i am not vivien leigh

Yesterday, with a CVS card loaded up with coupons and a heart loaded up with dreams, I bought some new make-up.

I only buy new make-up when I have a show coming up, specifically a show in which I’m playing a role that I’ve decided HAS to be pretty. This Thursday night I’m getting onstage in front of an audience for the first time as Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I know all my lines, I have great scene partners, and I think I’m doing some pretty strong work with that bizarre text about weather and the seasons that goes on forever in Act II, Scene 1.

But I don’t think I look like a Fairy Queen.

So, I spent yesterday morning all up in Google’s business, looking up the best drugstore make-up products of 2017 and even hunting for some specific fairy-inspired YouTube make-up tutorials. I looked up what lipstick shade goes best with a purple dress (AND cape) as that’s the color my Titania is rocking. I left CVS with new eyeliner, mascara, lipstick and liner, and an “illuminating palette,” with which I have no idea what to do.

Here’s what I imagine will happen with this new face paint arsenal:

On dress rehearsal night, I’ll light a nice, relaxing-smelling candle at my station, and blast some good Fairy Queen jams to get myself into the right head space. I’ll steadily and effortlessly transform my pale, splotchy skin into luminous, regal, ethereal perfection with primer, BB cream, powder, my new illuminating palette, blush, eyeliner, a separate primer for my eyelids, eyeshadow, eyebrow pencil, mascara, and lipstick AND lipliner. Somehow this specific combination of products will transform the structure of my face, and I’ll glide on to the stage in my first scene and take everyone’s breath away.

Here’s what’s going to happen:

I’ll forget that I wanted to buy a candle to bring to the dressing room, which will frustrate me, and I still won’t have figured out what Titania’s getting-ready soundtrack should be, so I’ll just put on the Spotify “Acoustic Summer” playlist again which means that I’m going to listen to “Riptide” and “Mykonos” over and over because I’m afraid of change. Even after all the YouTube tutorials that I’ll start and stop and start again, I’ll have very little clue as to how to apply anything to my slippery, be-zitted face. And after all the research and hope and stress and YouTubing, I’ll still look like me. Plus some sparkly eyelids.

The tricky bit about accepting myself and my body and my face for what they are within the realm of Shakespeare is the fact that these roles have all become so deeply iconic. If I just think the name “Hamlet,” I immediately picture Sir Laurence Olivier, which means I immediately associate the Prince of Denmark with the image of a thin, white, straight, cis, blonde man. Textually, Hamlet doesn’t have to be any of those things.

When I teach my teenage Shakes-potatoes about why I think we still do the Bard’s work over 400 years later, I tell them that Shakespeare is awesome because Shakespeare wrote to the experience of being human. He wrote about universally experienced emotions that should transcend our binaries. If we already knew exactly what these plays and these characters should look like, we wouldn’t still be doing them.


But also… yeah, I don’t think I’m pretty enough to play some of the roles I’ve been lucky enough to play, and that makes me feel bummed out and hypocritical.

Some backstory.

The first thing I saw when I visited London last summer that made me feel like I hadn’t been completely betrayed by the romantic ideals of international travel was the “Shakespeare in Ten Acts” exhibit at the British Library. The British Library might be my favorite place on the planet. There’s nowhere else you can see the Magna Carta, eat a PB&J doughnut in the lobby, and listen to “Ticket to Ride” while looking at its handwritten lyrics ALL ON THE SAME DAY. This isn’t necessary to the story, but I really want to make sure that you go to the British Library if you ever have the chance. You’re great, and you deserve it.

I arrived in London in an already emotionally fragile Shakes-state. The night before my flight I’d closed out a run of The Taming of the Shrew that had been ultimately really fulfilling and satisfying, but also really exhausting and confusing. In London, though, I was going to get to return to my roots as a pure Shakes-geek. I already had my tickets booked for two performances at Shakespeare’s Globe: Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was ready to stand in the sun, sip a Pimm’s Cup, and remember why I love what I do so so so much. To be re-inspired by the language, by the poetry, and by the truths of humanity evident of Shakespeare’s work.

