“Nicole didn’t do it. I did it!”
I can feel the space vibrating from the intensity in my voice. I swallow hard, then take out the red-stained knife from the pocket of my blue gingham dress and hold it up for everyone to see. People gasp. I watch the light bounce off the shiny plastic tip before throwing it on the table.
“I killed Harriet Conners because she knew the secret,” I say as calmly as if I’m explaining that there’s a slight chance of rain tomorrow. Then it hits me. My eyes widen, and I stare at the knife on the table like it’s a cobra about to attack. I look at all the people around me and scream, “I killed Harriet Conners because she knew what happened. She knew what happened on the seesaw!”
I fall onto my knees. First I’m quietly weeping, then I am sobbing, and then I become fully
hysterical and collapse flat on the floor. I can hear gasps of horror all around me now that everyone knows the truth. Tears pour out of my eyes, and my body writhes on the floor like a piece of bacon in a blazing hot frying pan. I pound my fists and kick my feet before coming back up to my knees and screaming at the top of my lungs, “I did it. I KILLED HARRIET CONNERS!”
For a few seconds there is complete silence. An undeniable tension saturates everyone and everything.
Then I hear a familiar creaking from above me. Without even looking up, I know the heavy red velvet curtain is beginning to fall. I don’t stop crying until the gold fringe has hit the floor of the stage, and even then I give it one last good sob. As if on cue, I begin to hear the most beautiful sound in the world. Applause. The thick curtain muffles the thunder, but I can still tell the audience is going wild.
The lights flip from the warm, carefully constructed pools of illumination intended to highlight the drama onstage to the workday fluorescent lights that help the actors move around backstage. Intermission is only fifteen minutes long, and the entire set needs to change from classroom to courtroom.
I quickly get out of the way so the stage crew can get to work.
I wipe the stage tears from my eyes, and as soon as I do I notice real tears are at the ready just behind them. I can’t believe this is my final performance.
I’ve been playing the role of Kimberly Ann Fortunato, the girl who lies, cheats, and schemes to cover up the murder of her best-friend-turned-middle-school-rival, Harriet Conners, in the off-Broadway production of Seesaw for One
for the past three months. We were originally scheduled to run only for the month of July, but great reviews allowed us to extend our run through the end of August to Labor Day. My performance was often singled out. One theater critic wrote, “Isabel Marak Flores delivers a powerful and truthful performance that is not
to be missed.” I printed that review out and put it in my scrapbook. A review like that is something an actress dreams of.
Of course, the theater is a group effort. Everyone from the wardrobe mistress to the director has a part in creating the onstage magic, so no one artist can ever take credit for the success of a production. It’s a team sport, and sometimes that’s the part I like best—a whole group of artists pulling together to
create something beautiful and meaningful for an audience. Still, it was wonderful to be noticed for my work. I was especially satisfied that the critic called my work “truthful.” For an actor, that is the ultimate compliment. Acting isn’t just pretending and playing dress-up. You must be
the character. It takes discipline, dedication, and seriousness to do it well. My dream is to make it as a serious actress on Broadway one day, and each role brings me one step closer to that goal.
I only have a short amount of time between the curtain going down on act one and going up on act two, and I not only have to change, but I also have to do my vocal exercises and my meditation. While act one ends with my confession, act two is really where I put my dramatic skills to the test, so I need to be prepared.
“Isabel, that was amazing. Your best performance yet,” Timothy Jackson says to me as I make my way backstage toward my dressing room, which is on the upstairs balcony. Mr. Jackson is the director, and he cast me in the role of Kimberly. He is the recipient of two Tony nominations and debuted his one-man show at Lincoln Center to standing ovations a few years ago. I respect him
very much, and I’m grateful he believes in me.
“Thank you, Mr. Jackson,” I tell him. “I’ve learned so much from you as a director.”
“Well, I hope you’ll continue to learn,” he says.
“What do you mean?” I ask as we keep walking toward the upstairs dressing rooms.
