Saving JulietSuzanne Selfors
A Few More Words
From the mailbag
A Deleted Scene from Saving Juliet
Reading Group Guide for Saving Juliet
This above all: to thine own self be true. -
A few words beforehand.
I'm not going to begin my story with "Once upon a time," even though many of you will call it a fairy tale. Fairy tales are fantasies. Fairy tales are made up and my story is true. Every single word.
I'm going to call this a life-is-the-stuff-of-dreams tale, because that's what it felt like, at first. It felt like a dream, except I'm not the only person who was there and who remembers. Dreams simply do not happen in tandem.
My name is Mimi, and you might think I'm completely nuts after you read this. But I won't mind because it's my story and it saved my life.
Fine then. You can turn the page.
"All the worlds a stage."
My story begins at six forty-five on a Saturday evening, one year ago. On that eventful night, winter pounced on New York City like a hungry tomcat. The temperature plummeted. Pedestrians hid their faces behind coat collars and scarves, hurrying home as heavy clouds loosened a flurry of dusty snowflakes that coated everything like polluted powdered sugar.
Why choose that particular moment to begin my tale, as opposed to five fifty-five or seven ten? Because winter's first snow transforms everything it touches, and so, too, was I about to be transformed. A bit of heavy symbolism to get things started.
I stepped out of my toasty limousine, thanking the driver as he held the door. The words Wallingford Theatre, composed of yellow lightbulbs, were reflected in the passenger window. The moment my boots touched pavement, my stomach turned queasy. It wasn't that I had eaten a rancid meal or was coming down with the flu--it was what I was about to do that made me feel sick.
You see, at that time I was a professional actor. But the job wasn't agreeing with me.
Despite the numbing cold, patrons formed a line that wound around the block. A fog of excited breath swirled above their heads. This was not the crowd of retirees who usually came to the Wallingford to watch classical renditions of Shakespeare's plays. Teenagers formed this line, girls to be exact, all dressed up in fur and velvet, fidgeting nervously as if they had to go to the bathroom. They didn't notice me. I wasn't the person who had inspired them to wait in line for three hours. If you had walked by, you might have thought that Jesus himself had come to town, such was the excitement.
I passed them quickly. A few parents recognized me. "That's Mimi Wallingford," one said to her uninterested teen.
"You know, the great-granddaughter of Adelaide Wallingford."
As long as I can remember, these words have followed my name: great-granddaughter of Adelaide Wallingford. Most people don't even bother to pause between my name and my place on the family tree. Never do I hear, "That's Mimi Wallingford, a very fine person," or "That's Mimi Wallingford, an individual." Never am I introduced without my superspecial tagline.
Since ticket holders had blocked the backstage door, a pimply-faced security guy opened the lobby for me. With a whoosh of cold air, I entered. Some programs flew off a table and the chandelier tinkled. Pimply-faced guy quickly closed the door, shutting out winter's wrath. Shutting me into the place I had started to dread.
With the performance still an hour away the lobby stood empty. Ushers had not yet arrived, nor had bartenders or ticket takers. But behind the coat check counter, cackling laughter arose along with three threads of smoke. I loudly cleared my throat. After some shuffling and muttering the smoke disappeared and three elderly faces popped up. Everyone called these ladies the Coat Check Crones. They had worked at the Wallingford since before I was born. Like MacBeth's witches, they toiled and troubled over their work--knee-deep piles of outerwear.
"Hello, dear," one said in a sandpaper-y voice. She narrowed her bloodshot eyes. "You're not going to report us, are you?" The other two, equally ancient, leaned forward and waited for my answer.
"Of course not," I replied. I didn't care if they smoked, even though it was against theater rules. I actually enjoyed their rebellion, secretly wishing I had the nerve to conduct one of my own--one that wouldn't result in lung cancer.
"She's not going to report us," the second one said, smiling through yellowed teeth. "Such a nice girl."
"Who is she?" the third one asked, dementia nipping at her brain.
"Why, that's Mimi Wallingford great-granddaughter of Adelaide Wallingford."
The very same, the one and only. Descended from the clan that has graced the American stage since the early twentieth century. As of this writing, I am the last in the Wallingford line. "Our family's reputation rests on your shoulders," my mother often reminded me. Rests? There was no resting going on. Crushing, flattening, and squashing was more like it. Try carrying that load around. It's amazing I hadn't developed a Richard the Third hunch.
