The Star-On, Star-Off Machine

My wife, the actress: How I came to understand her better after two decades of watching her on stage — by following her into her dressing room.

Ted Anthony
Apr 7, 2018 · 12 min read
My wife, Melissa Rayworth, and her scene partner, Vineet Kumar, prepare before their production of “Sure Thing,” part of the Bangkok Community Theater’s Fringe Festival. (Photo ©2017 Ted Anthony)

I am pacing. Inhaling. Exhaling. My feet feel Krazy Glued to the floor, yet somehow I also am about to float away, straight up to where my stomach is already hovering— in the ionosphere far above the Thai capital. This is not fun. How could this be fun?

“I want to run as far away from here as I can,” I whisper to my wife, who is standing next to me. “I did not expect to feel this way.”

I am backstage, in a community-theater dressing room along one of Thailand’s busiest roads. I am moments from walking out in front of 120 people in a darkened house and trying to persuade a hopefully receptive audience that I am a heterosexual guy named Ryan, sitting in a bar awkwardly trying to figure out if I am gay.

Let me put this out there: I am generally not a runner-away. I make it a point not to be, to take risks in both my professional and personal lives. But right now I am, as my wife puts it, “waaaay out of your comfort zone.” Because while audiences are nothing new to me — I am a frequent public speaker in my day job — I am about to ask this group of spectators to believe not only in my thoughts and ideas but in my physicality, my vulnerability, my ability to jump into a character’s skin and inhabit it as authentically as I can. In this activity, I am — appropriately for the venue — a committed impostor.

My wife, running lines before her show. (Photo ©2017, Ted Anthony)

She looks squarely at me. It is an intimidating look, at least to me. Because I know stuff about the stuff she knows.

I know that this is a woman who has done this precise thing hundreds of times since she was in her 20s. I know that this is a woman who has acted her way through the theaters of Manhattan, who has done off-Broadway and appeared with Hugh Grant in “Mickey Blue Eyes” and with Pierce Brosnan in “The Thomas Crown Affair” and starred in a Kevin Smith-produced movie and appeared as an extra in countless episodes of “Law & Order” over the years. I know, too, that this is a woman who captivated me with her soulful acting from the moment when I first saw her on a New York City stage 20 years ago this month.

“You got this,” she says to me. “You’re afraid, and you’re doing it. That’s what all this is about. Not avoiding the fear, but being afraid and doing it anyway.”

Which over and over again, in acting and in life, she has always been able to do.

I am determined to impress this woman in a new way, on her turf. She is why I’m here. I want to get a sense of what draws her to this, what feeds her by stepping out here — and what moment she becomes someone else.

I inhale one final time, issue a command from my buzzing brain to my heavy feet — forward … march! — and stride out there in the darkness of the dramatic in-between, hoping to be more like her, hoping to understand.

Lights.


People talk all the time about what it’s like to act on a stage. There are oceans of words devoted to it, and to its subtleties. Stanislavski. Meisner. Strasburg. The list goes on.

But they rarely delve into the psychology of the dressing room behind it, somewhere back beyond the wings.

That part has always fascinated me — partly because I am obsessed with in-between spaces, which to me are pockets of fascinating uncertainty. But it’s also because the dressing room is, to me, something of a magical portal.

Think of it like this. Generally, when I accompany my wife to the theater to see a show she is in, she’s got street clothes on, a bag slung over her shoulder. She’s Melissa — the woman I have known and loved since we first caught each other’s eye in a frozen Japanese town two decades ago.

In the magical space of the dressing room. Photo ©2017, Ted Anthony.

We say goodbye. I wish her luck. Then she disappears behind a door. Some manner of magic happens, and an hour or 90 minutes later, as I sit with people in a darkened theater, she comes out the other end of the dressing room and appears on stage as a different human being entirely. I look at this entity, up there, expressing herself, and I wonder if she knows me, if we’ve ever even met.

Until now, the only comparable analogy to a dressing room that I could think of was the corridor onto the field in a big-league ballpark. That’s where young men in their early 20s transmogrify: They enter the corridor’s semidarkness as regular boys in unfamiliar uniforms and emerge onto the turf as deeply adored status symbols.

But there are analogies in literature, too. There is the Wood Between the Worlds in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels — a place of in-betweens in which a forest contains innumerable small pools, and when you dive into one of them, you resurface in another world entirely. An endless myriad of destinies, of lives to be lived.

