I remember, as though it were yesterday (although it most definitely was not), going to the National Theatre in London for the first time. I had just arrived for my semester abroad, in my junior year of college. The show I saw was Murmuring Judges, by David Hare. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it – it’s a piece of political theater, very specific to British criminal justice concerns of the early 90s, and I’m not sure it’s ever been produced here in the United States. Honestly, it’s not the play itself I remember – one or two snatches of dialogue, a tableau here or there, that’s about it. No, it’s something else – a display I had never seen before. (On the off chance you do know the play, you might be thinking I’m talking about the nudity, and yeah, that was memorable as well – I won’t get into why – but it’s not like I’d never seen naked people before.) An image seared into my impressionable brain.
Whenever the light hit these supremely well-trained British theatre actors just right, you could see these great clouds of saliva droplets forming with every line they declaimed. For the most experienced of them, those clouds appeared to measure several feet across, and hung in the air for several seconds. They looked, for all the world, like cartoon thought bubbles; it would not have been impossible, with the right technology, to project the dialogue they were speaking upon them.
It’s become a theatrical cliché, of course – this notion that the spray of saliva is a mark of a serious theater actor. It means one’s instrument has been properly trained, the diaphragm working as strongly as it should, the facial mask nice and loose and emotive. The saliva’s a bi-product of all that physical technique, a sure sign that one has the proper skills to trod the boards. The concept’s even been immortalized in a Friends episode, of all things, with Joey learning this lesson from Very Serious British Thespian Gary Oldman. And indeed, back in the carefree days of the late 90s, this is the sort of thing you could have a laugh about.
But it’s 2022. And if you’ll pardon the expression, all of this…lands a bit different now.
I’m currently performing in New Ambassadors’ Blurring Boundaries festival, in a one-act written by John Peña Griswold. It’s the first time I’ve been on stage – not acting while sitting behind a laptop or gesticulating in a makeshift home studio, but actually performing on a physical stage – since the pandemic began. (The covid-19 pandemic, that is – I believe we’re up to three simultaneous pandemics now. Lucky us.) And it was as much a delight to get back into a rehearsal studio, script in hand, and interact with another performer as it is to hear a live audience laughing at our antics now. But along with that came the return of another sensation – the feel of tiny droplets, from another actor’s spittle, upon my skin as they spoke their lines.
A sensation which I’ve never felt quite as keenly as now. Nor have I ever been as hyperaware of the concussive force of another actor’s breath, or of the rise in air temperature as those sound waves reach your ears, as I have been during these rehearsals and performances. It should be ridiculous – this is just basic biology and physics we’re talking about here. But it isn’t, of course, not when we’re all wearing KN95 masks whenever we’re offstage, in the desperate hope of keeping each other safe from whatever airborne pathogens have been unleashed upon the world this week.
Just another thing to be conscious of, I suppose, another challenge in the endless parade of challenges you wind up facing to get even the simplest of shows up on its feet. And as is ever the case, the goal is to address those challenges as completely as possible ahead of time, so you can be as present and “in-the-moment,” as undistracted as possible, when it’s actually time to perform.
To that end, my scene partner makes a point of gargling with mouthwash before each and every show. Which I definitely appreciate.