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Pictured: (left to right) Marsha Harman, Christiane Schaldemose and Micah Kronlokken in Akvavit Theatre’s production of GHOSTS & zombies. Photo by Karl Clifton-Soderstrom.
In this 4-part series, PerformInk takes you inside Akvavit Theatre’s “GHOSTS & zombies” through blog posts written by the people behind the scenes. To read past INSIDE articles, click here.
By Marsha Harmon
When I read the audition notice for Akvavit’s “GHOSTS & zombies,” which asked for a monologue that showed strength with heightened language, and described Mrs. Alving as “Strong in body, mind, and spirit. Able to wield an axe,” I was intrigued. Heightened language? Totally in my wheelhouse. Strong women? On it. Axe wielding? Not so much.
But, nothing ventured, nothing gained, and the next thing I knew I was sitting at the first read-through, highlighter in one hand, axe (awkwardly) in the other, wondering just what I had gotten myself into. Much more than I bargained for, as it turns out.
I’ve played my share of strong women – and men, for that matter – and in almost all cases, their strength came from intellect or ambition, from love or self-sacrifice, and their power lay in words and decisions, not physical force. In the original Ghosts, Mrs. Alving is a woman of formidable intelligence and fierce devotion, but this adaptation adds an element of physical strength and power that was a new challenge for me.
The excellent gentlemen at R&D Choreography have written previously about their approach to violence design in this production. We devoted one full rehearsal to a workshop which, besides setting up the building blocks of the fight sequences, gave the cast the chance to break the ice physically, to get in each other’s personal space and start to earn each other’s trust.
Someday I will accept the fact that in order to become good at something new, I first have to let myself be bad at it. There was a part of me that was so nervous about making a misstep that executing even the simplest move correctly felt like a huge victory. There was a part of me so embarrassed about being nervous that when I attempted something new, my heart pounded and my face flushed. I could feel myself bracing against the discomfort of those moments, trying to distance myself from it until the moment passed and I could take refuge in words and feelings again. But Mrs. Alving must have this kind of physical strength. Deep breaths. Sit with the burning cheeks, the lump in my throat, do it again, badly, and again, better.
Early in the process, Vic gave me a couple of small moves to practice: a quick slide of the axe from down at my side to up at an angle; a flip of a revolver to smoothly move from firing position to holding the barrel so the butt faces out. At first, the axe stuck in my hand. My forearm wasn’t strong enough to support it at the best angle to create the desired effect. My forefinger would get caught up in the trigger and my hand would twist awkwardly. With practice, and repetition (and repetition and repetition), the moves became smoother, and soon the axe moved steadily in my hand, and the gun flip was second-nature.
The choreography for the fights themselves followed a similar pattern. Once I had the moves, I could walk through each piece deliberately, slowly, and, with practice and repetition my body learned what it needed to do; I got faster, smoother, more confident.
But even as my body got more comfortable with the physicality of the character, my mind and my heart did not. Looking into [REDACTED FOR SPOILER]’s eyes while I slashed at them with the axe was disconcerting. The first time I pointed a prop gun at [SPOILER]’s head in a fight rehearsal, I was deeply uncomfortable. He generously reassured me several times that he was totally OK, but I still felt unsettled. Aside from a stage slap or two, my limited combat experience so far had been minor struggles, situations in which I was the victim, not the aggressor. For the first time, I was making the attack, and I really didn’t like how it felt.
Finding the place inside where aggression lives involves first acknowledging that that place exists at all. I am really good at pretending that I don’t have a dark side. Nope. Not me. But the story demands a physical ruthlessness I’d never experienced, and suddenly I found this whole axe-wielding situation was taking me to some dark, ugly places.
Ultimately, Mrs. Alving’s aggression comes from a place of deep love. Even her most violent attack in this play is a defense of the thing she holds most dear in the world. For me, the path to find my own place of aggression started with her fierce, powerful love. Holding that love through the physical experience of moving the axe, dodging, attacking, grunting, shouting, shooting, feeling it in muscle, bones, and voice – it unlocked that dark corner in me where ruthlessness and violence live, the ugly corner I like to pretend doesn’t exist.
The process of finding Mrs. Alving taught me the same thing the character herself learns: you can hide whatever you want in the darkness, but sooner or later, you’ll have to open the door and deal with it.
Akvavit Theatre’s “GHOSTS & zombies” runs September 28th – October 29th. For more information visit chicagonordic.org.
Marsha Harman’s recent credits include: A Wrinkle in Time (Lifeline Theatre), The Memory of Water (Piccolo Theatre), The Full Monty (Kokandy Productions), and The Anyway Cabaret (TUTA Theatre) A longtime member of New Leaf Theatre’s producing ensemble, she appeared in nine productions, including Arcadia, Six Years, and the Jeff-Nominated ensembles of The Permanent Way, The Dining Room, and As It Is In Heaven. Regionally, Marsha spent five seasons with the Bakerloo Theatre Project in upstate New York.