I think, though, that the most accurate (if also most trite) equivalent is the gargantuan gadgets administered by Sylvester McMonkey McBean in Dr. Seuss’ racism parable “The Sneetches” — two convoluted contraptions that will, depending on one’s preference, stamp a star upon one’s belly or take one off. They are called the “Star-On Machine” and the “Star-Off Machine.”

The Star-On Machine from “The Sneetches and Other Stories.” ©Theodor Seuss Geisel. 1953. Used via fair use.

That’s it, of course. The dressing room, as it pertains to my wife, is a combination of those two machines. She goes in a regular person and comes out a star.

How does this happen? Sometimes it’s the makeup, sure, or the costume. More often, though, she looks exactly like herself but in a different way — a fully formed human being occupying the space of my wife but with different aphorisms, different euphemisms, different intonations that make the familiar contours of her herness seem utterly alien. Think of the possession of Linda Blair in The Exorcist, only somewhat less malignant.

From the dressing room onto the stage. Photo ©2017, Ted Anthony

I have seen my wife emerge onto the stage as many human beings: as a tentative fianceé dealing awkwardly with an old boyfriend; as a foreigner detained by Chinese authorities; as the uneasy daughter of a baseball fan at a notorious New York Mets game; and as a Belgian spy. I have marveled at this person who is my wife and yet who, at the same time, is not. And I have shaken my head in fascination when, upon completion of her appointed acting rounds, she disappears into the darkness and, by and by, re-emerges from that same dressing-room door as my bride once again. And for the rest of the evening, I look somewhat suspiciously at her and wonder what other people she might contain.

Like most magic, it’s explainable by science, in this case the science of psychology. My wife undergoes no changes in that magical dressing room. She effects no transformation before she emerges on stage. She inhales the character assigned to her, inhabits it, imbues it with a life force that is part her, part playwright, part pure alchemy.

As with so much in life, the genius and the magic are not in The Moment but in the moments leading up to it. My wife has not mastered her destination. She has mastered her path. And that part — that part about her that I admire most of all — is not just the lives she brings to life up there on that stage. It’s the life she lives apart from it.

It’s a life of exploration, of opening the windows of your life and being willing to see what flies in — and of going out into the fresh air and encountering things and making them part of you. When she appears on stage, she is not the characters she is portraying and they are not her. A mixture has been shaken up. A mashup has been created. A new being has been born.

This was what I wanted to feel — for me, yes, but mostly to understand her more.


Stalking my wife in the dressing room. (Photo ©2017, Ted Anthony)

“Speaking of sex …”

That was my first dramatic line on a stage as another person since my subtle yet energetic portrayal of Linus Van Pelt in the 1979 Falk School fifth-grade production of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown.”

I still remember Linus’ hypersyllabic monologue from that forgotten Carter-era production, and I suppose I will remember lines from my Bangkok play, Joshua James’ “A Gay Thing,” as long as I still am able to remember things.

In this Bangkok Community Theater “Fringe Festival,” an eclectic and wonderful collection of quick, one-act plays were presented. One featured characters in giant masks navigating a medical emergency. One was a comedy about ancient Mesopotamia. One focused on a single friendship, a single romance and a dead goldfish in a plastic bag.

Melissa Rayworth and Vineet Kumar in the 2017 BCT production of “Sure Thing.” (Photo ©Charles Dharapak, 2017)

Melissa’s, called “Sure Thing,” was unique. It focused on a man and a woman locked in a chance meeting at a coffee house — and I do mean locked. Each time they started talking, one of them screwed up the attempt at flirting. A bell dinged, reality reset and they tried again. Would they discover the path toward romance or just annoy each other into oblivion?

It was a unique challenge — play the same microscene about 40 times with subtle differences, moving incrementally forward each time, shifting personalities and approaches without getting mixed up. She and her partner, Vineet Kumar, pulled it off with aplomb. It was a marvel to watch, and the energy coming off them made you believe they could actually be a real couple. After so many years, she still finds new ways to impress me.

Her performance was fascinating. Unlikely. Energetic. Coquettish. Powerful. And deliciously prickly, as one theater critic for The New York Times called her in the 1990s.

And it intimidated the crap out of me.

I had auditioned for this expecting to land a bit part and be half anthropologist, half participant. Instead, somehow, I landed a lead in a two-person play about a middle-aged man (me) struggling with relationships with women who becomes convinced he is not only gay but attracted to his gay best friend. I didn’t even think I could learn the lines, much less master the subtleties necessary to demonstrate in public that I wasn’t a complete moron.

