Mhari Sandoval plays Annie in In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play.
Working on a play is like being a detective, and a little like being an inventor. Every line is a clue, it’s a piece of the puzzle. For actors, the focus is on the character. The larger a character is, the more clues there are in the script, and the more fully the character is defined. The smaller the role, the fewer the clues provided, and the more the actor is required to imagine who this person is and why they do what they do. In every case the actor creates as fully realized a human as they can from the clues in the script fleshed out by their imaginations. All of that work is then formed and informed by the director and designers, as well the actors they share the stage with, and over the course of a few short weeks a world full of people is invented.
The list of explicitly stated clues about Annie, my character in In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play, is a short one. We’re told that she’s both a mid-wife and a nurse. She didn’t want to be a teacher. She grew up on a farm. She’s over 33. She speaks Greek and reads Greek philosophers. She’s sometimes absent when Dr. Givings is seeing patients, but we’re not told why or where she is. She’s fairly quiet (at least at work). She’s unmarried. As I looked at that data set, the number of ways I could imagine Annie was dizzying. How to assemble what I knew with everything I could imagine into a coherent character that would serve the playwright and our production? Fortunately, one is never alone in the theater.
As the company assembled to begin work on In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play, I saw Annie as a warm and smiling comfort to Dr. Giving’s nervous patients, a human version of good bedside manners, and a foil to Dr. Givings. Soon, director Jeff Binder and I were experimenting with her being extremely reserved and more clinical. A radical difference. We started looking for ways to make her more of a foil to the other women in the play, rather than to the doctor. (After all, though both she and Elizabeth work, Annie works in a male dominated field requiring education. She’s also the only woman who’s not married. She’s different.) We talked about how Annie moves, how she holds her hands, her manner of speaking – how her professionalism might manifest itself physically. At the same time, John Patrick, the vocal coach, and I considered giving Annie the slight accent of a first generation American who was raised on a farm by immigrant parents to pull her out of the establishment that is the Givings’ household. We quickly rejected the idea as it was too distracting from the simplicity of her story and decided to play with her manner of speech instead. Throughout the process I continued to do research, especially on nineteenth century midwives and professional nurses. It led me to extant photos of nurse uniforms. The photos that sparked my imagination were passed on to Whitney Locher, our costume designer. I told her what I liked about them, and she added Annie’s heavy black belt, as well as the watch Annie wears around her neck. (A watch that has become a symbol of Annie’s work ethic for me.) As rehearsal continued, her warmth began to return, though in a more carefully metered way. Many more ideas were considered and discarded, and previously abandoned choices were returned to. None were explicitly in the text of the play but we made sure they weren’t contradicted by the text of the play. What we decided on isn’t the only way to play Annie, but all of our choices fit into the world we’ve invented. This is how THIS Annie lives.
As with many actors, my career has included large, iconic (and wordy) roles, tiny, nearly silent supernumeraries, and everything in between. The greatest satisfaction for me is feeling that I am part of telling a story in a cohesive and detailed way. In collaboration with my colleagues in In the Next Room or the Vibrator Play, I continue every night to learn a little more about what Annie thinks, how she loves, why she’s quiet when she’s quiet, talks when she talks, where she goes when she leaves, and why she comes back. As Annie says about Dr. Givings, we are “very open to inventions.”