When the Belly Won’t Lie Or: How to play a character who has what you lost

July 21, 2017

 

Spoiler alert: I play a pregnant, performance activist in The Blackout, the second play in The Anthropologists Save The World!  In the script it says that it is a big reveal, but there are photos of me on the internet with a big, fake belly, soooo, cat’s out of the bag! Sorry!

 

When I first helped develop this role (back in 2012!) I had never been pregnant before and most of my acting inspiration came from physically imitating my very pregnant director, Melissa. I don’t know if it was any good. I’m pretty sure I had a good grip on her posture, her expression, but was I accurately portraying a woman carrying a baby in the middle of a NYC heat wave? I don’t know...probably not, now that I think about it.

 

A photo from the first workshop of The Blackout in 2012: 

Mariah (L) with her first fake belly and Melissa (R) with her first real belly.

 

This time around, though, I would be a pro. With one baby successfully carried and delivered (Isaac, now 1.5 yrs), I knew all about raging hormones, and unrelenting back pain. I had experienced swollen feet and aching knuckles, endless perspiration and the awe-inspiring act of watching my body morph into something almost unrecognizable. Method acting for the win!

 

So imagine my surprise when I found out I was actually pregnant, again, and would be during the run of the show. No. Acting. Required. Just learn the lines and walk around feeling my feelings. It sounded like the easiest gig I’d ever have.

 

But life is rarely easy and more often than not, it’s unpredictable and after our first rehearsal, I lost the baby. Eight weeks along and then it ended. I had been so busy - I was working on a few different shows - I hadn’t realized that my symptoms had subsided, that I was no longer falling asleep in middle of the afternoon, or gagging on my breakfast. I simply hadn’t noticed the shift. And so I was blindsided. Again. You see that’s the other thing, this was the third time I had miscarried and instead of preparing for the worst, I planned for a baby. It just hadn’t occurred to me that it could possibly happen again. I foolishly calculated that I had paid my dues and now I’d be rewarded with a stress-free pregnancy. It’s a sort of torturous optimism that I possess. (I blame this on my mother. She is a caricature of an optimist--the human version of a parable my dad used to tell me: stick my mother in a room filled with horse shit and she will joyfully cheer as she searches for the horse.)

 

So you could say, I had been caught off guard. Again. Like the other two times. In response to this betrayal, I dumped myself into hole of sorrow, gained approximately 7 pounds of ice cream and donuts and cried at “sad tv shows” that I pretended to watch on Netflix.  When I finally decided to dig myself out I had a fleeting moment of terror. How the hell was I supposed to show up to rehearsals day in and day out donning a fake belly? How could I waddle and sweat and laugh and rub my imaginary womb? How in the heck would I do this and not crack something inside? The answer was unclear, but I figured, hey, I could figure it out.

 

The process wasn’t hard in the ways I thought it would be. I didn’t put on a fake belly and burst into tears. I didn’t ride the subway home at night traumatized by my make-believing in the hours before. I didn’t gather up all of my unused maxi pads and burn them in the backyard as an act of revolt (though I threatened to.) But the acting was a bit hard. The show is a comedy and in many ways there was a distance between my experience as a pregnant woman and the character’s over-the-top reactions to hers. “She is not like me,” I would think. And that was the excuse I silently used when I had a hard time finding her voice, delivering her lines. Each time I opened my mouth to speak, it felt false. But this, I knew, was not uncommon in the process. Sometimes it takes a while to find your groove and as we’ve all learned one way or the other, comedy is fun to watch but hard to do.

 

And yet, I couldn’t help but sense that it was me who was forcing the space between us. If I let myself feel her pain, revel in her joy, no matter how over the top her expression of it were, would it break me? Would I open up some sort of self protective dam that I spent all year constructing and when it broke open would I burst into tears and not the pretty tears that movies CGI onto the ingenue's face, but big, snotty, weepy tears? Would my castmates slowly back away and make eyes at each other for help? Would the stage manager call a 5 but it wouldn’t really be time for a 5 and I’d have to pee but I wouldn’t be able to get up because I’d just be stuck on the floor sobbing? Would I tear at my fake belly and stomp on the remains while the design team looked away, embarrassed for me, not knowing how to help?

 

Is this what it is going to take to play a ridiculous character in a comedic play about the individual in the age of climate change?!

 

I spent a week off, not learning my lines while I was supposed to be learning my lines. It hurt to say some of them. I gave myself some space. I believe this is what my character, Marion would call, “self care.”

 

We came back from break and I decided to go slowly, focusing on the outside in. I made some vocal choices, first quite low, and then squeaky high, and then settling on a pitch just below mine. And then I played with a physical language (with the help of my fellow actor, Brian, who plays my husband.) We made up fun moves and practiced them together and I sprinkled them onto all of her lines. And then I put on her belly and I dropped into my hips and waddled around the room for a bit and it was okay. And I looked in the mirror and it was kind of sad, but I was okay. And then I looked at my chest and realized a pregnant woman would never be quite so flat chested and I laughed a bit because I am not pregnant, and that sucks, but it’s also okay and it feels good to laugh at things when they suck.

 

I looked in the mirror again and this time I thought, “There she is, I’ve found her.”

 

There have been moments when I’ve needed to take a breath--strange moments that I didn’t expect. Looking for costume ideas, I opened up my bag of maternity clothes only to sit down and have a little cry, not the big one I was afraid of, but a little one. Or when someone asked me, (after watching me waddle all night in my fake belly) if I will ever have another baby, “maybe,” I said, but really thinking--don’t you know, silly person, that you can wish for something without it being true?

 

And now I’m sitting here, less than a week before we open. I know all of my lines and my blocking. I know the moments I need to hit and when the jokes need to land. I’m excited to get on stage and share what we’ve been working on. But before I do that, I know it’s time to trim some of that distance I’ve placed between Marion and myself. I think she needs me right now. Nobody wants to be half of a person, even if that person is actually a made up character appearing in a play about saving the world through vegan lifestyle choices.

 

Melissa (our director) was joking during a brainstorming session at a rehearsal one day and proclaimed, “Mariah says yes to everything!” It was meant to be funny and it was. It was also meant to be true and true it was. I say yes, to just about everything when it comes to making the art that I love. And I said yes to this role. Of course I did. Because isn’t that what living is?  Waking up each day and choosing to say “yes?”  

 

Yes. I happen to think it is.

 

xo,

Mariah

 

You can see Mariah Freda in The Blackout and The Robot, in The Anthropologists Save The World! playing July 26-29 at the New Ohio Theatre. Part of Ice Factory 2017. 

 

 Mariah and her real pregnant belly,

with husband ready to catch the baby... just in case.

 

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