GAIL the Mother
My advice? Go with what you got. Case in point.
I go to this audition a bit of a wreck. Harry’s kept me up and down all night and I’m minus two years of sleep. Harry’s my ten-month old, Jim’s and my first. He’s at the stage where he’s learning to manipulate the world through screams. Jim and I had been unclear what to do. You know the dilemma; is the little king crying because his di-dee is wet, or is he hungry, or is there a foot-long snake crawling up the side of his crib and wrapping its tail around the baby’s wind-pipe? (We’re theater-folk; with way too vivid imaginations.) Or is he screaming because he knows if he keeps it up long enough, I’ll pick him up and sing “Vissi d’Arte?” He’s becoming a spoiled brat, but at least he’s a brat with taste.
So, like I said, up until a couple of weeks ago, we were going the “spoil him” road: he’d cry and either Jim or myself or both of us, would go in, pick him up and sing more Puccini. He especially liked stuff from “Boheme.” I wonder if that means anything?
So. A couple night before, we’d decided to duke it out and let him cry himself to sleep. We’d put him in a dry diaper, given him suck until he could take no more, made sure there were no snakes in a 50-mile radius, hummed a little “Humming Chorus” --- and tiptoed out. And he started right up. Waa Waa Waa Waa. I mean, he was doing “Nessum Dorma” with a vengeance. But we were determined.
Which is why I’d been up most of the night. Do we give in or not? If we go in, he’ll learn that when you call for help, you get warm fuzzy loving. If we let him cry himself to sleep, he’ll learn the world is a hard, cold, and cruel place. We’d opted for hard, cold and cruel. I mean, they don’t call it ‘tough love’ for nothing.
So back to the audition. I’m going after Gertrude at the Colorado Shakes. If I got it, it would be like this step forward. I mean, I was doing okay for a while, on a nice, slow but steady uphill slog, with a little time off to get pregnant. I had worked a lot here and there getting typed for the relatively mindless ingénues: Celia, Hero, Adriana --- I had even done Gertrude in a small store front in Chicago. Although I don’t know if that really counts because the director was doing it with a science-fiction concept: Hamlet in the future, where parents are replaced by automatons. I mean, does doing Gertrude as a robot with metallic boobs really count?
So I was nervous. A major theater, a chance to do a good role with some meat on it and I’m probably way too young to be Hamlet’s mother. Unless Gertrude was married at ten, but maybe they did that in Denmark in those days. So, okay, I could go with that. Maybe I could say something like that that at the audition? Or would that be too smarmy? Or maybe I could bill and coo a little. Clearly I’m a wreck. The only thing really going for me is that, for some reason, God chose to give me a very very good hair day.
So I’m sitting in the hallway, waiting to be called in to read. I’m going over my lines.
“O Hamlet, speak no more;
Thou turn’s mine eyes into my very soul;
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct.”
And my cell phone rings. It’s Jim. “The baby’s got a fever, what should we do?” “Oh, God; now? How high?” “Ninety-nine point seven; maybe you should come home?” “I’m next, honey; can you wait half an hour and take it again?” “Is this what it’s gonna be like? I thought you said you weren’t gonna let the career screw up the baby.” “Jim, we’re talking 99.7, it’s not the last stages of consumption here! Give me 30 minutes!” “Okay, if that’s your call. Go ahead; break a leg.”
Fine. Now my concentration’s really screwed up. Hamlet, speak no more, maybe he’s right, maybe I’m being selfish. Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul; after all, the kid IS going through rough times; And there I see such black and grained spots. Maybe this is a big mistake..
Number five? We’re ready for you.
So, okay. Point of no return.
So now I’m in the audition room, and I meet the stage manager, and I’m on stage reading the closet scene and --- something weird happens. I understood the scene. No, I don’t mean I knew what the words meant, even “tinct.” I suddenly realized that, for good or for bad, I was what Gertrude was. I was a mother too. Just like her. I mean, Gertrude probably had a wet nurse, a diaper-maid, and a dozen Nannies at her beck and call. She probably never had to sit up all night listening to itty-bitty Hamlet screaming his heart out, but she must have watched him grow. She must have been there for his first steps, seen him win his first footrace. She must have watched him watching Ophelia and had some thoughts about that. He must have even been somewhere in the back of her head while she was sporting through incestuous sheets. So we were, somehow, connected by archetype. And in that moment, I knew I had a shot. More than a shot. A doorway opened.
I mean, I had resisted going up for real mother roles because I thought I was wrong for them, or because I had always thought they were somehow lesser. But suddenly I had a new mantra, because right then, little Henry popped into my head. Henry having his first disappointment last night, slowly learning that the world can break your heart. Henry as Hamlet. I felt so awful for them both. I don’t know where it came from; somewhere inside me, I felt the touch of his skin, the smell of his breath, the sound of his voice. Sensations digging into me. I felt transformed. As though I knew everything about the world, and all I had to do was let myself open up to it.
Now I know the smarmy actresses will scoff and say “Hey, it’s your basic Stanislavski, Magic If, emotional recall” blah blah blah. But it was more than that. It was some cosmic stirring of a maternal power that only women understand.
I soared through the audition. I knew I’d nailed it. And I knew I’d get the part. Somehow that afternoon I was frighteningly psychic. I knew that Henry’s temperature was only a slight nothing. I knew that he would sleep through the night from now on. I knew that he would play basketball in high school and would choose medical school over theater . I knew that Jim and I would have more kids. I knew that I would get great notices as Gertrude and that my career would start going up again. I knew that we would live in and love Colorado forever. I knew that I would grow old and that I would have grandchildren and that I would die before Jim --- poor Jim --- but that I would cross the finish line standing on my own two feet.
I said “Thank you,” to the director when he said, “Very good. We’ll be in touch.” And I walked home, under a clear and sunny sky.
And I laughed all the way home.