Before making my way backstage for wardrobe and makeup, I picked up the scattered programs. Not my job but I was stalling--trying to avoid the inevitable. I stood beneath a larger-than-life portrait of Adelaide Wallingford, hung high above the water fountain. Founder of the Wallingford Theatre, she peered down from her cobweb-laced frame with a tight smile, probably miffed by the threadbare carpet and fading wallpaper. The theater's heyday had long since passed. My mother, the current owner and manager, could barely keep the place running, let alone update the interior. People didn't seem to be as interested in Shakespeare anymore. But I've been told that the Wallingford was once the place to be seen, that dignitaries and foreign royalty had attended Adelaide's performances. They say she commanded the stage simply by standing on it. People often tell me that I look like her. Aside from her hefty bosom, we share the same wavy brown hair and green eyes. My mother calls it the "It" factor, a combination of talent and beauty. I'm not boasting, believe me. I wanted nothing to do with the "It" factor. It had totally screwed up my life.
Shrieks erupted outside because He, for whom they waited, had pulled up in a stretch limousine. Without access to the stage door, he was forced to strut past the fans, basking in their admiration. They tried to take bits of him, anything they could manage, artifacts to carry around tucked in bras or enshrined in lockets. I folded my arms and watched the scene with a mixture of jealousy and awe. While I had a famous name, kids my age didn't know me. My fame resided with the geriatric crowd. But my peers knew him.
His name is Troy Summer and he had been cast as Romeo in the Wallingford's current production of Romeo and Juliet, specifically to attract new patrons. "Let's update Shakespeare," the board of directors had decided. "Let's give our show a mass-market tweak." So they brought in a teen idol from California.
"We can't afford him," my mother had argued. Troy's agent, eager to help his client break into acting, and knowing full well that Troy couldn't act his way out of a monkey
cage, had agreed to a reduced wage.
Dressed in a trendy ski parka and dark glasses, Troy looked as handsome as ever. He greeted his frenzied fans then made his escape, thanks to pimply-faced guy who opened the lobby door. The chandelier tinkled again. I had no intention of letting Troy know that I had witnessed the display of hero worship. If his ego got any bigger, he'd need additional luggage to carry it around. I hurried from the lobby as the Coat Check Crones sighed in unison. Even they found Troy irresistible.
On that night one year ago, it took me almost an hour to prepare for the performance, a slower-than-normal pace due to my increasing queasiness. I'd had major roles before but during all my years of acting I had never felt an ounce of stage fright. But stage fright consumed me on Romeo and Juliet's opening night--surges of anxiety that made me dizzy, waves of panic that made me want to flee. My heart raced, my skin flushed, and nausea doubled me over. When it came time to perform the role of Juliet, I became a basket case.
Why? I asked myself time and time again. Others offered their theories about nervous exhaustion and lack of confidence. It never occurred to me that it was Juliet herself who lay at the heart of my condition. I'm writing with hindsight, of course, which is a very powerful tool. But at that time I didn't pay much attention to Juliet. I was the opposite of a method actor--an actor who tries to get into the character's head and body. For instance, Bill, who played Tybalt, wore his costume 24-7, stopped bathing, ate only kidney pies, and read only books about the Italian Renaissance. I learned my lines but I never looked beyond Juliet's surface or imagined a life for her beyond the script. To me, she was just a lovesick girl who made the really bad choice of committing suicide. But, as I would later learn, she was so much more.
As I pulled on my lavender and gold costume, my hands began to tremble. Applause rolled down the hallway, followed by the narrator's voice. "Two households both alike in dignity, in fair Verona where we lay our scene," he said with an exaggerated British accent. That is the first line of Shakespeare's beloved tragedy.
I tiptoed to the wing and sat in a chair that was reserved for me. A chair that allowed, I mean, forced me to see the edge of the stage and hear the audience's reaction. Placed there on my therapist's orders, to defeat that which had started to terrify me. "In order to conquer phobia, we must face it," Dr. Harmony had explained to the cast and crew a few nights into our run. A real touchy-feely kind of guy. "Like a supportive family, we will all help Mimi overcome her stage fright."
So in that chair I sat, rocking back and forth, fighting an intense urge to vomit. Fernando, my makeup guy, hovered next to me with a plastic bowl.
Calm down, I kept telling myself. No one will know I'm nervous. They're all watching Troy, anyway. I gasped and Fernando lunged forward, holding the bowl beneath my chin. False alarm. I waved him away, trying to ignore the concerned stares of my fellow actors. The audience was supposed to be my prey to conquer, the stage my territory to claim. As shameful as a lioness that quivers in fear of a wildebeest so, too, was my shame as I rocked back and forth. So very un-Wallingford of me.
I swallowed against the building bile. The actor who played the Prince of Verona prepared for his entrance. He stretched his legs, cleared his throat, then patted me on the head. "Poor little thing," he whispered.
That's right. Poor little thing. Seventeen-year-old Mimi Wallingford great-granddaughter of Adelaide Wallingford, shaking like a leaf, surging with anxiety, wishing that she could be anywhere but there. Wishing that her life could be completely different.
