I am standing in a narrow hallway, a weapon tucked into my jeans, waiting to enter a room and begin yelling at one of my dear friends.
Don’t worry. I’m just acting. All of it — the narrow hallway, the weapon, the yelling — is for “Welcome to Your Life,” one of the short plays we’re rehearsing, a comic-drama about military families.
Yes, I am acting and pose no threat to my friend, but my trembling hands and visible frustration that I can’t quite remember my lines aren’t pretend at all. They’re the result of the challenge I’ve set for myself: to act two parts in two plays I’ve written, which will be part of the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival on May 8, 9 and 10.
Although I have a BFA in acting from Otterbein University and have performed in New York and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I haven’t acted on stage in 10 years. While I always enjoyed being part of a show, playwriting and teaching theater captured my interest. Except when I needed someone to read a part in one of my plays, I was happy enough to be away from the footlights.
Something changed when I moved to Pittsburgh three years ago. The acting bug’s biting. I’m not sure if it’s the impressive diversity of good theater in town or the way so many people I know here are able to incorporate making art into their everyday lives.
Lucky for me, my friend Christina Farrell, a nationally known teaching artist working out of Greensburg, was up for the challenge of co-starring with the playwright, and my old friend Brett Sullivan Santry, now a Pittsburgh-based actor/director, was eager to direct us. Nick Benninger came along for the ride in a smaller part. And the Pittsburgh Fringe welcomed all of us onto its roster.
Here’s what I’ve learned about acting in the last couple of months: It’s hard. A lot harder than I remember. I’m constantly surprised that I need to talk, move and think at the same time, and that I need to say the same things and move to the same places every time so that Christina and Nick aren’t utterly confused. I’ve also learned that being the playwright doesn’t give me a free pass to edit words in the middle of a run-through, alas. And don’t get me started on memorizing lines — I’ve definitely learned that it was a lot easier at 22 than it is at 40.
But the hardest thing about acting again is the emotional commitment it takes. Writers write and then we revise. This isn’t an easy process, but we’re not required to go back to the same difficult feelings that inspired the first draft every time we rework something. As an actor, though, I can’t glide past the difficult parts of what I’ve written.
Our first play for the Fringe, “Bonnie and Clementine, on Their Way to the Grand Canyon, Explore the Limits of the Dramatic Form,” has some sad portions, which isn’t surprising because I wrote it in memory of a dear friend who passed away. As the writer, the play feels finished, a testament to my friend. But as an actor, I must return to the pain of that loss — and the myriad other losses I’ve faced or am facing since I wrote the play 10 years ago. It’s cathartic for both me and the audience, but also sad and difficult.
Thank goodness, then, for the joys of making theater: the companionship of the cast and director, the fun of in-jokes and ad libs, the excitement of working on something that will finally be revealed, like the best kind of secret. For me, there’s also joy in the realization that I can still act, after all. I don’t know if I’m the best interpreter of my own words, but I do know that I’m the most eager. As I joke in rehearsal, “I really like this playwright’s work!”
Of course, Christina, Brett and Nick are working just as hard, with just as much passion. In fact, all over Pittsburgh, there are theater artists working on shows that they really care about. Whether they’re in the dedicated rehearsal spaces of City Theater and the Public or working in living rooms and church basements like us Fringe folks, we’re all doing it for the love of theater, that great living art, the one that reminds the audience that the very stuff of our lives — our fears, our hopes, our dreams, our ends — is worth considering, celebrating, seeing. If you make it a point to come to the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival, you’ll see what I mean.
Shannon Reed recently completed her MFA in creative writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. A theater and writing teaching artist for City Theatre, Gateway to the Arts and Pittsburgh Public Theater, she lives in Monroe-ville (shannonreed.org). For more information on the Pittsburgh Fringe Festival: pittsburghfringe.org.