Recently, my daughter auditioned for a play at the local community theater. She has been dancing for years, but she has never acted on stage before. For the past few years, she has had the desire to act, and when the auditions came around for the theatrical adaptation of Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, she tried out for the lead role of Annemarie Johansen. She got the part, and for the past few weeks, she has been working diligently on her performance.
You can watch a behind the scenes video of the show over at Julia Robertson’s Instagram.
While my daughter has dreamed of performing on stage in a play, I have never really thought about it. I’ll cut up around the house with the kids. Make faces in the mirror. Act like a buffoon. However, I never really thought about acting on stage, partly because while I come across as an extrovert I’m really introverted, nervous, and anxious about what others think about me. Nevertheless, I auditioned for the play as well because they needed more male cast members.
I read for two parts in the play: Annemarie’s father, Papa, and a German soldier. I’d never read before, and I totally butchered Papa’s lines. However, I got cast as Papa Johansen. While my daughter visibly showed her excitement for getting the part, I inwardly wallowed in my nervousness. I thought about the fact that I would be portraying a character on stage. What if I screwed up? What if I was as engaging as a sheet of paper? What if my facial expressions didn’t show enough emotion? What if, of all things, I FORGOT MY LINES?
All of this ran through my head, causing me to really question what in the world I had gotten myself in to. Yet, I persevered. I persevered because for all of the reasons I was scared to actually perform on stage in front of people I had one reason that kept pushing me to be there and to do my best. That reason was my daughter.
As a parent, it’s always invigorating to see your child succeed and accomplish something she has dreamed about doing. Over the past few months, and specifically the this last month of rehearsals, I have had a front row seat to just that moment. I’ve seen my daughter dedicate herself to portraying the story of Annemarie and her family as they work to save her friend Ellen Rosen and other Jews from the Nazis during World War II with passion and reverence. I’ve seen her grow in her confidence and acting. I’ve seen her strive to achieve her dreams.
On stage, I feel like she and I become somewhat of an extension of ourselves at home, albeit in a different setting. I’m on stage next to her, watching as she becomes Annemarie, as she questions why the Nazis are doing what they are doing, as she loves her friend Ellen, as she mourns the death of her sister Lise, as she braves capture by the Nazi soldiers running to get a package to her uncle, as she embodies the compassion and heroism of Annemarie.
During the second act, I am not on stage, at least not until the final scene of the play. I sit in the wings and listen, occasionally peeking out onto the stage to see the action occurring. At these moments, I just take in the scenes, hearing the rhythms, cadences, inflections, as they waft from the stage to the wings. I sit there and hear my daughter acting. I sit there and hear her engaging with Annemarie. I sit there and hear her becoming someone else, embodying Annemarie for the audience. I sit there and think about the power of the stage to move the audience and to bring emotions to the surface.
Number the Stars is a heavy play on so many levels. It deals with the Holocaust and the ways that Danish citizens worked to save countless Jews during the war. It deals with loss of family. Before the start of the play, the Nazis murdered Lise, my daughter and Annemarie’s sister. Lise’s death looms large over the play for everyone. She’s the presence that represents both death and hope. She died fighting the Nazis as part of the resistance.
Lise does not appear in the script as a character; however, her presence in the Johansen’s memory warranted some indication on stage apart from the dialogue. As such, Lindsey Brackett decided to cast someone as Lise, having her on stage whenever someone mentions her name. This decision reminded me of Liesl Tommy’s choice to have the ghost of Big Walter on stage during a performance of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Memory is a powerful thing, and the ways we construct memory, as I have been writing about for a while on this blog, shapes how and what we recall. Having Lise on stage works to draw that physical memory, to embody it for the audience.
I knew that having Lise on stage would be powerful and emotional, especially for me. In one scene, Ellen’s parents have gone away to escape capture and she is over at our house. I tell Annemarie about the Nazis persecuting the Jews and relocating them to concentration camps. I even tell the girls that the Nazis may come that night to try and take Ellen. At the end of the scene, I tell them to go to bed and say Lise’s name for the first time.
When I speak her name, a sadness falls over the scene and I turn. Looking stage left, I glance upwards then drop my head as I say, “Lise. Lise. I miss you. Jeg elsker deg. I love you, Lise.” As I say this, Lise appears at the back of stage, a physical presence within the scene. Her appearance here and elsewhere throughout the play adds gravitas to the play in a way that the mere mention of her name could never do. She existed. She exists. We mourn her, and the audience engages in that mourning with us.
During this scene, I think about my daughter who I am sharing the stage with. I think about what it would be like to lose her in such a way, any way. I think about the emotional weight of having to endure the loss of a child. Her presence on the stage at the same moment, getting ready for bed on stage left, increases the feelings that course through me during that moment.
As much as I lament to my daughter the long nights of rehearsals and performances, I would not change this experience for anything. It is one thing to act in a play. It’s another thing entirely to act in a play with your child and to see that child grow and mature as the process goes along. For me, that is what I will take away from my first foray onto the stage.
What are you thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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