It’s been two years since the last time I performed on stage. Once again I find myself walking through the shadowed park trails on a cool spring evening towards the small vintage theatre hidden in a cluster of trees. I walked its stage for seven years prior to a four year break after rheumatoid arthritis cast me in a new role.
I have walked the boards of the stage for over twenty years. My love of performing began in sixth grade when I was cast in our school play “Tom Sawyer”. All throughout my high school years I studied drama, playing such things as escaped mental patients, dancing cowgirls, and a woman on the edge of her life. I studied theatre in college for two years, strengthening my acting skills in shows such as “Fiddler on the Roof”, “Guys and Dolls”, “The Bacchae”, and even stepped behind the curtain once using my skills in dance to choreograph “The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole”. A few of my favourite roles over the years have been plucky country girl Angel from “Here on the Flight Path”, a tortured housewife in “Pack of Lies” and a drunk wife in “Bathroom Humour”.
As I approach the building for the second round of call backs, I wonder if I will be one of the chosen to perform again, to play beneath the sweltering lights, to listen to the music of the wooden floorboards sing beneath my feet, to have the pleasure of bonding with another group of talented actors. I also wonder, if I make the cut, if I will have the stamina for several weeks of rehearsal and four weeks of shows. Would the fatigue of RA interfere with my concentration? Would the pain of inflammation outshine my performance? Am I ready to face that challenge again? I look down at my script one last time, reach my hand towards the stage door and turn the doorknob…
“Lend Me a Tenor” is a physically challenging farce that has been on Broadway. It’s a wild ride of romance, mistaken identity and mishap in the world of 1930’s opera. I have won the part of the romantic lead. I’ve somehow made it through several weeks of late nights, early mornings, dress rehearsals and director’s notes. There are many challenges involved in this comedy – prancing around in heels, sliding in and out of doors, hiding in closets, swooning on the couch, stumbling up (and down) a set of stairs, carrying champagne glasses or leaping into the arms of the romantic lead for that passionate kiss. These physical activities, trying at the best of times, are tougher when dealing with the pain and inflammation of arthritis. I’ve had a few more flares than normal at the end of some rehearsals when the momentum of performing has receded.
Performing with arthritis is an entirely different beast. I’m accustomed to the accidental pains of this artistic life. I’ve danced through bruises, sprains, and twists. I’ve left the stage black and blue with smashed fingers and ripped clothing, broken heels and sore muscles. I’ve endured trips, falls, and the occasional crashing into objects and people. These are fleeting injuries that come and go, whereas the pain of arthritis is always waiting in the wings with no reprieve or intermission. I have my good days, my bad days, but no matter what, I’m prepared to confront the consequences waiting for me after the curtain closes. The stage has always been my second home and I refuse to let arthritis bury me behind the scenes.
Stage is the realm of illusion – and therein lies the challenge. It’s my task to bring my character to life, to craft an enchanting new world for the audience, a world where arthritis has no part to play. In a few short days, the lights will dim, the chatter of the audience will dwindle into silent expectation, the first few notes of the opening music will play and I will step into Maggie’s shoes, leaving the pain and fatigue of RA behind. After my final bow, I am sure to be reminded that RA does not like to be ignored. I have made the commitment, and with or without the misery of arthritis, the show will go on. I will walk the empty stage every night before the heat of an audience fills the room, before the booth operator lights the stage, before the rest of the cast float up the stairs to their places, confident that I will find the strength to transcend the world of inflammation for a couple of hours, and write a new script for arthritis.