If you have not seen Miss Saigon, Medea, An Infinite Ache or Next to Normal (and possibly care to in the future), perhaps skip this post.
Back when I used to teach acting, I used to tell my students “All the really good actors are either really old or really dead.” Before you crucify me, please know it wasn’t a mutually exclusive statement. Of course there exists superb talent at any age. My point to them was that real life experience add so much to your arsenal as an actor. Very few can just “make it up.” Most of us had to have seen some shit first.
As I was working on my performer’s website, I thought about how many roles I’ve played that were mothers. “Kim” in MISS SAIGON, “Hope” in AN INFINITE ACHE and the title role of MEDEA. All challenging, all tragic in some way, and all mothers. I got to thinking…if I had a chance to perform these roles again, having had children, how would that feel? How would motherhood affect my acting?
AN INFINITE ACHE
In rehearsals for An Infinite Ache, director Marianne McLaughlin was talking me through a scene, in particular the lines where Hope says (and I paraphrase, I don’t have the text in front of me), “If someone even looks at him the wrong way, I feel like I could kill them.” She had this look on her face when describing that feeling, as if she was reliving all the moments in her life when she felt that way. I couldn’t understand it.
Fast forward to a few weeks before Christmas 2016 when a waste of sperm tried to kick my daughter (who was a toddler at the time) at the library and I had to sit on my hands because they were ready to strangle that little piece of shit. And at that moment, I finally understood what Marianne was telling me. Motherhood had finally caught up with my acting.
In An Infinite Ache, Hope loses her son in a tragic accident. I could not grasp the enormity of this. I’ve lost dear friends at young ages. One of my friends lost her daughter to illness at 8 months old. I’ve grieved for them and their families, but never could I understand this loss. No one can unless they’ve been through it.
I look at my daughters (ages 1 and 4) and I can’t even enter that dark realm where that “what if” thought lurks. That is an irrecoverable loss. I have to stop here because I don’t know what else to say about it.
Medea had a selfish or selfless plan for her boys, depending on your perspective. Revenge for her husband’s adultery was forefront on her mind, but she also felt she was sparing her children a life where they would be treated as second class citizens by her husband’s new family and wife. I wrote a paper in college comparing the infanticide committed by Medea to women like Andrea Yates who drowned her 5 children in an effort to save them. That paper and my “actor’s process” for connecting to Medea seemed so institutionalized, methodical, and stiff. I read a little bit about Andrea Yates just to refresh my memory for this post and I couldn’t read very much. It made me feel sick to my stomach. Post-partum psychosis is very real and very scary, and I can’t imagine nor attempt to understand what that is like. I don’t want to.
The original photo I had chosen for this segment was of the “aftermath” of the children’s deaths. I couldn’t even look at it for too long.
In MISS SAIGON, Kim sacrifices herself so her son could have a chance at a better life in America. Her former lover/baby daddy Chris had plans to support them in Thailand, but Kim knew better. She is aware that because of her son’s mixed heritage, his quality of life would suffer. When she is informed of Chris’ plans, she commits suicide to ensure their son would be taken back to America with his father.
Having played the role of Kim in the past, I was quoted as saying “She’s done what any mother would do in that situation. She sacrifices herself so her child can have a better life.” Remembering this interview in my room (oh, actors housing the good ol’ days LOL), I remember feeling like I had no idea what I was talking about. But what mother wouldn’t do that, though, right??
This, I know I would do. Push my children away from a speeding vehicle, throw myself between them and a bullet…no question. This, I understand. Before children, I had no idea this feeling existed, this iron clad contract between mother and child. And I am prepared to honor it.
HOW MOTHERHOOD HAS CHANGED MY ACTING PROCESS
Stakes have never been higher. Ever. Children are life and death situation at all times. You are literally trying to keep them alive and keep them from dying 24 hours a day. While they are little, there is not a single moment that every part of your body isn’t on high alert. That’s why I pee with the bathroom door open.
My old audition pieces have taken on a whole new meaning. Forget singing “I’d Give My Life For You” ever again. Singing “I Dreamed a Dream” in the shower destroys me. That imaginary man I used to sing my audition songs to has morphed into a little girl with dark brown hair and two of the most soulful eyes you ever did see. Contexts and subtexts and motivations have all mutated into something deeper, raw and innate. I am not saying that those feelings don’t exist for actors who are not parents, but I sure as hell know that they weren’t there before the kids showed up.
The role I’m both scared and intrigued to play is Diana in NEXT TO NORMAL. Her journey is so dark, and the element of mental illness resulting from her own personal tragedy makes for one hell of an actor’s dream. This is where motherhood and acting must simultaneously gel and separate. How? No idea. Not yet.
I can’t watch serious movies or anything sad or scary with a kid in it. That baby storyline in Ozark KILLS me. I have to leave the room. I had to walk out of A Quiet Place because I was 8 months pregnant when I saw it. Everything I watch is too much, lately. Whenever my husband and I watch something “too much” for me, I always make sure we “cleanse” with a comedy.
When they say kids change you, nobody mentioned their mere existence would emotionally destroy your television viewing experience for the rest of your life. What the hell happened to my brain?!
Motherhood is terrifying. I spend all day of every single day making sure my daughters don’t choke, or fall, or hit their heads, or run into the street or fall off the porch. I imagine going back to these roles after becoming a mother would be very difficult emotionally. How would I shed the rehearsal “high” and realign my brain back to the real world? Would it be like a really bad trip? How long would the recovery period be after the show closes?
If you’ve performed in an emotionally charged show involving motherhood and were also a mother at the time, how did that feel? How has motherhood affected your acting? Please let me know!
IMPORTANT: If you think you may be suffering from any form of postpartum depression, postpartum psychosis, or if you need support, please call the Postpartum International hotline at 1-800-944-4773.