Does everyone wish that? Perhaps not. Maybe you think that I shouldn't complain about my life. Perhaps you are someone who spends time in front of the mirror, dreaming of the spotlight and applause. That's a fine dream, as long as it belongs to you. But I'd been acting in Shakespeare's plays since age three. As soon as I was out of diapers, my mother slapped a pair of wings on me and thrust me into a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. I played some kind of woodland fairy creature and Mom tells me I was adorable. Thus began my career, an endless chain of rehearsals and performances that swallowed up any chance of a normal childhood--no public school, no neighborhood buddies, no Girl Scout meetings, those kinds of things. I always learned my lines and did my best but the acting thing wasn't my dream.
As I waited for my entrance, I reminded myself that Romeo and Juliet was scheduled to close the next night. Then I'd leave for Los Angeles to spend two months with my aunt Mary, a surgeon. Sunshine and beach towels were sure to ease my crazy state of mind and give me some time to think about my future.
"Blah." Troy Summer made a vomit sound in my ear. He bent over to adjust his tights. "I hate these freakin' things," he complained, pulling the spandex. He reached under his tunic and rearranged his "package." He caught me watching and smiled. "Try not to have vomit breath during our kissing scene," he teased. Then he strode onto the stage like the arrogant dolt that he was, completely forgetting that in his first scene Romeo is supposed to be depressed and lovesick.
Troy appeared as neither as he raised his arms above his head and waved to the front row. An explosion of hysterical screams rocked the house.
Another wave of nausea hit me, and Fernando held the bowl under my chin again. "I'm okay," I lied, pushing it away. I tried Dr. Harmony's centering technique, focusing on the single phrase om ya. Fernando took out a powder puff and dabbed my upper lip.
"Shiny," he whispered. He pulled out a lip liner and fussed. "Stop licking your lips. You make Fernando crazy."
"It tastes like rancid margarine," I complained. We kept our voices hushed.
"So? This is the cost of beauty. Juliet must be beautiful. Beautiful women have nice, full lips. Tonight your lips are thin and droopy, like spaghetti."
Onstage, Troy said, "Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs." Squeal, shriek, giggle.
I kept to my chair, doing my best to face my fear. Trying for the zillionth time to understand why this was happening. Why, after a lifetime of acting, did the stage suddenly terrify me?
The actors playing Nurse and Lady Capulet took their places, each casting nervous glances my way. The time had come. I clenched my jaw. Lights dimmed as stagehands rushed out to change the set to the interior of Capulet House. Lights rose and Nurse and Lady Capulet made their entrances.
"Nurse, where's my daughter? Call her forth to me." Fernando stepped aside and made the sign of the cross on his chest. I took a deep breath and stood, smoothing my long gown. I took a step, sliding my slippered foot across the floor toward the precipice.
"Where's this girl?" Nurse called out.
One step, then another. Left foot, right foot. I could see the edge of the audience. Seats groaned as people shifted. A few coughs broke the silence. They waited for beautiful, full-lipped Juliet. Tragic, lovesick Juliet. Phobic, nauseated Juliet.
"What, Juliet!" Nurse cried. My cue.
I stepped into the light. Nurse looked at me and raised her gray eyebrows. It was my turn to speak.
I opened my painted mouth but my line did not issue forth. Rather, a stream of vomit ran down my dress and puddled at my feet.
"What's in a name?"
After a performance, the women's dressing room is usually a frenzy of activity, so crowded I have to use my bony elbows to get space at the counter. But on that night I stood alone at the mirror, surrounded by an invisible danger zone into which no one dared set foot. Women tiptoed past me as if the merest upset might cause me to explode like a vomitous volcano. Eyes burned into my back. No one said anything to me about getting sick on stage and I appreciated that. I tried to appear calm while wiping away Fernando's makeup with a towelette. A deception, of course. Tears waited impatiently behind my eyes for a moment of solitude to free them.
Heels clicked at the end of the hall. The room fell silent as the heels made their approach, gradually increasing in volume and speed like a bomber's engine on takeoff. Anger and disappointment rang in each beat of each heel. A
touch of shame as well.
"Everyone out," my mother announced upon entering.
They fled, young and old, novice and seasoned professional. They grabbed coats and shoes and cleared that room before the bomb dropped.
"I'm sorry," I mumbled. Truly I was. I had scarred the family's reputation, but I was also sorry because public humiliation was high on my list of things not to experience--especially if it involved disagreeable body sounds and/or spewing.
My mother patted my arm. "Thank God for Doris. What would we have done without Doris?"
Doris, the actor playing Nurse, knows a thing or two about ad-libbing. Here's what she did. She stepped right in with a line Shakespeare had not written. "What now, little lamb?" she said, taking off her apron to wipe my mouth. "What now, my poor dove?" she cooed, clutching my arm to keep me from running off stage. "All the commotion hath disturb'd my lady's stomach?" Doris dropped her apron to the floor and wiped up the puddle with a swirl of her foot. The audience members who had come just to see Troy Summer up close and live had no idea that the vomit wasn't part of the show.