All Over Creation: I Was Meant for the Stage
To learn which actors were destined for the theatre, watch how they hold the stage alone
"From the floorboards to the fly,
Here I was fated to reside."
– The Decemberists
A bare foot was all it was, a bare foot rising from the bed of a shopping cart, its sole facing the ceiling. And yet when the leg to which it was attached was fully extended, that foot acquired sentience. It turned from side to side, clearly eyeing its surroundings though it had no eyes, and when the big toe separated ever so slightly from its neighbors, it gave the impression of a tiny mouth opening as in pensive assessment of the environs being surveyed. The shape of the foot and the length of the leg supporting it put one in mind of an ostrich warily looking about, but of course, it was never anything but a foot, a bare foot on the end of a leg. Which, of course, made the illusion of intelligence, of a separate aliveness, all the more wondrous and wondrously comical.
And in that moment, any doubts that Caroline Reck, the owner of both foot and leg, was destined to make theatre, were permanently dismissed.
Not that there was ever any real question in my mind that the artistic director of Glass Half Full Theatre was, as the song quoted above has it, "meant for the stage" – I'd already observed her artistry and skill in too many shows, both her own and those of Trouble Puppet Theater Company. But something about seeing an artist onstage alone reveals so much more about her or his innate grasp of the theatrical art. There may be no better measure of how deeply under the skin greasepaint has bled.
Having recently undergone that particular performing challenge myself, I was perhaps more sensitive than usual to the fact that Reck was holding the stage all by herself – which is very much what the solo performer has to do: hold the stage without any assistance or support from fellow players. And until you're out there without them, you don't truly appreciate how much those other actors do to help command the attention of all those audience members and keep it fastened on what's happening in the light. Having multiple performers diffuses the pressure of attracting and focusing all those eyes where they need to be. But when the cheese stands alone, it's all on you to draw and hold them. You have to expand your presence, become bigger than you are in ordinary life, radiate more light. Natural performers can do this with the ease of breathing. With no effort you can see, they simply amp up their wattage until they're all us moths in the seats care to see.
And that amplification of presence needn't be showy, much less show-bizzy. Sure, Liza-with-a-Z pizazz will do the job, but Reck accomplished it in silence, with the slow and subtle gestures of a lower limb. A performer can be taught this skill, but the ones who will snag your attention so hard that you don't even want to blink are the ones to whom it's second nature. Reck is one. Another is Jaston Williams, who, while Reck was transfixing viewers at Salvage Vanguard Theater in The Orchid Flotilla, was explaining how he was "meant for the stage" in his self-penned solo show Maid Marian in a Stolen Car at Zach Theatre's Whisenhunt Stage. The piece was a wholehearted ode to the theatre in all its magic and madness, its ability to find truth in fiction and touch lives across time and culture in ways that by all rights it shouldn't, and its ability to pull under one roof an army of misfits and neurotics. The lights came up on Williams leaning in a doorway, feather duster in hand, sporting a dress and wig – a knowing nod to all those years he spent in women's wear touring Greater Tuna and its sequels – and that's all he has to do to keep us zeroed in on him. His movements, like Reck's, are unhurried and simple. Whether opening a cabinet, pouring a cup of coffee, or setting it on a table – all of which he mimes, by the way – his every action boasts a casual grace. He has a good 260 eyes riveted on him, and he couldn't be more at ease, more at home.
But what Williams and Reck both did in their separate moments alone that to me most marked them as souls born to the theatre was play – play in the way we did as kids, needing no elaborate sets or props to make the world we want to be in, just forming that place from whatever's at hand (sometimes literally a hand, if not a bare foot) or pulling it out of thin air, be it coffee cup or percolator. When one is meant for the stage, truly all the world is one. And watching a born performer play with such elegance and ease reawakens the wonder we knew as children.