Before he can answer, Hilda, the woman who coordinates the costumes, hair, and makeup, interrupts us. “Sorry, Mr. Jackson, I need to put her hair in a bun for the courtroom scene.” There is not enough time during intermission to sit in a proper hair-and-makeup chair and be done up. Hilda grabs an actor where she can and does what she needs to do. Backstage is always chaos, but it is an organized chaos that I love.
“Oh, of course, go right ahead, Hilda,” Mr. Jackson says. We both stop at the foot of the stairs that lead to the dressing rooms. “I probably shouldn’t tell you anything until after tonight’s performance anyway. Closing-night nerves, I guess.”
Hilda steps behind me and starts brushing my hair, but I can’t help wondering what Mr. Jackson means.
“Is everything okay?” I ask. “Did I do something wrong?”
“Oh heavens, no. Everything is fine. You haven’t
done anything wrong
at all. In fact, you’ve been doing everything right. Quite right indeed.”
Hilda takes one last sweep with her brush, then twists my hair into one long piece and wraps it into a tight bun, which she fastens with a few bobby pins before lightly spraying the back of my head with some hair spray. Mr. Jackson quietly watches the transformation.
“You’re all set, Isabel. Knock ’em dead.” She pauses and adds, “Oh, wait. You already did that.” She laughs at her own joke, then rushes off to get another actor ready for act two.
Mr. Jackson and I quickly climb the stairs to my dressing room. Once we are at the top, I look down at the stage and see that the army of a stage crew is in the middle of its orchestrated set change. A few men attach ropes to the walls of the classroom, and with a quick signal the walls suddenly float straight up past the balcony area where the dressing rooms are and into the theater’s rafters. The walls of the courtroom pass the classroom walls like ships on a lake as they slowly descend from their perch above the stage. The crew hold their arms up for the arrival of the new scenery, prepared to safely secure it into place. Sometimes I think we should keep
the curtain up during intermission so the audience could see how much work goes into the set change. In my opinion, it’s as precise and challenging as everything else that happens onstage and, as my parents always remind me, “Where there is beauty, there is art.”
“Isabel,” Mr. Jackson says, “I wanted to tell you something rather important.”
“Let me get the necklace for act two out of my dressing room,” I say. My character chews the chain of her necklace while she’s on trial. It’s a little character quirk I developed after a few weeks of intense rehearsal.
I swing open the door to my dressing room, saying, “C’mon in Mr. Jack—” But as soon as I see what’s inside, I freeze. How in the world did . . . ? I don’t even finish my thought. I quickly pull the door shut, hoping Mr. Jackson didn’t see what I just saw.
“Is everything all right?” he asks.
“Oh, fine,” I say, quickly thinking of some excuse to keep him out of my dressing room. “I just remembered that old superstition. Never let your director in your dressing room on closing night. It’s bad luck.”
He tilts his head to the side and looks at me strangely for a second. “I thought I knew every theatrical superstition that exists, but I must admit, that’s a new one.”
I laugh nervously, hoping he won’t ask to come in anyway.
“At any rate, I should let you prepare,” Mr. Jackson says. “Normally I wouldn’t distract you with this, but I want to make sure you have time afterward to meet someone very important. Do make sure you see me before you leave for the cast party. Won’t you?”
Before I can ask who it is he wants me to meet, Sean, the stage manager, who I think was born with a walkie-talkie headset attached to his head, walks past us and without missing a step says, “We’re at ten minutes until the opening of act two, Miss Isabel.”
“Ten minutes, thank you,” I say. It’s protocol in the theater to acknowledge any time cue from the stage manager.
“I had better get back to my seat,” Mr. Jackson says. “Break a leg. I know you’ll be brilliant.” He runs off down the stairs, and for a second I think about chasing after him to find out who this VIP is,
but then I realize I have narrowly escaped exposing the secret in my dressing room. I have less than ten minutes to deal with the situation, do my meditation and vocal exercises, and get back onstage for the opening of act two.