I recently directed a high school production of Fiddler on the Roof. For those of you who may not know it, this is the story of a simple milkman in 1905 Russia who tries to keep the traditions of his Jewish culture and the desires of his contemporary daughters in balance. In the opening song, he sings, “Life is as shaky as a fiddler on the roof!” In various times throughout the show, the fiddler appears as a symbol of this yearning for balance in an ever-changing world.
It occurred to me midway through the last week of rehearsals just how similar the Fiddler on the Roof is to living life with bipolar disorder. And how, for me, theatre exacerbates and enhances the highs and lows of my condition. The fiddler teeters precariously atop a tiny roof as he plays his lively tune. Any slight upset could knock him off and bring an end to his inspiring music. Living with bipolar disorder feels to me like being the fiddler on the roof. I am constantly tilting from depression to hypomania trying to find balance on the rooftop of my life.
I’ve loved theatre for as long as I can remember. As a child of a high school music director, I spent my afternoons as young as age 4, sitting in the wings watching high school students bring life to characters and tell stories on stage. And I knew every word to every song in “Annie” and “Oliver!” before I could even read. So it’s no surprise that after a childhood of year-round competitive swimming, I took a U-turn and began performing and eventually directing theatre productions.
As a director, I am the one who envisions the way the script will come alive on stage. This responsibility is equal parts exhilarating and terrifying. The creative process for me involves reading and analyzing the script; casting the show; planning the set design, the costumes, the staging, the songs, the dances; and, of course, it involves working with the actors to convey the story the way I believe the writers intended it to be told.
There is nothing quite like the feeling of selecting just the right person for a part, helping that person “find” the role during rehearsals, and then witnessing that character come to life on stage opening night.
There are many people who work with me during productions. I am lucky to have a music director, a set designer, a builder, a lighting designer, a sound technician, a stage crew and a choreographer to help me create the productions I direct. But ultimately, the final decisions are all mine.
There are times during a production, usually early on, that I cannot get out of bed. I consciously know what I have to accomplish before the next rehearsal, but I can’t get myself out from under the blanket of stress and depression to begin the task. I avoid my To Do List until the very last minute. I spend more time than I care to admit daydreaming about unlikely events such as my untimely death which would conveniently excuse me from the rest of the planning required to complete this overwhelming job.
Then there are times later in the production process that I am high as a kite. Things start to fall into place just right and I’m brimming with pride about the story unfolding on stage. It feels like everyone involved in the entire production — all the performers, musicians, staff — has done this all for me. And while I am keenly aware that no one has really done anything solely for me, it definitely FEELS like they have. My speech quickens, my eyes widen, my thoughts race. Why just the other day during one of our final rehearsals, my music director said, “Wow, you’re in a great mood. I like you this way.”
I’m not sure how to take that.
So for me, the creative process of producing theatre may heighten the extremes of my bipolar disorder. But when the spotlight goes out on my Fiddler on the Roof, I am grateful that he remains there, though shaky, and he never stops playing his tune.
~Still Hopeful Mom