I did not know I had a thunderbelly. Rowen Haigh Mahoney, and the Women’s Theatre Festival, changed all that.
I had the pleasure of working with Rowen during Bare Theatre’s Two “Gentlemen” of Verona. She taught me much about using my body to inform the character from the outside in--a concept with which I was not entirely familiar, nor entirely comfortable. I tend to work from the inside out. The old school way of thinking is that Who I Am informs How I Move. I was asked to flip that: How I Move makes me Who I Am.
Rowen is a very different kind of director. Kate Tarker is a different kind of writer. WTF is a different kind of theatre festival. And Thunderbodies, if you had not noticed, is a very different kind of play. We were a different kind of cast and crew, too.
Thunderbodies developed, in some ways, from the outside in for me. I was working on Henry VI: The War of the Roses as rehearsals began for WTF. I came into Thunderbodies with fewer than three weeks of rehearsals to go before opening. Needless to say, my proverbial underpants did not remain unsoiled for long.
I have never been an actor with much of a comfort zone (or really a person with a comfort zone for that matter). I’ll pretty much do anything in service of a production. However, I have a lot of body consciousness. I’m very aware of how I look and how I appear on stage. I often worry that I might be looking a bit chubby or clunky or that I might start shaking (which happens when I’m nervous). It is oftentimes forgotten that male performers experience these insecurities, sometimes in crippling ways. Appearing shirtless in Reefer Madness last season was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done on stage.
I could not read Thunderbodies in one sitting. The first two pages were so bizarre that I had to step away and wrap my head around it. “What have I gotten myself into?” The first rehearsal was terrifying, though I probably didn’t show it. The process was quite organic and I really just started with the first line and went through it, trying not to “think too much” (something I do a lot). When I do, I get into my head, into my body, and shut down.
The opening mantra of the play: “I have a thunderbelly; thunderbelly, thunderbelly, thunderbelly…” had me stumped. The script says it’s Michail’s daily affirmation. He’s a military general, one of the greatest war heroes of all time, but has never left his office. How does this guy move? Is he fluid and care-free? Is he rigid and militaristic? Is he as self-conscious as I am? I realized during performances that I had been doing this mantra with my eyes closed almost the entire time. This was not an acting choice. I was embarrassed by what I was exposing, that insecurity around my physical movement (I am not a dancer), and I didn’t want to see the audience at all.
But bigger is better. The more I threw my belly into the mantra, the more forcefully I shouted and more powerfully I projected Michail’s persona, the easier it got. It wasn’t about pulling back, it was about pushing forward. I used Michail as a shield to protect Dustin from self-consciousness.
There’s this whole “playing straight” thing, too. It’s by-and-large the root of my insecurities with physical movement. When given an option for a character interpretation, he will tend to lean effeminate or deformed. What do we do with Speed in Two “Gentlemen of Verona”? Let’s make him the sassy gay friend! It means that I can push forward rather than pulling back--covering up those minor mannerisms with big bold gestures. The audience sees a gay character rather than just a gay actor.
That’s why I do voices with most characters. That’s why I look for work that is as far away from Dustin as possible. Old men, uptight administrators, rednecks, soldiers. If I can hide behind something, I am safe from my own mannerisms.
What Rowen allowed me to do with Michail Golden was to let him be who he is as a character. He loves this woman, Grotilde, yes. But the fact that he’s male isn’t really part of the conversation. He doesn’t quite fit either gender binary with 100% fidelity. When he goes off to war he takes red oven mitts and a copy of Bridget Jones’s Diary (my own addition). He uses lipstick to make his war paint. He wears makeup, but in an attempt to appear more masculine (oh, the irony). The makeup-as-war-paint metaphor was not lost on Michail or Dustin.
I found that if I stopped thinking about Michail’s body and started thinking about his mind, the physicality fell into place. By the time we closed, I wasn’t thinking about his body anymore. It was all character and it all just came out. When Michail shits his pants on stage, it was a moment I had been dreading since the very first rehearsal. By the time we got to the show, I wasn’t concerned. I pushed forward (I guess?) rather than holding back. Playing the Crab Monster became easier each day because I stopped thinking about his movement so much.
In a strange way, WTF encouraged me to find the femininity within an otherwise purely masculine character. Combining the two made Michail more dynamic and far more interesting to play and watch.
Rowen gave me a fantastic piece of direction: keep moving forward. Never back away. The Women’s Theatre Festival is good for women. It is also good for men. A safe space is a safe space and WTF allowed me, as a male actor, to fight with some of my body image demons in an artistic space that encouraged discussion and exploration.
I am not a dancer.
I am not butch.
But I am an actor.
A character actor.
And I have a thunderbelly.
To read more from Dustin Britt, check out his blog Facebook.com/holdthepopcorn, his theatre reviews, and find him on twitter @dkbritt85
Headshot by Douglas Lally
Thunderbodies photo by Elizabeth Anderson