in a very convincing impression of a drunk clown.
For “Where No Man…”, my hairdos have involved hot rollers, 1/4 a bottle of dry shampoo, copious amounts of Aqua Net, and over 30 bobby pins a night. My hair was so… arranged that I could sleep in it and wake up with largely the same hairstyle with a few extra flyaways. I ended up going to physical therapy in the beehive hairdo because it was the path of least resistance.
In many cases, I’ve been required to curl or otherwise style my hair in an involved fashion. Sometimes you’ll luck out – one of the members of the Microsoft Theatre Troupe is also an awesome hairdresser and has helped me on multiple shows. But in general, we’re expected to handle our own hair in addition to makeup. Boys have it so easy…I can burn myself on hot rollers, curling irons – doesn’t matter, I’ll probably do it.
The Evening After
So, you just performed in a show that required heavy makeup and/or hair? Want to go out afterwards? You have two choices… EITHER:
- Attempt to undo the work, which inevitably makes you look tired and like someone who can’t find their brush.
- OR: leave the makeup and hair as they were – you will look intense and possibly like a drag queen, but at least it looks intentional and gives free advertising for the show.
Sometimes context is important when making this decision. Hilariously, I took option #2 after my Star Trek shows last week – but it was Pride Week, so the metallic eye makeup, absurd eyeliner, and 4-5 inch beehive just made me look like, well, one of the guys. 😉
I’m an easy bruiser under normal circumstances. Improv is so unpredictable – and often so physical – that I usually have a bruise or two somewhere that I can’t trace to a specific moment. People always find it odd when they ask you about a bruise and you can’t answer them! And then there’s the predictable injuries: in “Where No Man Has Gone Before”, there’s quite a lot of falling due to the Vulcan neck pinch and choreographed knife fights. I always fall to the same side, to protect my recently-operated-on knee… which means that my right hip is just one big bruise most of the time.
More problematic is usually scripted work, where I seem to get cast in very physical roles. In the last musical I did, my character was assaulted onstage and after one performance I developed a hand-shaped bruise on one arm. Of course, bruises are common in sports, too, so this particular problem is not unique but the methods of bruising sometimes are.
Absences, OR LACK THEREOF
Generally unacceptable. Understudies are a phenomenon reserved for paid situations like Broadway. No one is going to volunteer to go through all those rehearsals for no guaranteed performance time and no money. So, congratulations: for a few weeks, you are irreplaceable and desperately needed! This is how you end up in situations where you stay home from work to avoid getting other people sick, but go to rehearsal completely miserable and contagious because there is no other way.
Travel in particular is problematic when pursuing an acting avocation, especially if your job may call for last-minute business trips. I’ve booked trips around auditions before. Last year I went straight from Paris to a tech rehearsal for a musical, giving me a 30-hour intercontinental day of crazy.
Thanks largely (but not entirely) to improv, I’ve had over 100 stage kisses over the years. Usually they’re not too involved and rarely with the same person twice in a row.
But it’s not always so random. In “Where No Man Has Gone Before…” there’s about a 90% chance I’ll be kissing Kirk multiple times in one episode, and sometimes other cast members for good measure. On the farthest end of the spectrum, you have shows like “The Wild Party” last year: I played a 15-year old (ha) that got attacked onstage. It was by far the most involved/graphic intimacy I’ve had onstage – as well as the most long-lived, since it was a four-week run.
As for the inevitable question of what this sort of thing does to you: well, on one hand I’ve never ended up dating anyone I’ve had to kiss onstage*; things are kept separate. On the other hand, after certain onstage moments my mind and body react to the other actor as if we were the characters, and that can be difficult to process/overcome. That’s why you see so many celebrity couples hooking up after projects – but they’re almost guaranteed to break up once they leave their characters behind.
When you take the “unacceptable absence” problem and multiply it by N cast members, and possibly also by Y (the number of intimate moments onstage) and Z (the number of hours of sleep each cast member is foregoing due to rehearsal) you end up with a breeding ground for illness that is second only to preschool. I am quite draconian about taking AT LEAST one packet of Emergen-C per day when in the cast of a musical, especially in flu season. You can’t do anything about the kissing thing, just hope your body is strong enough to handle the intrusion. (I did manage to avoid catching the flu from my scene partner in Wild Party.)
If you DO get the cast plague, you will still have to go to rehearsal (in most circumstances) and most certainly would be expected to perform. In musicals, where respiratory problems are rather brutal, this begins the shamanistic portion of an actor’s life. I’ve seen some standard remedies – honey, Throat Coat tea (my favorite), vocal rest – and some nonstandard ones – drinking vinegar (EW) or perhaps getting a steroid shot (only in extreme emergencies).
I suppose all this is to say that acting is far from glamorous. I still love it, but it really is another world entirely, and it’s hard, demanding work. It’s also strange, since you may be doing it side-by-side along with professional actors or those seeking to make it their vocation as opposed to their avocation. As an actor without a PATP (professional actor training program) degree, I end up picking a lot of stuff up along the way. Fight training, for example, is standard for trained actors but is something I’ve picked up on a show-by-show basis.
But for me, I live for those moments where I can escape into another character onstage, live out childhood fantasies onstage, or make an entire audience laugh or cry. I discover new things about myself with each character that I play, and I push my own capabilities, becoming a better singer, dancer, and actor. To me, the up-to-20-hours-a-week rehearsal schedules and the many avocational hazards are worth it for such experiences – and sometimes they become part of the fun in their own right.
*Note: Three months after writing this post, I DID date someone I had to kiss onstage, and spoiler alert: we got married. In real life. So that can happen.