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Seven minutes before curtain, and backstage, the actress is warming up her voice. Aspirated and un-aspirated consonants, strung together like a garland: “P-p-p-/t-t-t/k-k-k/g-g-g.” The actress uses her diaphragm. And if you look closely, you can see the way her tongue touches the roof of her mouth for the Ts. Her lips are lovely, everyone says so, and tonight they are a deep garnet red, the same color as her dress, which is floor-length and made of silk, and was created just for her by the costume designer, a visiting professor who keeps complaining that there aren’t enough gay men in this small college town. The dress has long slits up both sides, revealing more leg than the actress would normally consider decent, and she’s still slightly self-conscious about the prospect of appearing in front of all those people (it’s a full house tonight) with so much skin on display. On the other hand, as she paces the dressing room—she likes to pace down here until her call time—she knows, thanks to the wall of mirrors, that she looks spectacular, probably better than she will ever look again in her life. She’s twenty-one and has the legs to pull off this very revealing garment—and it’s true that she’s been running more miles than usual, to make sure her legs look especially lean. And someday, when she’s say, forty, which seems, at this moment, a lifetime away, she’ll be very glad that she tread the boards in this dress, and that for six whole nights she got to be the most beautiful woman in the world. Not that she really thinks she is; she knows that she is just the most beautiful student who auditioned for The Trojan Women. It was a lot of pressure to be cast in this role: The Helen of one’s imagination will always be more beautiful than any undergraduate who gets the part. But someone had to play her, and though Cassandra is a better role—she gets to scream and tear out her hair!—the actress knows that she is more plausible, looks-wise, as a femme fatale. She has what Jonathan, the actor playing Menelaus in this production, refers to as an “equal-parts scornful and sexy face,” plus she has Hellenic coloring, and the director, Professor Firestone, goes for the obvious in that sense. It would never occur to him to cast a Helen who wasn’t blond. The actress believes in color-blind casting. Why not a black Helen? Professor Firestone also insisted on translating the play himself: His workmanlike script has none of the poetry of Edith Hamilton or the power of Sartre. It is, the actress thinks, the ultimate hubris to translate Euripedes when you can’t even read ancient Greek. Hubris, she knows, is a Greek word.
The actress is drinking plain warm water—she keeps her vocal cords well hydrated. She always avoids coffee on the afternoons of performances—caffeine dries you out. Look at her hair, the way it cascades down her back. Those are hair extensions, don’t be fooled. Her natural hair isn’t quite that long or that blond. The costume designer asked her to get highlights to match the extensions. Over Christmas break, right before she came back to school, she spent two hundred and fifty dollars at a salon in Georgetown. She wasn’t sure how much to tip everyone at the salon; she knew she had to tip the woman who washed her hair, and the one who blowdried it, and then 20 percent to the colorist, but 20 percent of his fee was such a huge sum of money that she could have used that tip to get a haircut, a normal priced haircut, or two normal priced haircuts for that matter. The actress wants to be blasé about money, but she is not. She waited a lot of tables last summer; it took her a long time to earn that cash. Unlike some people at this school, the actress does not have a trust fund. She convinced herself that getting her hair colored was money well spent, money she was required to spend to dispatch her theatrical duties, but it’s not like the costume department is going to reimburse her. The costume designer—“Call me Tony,” he says—put small rubber cups in the chest of her dress, to give her “a little lift,” he said, and that made her blush knowing that the gay visiting professor had spent enough time thinking about her boobs to know they need lifting. When he found out she was from D.C., Tony sighed and said, “I’ve had some fun in Dupont Circle, let me tell you.” The actress asked him if he ever went to Tracks, the gay club that she and her friends frequented once they were licensed to drive and could go into areas of the city that their parents didn’t approve of. “They have volleyball courts indoors, with sand and everything,” she told Tony, but he didn’t know the place.
Tonight two underclassmen did her hair and make-up—they had been meticulously trained—while the actress sat in front of a mirror with her name on it. In the dressing room she really does feel like a star. And she loves to feel like a star, but then she hates herself for it. She hates how much she loves a standing ovation. Does ovation come from ova, as in egg? Does that mean that an ovation is the beginning of something, not the end? She took six years of Latin and it really did help on her SATs. Etymology appeals to the actress. She likes to break words down into their roots. Ova-tion. The actress hates how much she enjoys the nervous approach of people on campus the day after a show; “you were amazing,” stammer professors and students alike. Sometimes they find her in the dining hall or in the library and stare at her as if she’s already famous. And then she goes back to her dorm and takes a long shower—the hotter the better—because loving the fame, however small this version of fame is, makes her feel incredibly dirty.
What is that about, this shame? She had a relatively happy childhood. Her parents are miraculously still married; she and her sister are close. All of her grandparents are dead, but she’s twenty-one, after all. They were alive when she was young; they spoiled her in the way grandparents should. Anyway the actress knows that she’s led a charmed life. She won’t argue with you on that point. She went to private school; she had piano lessons, ballet, etc. But she is suspicious of people who have always gotten what they want. Not everything can be easy. The actress suffered from the machinations of seventh grade mean girls. And she has had her heart broken—she could hardly eat for weeks after that awful night at Fort Reno—but heartbreak builds character. Speaking of characters, the actress thinks Helen of Troy is misunderstood; too many versions of the myth have turned her into a scheming seductress, but the actress believes the story is more nuanced. The actress thinks that Menelaus probably neglected Helen and made her feel invisible. Helen was lonely; Helen wanted to feel connected to another person, and Paris, with the help of Aphrodite—let’s not forget her role in all of this—made Helen feel special again. Helen was human, after all. Don’t humans need love? If you ask her, the actress will tell you about all the men she almost loved.
The make-up girls have given her false eyelashes and the actress’s eyes have never looked bigger. In the mirrors, her own beauty startles her. She will make a grand entrance; the audience will believe that she launched ships, at least a thousand of them. Opening night: her body is thrumming. Her parents are coming up for next weekend’s shows. Her call time approaches. Her co-stars will already be in the green room and she needs to head up there now. She always has intense moments of stage fright, though once she’s out under the lights, she’s fine. She’s never forgotten a line. On her way up to the green room, she tells herself to breathe, breathe! and almost runs into Jonathan on the stairs. Jonathan is pretending not to notice her, which means that she looks even better than she thought.
He kissed her once, in the wings, when they were doing Molière last spring: his powdery period make-up stained her dress. One night they got stoned and rolled around in her narrow dorm bed, but she sent him home before he could disrobe her. Off stage, he just doesn’t turn her on. It’s too bad they have to leave the costumes in the theater after the show. If Jonathan could remain in character, that thunderous Greek warrior, she might fuck him, even if Menelaus is a cuckold. The actress has decided that she will never get married.
In the green room, where the clock on the wall reads 7:58, an assistant stage manager, walkie-talkie in hand, awaits. “Places,” says the assistant stage manager, who is, the actress thinks, prettier than her dumpy overalls suggest. Officially, curtain is at 8, but the actress has never seen a show start exactly on time. SAG rules require them to start the show by 8:07, though. And in her experience, they usually begin by about 8:04. The actress has been in six main stage productions here at school. That has to be some kind of record. Jonathan takes a swill of water (cold water, the actress notes, which is not good for his throat) and swings his arms, as if he’s about to swim a race. As if he were actually athletic. What is the assistant stage manager’s name? The actress can’t remember, and not remembering makes her feel like a diva. She doesn’t want to be the kind of person who takes others for granted, who acts like she’s better than anyone else. “Thank you,” she says to the assistant stage manager in a voice that she hopes conveys gratitude and sincerity and does not reveal her total ignorance of the girl’s name. The girl is a sophomore, the actress thinks. And didn’t the girl once say that she’s from Pennsylvania somewhere? Amish country, maybe? One of those places where people rave about the bread? The actress no longer eats bread. She gave up carbs to lose a few pounds for this dress. The actress knows that she tends to stop paying attention when people tell her where they are from, unless they are from New York or D.C. or Los Angeles or San Francisco or any big city, really. The actress is a snob, she realizes, and adds it to a list of things she loathes about herself.
Jonathan is stretching his neck, moving his head back and forth, tossing his wild dark curls—how come Professor Firestone didn’t cast a fair-haired Menelaus? Though, as a rule, the actress is not attracted to blond men. Jonathan winks at her. She rolls her eyes. Why can’t he be a little more cool? Why does he have to try so hard? Actors are the worst. Almost as bad as Republicans. There are Republicans who are also actors (Ronald Reagan, duh) but the actress doesn’t know any of them personally. Jonathan does have good hair, though. He’s grown it out for this role and the actress thinks that he should never cut it. She would like to run her fingers through that hair, but that doesn’t mean she’ll allow him back into her bedroom.
She’s lucky that she has a single this year. Being a senior comes with privileges. But also terror: What will the actress do after she graduates? She still has six months here, where she’s the resident ingénue, but in New York, if she decides to pursue acting as a career, she will be one of thousands of long-haired young women, reciting sonnets and trying to make a lasting impression. The actress hates auditions. It is always humiliating to memorize a monologue, to feel so needy. There is something pathetic about actresses. Except Meryl Streep; there is nothing pathetic about Meryl Streep. The actress thinks she, the actress, would have more dignity as a writer or a lawyer. Her parents, like so many other people she knows in Washington, are lawyers. She vows to buy an LSAT prep book. Or maybe she should join the Peace Corps. She pictures herself sleeping every night under mosquito netting. She could go back to D.C., and get some kind of internship. She spent one summer interning on the Hill. She liked feeling like a grown up as she changed trains at Metro Center during her morning commute. She liked the routine, the bustle of adulthood. She liked succumbing to that current. But the actress can’t bear to be a striving nobody. God, she’s a terrible person, to care so much about status. Why does anyone want to be her friend? “One minute,” says the assistant stage manger and the actress suddenly remembers her name. “Rachel,” she says, though she didn’t mean to speak aloud, and the assistant stage manager says, with an irritated hiss, “No, I’m Rebecca.”