Creatures of habit: Actors’ routines


This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Playbill magazine in May 2012.

Metallica helped Nick Sandys get into the right frame of mind when he was playing the title character of Macbeth. The Chicago actor blasted the heavy-metal band on his car stereo as he drove to the theater. When he’s in the car en route to a performance, ames Vincent Meredith rattles off his lines. Mary Beth Fisher visualizes scenes in her mind as she runs in the afternoon, picturing the stage where she’ll be acting a few hours later. Before curtain time, Patrick Clear likes to clear his mind by napping for 20 or 30 minutes on a cot in his dressing room. Marc Grapey also chills out backstage, but he prefers listening to favorite tunes on his iPod while reading a magazine or book.

These are just a few of the routines that Chicago actors follow to make sure they’re ready to deliver a strong performance. Their strategies may differ, but they all face the same considerations; for example, when and what to eat? Actors generally like to finish dinner at least an hour before a performance. “Eating is always a conundrum,” says Grapey, a cast member in the Goodman Theatre’s Race and The Iceman Cometh. “I’ve never gotten used to eating at 5 o’clock. It’s weird.”

Sandys, artistic director of Remy Bumppo Theatre, likes to eat pasta in late afternoon. “People say, ‘Oh, you can’t do theater on pasta,’” he says. “I love eating pasta, as long as I’ve got that hour for it to process, because it gives you so many carbs and it gives me energy.” Fisher, a regular at the Goodman and Court Theatre, eats a light supper around 4 or 5 p.m. By show time, she says, “You’re pretty well digested, but you still have the calories to burn. I eat very carefully before, and then eat with complete abandon afterward — which is not so great for the waistline, but what are you going to do when you’re starving?”

During the run of a play, Fisher tries to take her days at a measured pace. “You have to moderate your energy level,” she says. “Every performer knows the amount of energy a particular show takes. You know what your reserve has to be when you get to the theater at 7:30.” Clear, whose many credits include Race at the Goodman and The March at Steppenwolf, says hobbies help his mental state. He cooks, bakes, does woodworking and weaving, relishing the pleasure of having something solid in his hands when he’s finished — something that isn’t possible with the evanescent art of theater. “There’s very little left over for us to ever step back and look at,” he says.

Actors are required to be at the theater half an hour before curtain time, but many like to arrive earlier than that. Some walk out onto the stage. “It’s about feeling at home,” Sandys relates. “I do a little stretching and breathing and moving around on the set,” offers Fisher, “just to put myself back into the geography of the play.” Grapey has practical reasons for visiting the stage. “I like to check my props,” he says. “In Race, I would make sure my chair was always exactly where I wanted it.”

Clear shows up early, too, but he’d rather spend that extra time off the stage, napping, warming up his vocal cords with some exercises, or sharing his baked treats with the cast and crew.  “I try not to have too much on my mind by the time I get to the theater,” he says. “The whole ritual of getting into the theater, signing in — it’s like I feel permission to let everything else go. By the time you get into costume and makeup and wig, you let the rest of your day go and just focus on this.” Other actors say they’re mentally preparing for their performance during those moments in the dressing room. “Sitting in front of the makeup mirror is really important,” Sandys says. “That’s another part of becoming the character for me. Even if there’s minimal makeup, it’s like you’re seeing that face change.”

When Meredith is in a show at Steppenwolf, he goes into the trap room beneath the stage. “I love being in such close proximity to the stage, but no one’s around me,” he says, describing how he speeds through his lines one more time in that hidden place. “That gives me a bit of courage when I get out onstage.”

When the show’s over, many actors like to have a drink or two with their cast mates. Others put a premium on getting a good night’s rest, so they head home. “Some people get off the stage, they get into their car and they go home,” Grapey says. “I couldn’t do that. There’s just a certain adrenaline rush that I get from being onstage. I don’t stay out all night, but I relish my post-show beer.” Sandys likes to have a ritual drink with the rest of the cast in the dressing room, especially after an intense show, such as Remy Bumppo’s 2011 production of The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? “We need to toast each other when we come off the stage to say that we have emotionally survived.”