Aaron Swenson as Hedwig, the hostess-with-the-mostest at Plan-B's 9th Annual SLAM (May 12, 2012)
Aaron Swenson has previously played Hedwig in HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH for Plan-B Theatre Company in 2003 and 2005. He won awards from Salt Lake City Weekly, SLMetro and QSaltLake for his performance. In 2012, he’s also assuming costume design duties.
This blog post is late. Even though I am starting this a full week prior to the due date, I feel confident in asserting that it will be late. I wrote the first sentence with the tragic certainty of Cassandra, and I am nothing if not familiar with the concept of self-fulfilling prophecies, but still the outcome remains the same. This blog post is late.
Here is the current state of my union: I am tired and sore. I spent the majority of Saturday [hosting SLAM] in brutally non-ergonomic heels. My Achilles tendons have shrunk six inches; my buttocks have moved upward to make their home somewhere above the small of my back. I have bruises on my ribs from wearing a bra and two shapers over three or four pairs of tights. Black goo continues to work its way out of the corners of my eyes – a gruesome compound of eyeliner, eyelash glue, and good old-fashioned eye crud. My arms and torso appear to have been attacked by angry weasels; sequins are sharp. The last dress I wore onstage during SLAM lies in the passenger footwell of my car, where I took it off as I hastily changed into a new dress in the parking lot of Pioneer Theater Company so I could show my co-workers what I’d been doing for the last six hours, i.e., transforming my youthful half-breed male aspect into that of a middle-aged Aryan rock goddess. My habits have become those of a slattern, and I have lost my last vestige of bodily shame or modesty.
Aaron Swenson shopping for costumes
Right now I am writing this in bed, sitting braced against a pile of mismatched pillows on the half of my bed that is not occupied by costume renderings, laundry, makeup products, receipts, reference photos, a half-eaten box of Dots, a fingerless black lace glove, and a digital camera with a dead battery. Any of this and all of this would make a perfect, tangible metaphor for my brain. I maintain a space in it just large enough for the day-to-day processes of living, but the rest is devoted equally to work and to the avoidance of work.
I am not here. I am elsewhere, all the time, not only preoccupied but pre-preoccupied. I am never actually having a conversation with you; I am merely using a small fraction of my traitor brain to transcribe a sort of conversational voicemail to be relayed to the central processing center at a later time, via a game of Telephone/Chinese Whispers where every sentence winds up as some variant of “purple monkey dishwasher.” I am fully aware of this as it is happening, as if I had a neurological disorder that forces me to bear witness to the decline of my faculties from some unaffected crevice of brain-folds. This sanctuary is sadly disconnected from the part of my brain that tells my hands that my cell phone or car keys belong in the fridge – why not? – because I am mentally composing an email or working out a to-do list for my lunch break.
Case in point: I heard about that diet that crazy people are using to lose weight for weddings and reunions where someone inserts a feeding tube through their nose that administers a constant drip of just enough nutrients for the body to continue functioning while causing it to go into ketosis and basically start DIGESTING ITSELF and all I can think about is how much time I could save if I didn’t have to feed myself every four hours or so.
Aaron Swenson as Hedwig with Dave Evanoff on guitar (2003)
In summary: I am on the verge of a mental/nervous breakdown. HOWEVER, I want to make it very clear that, while I may be complaining, I am totally at peace with this, with all of this. My deteriorating sanity is essential to my process. I would not give it up for the world. I’m about to play a role for the third time in a show that set the tone for the last half of my twenties, for better and for worse. No other role I’ve ever played comes with higher expectations attached, and I’ve spent most of my theater career in shows and circumstances that allow me to sort of dick around in rehearsal until I figure out how to make it funny. I am terrified and exhilarated and basically disembodied, and it is just this sense of hovering above myself, vibrating like a plucked string, that has dislocated me enough to see the world through another character’s point of view, for real, for the first time.
It’s not always a pretty picture. Hedwig and I have armored ourselves in sarcasm and facile charm. Sincere moments are all the more precious for their rarity. We keep a distance from everything out of respect, out of fear, out of a desire for a clinical understanding of things that can’t be rationally apprehended, out of convenience so that loss leaves fewer marks on us. Distance, irony, wit – all of these sharpen our understanding while simultaneously making us question whether anything matters at all.
