After having one of the greatest experiences of my life and a nudge from a kindhearted friend, I decided to audition for the part of Grace Fryer in the fall play — lead actress. When auditioning you write role preference, and the directors decide who you’re most fit for based on ability and cast chemistry. I auditioned for Grace, mostly for my friend, with a simmering hope at achieving something I’d always admired. I wanted a chance to challenge and prove myself.
That being said, my expectations were not high. Highland’s theatre community is overflowing with passion, talent, and hard work. While I put a lot of time and effort into my short role, I didn’t come anywhere near the years of dedication and experience many of my peers had. By the time I went to check the cast list, I’d already built excitement to see whatever veteran name may be printed next to Graces. In all honesty, I was just hoping to have gotten cast in any part at all.
Yet there it was, the first name on the list staring back at me in disbelief: Grace Fryer: Aly Propes. It took everything in me not to howl and jump and scream and dance and cry right then and there. I couldn’t believe it. I strutted around with arrogant confidence for a short while until the reality and responsibility of what I’d gotten myself into began to sink in. I was inexperienced, unenrolled from theatre, and had only ever played a comedic, six lined, crazed version of myself. On top of that, the pressure of receiving the role over more devoted and skilled students filled me with guilt.
Now, I would be taking on a character with 275 lines in a dramatic historical reenactment of the lives of real women. A mixture of remorse and fear made me want to pass on the role onto someone I felt was more deserving. In all honesty, I probably would have had a friend not talked me out of it. No, this was my opportunity to push myself; to earn my place in the community and do right by my peers, directors, and the real radium girls.
I read over the script two or three times and began seeking ways I could use my own experiences to resonate with Grace to give an honest and true performance. At first I really struggled. The lines I delivered were flat and forced, and I left rehearsals with nowhere near the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment I did in the one act. This was something that I was going to have to completely dedicate myself to. The play would become my highest priority and something I would bring new meaning, life, and energy to every single day. I went to rehearsals Monday-Friday from 2:30-4:00 or 5:00, and spent no less than an hour every day outside of rehearsals, memorizing and developing an emotional connection to my character.
The first thing that I felt a deep emotional pull to was Grace’s relationship with Tommy, her fiancé. He was sweet but ignorant, supportive but struggled to see her real needs and where and why her passions laid where they did. I used my recently severed relationship to draw a connection between me and Grace. This worked for the heavily emotional scenes and places where I was desperately aiming to get him to see me. But the painful association hindered the romantic development needed for the audience to care about our relationship at all.
I so deeply resented my ex-boyfriend and was completely shut down from who I was as a romantic. Acting endearingly or like I was in love, something that at any time before would have come naturally, felt incredibly distant. This would require emotional intervention that extended far beyond my character. It had me sorting through my feelings and experiences towards that relationship that I had never really looked at before. Understanding why I felt the way I did and where I shut myself out. It meant relearning how to see another person deserving of my love, without being afraid.
Now, I did not fall in love with Tommy in a way that carried outside of performance. But I did open myself up to him in ways that allowed me to suspend the emotion, the true emotion, for the duration of our scenes. To feel like I was in love, I needed to induce all the emotions that come from that; honesty, comfort, understanding, and stark vulnerability. I learned to see Tom in a way that I respected and cared for, finding the most beautiful and unique pieces of him to hold dear and finding empathy for his less admirable characteristics.
Then I developed an emotional connection to the evolution of Grace’s voice. Her character begins, at 15, as a selfless product of her environment. Dedicated to improving the lives of her loved ones, she quits school and goes to work at the US Radium Corporation for the financial stability of her family. She is non-confrontational, and at 18, her main focuses in life are love, friendship, and family. The past year of my life was centered around my relationship and a growing desire to improve the wellbeing of the people around me (the latter was misguided and unactualized, but nonetheless an integral part of my approach).
My world revolved around my partner. I lost all fight and my only goals became making him happy and winning back the love that was ever-so-quickly slipping out from under me. I lost my voice and forgot who I was. I spent so much of my time and energy learning to forgive and forget that rightful anger became dull. I thought it was for the best. I believed my absent emotions meant I was enlightened, saint-like, a martyr for putting my feelings and reality aside for the protection of other people’s emotional security. Until I examined the anger of Grace Fryer. Her anger was not unjustified or immoral, quite the opposite. She was powerful and progressive with a state of awareness that fought for justice and made sure that her exploitation did not go unpunished.
So I reexamined my response to my mistreatment. I came to learn that I had not forgiven and forgotten, but instead packaged away my suffering to a place where it didn’t hurt so much to exist anymore. I wasn’t enlightened, I was detached. So I pulled up my past. I dug up all the things that I had wanted so badly to forget and I felt them. I let myself feel every heart wrenching moment that overwhelmed me, that I so desperately sought to escape and run away from. I faced it. I let rage boil over until tears poured and sorrow subdued me to stillness. I learned how to feel again.
The most difficult part by far was faking intense physical exhaustion and illness. I’ve been blessed to have never faced debilitating pain or sickness, and despite its essential nature to the character, I regrettably never got this part down.
The final component to Grace Fryer was her friendship with Irene (Hailey Martin) and Kathryn (Lily Harris). It took me much too long to realize the importance of developing a strong relationship with them the way I did with Tom, and frankly I wouldn’t have been able to pull it off without Lily’s intense dedication to her character. I never got the chance to spend time with her outside of school, but spent plenty of time with Kathryn during shows.
In between scenes we would speak to each other as though we were those women. “I can’t believe she’s gone, Grace,” Kathryn (Lily) said to me after losing Irene. We would sit there and reminisce about all the things we loved about her. The things that would annoy us in the moment but that we’d ultimately miss. The tragedy, guilt, and hopelessness of losing a close friend. Sometimes we would simply sit in silence and grieve in each other’s presence, finding comfort in knowing we weren’t alone.
Opening night went beautifully. This time instead of terror on stage, I feel comfort. Peace in knowing Grace Fryer is getting what she so desperately fought for; her story is being told. The light illuminates me and I feel her speak through me with ease. Using my body and voice as a vessel to remind the audience of the loving lives that were lost to the coming waves of the future. The lives that were lost for our safety and rights.
Theatre has brought me love, community and companionship. It has given me something to be proud of and filled me with purpose. It has given me the opportunity to share something beautiful and give these women a chance to live again through art. It taught me to see myself in a way that valued the whole truth of who I am, and to see beauty in more than my joy but in my struggle too, and who I’ve grown to be because of it. As Stella Adler once said “Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.”