I stare at the flickering candle, the small light throwing echoes onto the flimsy curtain wavering with our movements. That cloth is all that separates us from the audience; they're out there, waiting, waiting for us. I love focusing, letting the director's voice flow around me, dropping into my character's body.
There he is! Romeo, staring longingly, lovingly, up at Juliet on her balcony. He doesn't know she adores him yet. That's what's terrific about acting in plays—I know what my character doesn't yet.
"Step toward your character and join hands," our director, Anne, says. I let my character develop in my mind until his words spring from my mouth as if he's living inside of me. I'm here to bring Romeo to life in my own world. "Let a line form in your mind and let the character tell you how he would say it. Now come back . . . on the count of six, open your eyes onto the candle," Anne tells us.
The reddish-gold fire shimmers in the dark. The line is there in my head, a gift from Romeo—"O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright! It seems she hangs upon the cheek of night like a rich jewel in an Ethiope's ear. Beauty too rich for use, for earth too dear."
Everyone says his or her line in turn: Rachel, the stately prince, with the play's opening words; Tanya, the boisterous nurse, enjoying a dirty joke; and Sasha, the wise friar, contemplating man and nature.
"OK," Anne whispers, "you've prepared so long for this. You're going to be awesome—especially since this is the last performance!" The cast mingles, hugging, wishing good luck, and sharing pre-performance nerves. My Juliet, Holly, throws herself into a chair and sighs.
"I'm just so sick of Juliet. Anne isn't letting me do what I want with the character."
I turn to face her. "Holly, don't say that. I wanted to be Juliet, don't you remember? I prepared so hard for the tryout—I was miserable when I got immature, rash Romeo instead. At least you got the part you wanted!"
I can't believe I just said that to Holly, one of my best friends in the cast. I hold my breath, waiting for her response, hoping she won't be mad. But she stares at me and says, "Well, maybe there was a reason I got Juliet and you didn't. Think about it." She walks away from me.
I collapse into the chair Holly just abandoned. What's going to happen to the performance? Holly and I need all the chemistry we can muster to make the audience believe in the play's world. Someone hugs my shoulders. I hope it's Holly, but it isn't.
A few minutes later, we line up for the march-in. Anne encourages all the cast members, making her way back to tell me I'll be great. Tears prick at my eyes but I brush them away roughly I know I can't play this part without my heart in it and without closeness to Holly.
The lights dim and the audience's chatter fades. The actors' whispers fill the jammed backstage. Tybalt rushes for her forgotten cloak and everyone adjusts hats, swords, vests. I fiddle with my iridescent cloak and the silk ribbons on my velvet tunic as Purcell's Funeral March for Queen Mary swells. Usually it's hard not to laugh when everyone starts clapping and whistling as we proceed down the aisle. Tonight, though, it's easy for me to keep a straight face.
The play begins and seems as though it's on fast-forward. The Montagues and Capulets brawl in the streets, Romeo and his friends sneak into their sworn enemies' party, Juliet and Romeo are struck by love. Holly and I aren't acting to our full potential together, and I know it. As the balcony scene begins, I realize what I have to do. I give extra strength to the lines addressing Romeo and Juliet's love, playing them differently from ever before. As I say, "My life were better ended by their hate than death prorogued, wanting of thy love," Juliet smiles at Romeo, but I know it's also Holly smiling at me.
The play races on until the "banished" scene. This is the hardest moment for Romeo, finding out he's exiled from Verona for having murdered Tybalt. Every line slips off my tongue so naturally it's as if I am Romeo and this banishment is happening to me. I feel everything: his anguish, despair, and guilt. I can't believe I won't have a chance to do this again.
I stumble offstage afterward, amazed by the beauty of the scene. My friends crush me into a hug, and I realize I'm overwhelmed with love. Love for my friends and their love for me. Romeo and Juliet's doomed love. And, most surprising and extraordinary to me, my love for Romeo.