• Joanna Swan

Thoughts on stepping into the shoes of Etty Hillesum

Over the past few weeks I have been learning my lines for my leading role in the new play by Charlotte E Carter "The Girl Who Learned to Kneel", about the real-life holocaust diarist, Hester Hillesum - known as Etty. I've reached the penultimate scene, in which Etty makes a momentous and brave decision, that will seal her fate. She knows that what she proposes to do will lead her to great suffering in the form of humiliation, deprivation and starvation, and possibly even bring about her death. But not to do so will result in a lifelong, gnawing guilt and dissatisfaction with herself for which she feels she would never be able to atone. Reading the scene two days ago, I found myself too emotional to even try to internalise the lines. Returning to it now, her words - taken from Etty's own letter and diaries - begin to sink in, but it is tough going: to read and speak her pain over and over again, and to allow myself to feel even a fraction of what she must have felt as she wrestled with the decision, is tough.

In the rehearsal room, it will get even tougher. I feel fortunate that I am in a properly supportive team for this one, working with two other actors who are both close and long-term friends, and, in Charlotte, with an intelligent, empathetic and appreciative director who has herself devoted years of her life to understanding the character of Etty.

But, in thinking abut this, I am reminded of a time when I was not so fortunate. I remember being read the riot act by one director during the interval of a run-through because I was only marking it and therefore he was finding what I was doing "boring". The play was Gaslight, and I was playing Bella. We had been rehearsing for a month and the entire process had been gruelling. I wasn't sleeping. I would wake automatically at 5am every morning with a knot of anxiety in my stomach, go downstairs to the sofa and weep. Like Bella herself, I began to question the reality of everything around me.... was my director right in implying that I was a terrible actor and that my every line and action was wrong and had to be intensively corrected by himself? Did the other cast members secretly wish I would get the sack? It is terrifying, actually, to realise how life had begun to imitate art...

To return to the night of the run-through, yes I did "phone it in" during Act 1. I had my reasons. Exhaustion from what had been going on, having a heavy period. I had explained this to the Assistant Director and she had said she understood and to take it easy. This, however, did not seem to satisfy the director himself who said that I must "reedeem myself". It triggered a full on autistic meltdown that resulted in my injuring my head and being overheard by the entire cast and crew. One fellow cast member came into the room I was in and began shouting at me. He didn't believe I was on the spectrum and opined that I was just throwing a tantrum. I performed the second half of the run-through in floods of uncontrollable tears, bumping into furniture and gulping out my lines. The director pronounced "at least that is interesting to watch" and said in his opinion I was a character actress and not in any way a leading lady.

The point I want to make, is that while actors do exist who can truthfully portray a character without feeling what that character feels and being affected by it, I do think most of us who are good actors, are good because of our empathy. We do allow ourselves to feel, and to become, even if in only a small way, that person for a little while. And in the case of a play about trauma and facing the most profound evils of existence, that necessarily means that we are going to suffer trauma, repeatedly, as we go through the rehearsal process and then performance. So, during those run-throughs where we choose to mark it, to "phone it in", we are doing so for good reason. It is self-protection and preservation. We need a break from that constant suffering: for we are not machines, we are humans who must live our lives outside of the studio. We must be able to function for our families and other loved ones. And for ourselves. If we have proven, in early character workshops, that we CAN "go there" and bring that emotional veracity to the role, then directors ought to place the trust in us that we will return to that state once an audience is before us. To demand a return to that state day after day in the rehearsal room, while run-throughs are going on - the purpose of which, in my opinion, should be to ensure the action runs smoothly, that cues are picked up on, that props can be handled, that business can be refined, and NOT to see that someone can repeatedly access an emotional and psychological state - is, I think, the mark of at best an inexperienced director who has not learned to work effectively with and to trust actors and at worst, a form of narcissistic sadism. You may have heard of Alfred Hitchcock and the lengths he went to, to get Tippi Hedren to give a "real" performance in The Birds... even if you think what he did was justified - and I don't! - you should remember that this was Hollywood. Tippi wasn't going to come away with a mere £200 for a month's work. Christian Bale starved himself for The Machinist... well he earns millions and has a raft of dietitians, nutritionists and personal trainers at his disposal to support him with that. AND can pay for top notch therapy.

Truly, if you really understand what it does to a person to be gaslighted, to struggle with moral decisions like that which Etty had to make, or to undergo some other profound trauma, you will know that just going through it once demands a heavy toll of the psyche (ever heard of PTSD?) So, directors, understand, please, that your actors put themselves through hell for you, and don't, please, ask them to go there on occasions when it is not strictly necessary.

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