The Part For Me…For Part of Me // by Marin Ireland
The only thing standing between actress Marin Ireland and the role of a lifetime is herself.
I tried my best to get out of playing Alma.
The only times I did plays in New York that weren’t brand-new, they were not received well. My work in particular. I believe the term “miscast” was used.
I had done the Transport Group/Classic Stage Company reading of Summer and Smoke a year earlier, and it felt like the biggest gift, just to have a low-stakes, high-gain experience inside of a brilliant play.
They asked me to do the full production, and I thought they were nuts. They could get literally anyone to play a Tennessee Williams heroine, and bigger names than me would guarantee box office numbers that smaller companies need. Besides that, I believed I was NO one’s idea of Alma. She is historically imagined (at least this is what I thought to be true) as a delicate flower, a prudish anemic ice queen reptile with asthma.
I tend to be thought of as someone who plays women who do lots of yelling, and who are feral and unwashed and throw chairs at ex-boyfriends or otherwise attack people. I was the wrong person. Or at least, everyone who came to see it would think so.
But I said yes because I know a blue moon when I see one. And I’m occasionally not that big of an idiot, even when it might be at my own expense.
Then, right before we started, I ended up reprising Martyna Majok’s Ironbound in Los Angeles. It’s a play where I don’t leave the stage, I have a Polish accent, and do lots of yelling and attack people, and I cry so much I have to put professional grade skin protectant on my face to prevent chapping from all the salt.
I always show up off-book for the first rehearsal of everything. It’s just how my anxiety brain operates. So, I had to start learning Alma in LA. And I am not exaggerating when I tell you all that I COULD NOT DO IT. The words would not go in. I tried everything—I recorded them and listened, I spoke short chunks over and over in a loop, I wrote them down longhand—nothing worked. I couldn’t even make my mouth do the southern accent. And the more I couldn’t do it, the more the sheer volume of words seemed to grow. Alma does not shut up. Mountains, waterfalls, apocalyptic traffic jams of words.
Memorizing is a pain in the ass. But it’s usually the boring part of the job that I can slog through just fine. I panicked. I thought, this is a bad sign. This is not working. This is not my part.
I was exhausted and scared. Really scared. Like, really really. And I didn’t want to let Tennessee down.
The only responsible thing seemed to be to quit. There was plenty of time for them to recast, I thought, they’d be relieved to get someone more famous, all of that. I took one last read through the whole play, just to be sure of what I was giving up.
I got to Scene 11, the big bloody beating heart of the play, the scene people have to do in drama school. When Alma comes to John for the last time, when she’s found out about his engagement, when she says to him, “Why didn’t it happen between us? Why did it fail?” It’s exquisite. And I burst into tears reading it. Which, I realized, is what happened to me every time I looked at it. I have full-body chills just writing the words. They feel like they’re inside of my veins. Trying to get out.
I wrote to my agents and said, should I quit this job? I feel like I’m going to fail. EPICALLY. Like past the point of recovery. AND YET. Every time I read it; I can’t stop crying. They were like, you’re the one who has to do it. So, it’s up to you. (Bless them.)
I sat down and decided to just try to learn ONE speech. Climb one little hill. Not even from the first scene! Just a random one. So, I went to Scene 2. Alma just nails her mom with a real banger, a number one hit single you can really dance to—she goes for broke. I wanted to start with a fun one.
It worked. I don’t know why. Maybe I’d given up? Maybe I was too scared at the beginning staring up at Everest? Maybe I had to break off something bite-sized? I wish I knew that answer. But then I could learn all of that scene. And then I jumped to something else, a speech in the middle of Scene 1. I learned that. And then I learned a short scene, Scene 7, I think. I’d never worked like this before. I worked on the giant speeches in Scene 11 next. They felt like ones I should know better than anything. (I understood that if I went chronologically, I’d be the most unsteady on the most important stuff.) And by then I had so many songs of hers I could sing, in the car, or when I couldn’t sleep, or when I made coffee in the morning.
I still didn’t know how to play her though.
We started work. I showed up. I told everyone in the room I didn’t know what I was doing. I did things anyway. I told Jack (Cummings, our director) that I knew Alma was supposed to have all these eccentricities but I was scared if I started with them it would be a hollow egg of a performance, and I didn’t understand her yet. I hoped that if I started honestly, then all those affectations would just grow out of her, sprout like leaves. Like flowers.
I wanted to let her be funny, and dirty, and strange. I wanted her to be as lonely and sad as I felt climbing that hill. I knew this was a chance that I would never get again. And I knew that the only way not to squander it was to bring everything in me. So that meant all of my shame, all of my fear, all of my loneliness and rage and desperation. This was a chance to take the ride all the way to the end. This was a part that takes you as high and as far as you are willing to go. And I knew that if—WHEN—I failed epically in the eyes of the public, that if I had left it all out on the floor, I would be able to hold my head up and say, at least I gave it everything I had. I used these moments of my little life to their fullest.
Which, of course, is how Alma feels. By the end of the play.
These parts teach us why they come to us when they do. Every time. They lead us through moments in our lives. They teach us how to keep going, how to show up and move through and stand tall.
The part of me that didn’t believe I could do it was the part that was already her. I do believe in something like destiny when it comes to these things. It didn’t work, I was still struggling, I was still fighting—until I gave over, let her sing her songs through me, gave in completely. All the reasons I wanted to run from her were also the destination. I was right for the part, exactly because I felt wrong.
I needed her to lead me through the shame. The failure. The epic fear. To the other side. Which is bleak, for her, yes. But also, a release. She finally said the things she could never say. She did it.
After every performance, I felt skinned. I was all nerves. I’ve also never felt so entirely surrendered. Things happened I didn’t plan on. Flowers and leaves.
I’m grateful. To her. To Tennessee. I miss her. She turned me inside out. She taught me so much. About many things, but especially about giving up. Okay, she said. Go ahead, give up. She said.
And see what happens next.
About the author: