Being Paulina: Mandana Blogs on Death and the Maiden

This is my second show with Bag&Baggage, and I am delighted and honored to be in this production of Death and the Maiden playing Paulina Salas, holding up one third of this dramatic, intimate show.

It’s been a fascinating rehearsal process overall. In much of my scripted work, it happens that I’ve been cast in broader “character” roles in musicals and/or comedies: Hans Gruber’s overbearing German mother in the world premiere of Die Hard: the Musical Parody; over-the-top prim-and-proper Mrs. Eynesford-Hill in My Fair Lady; hard-rocker Eddie and mad-scientist Dr. Scott in The Rocky Horror Show; melodramatic faded-1930s-beauty Mae Coleman in Reefer Madness… even Lady Capulet, in Bag&Baggage’s Romeo & Juliet (Layla & Majnun), was an imperious, domineering matriarch, though she was also a complicated character in her own right.*

In my work with companies like BATS Improv and my original improv home the Un-Scripted Theater Company (both in San Francisco), I’ve done a lot of comedy, of course, but I’ve also improvised theater in a dramatic and intimate style not so different from Death and the Maiden—in those instances, the characters, the plot, the lines, and the action are all created entirely by the actors, and they live only as long as the play lasts in front of the audience. An improvisor works with their instincts, their emotions, their personal experiences, their imagination, and their attention to the other actors to create an entirely ephemeral piece of theater. In a dramatic piece (or even a comic one), the show is a roller coaster from beginning to end, with improvisors rolling through twists and turns and reacting to them without stopping the flow—but then it’s over, and you never get to tell that story or be that character again.

Death and the Maiden is a juicy challenge for me because of how much of a triangle it really is. It’s an emotional roller coaster for all three characters, but it’s a play about three “regular people.” In studying how to improvise a protagonist with the Un-Scripted Theater Company, a rule of thumb we taught was that the protagonist in a play was the most “normal” one, or at least the one who was the audience’s way in to the story, and the other characters (who could be more broad) ended up helping or hindering the protagonist in their journey.

In this play, however, any one of the three—Paulina, Gerardo, or Roberto—could well be the protagonist, and if we’ve done our jobs executing director Cassie’s vision, each of the three characters takes turns holding the audience’s sympathy, switching back and forth within the same scene or even within the space of two lines. Rather than one character being bolstered or buffeted by the others, the characters all bounce against each other and cause reactions that create shifting alliances with no clear winner.

As if that wasn’t enough, there are only three characters in the play, each with their own solid, rational ground to stand on. Often, clues about characters come from their particular web of relationships to other characters in the play, which helps an actor triangulate what that character is like. In this play, however, the only other characters to relate to are the very ones that are locked together at the heart of the play’s conflict: everyone is everyone else’s only friend and only enemy.

As a result, all three of us have to embody a character who is as complicated as a real human being, still likable enough to be a hero and still dark enough to perhaps be a villain—and still “normal” enough to be just like the audience. Rehearsals have incorporated a lot of fine tuning to make sure we preserve that balance, individually and as a group.

How, therefore, to get to know Paulina? Going through the text (So. Much. Text. SO MUCH!) reveals basic background information as well as clues about temperament, body language, thoughts and feelings and wishes and hopes and dreams —but even some of the “information” is a trifle suspect, since the sources of information are only Paulina’s own dialogue, and the other characters’ dialogue about her… and the playwright hints that everyone might be an unreliable narrator. Further, Paulina has been dealing with repressed trauma for 15 years, so she is changeable and opaque. Playing her as a relatable character means filling in the blanks with parts of myself, even more so than usual. If I’m to take her side—her complex, changeable, layered side—her side has to feel like second nature.

Being Paulina therefore somehow feels a lot more like improvising to me than many roles I’ve played in the past. Except, of course, it isn’t improvised (did I mention all that text we had to memorize)? In any scripted play, there’s the need to carry all the weeks of direction and blocking with you while making it come alive as if for the first time. But this particular script is all about ambiguity; there’s no clear hero or villain and even the thing we’re driving towards is not an answer but a question. It’s the journey that counts here, and in order to preserve the clarity of the shifting emotions and characters’ alliances and the audience’s sympathies, AND keep the stakes high, we’ve got to keep those shifts as real and immediate as possible. I’m really grateful to be onstage with Nathan and Tony, who are great actors and extraordinarily present and alive in the moment. So even though we’ve all worked hard to track those character arcs so that we’re carefully and purposefully nudging the balance of the play, there are new discoveries and different moments every night.

Almost like we’re making it up as we go along. Which we’re not. (But are we though?) (No.)

Enjoy the show—and if you find out what happens at the end, let me know, would you?

*Footnote: Recently one of the Bag&Baggage ushers confessed that having seen Romeo & Juliet (Layla & Majnun), she recently wrangled an unruly patron by asking herself, “What would Lady Capulet do?” Very proud and humbled to have been of assistance, there.