Marissa Skudlarek, really making time on the blog.
Two weeks from today, The Desk Set, the play I’m acting in, will open! Aside from a few Theater Pub one-offs, this is my first acting role in seven years. In a lot of ways, I’m in my element: the cast is full of fun-loving, enthusiastic, nerdy people; my role is small but memorable; I get to wear 1950s dresses and dance a tango. In other ways, I’m being asked to step outside of my comfort zone. I’m teaching basic swing-dance moves to the other actors, something I’ve never done before. I’m playing a platinum-blonde, buxom, sexy secretary, which, if you know me in real life, is pretty much the opposite of typecasting. And, I have to do my first-ever stage kiss.
Consider this column, then, a sort of companion piece to Allison Page’s “If You’re Sexy And You Know It, Clap Your Hands,” from two years ago. There, Allison wrote about playing Rita, the romantic lead in Prelude to a Kiss, and how to get over the awkwardness and embarrassment that can arise when you’re asked to play a “vixen-y, sexually free, comfortably seductive” character.
In some ways, my task might be easier than Allison’s. The tale of Peter and Rita in Prelude to a Kiss is a love story for the ages; the same cannot be said for Richard and Elsa in The Desk Set. My kissing scene is meant to be comical, not seriously sexy or romantic. I’m trying to make the audience laugh rather than trying to convince them of the purity and strength of my love – and I know how to make people laugh!
But where Allison found that she didn’t have to “act sexy,” she just had to focus on Rita’s emotions, that’s not really an option for me. My character, Elsa, is as cartoonish a sex symbol as Jessica Rabbit, and the humor of the scene lies in the contrast between her overwhelming sexuality and Richard’s repression and awkwardness. There are some real elements of 1950s kitsch to The Desk Set, and Elsa is one of them. She’s an archetype that grounds the play in the era when blonde bombshells like Marilyn Monroe made Americans both fascinated and uncomfortable. That’s the whole point of her scene, and it means that I need to do a Monroe-esque version of “acting sexy.” Walking with a shoulders-back, chest-out, hip-swaying sashay. Affecting a breathy, cooing voice.
This is where the whole opposite-of-typecasting thing comes into play. In real life, I was a late bloomer; I didn’t even kiss anybody till I was halfway through college. I’m over-thinky and self-doubting, and a drama teacher once told me that my acting was “too cerebral.” I’m tall, introverted, and not particularly curvaceous, which means that when I make an effort, I usually strive for “regal, elegant, and charming,” not “cute, bubbly and sexy.” Audrey Hepburn, not Marilyn Monroe, has always been my ’50s actress of choice.
So it was quite a trip to be offered my first acting role in seven years and find that the character is a flirtatious, shameless floozy — the opposite of cerebral. Did my being cast as Elsa mean that other people perceive me as sexier than I perceive myself? But The Desk Set is a comedy and Elsa is a comedic character — so if nerdy, librarian-ish me gets cast as the sexy girl, is that just meant to add another layer to the joke? (See, I told you I was over-thinky and self-doubting.)
But at our first read-through, I discovered — to my own and my castmates’ surprise — that I can manage the cartoonishly-sexy thing when needed. It feels more like mimicry, or like putting on a costume, than like “serious” (i.e., Stanislavskian) acting, but as I said, the role is written very broadly and that’s what it calls for. And to further refine my sexy persona, I started reading The Bombshell Manual of Style, because in real life, I’m such a nerd that I think I need to read a book in order to learn how to act like a 1950s bombshell. Also, because I have a not-so-secret weakness for style books and girly things.
As for the stage kiss, I rehearsed it for the first time on Sunday. I won’t lie, I felt kind of awkward doing it. But at the same time, I know I’m an adult and a professional, and so is my scene partner, and the awkwardness was at a “This is pretty weird, but I can manage it” level, not a “This is mortifying, I want to hide in a hole and die” level. As I said, I can be an overly cerebral actor, so any physical action that I have to do onstage is going to be a little awkward at first, and will take practice to get right. I might feel uncomfortable kissing someone onstage for the first time, but I’d also feel uncomfortable if you asked me to do archery or throw a football, you know?
Because I haven’t had any acting roles since I was twenty, and because I was such a late bloomer, that means that the bulk of my romantic and sexual experience has come during the years when I took a break from acting. I used to associate being an actor with feeling the way I did in high school — awkward and neurotic and virginal. But now it’s time to forge some new associations. I realized that, while I may not stick out my chest and coo and giggle when I’m doing it, I have been the pursuer; I have made the first move or initiated the first kiss. Initially, I thought my being cast as Elsa was entirely counter-intuitive, but now I accept that there’s a little bit of Elsa in me.
You can see Marissa Skudlarek do her best blonde bombshell impression in The Desk Set at EXIT Theatre from July 9 to 25. Tickets here.