Meanwhile, in the library: The “Shakespeare in Ten Acts” exhibit was delighting my heart. I was learning all about famous productions throughout history. I was seeing amazing, tangible evidence of Shakespeare throughout the ages. There was a First Folio, playbills from when Ira Aldrige became the first black actor to play Othello in 1825, and Vivien Leigh’s Lady Macbeth costume.

Vivien. Leigh’s. Lady. Macbeth. Costume.

There it was, just behind glass. A relatively simple, fitted black gown, with a silver and red belt around the tiny waist. A badass matching cape. Worn in 1955 by the dark haired, 5’3″, ultra-gorgeous Vivien Leigh. Scarlett O’Goddamn-Hara.

It wasn’t even just as Lady M that Leigh made her mark on the “Shakespeare in Ten Acts” exhibit. All of the marketing I’d seen for the event, including the program I clutched that afternoon, featured the image of Leigh as Titania, the Queen of the Fairies, when she played the role in 1937 at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park. Eyebrows raised, finger pointed forward at some mortal (or jerk fairy husband) fool enough to cross her, crowned with flowers, I decided that she was everything a Fairy Queen was supposed to look like.

I left the British Library that day thinking less about the genius of Shakespeare’s language, and more about how radiant and therefore perfect Vivien Leigh must have been as Lady M and Titania.

A few weeks after coming home, I was cast as Lady Macbeth, and a few months after that, found out that I’d be playing Titania. And the exquisite specter of Vivien Leigh, along with those of the amazing actresses I watched portray those roles on the Globe stage, haunts me when I look into the dressing room mirror. Walking onstage without a perfect face makes me feel like I’m not able to fully embody these characters I cherish so much, and so I always hope that my next big role is the one where I’ll really nail it. This time, I’ll know exactly which eyeshadow to buy, and that will make me a better at being a Queen, whether of Scotland or of Fairies.

I am keenly aware that this is all complete donkey shit. We’re either holding up a mirror to nature or we’re not. Shakespearean actors just need to look like people to have the right look to perform Shakespeare’s works. Logically, I know that Hamlet doesn’t have to look like Sir Olivier, and that Titania doesn’t have to look like Lady Olivier. But my vanity often wins out over my ego, so here I go again into dress rehearsal with new eyeliner and a melty sense of self-esteem.

After spending four weeks directing teenagers in a Shakespeare play, I’m trying to adopt a new motto: “Never forget to nurture the earnest, awkward, terrified, excited teenage theatre dork that lives inside your soul.” I would never want to behave in a way around my students that made them think that they’re outside appearance was at all a dominant factor in their ability to play certain roles. When they come see me in Midsummer, as they’ve told me they’re going to do, I want them to walk away thinking that their teacher did a good job with her words, her articulation, her comic timing, her connection to her scene partners and to the audience, and so on.

For the next four weeks, I’m the Queen of the Fairies, which means that she looks like me, potentially wrong lip color and all. She will sound like me, and she will move like me, and her face will be my face. And, truthfully, once I’m onstage I won’t have time to be worried about my make-up, because I’ll be too busy calming down my inner teenage theatre dork lest her joyful squeals make me forget all my weird lines about the weather.

So, no, I’m not Vivien Leigh. But she’s not me either. We just played some of the same parts, though, which means that I have something super tangible in common with Scarlett O’Hara. And that’s pretty rad, methinks.


PS: If anyone knows how to use an illuminating palette or has suggestions for a Fairy Queen playlist, hit me up in the comments!

Published by Dani

I like breakfast, marine mammals, Star Wars, comedy, the song "Dead Man's Party," and Halloween musical revues at theme parks. Let's be friends!

2 thoughts on “i am not vivien leigh

  1. What kind of pre-show tunes are you looking for, precisely? Dramatic, frou-frou, high-energy pump-up-the-volume? The last time I was in Midsummer I was Bottom, and Titania and I shared “E.T” by Katy Perry + Kanye as our song. Not sure if that fits with what you’re looking for.


  2. Eff anyone’s beauty standards! For me, makeup is powerful not because it makes me beautiful, but because it makes me feel fierce. And there ain’t nothin wrong with that! You’re a freaking Fairy Queen! Get it, girl!

    (If you ever need help maneuvering an illuminating palette, let me know. I’d seriously love to help!)

    You’re already beautiful! So go out there and just be. 🙂


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