Monday, 17 June 2013

Being Romy: Ich bin so müde...

And just like that, it's all over.  After six weeks of rehearsals and four performances, it's time to say goodbye to Romy Schneider.

The last few weeks have flashed by in a blur.  As we got closer to opening night, I did a lot of last-minute research.  I spent hours with Romy's diaries and a German-English dictionary.  I read about her break-up with Alain Delon, her break-through with the director Luchino Visconti, her tireless filming schedules.  I watched more films, including Orson Wells' The Trial and the four-hour epic Ludwig - in which Romy played a very different kind of Empress Sissi under Visconti's direction.  The closer we got to the first performance, the more desperately I tried to get inside Romy's head and understand her completely.

Romy playing Empress Elisabeth of Austria ("Sissi") in Ludwig, 1972
We worked hard in the run-up to the shows, and we also had a lot of fun.  I was VERY excited about the costumes - maybe it's because I watch too much Mad Men, or I spend too much time browsing vintage stores, but I just loooove this kind of thing.  The day I saw my 60s housewife dress, I literally screamed.  The day the hairstylist arrived with her hairspray and rollers - well, I practically had an embolism.  From the rollers to the petticoats to the liquid eyeliner, I loved getting dressed up as Yellow Romy.  It was basically my idea of fashion heaven.

I mmmmay have started wearing a lot of headbands after this production...
Personally, my favourite part of the show was a strong idea introduced by the director.  Inspired by one of Green Romy's lines in the third act - "Je ne veux plus faire de l'art, je veux faire de la confiture" - the director decided that I would have a bowl of strawberries.  As I was playing the role of the perfect housewife and telling the press how happy I was in my marriage, I would slowly begin to take strawberries and crush them on the table.

There was a lot of discussion about what the strawberries symbolised.  Some people said the strawberries were life.  Others said that they were love.  For me, the strawberries expressed the truth.  Crushing the strawberries gave me a physical outlet for my feelings of anger and frustration: while I smiled and sang about the virtues of domestic life, my hands were telling the real story.

Also, FYI, squishing strawberries is a lot of fun.  Seriously, you should try it sometime.
The strawberries made an enormous mess, and, as the audience remarked, they also had a powerful smell.  Not necessarily unpleasant, just... very fragrant.  I don't think I'll ever be able to see strawberries the same way after this opera.  I squished them in my hands, I smeared them onto people's clothes, I danced on them, and I even fell on top of them.  By the end of the show I was completely covered in pink mush.  Many damp towels were needed.  I did not envy the costume lady, who was in charge of getting rid of the stains in my clothes every night.

So... many... strawberries...
As I mentioned in my last post, by the end of the show I was not only covered in strawberries, but I was also half naked.  At the end of the second act, I had to drink lots of liquor (ice tea, actually) and dance around like crazy while people stripped me - all of this while singing.  I don't have any pictures of myself in my underwear at the end of the show (probably for the best, really).  But I can say that for me it was a powerful moment in the show.  I had begun the performance looking composed, with perfect hair and makeup and a prim and proper-looking dress.  To lose control like this and get stripped down - both literally and emotionally - was an enormous transformation.  Especially for me - I don't know if I've mentioned this before, but I'm a bit of a control freak.

Losing control at the end of Act 2
Now it's all over, and I have never had a worse case of the post-show blues.  I feel exhausted, drained, empty.  There's a dull kind of lingering sadness.  I don't want to do anything.  I struggle to get out of bed.  I can't think straight.  I do stupid things, like scanning a whole load of groceries at the cash register before realising I've left my wallet at home.

If you're not familiar with this phenomenon, I should say that the post-show blues is a pretty common affliction.  It happens to a lot of people, albeit not always to this extent.  I guess it's a combination of exhaustion and grief.  You put all of your adrenaline and stress into one project - and then you crash.  You dedicate yourself to a show completely - and suddenly it's gone.  There's a big empty space where it used to be.

This is pretty much how I've been feeling all week.

Luckily, I have new projects to focus on.  And it's a good thing too.  If I wasn't motivated to learn all this new music, right now I would probably still be in bed eating Nutella with a spoon.

As it is, I'm now trying to get back into a normal sleep schedule (staying up until 2 and sleeping in until 12 is no longer acceptable), and trying to get my energy up again with lots of exercise and healthy food.  And I'm taking it all in.  It's been a week since we finished the show, and it's only now that I'm beginning to see the whole picture.  It's only now that I'm able to take a step back and reflect on everything I've learned.

Tree... tree... tree... Oh wait, it's a forest.
Perhaps the reason I'm taking so long to process this, perhaps the reason I've been feeling so much sadness, is that I'm not only saying goodbye to an opera.  I'm saying goodbye to a person.  A person with whom I've become very intimate in the past two months.  When I first heard that we would be doing an opera about Romy Schneider, I didn't think much about it at all.  I didn't know who she was, and I didn't think it really mattered to me.  After all, as a mezzo I was certain I would only get a minor role in the opera - a reporter, a friend, or maybe the mother if I was lucky.  But from the moment I was cast to play Romy, I resolved to learn as much about her as possible.  I immersed myself in her world, reading her diaries and letters, watching her films and interviews.  I had never been so fully involved in a role before.  It was a life-changing experience.

How can I put into words everything that I have learned from Romy?  In many ways she was like me, in many ways she was completely unlike me.  And in many ways she was everything that I aspire to be.  Romy always lived in the moment - something which, as a chronic worrier and overthinker, I hardly ever manage to do.  This was what made Romy such a powerful actress.  Whatever she was feeling or being in that moment, she would throw herself into it completely.  It's easy to see this from her diaries.  Every time she started a new film she would say "this is the best film I have ever done", or "this is the best character I have ever played", or "this is the best director I have ever worked with".  And for her, in that moment, it was.  There was no past or future for her - there was only the present.

When I watch Romy in her films - especially her later ones - I get the feeling that she is not acting or playing a role.  She is being the role.  Every emotion, every bit of text, is completely genuine.  This, to me, is what true acting should be.

Romy in L'important c'est d'aimer, 1975
Actually, I think my extreme case of post-show blues is a good sign.  It shows that I am mourning the end of something truly significant.  I wouldn't be this exhausted if I hadn't thrown myself into the project so fully and recklessly.  Normally I play it safe.  Normally I hold something back.  I'm too afraid to dive in completely, to go all the way.  But with this role, I stopped protecting myself.  I let go.  I allowed myself to get lost in a character, in a feeling, in a moment.

Channeling Romy's intensity onstage.
This is what I have learned from Romy Schneider - to stop thinking, stop controlling, stop doubting, and just be.   It's an invaluable lesson for an actress, and one which I hope I'll never forget.  Romy had a short life, a life full of mistakes and achievements, successes and failures, joys and tragedies.  She may have died young, but you could never say that she didn't live wholly.  Thirty years after her death, there is still so much to be learned from her passion and commitment in everything she did.

As I say goodbye to this opera and to the actress who inspired it, I am eternally grateful for the opportunity this project gave me to grow as an actress and a singer.  I will never forget the experience of playing Romy Schneider onstage.  And I will never forget what Romy taught me: to give myself - my entire self, and nothing less.

All production photos courtesy of Emilie Lauwers

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