Kristin Conrad in The Penelopiad
She stepped on stage and was a child again; she’d been here before. She was tree #1 and Goldilocks and Dorothy; all the roles she’d ever been and all the roles she’d ever wanted to be. On stage the characters spoke through her every night and every night she spoke through them, until the show was over and it was time to start all over again.
Practice your lines, learn the choreography, laugh and cry, and fall down and get back up again.
Last night she was Naiad, mother of Penelope in Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad. For this she had to become the motif of a play: the Naiad, the water element that made everything flow. She was an ancient nymph who helped the wife of Odysseus cope with her fidelity in the age of unfaithful men who waged wars for the ownership of women. But when I met her she was Kristin Conrad, graduate student at Ohio University getting a master’s in theatre. Kristin Conrad, mid-twenties with the keys of her first apartment in the pocket of her cardigan. Kristin Conrad, with an engagement ring on her finger and golden, carrot-colored hair and a genuine smile for people who had the decency to give one back.
She was an actress and her story was this:
Kristin started doing theatre when she was young. She did the Christmas pageants and school plays that came around every year and it kept her happy and occupied. But her focus as a youth wasn’t becoming a movie star, it was becoming a concert hall star. Violin and piano music, the kind that a child plays with a sour note here and there, echoed through her mother and father’s house in those nostalgic days of her childhood. But they weren’t the kind of parents who yelled or complained, or at least not as some parents do. So soon those notes got better and the music got more complicated until they had a child who they’d introduce as talented, a virtuoso.
And a virtuoso she was. Summer arts academies, choir and orchestra, classical and contemporary. But Kristin didn’t grow up to be a concert hall star. Music wasn’t enough.
In high school that music prodigy discovered she was an actress at heart. Not the Hollywood kind, but the kind who practiced her lines at dinner and came home in the early hours of the morning with smeared costume makeup and sweat on her brow. There were always new people to be and faces to try on. Some nights the turnout was great and that was wonderful. But it was art and art the same if the seats weren’t full.
As a master’s student and an actress the stages aren’t getting any easier to make a living on, but Kristin goes where the demand goes. At the end of the day Kristin chose this because it was the only thing she could do. It was her way of making a difference, as most of us strive to do. Actresses like Kristin work in between expectations and reality. Theatre is a mirror of society to her within which a dialogue exists between the performance and the audience. Theatre interacts with culture; it comments and critiques it. The need for the play at one’s local arts festival may not be as tangible as groceries or medical care, but the need for art to improve oneself will never go out of demand.
But why live life as a mirror, and how does one not crack? How can someone tell a story every night and breathe life into a stage that society has historically let die?
When I asked Kristin this she smiled, and her monologue was this:
“I believe that as a society we are very callused and we are very distanced from one another anymore. True connection is lacking in society and empathy and compassion don’t exist at a level that I would like to see. There’s far too little interaction, there’s far too much social media usage in lieu of actually sitting and talking to one another. I think the reason I continued to do art and tell stories is because I want to impact a change in our generation and generations to come.
“As a performer you embody so many different life stories, and so many different characters and so many different outlooks on life and so you have to have empathy. But to help audiences learn that as well is what’s important. It becomes, how can we improve the human experience? How can we be better humans? And hopefully art done well helps in that aim.”
Art done well is the aim of any actor, writer, or novice wanting to make an impact on the story of someone else’s life. How else would a human know that the pain of life is universal and that love and stress and comedy are part of the human condition?
So as an artist and human myself here is my part in this story:
After I met Kristin and interviewed her I knew a little bit about her story and I felt a little bit like a better human. After I saw The Penelopiad I was impressed with the show. I could’ve written a critique about the feminism of Margaret Atwood and how this work reflects her artistic messages, and how the artists portrayed them. But as a journalist I too come in contact with a world that is far too often not interested in the dialogue of life. As a writer I have an urge to ask the questions that need to be asked to improve society.
So as a writer with my own story who speaks through the characters of my interviewees I will leave you with a line from The Penelopiad that Kristin memorized and acted out as the Naiad on opening night. That night she was a water nymph whose skirt became the ocean. I was in the audience having an experience and making a memory. But did it truly change me; have a lasting impact? I don’t know.
And now that the narration is over, the question is this:
How can we expect to make a difference as artists?
Naiad: “Water is patient, and dripping water wears away a stone.”