The cast of My Fair Lady are dedicated to getting on that stage eight times a week and giving their all. But in the course of a long run it’s inevitable that situations arise – life situations – requiring breaks from performing. How do actors handle a hiatus and how does it feel when they return to the show? For answers, I asked three My Fair Lady professionals.
Ensemble member SuEllen Estey – who previously appeared on this blog owing to her lovely My Fair Lady garden – was recently away because of a medical leave. She was involved in what she described as a “bizarre” accident on the subway. She severely tore a left-thigh muscle, near the knee. She was in a brace for four weeks to keep her leg straight. She had, she said, to do physical therapy, “to be able to bend my knee, re-learn how to walk, and how to step up and down a stair.” (Especially important when you live, as Estey does, in a fourth-floor walk-up apartment.)
Estey said she spent much of her leave “resting – and ordering groceries to be delivered.”
What was it like to return to performing? “It was really good to be back,” she said, “and share the stage with our remarkable cast in the amazing production. I have had to re-learn how to do the requirements” of the show “from a new, more careful perspective.” Coming back, she added, was an exercise in re-building stamina. If only, she joked, she could do the work in sneakers!
Ensemble member Adam Grupper talked about returning to work from not only a physical point of view but a psychological one. He was on medical leave in late December and January for a knee-related issue. “While I was out I did a lot of physical therapy. It was near the theater, so I would run into people and sometimes I would stop by the theater to stay hi. People were great.” They were also supportive once he returned to performing.
Grupper said “took a while to get back in the groove” of the characters he plays – Cockneys, a butler, a footman, one of the posh people at Ascot. “When you’re in a long run you become very efficient at what you’re doing onstage, the way you maneuver among your fellow performers. While away, I had forgotten a lot of the short cuts I had learned. When I came back to the show I didn’t miss any entrances and nothing horrible happened. But I had lost some of my fluency. I don’t think any of the actors noticed but I noticed. It took about two weeks to feel I was back on track.”
How did these two weeks feel? “It wasn’t frustrating,” Grupper said, “but it was mystifying. I got a window into my own brain that I hadn’t had before. I couldn’t believe that the things I had done routinely 8 times a week for months were suddenly not so routine. It’s fascinating how quickly the stuff we do in a rote way can be forgotten. Our brains are compartmentalized – we use parts of it as long as we need to and that’s that.”
Ensemble member Michael Williams also felt mystified about his recent return from a leave, but in a more general sense. “I was away for 6 weeks, and when I got back on that stage it was weird. I thought: what am I doing here and who are all these people?” He continued: “It was odd to feel that way because, with the exception of a couple of new faces, I knew everybody onstage with me. It was almost an out-of-body experience to be back. I felt a little giddy.”
Williams didn’t experience any strangeness from a physical point of view. “It was like hopping on a bike – I hadn’t forgotten anything because the movement was so ingrained in my brain. I had done stretching while on leave so there was no great stress coming back in terms of anything physical.”
Williams said that his body probably benefited from being away from a performance schedule. “I was able to get some rest,” he said. But not complete rest because – did I forget to mention this? – Williams was on paternity leave. And while his newborn son, Harlen West Williams, is a good sleeper the tasks of new parenthood are never-ending. But Michael Williams didn’t complain. “When I was on leave I was enjoying fatherhood. I hardly thought about My Fair Lady for a minute.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com