When I was a bo , with candy and to , Christmas was a happy time. But now I am old and the days seem so cold. And I’m lonesome without my boy tonight. But he’s far awa , on this holy da , and all I have are memories …
Some days I can’t quite remember the last three digits in my Social Security number, but I can still rattle off the lyrics to the song I sang in my first big time stage performance. That’d be December, 1963, St. Anthony’s Grade School, Fargo, North Dakota.
Ok, there’s that picture of me in the robin costume from about six or seven years earlier, but I didn’t have any lines. Not even a chirp. Sister Peter gave the speaking part to the bluejay. So it was definitely that Christmas program where the whole thing started. That thing with me and the stage.
I learned the song, performed the song, the audience applauded me. Or, rather, me as on old man whose son had gone off to war. Even better. That was acting! It made me happy, it made me excited, it made me special.
What a perfectly wonderful chain of events. I wanted more.
More came in high school with the realization that while I wanted to win “the big game” as much as the next person, I’d just as soon have that next person be the Juliet in the third row of drama class rather than the Arnold next to me on the bench. And so I traded sweaty practices on the football field for glorious rehearsals on the stage. A darn fair trade for all concerned.
High school whipped right by. I learned, I performed; they applauded. College was even better. The stage brought me confidence, friends, and a modicum of local fame. Then came graduation and it was back to square one. Further back it seemed than even the Christmas show at St. Anthony’s grade school.
A major in theatre; no minor, no job, no prospects. What had I been thinking?
The stage can be, most often is, a welcome break from reality. Audience and performer make a pact to suspend disbelief for the next few seconds, minutes, hours, in a world created by both sides. From the stage – story, context and message. From the audience – empathy, trust and validation.
If you’re on the stage end of the deal, it can be a rush like no other. That first entrance tells the whole story. Adrenaline pumping, mind rushing, legs shaking. If you nail it, they’re yours forever, or at least the next 120 minutes. If you blow it? Well, if you blow it, time stands still, eyeballs stare right through, strip you naked and dramatically lower the tempera- ture in the room. And that’s just the beginning of act one …
Recovery? Sometimes. Usually not. Until the next show or the next, when that first entrance comes around again.
And then if you nail it, if you really nail it, you’re on your way. You’re someone else, somewhere else, on a journey that never ends, but does end in a blink with a laugh or a sigh or a tear. Oh yeah, and applause. It always ends in applause. Nearly always ends in applause. That rush to the head, the heart, the soul. Applause.
There are a couple of popular thoughts about acting. One is that actors lose themselves in their roles. Step outside for a while; be something, someone so unlike who they really are. Like that nice old man Clint Eastwood. He couldn’t possibly have enjoyed killing all those poor Italian cowboys over the years. He’s nothing like that on Larry King.
On the other side is the famous “Method,” where Stanislavski and Strasberg taught that most effective acting was not really acting at all. Finding the character meant being yourself in the role with “real” responses and “true” reac- tions. That nice old man Clint Eastwood found the killer deep within himself, blew away all those poor Italian cowboys, and liked it.
There is no universal truth here. Some actors phone it in and get nominated for Academy Awards. Others bleed real blood and are never heard from again. The audience is the ultimate judge on what works and what doesn’t. For me, it’s always been somewhere in the middle. A complex mixture of being someone else, while wondering where the “me” was in each and every role.
So. A major in theatre; no minor, no job, no prospects. What had I been thinking?
I’d been thinking I was finding myself. What part of me was the villain in “Man of La Mancha,” the tragic hero in “Blood Wedding,” the old actor in “The Fantastiks,” or Charlie Brown in “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown?” And yes, what part of that thirteen-year-old me was an aging father in the St. Anthony’s grade school Christmas show in 1963?
Finding yourself. A trite phrase, a sixties cliché, a search since Eve told Adam the apple would set them free.
Throughout the years, my stage has taken many forms. And with every new role, I found myself just a little bit more complete. But that pact between audience and performer, that sus- pension of disbelief, is a gift for those on both sides of the Proscenium Arch. Not quite real life, but still, a life that can motivate, teach and inspire. On either side, the chance is there to feel, to grow, to discover something new.
I no longer “tread the boards” nor long for the applause (at least, not every day). But that special thing with me and the stage will never disappear. It’s helped me find so many things I’m sure I would have missed.
And through it all, I’ve only one regret. If Sister Peter had given that robin just one lousy line – there is no doubt – I’d be the king of old Broadway.
Michael J. Olsen