QWERTY: My strange addiction

Post- Magazine, Brown Daily Herald, 3/9/12

Post-Magazine, Phil-Lai

Via Post- Magazine, Illustration by Phil Lai

The Gale Medical Encyclopedia defines withdrawal as “the side effects experienced by a person who has become physically dependent on a substance, upon decreasing the substance’s dosage or discontinuing its use.” This, dear reader, is the story of my withdrawal. “Say what?” you ask, “Don’t you know your future employers can read this?” But never fear. While my addiction makes me feel so good and helps me through those cold dark nights, it’s not smokeable or snortable. I’m talking about the stage.
My name is Jennifer Harlan, and I am a theatre addict. I willingly spend five to seven days a week in a room with the same twenty people for hours at a time. I read two-hundred-page scripts on top of my English homework, memorize lines in addition to Cabinet Secretaries, and skip out on senior prom, all for the sake of theatre. My non-theatre friends don’t understand. They complain of my always being busy and express astonishment at a 20 plus hours a week extracurricular. So what is it about theatre that hooks me and refuses to let go? I could wax poetic about the artistic process, elucidate on the thrill of inhabiting another character, talk effusively of the self-awareness acting brings. But really, for me, the thing that makes it all worth it is the people.
There’s a magic combination of intense time commitment, emotional vulnerability, and whispered backstage conversations that forms intense bonds between the members of a cast. A cast is a family: eating, drinking, studying, playing, and basically living together for months at a time. Especially during tech week, the cast and crew of the show are about the only faces you see. To everybody else, you might as well have dropped off the face of the earth.
The American Heritage Medical Dictionary’s definition of withdrawal emphasizes the physical and mental dependence of the patient, which necessitates significant readjustment after cessation of use. In my case, this physical and mental dependence is honed over a rehearsal process spent building an ensemble, acting like two-year olds, eighty-year olds, and myriad other animals and objects in between.
Now perhaps the intense physical dependence is a trait particular to Shakespeare on the Green, my theatre group of choice, since our outdoor shows frequently require us to “make like the penguins and huddle for warmth” (We are, therefore, the snuggliest theatre group on Brown’s campus. Our lives and frozen limbs depend on it). In addition to being snuggly, we SotGers are an extraordinarily social bunch, with regular cast parties both during and after the show. Between pizza outings and champagne toasts, we seem to double the amount of group time dictated by the rehearsal schedule. This kind of prolonged contact breeds numerous nicknames, spontaneous dance parties, and inside jokes galore, which can prove socially hazardous: It’s easy to forget that the rest of your friends won’t understand the ability of snails, baboons, or “nappy spice cakes” to reduce you to giggles.
Sadly, as with all good things in life, a show eventually draws to a close. There will be strikes, and cast parties, and impromptu Ratty dates, but nothing will ever equal the tight-knit family unit that a rehearsal process creates.
The McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine explains that withdrawal symptoms “develop within hours to several days after abrupt cessation of the substance,” causing severe discomfort but slowly dissipating over the following days and weeks. I think this progression of symptoms can be illustrated by the emails exchanged on a cast thread. From the initial, post-show “I MISS YOU ALL SO MUCH!!! ROARRRRRRR!” to the less and less frequent “We should all do dinner this week!” to the inevitable “Sorry guys, I can’t this weekend. But I miss you all!” the Gmail thread shrivels up as people return to their usual routines, their “real lives.” I have witnessed one exception to this first-week trajectory, a group so single-mindedly devoted to continued social interaction that Gmail had to start another thread to accommodate our 100+ messages (Now that was cast love!). But, unfortunately, that’s not usually the case.
And so I find myself back in familiar territory. Midterms and papers fill the void left in my rehearsal-less evenings, and the highlight of my day has become a spontaneous encounter with the people who just the other week were my husband, lover, or stage manager.
My name is Jennifer Harlan, and I am a theatre addict. It’s been 11 days since my last performance. And I can’t wait to get back.

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