The hardest part of my experience as an actor is always the isometric tension between my utter faith that what I am doing is essentially human and fundamental to the continuation of a sacred species-wide tradition of storytelling, and my absolute conviction that acting is not only frivolous and selfish but also that my specific contribution to a project will confirm the naysayers’ perception that theatre is dumb and boring (when it is not actually offensive and borderline pornographic).
Hedwig's Mugshot (2003)
There’s that Fitzgerald quote where he basically says that the mark of a first-rate intelligence is being able to hold two opposing ideas in your mind and still be able to function. I am still functioning, but I don’t think that says anything about my intelligence. Two opposing ideas in your mind often do nothing but pull the weave tighter, like a fishnet under tension, closing every space where good stuff might pass through, where bad stuff might fall out. Tension becomes stasis, and stasis is death for creativity. The answer is not stasis, but stillness. Pomposity and nihilism will both always lurk on the outskirts of any artistic endeavor, but they are the extremes, not the living center. The center is motion, discovery, opportunity, confidence in one’s abilities, courage in one’s convictions.
People ask how I, a lifelong procrastinator, get things done when I am working on multiple shows. Here is the secret: Over-commit, then spend all your days in terror, fleeing your responsibilities. But here’s the secret: THERE IS NO ESCAPE. As you flee from one task, you have surrounded yourself with obligations that are playing Red Rover with your attention span and waking hours. You run at them, full speed, and try to break through their linked arms. Nine times out of ten you cannot get through to the Internet, the TV-looky-box, or the places that sell pretty clothes you want to wear. For the ten percent of successful efforts to distract myself, I find that Post-it Notes with guilt-inducing messages go a long way toward steering me back on task.
One by-product of my constant preoccupation with the production and performance aspects of this show is that I am basically that friend in a new relationship who can’t stop talking about it. Anywhere I go, any conversation I have, Hedwig is there like an un-Holy Ghost. She refuses to be ignored. We have begun to overlap like the visual static of a Magic Eye picture, and a three-dimensional shape emerges when I cross my eyes just right.
Aaron and Hedwig (Courtesy Chris Detrich, 2006 and Dave Evanoff, 2012)
Hedwig and I have much in common. Music saved both our lives on multiple occasions. We both weathered a childhood fraught with questions about gender-appropriate behavior and sexual identity. We both have the hands of a beautiful forklift operator, the hands of a heavy equipment operator who likes to treat herself. She likes to feel like a lady, but the elements, you know. And the drug use. By the end of the story, we both – I hope – realize that our regrets will not save or help us.
Hedwig wants people to respond to her with either empathy or awe. Preferably both: her audience needs to understand where she’s coming from, then either worship her or get the fuck out of the way. These imperatives are my polestar, my guiding principles for every choice I make between now and June 17th when I climb down from the heels, scrape the goop out of my eyes, retrieve my slutty dress from the passenger footwell of my car, and coat my entire body in Aspercreme before sleeping for 72 hours straight.
I started Tweeting as Hedwig on January 7th, six months to the day before the show goes into previews. Forcing myself to tweet for the last half-year as the character has encouraged me to spend time EVERY day thinking about her. What is her sense of humor like? How does she spend her time? What is the distance between how she presents herself to the world and how she behaves in private? And, to be honest, how many of these decisions really need to be made? I could fill the time between now and the heat-death of the universe asking myself character questions, trying to fill in the blanks intentionally left by the playwright.
Aaron Swenson as Hedwig (2005)
I am going to find the truth of the character in the space between spaces; in the alchemy that comes of treating each piece of the process with the respect it deserves, and always remembering that you only have to see far enough ahead to keep moving forward. I am a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I am surrendering to the belief that everything – every single thing – is going to work out. In the meantime, please know that I love and miss you. And if I forget what I was saying in the middle of a sentence, or if my eyes go vague and drift off to the left while you are talking to me, I can only offer a cliché so hoary that is must have some truth to it: it’s not you. It’s me. And also her.
Plan-B Theatre Company’s 10th anniversary re-boot of HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH runs June 8-17, presented by the fine folks at Park City’s Egyptian Theatre. Click here for tickets and more info (use promo code “planb” to get $17 tickets)! You can catch Hedwig judging the Miss City Weekly Pride Pageant on May 31 and opening the Main Stage at the Utah Pride Festival on June 3.