Weeks passed. I went through what I had seen her go through so many times — readings, rehearsals, memorization, intense sessions with my scene partner Tomas, discussion of motivation and, finally, dress rehearsals.

All the while, she was doing the same thing with her play. And this time, instead of merely observing her, I was feeling it too. In my mind, I could feel the blank, wet cement of my photocopied script solidifying into something real. I could feel for myself, for the first time, what she had told me about all these years with fire in her eyes — the ingredients (script, actors, director, stage and the possibility of the story that lurked behind it all) simmering and blending and becoming, against all odds, a recipe that could legitimately be put out on the table.

On the night of the first performance, I paced the crowded dressing room with people in all manner of costumes. I checked the props (two Tiger beer bottles filled with water) obsessively. I looked at the other actors. As the short plays began to unspool onstage, one room over, I watched my wife, the pro. She was not pacing. She was doing nothing but quietly thinking and chatting with others. She was a cucumber. I was an overripe habañero about to burst and blind everyone in sight with corrosive pepper juice.

The brief but delightful period last year when I shared a stage with my wife. I am the less attractive male in the photo. (Photo ©2017, Charles Dharapak)

It helped, just a little, that our director — worried that our beer bottles would spill when we came out to our “barstools” in the dark — had thought to add a quick cameo at the beginning of the play — a waitress bringing us our drinks. Recruited to play the waitress was my wife, so we managed to share a stage briefly — something that now we can always say that we did together. Her presence at the beginning of the performance calmed me. Which I needed. My longtime internal bragging — “I’m honestly not worried about this. I do lots of public speaking and I love speaking to audiences” — proved as inaccurate as it was arrogant.

Many of my friends who knew about the play were intrigued by the fact that it ended with … well, I suppose if you really want to know how it ended, you’ll have to watch it. That’s OK. It’s only 10 minutes. But here is what was in my mind when I went out there on that stage to try to pull off this ill-fated excursion into her world:

I am dabbling. This is her craft. I cannot begin to approach anything she can do. I should just let go, just give it my best shot, and try to channel and modulate whatever comes out.

I remember very little about the actual performances. What I remember most, and what will stick in my mind forever, was the moment after the show was over when we did a curtain call. I got to stand there with her. For me, a kid from Pittsburgh, it was kind of like getting to stand out in right field alongside Roberto Clemente.

On stage, as the applause ebbed, she looked at me. She looked like she was proud of me.

Lights.

Husband-wife curtain call. (Photo ©2017, Charles Dharapak)

My performance that night was not a total screwup. People I respect said some very nice things about it. That pleased me. But it wasn’t the point of why I did it, and it’s certainly not the point of why I’m writing this.

My point is this:

You can spend 20 years of your life with someone: Sleep in the same bed, travel the same paths, cook and eat the same meals, create and parent the same children, cry shared tears over personal and marital failures. You can do all that, over and over, through pain and ecstasy and beyond. And no matter what, there is always more.

There are always more ways to find fresh miles to walk in their shoes.

There is always more work to be done to empathize, to understand, to appreciate that how YOU see a person, no matter how close to you she is, is not the only way to see that person.

There are always more roles to play, more lines to learn, more butterflies to overcome, more opportunities to ask: “What’s your motivation?” There are always more dressing rooms and enticing in-between spaces that will help you learn about the one you love, and probably about yourself as well. Walk in. Look around.

And as long as hearts beat and legs carry, there will always be more stages to glide onto — together and apart, always building, always learning, always trying to find one more way to say: Oh — this is who you really are. Please show me more.

Show me more.

Fade to … not black, exactly, but something better. Something cloudy and misty and unformed. Something still to be discovered.


With thanks to Elise Meleisea, Suman C. Tharan, Mimi Carter and Bonnie Zellerbach of Bangkok Community Theater.



Ted Anthony, a writer based in Pittsburgh and New York who recently moved back from four years living in Thailand, is a Baby Boomer by generation and a Gen-Xer by age. He has been dissecting and musing about American culture since Guns N’ Roses was on the charts and “Rain Man” was in the theaters. He is the author of Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song. He tweets here, Instagrams here and collects various fragmentary images and thoughts on Tumblr here.

©2018 |Ted Anthony


One performance night — before going into the Star-On Machine. Photo ©Ted Anthony, 2017.

Ted Anthony

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Exploring and understanding storytelling and how it shapes our lives. My tools: Words, images, thoughts, memories, connections, history ... and, maybe, wisdom.