I hadn’t done theater for well over a year. After spending nearly all of my free time in high school acting in shows, writing plays, and singing in concerts, I was burnt out and needed a break, in spite of the fact that I had expected to be a theater major the second I stepped foot on Wesleyan’s campus. But after a year away from the theater, I felt it was time to return to the stage.
“Time Stands Still” was both the first and, thankfully, only show I had to audition for this year. I did not know anything about the play, and I only auditioned on a whim after seeing it pop up on my Facebook feed. Before auditioning, I learned that it was written by Pulitzer-prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies; it revolved around two journalists, James and Sarah, dealing with a return to normalcy at home after spending years abroad in developing nations and in war zones, who are trying to reconcile their fragile relationship. There was also their friend Richard, dealing with a mid-life crisis and the awkwardness that comes from his dating a woman three decades younger than he. I was interested in playing either James or Richard, so I went in for an audition, and was fortunate enough to receive a callback.
Mere hours after the callback finished, I received a phone call from the director and was offered the role of Richard. I was surprised at first, both that I had gotten into the play, but also that I was set to play Richard, given that I had spent nearly all of the callback playing James. But I was mostly excited. Beyond it being an opportunity to return to theater after a long absence, I was granted the opportunity to play a character who reflects my true self: an old man in a mid-life crisis.
Rehearsals moved surprisingly quickly and easily. The cast, comprised of Emma Hagemann ’17 as Sarah, Jack Reibstein ’17 as Jack, Grace Stanfield ’20 as Mandy (Richard’s girlfriend), and myself, were exceptionally talented and worked with incredible efficiency. From the very start of rehearsal, we had an excellent grasp of who our characters were, and brought them to life brilliantly. Our director, Alex Minton ’17, was always a delight to work with, and kept rehearsals consistently productive; we always finished staging scenes or moments that we needed to stage well before the end of our scheduled rehearsal periods. It was a notably easy rehearsal process, which is a testament to the incredibly talented people in the show who I was lucky to work with.
They also helped remind me of one of the most important rules of acting: Always be in the moment, rather than in your head. Don’t think through all of your actions, emotions, reactions, and more, but focus instead on listening to your co-stars and trying to feel what your character would feel. My first impulse is always to psychoanalyze my characters or perform a literary analysis on them. But the key to great acting lies in being genuinely honest rather than trying to appear or behave as an honest person would. The cast, with their emotional honesty throughout rehearsals, reminded me of this, and helped my performance in turn.
I also cannot understate how wonderful the play itself is. It’s beautifully written, with dialogue that sounds real, and characters whose anguish is complex and deeply human. It captured the awkwardness of mid-life crises and relationships, managing to be both humorous and tragically bitter. It examined, with nuance, the ethics of journalism and photography. (Is it better to take a photo of a dying child in a war zone, so the world can know of the horrors people encounter, or to actually help them get to a hospital? Is journalistic integrity and objectivity more important than basic human decency?)
But above all, I found myself drawn to its ending, which manages to be both happy and heartbreaking. As an actor, the scene was a treat, as I had the chance to play a character in a deeply conflicting state of mind. On the one hand, he had achieved his lifelong dream of having a wife and young daughter; on the other, he had failed to convince Sarah, his longtime friend, to find a safe job at home rather than abroad. He had to watch his “golden couple,” Sarah and James, break up just weeks after their marriage. Richard may have had only a few lines in the final scene, but it was a heartbreaking scene to play, even if most of this heartbreak was played out in silent reactions rather than actual lines.
This mix of joy and sorrow, I think, extended to all the characters. After all, everyone gets what they want: Sarah gets to return to her job, something she wanted in spite of nearly getting killed by a roadside bomb; Mandy finds happiness in being a mother; and, finally, James begins dating someone with a child, giving himself his own little family. But this happiness comes at a cost, this cost being the death of Sarah and James’ relationship. Admittedly, it was one built on a weak foundation, given that they fell in love while abroad, and possibly only had feelings for each other in the first place because the thrills and terrors of reporting on war drove them to need comfort and company. Then there was Tariq, their guide and translator while abroad on their most recent mission, who Sarah fell in love with (James was not there while this happened; he went home early after suffering a nervous breakdown). There was also the conflicting desires of James and Sarah, as he wanted to be married and have a family, while she wanted nothing more than to return to her job abroad.
In spite of all the obvious reasons why the two were never meant to be together, their split apart is devastating. So much of the play deals with the struggles of their relationship, and their constant struggle to become a normal couple. The end of Act 1 gives the audience hope that this is possible; all of Act 2 destroys this hope. That the characters wind up happy with their lives is part of what makes the play so beautiful: It forces you to feel both heartbroken and optimistic, which makes it all the more devastating to watch.
I cannot properly express how grateful I am to have been in this show. It would be one thing if I were simply lucky to have been in a show, but I was fortunate enough to be cast in a incredibly well-written play, with a remarkably talented cast and director.