We had just finished another rehearsal. It was creeping towards the time when the actors would have to be off book. Over the weeks, bits and pieces of our characters were starting to evolve. My years of dance training had always been helpful in shaping the way my characters move. We often spend weeks in rehearsal, learning our blocking and becoming relaxed with activity in our everyday clothes, but the introduction of costumes always poses a new challenge and can alter our movement on stage. A physically challenging play, the director wanted us to get used to moving in the shoes we would wear during performance, and so, early on he requested that the women start wearing heels and the men dress shoes for regular rehearsals. The time had come to retrieve my abandoned heels from the shadows of my closet and tackle the new challenge of wearing them in the face of arthritis.
In my years of battling arthritis, I had enjoyed the distinct pleasure of not having pain in my feet – that all changed a few months ago. It arrived unexpectedly in the night with a sharp pulsing twinge that woke me from sleep. It lingered for a time, cresting and falling, eventually blending into the recesses of my existing inflammation. I had to wean myself off of my twenty-dollar bargains that initially brought me great delight in their discovery, but ultimately did not offer any proper support; my coveted shiny heels, perfect for summer evenings on the town, became my enemy instead of my perfect accessory. It should have come as no surprise that with the onset of arthritis I would eventually have to change my shoes. Over the years, my feet have carried me everywhere – they’ve put up with miles of superfluous stress supporting me with hours of walking, skipping, jumping, jogging, shuffling, and dancing. They’ve endured the weakly justified torture of being stuffed into all sorts of unforgiving footwear – narrow flats, wafer-thin runners, spindly heels, ballet shoes, tap shoes, and character shoes. I was used to all sorts of foot pain from blisters, twists, sprains, and the general aching derived from hours of being on my feet but the pain of arthritis is an entirely different beast, and I was obliged to make more intelligent (and often more expensive) decisions regarding footwear.
I pulled my old salsa shoes from the deepest realms of my closet in preparation for my character work. Their silver surface glittered in the lights, reminding me of all the hours I had spent enfolded in their shimmering custody. I felt they would be well-suited for the task at hand. Their delicate figure and iridescent glow seemed a perfect fit for my character “Maggie”, a young fashionable woman embraced in the world of opera, searching for love in all the wrong places. Slipping my feet back into those adoring shoes was a bigger challenge than I anticipated. It wasn’t the first time I had to sacrifice comfort for the sake of performance, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
The first few nights of reacquainting my feet to my heels always ended with a certain degree of suffering. As the weeks went on, I adapted, transforming my discomfort into the energy of the show. One astonishing night I noticed something – the more I surrendered to the animation of Maggie, the more my pain seemed to evaporate into the sphere of the stage. Was it the adrenaline of performance masking the clout of arthritis? Was it stepping into illusion, escaping the toil of reality for a little while? The reasons didn’t matter – the only thing that mattered was that I had found the power to escape the biting claws of RA for a little while, simply by stepping into Maggie’s shoes.
Another post on my challenge of returning to the stage with RA : https://www.creakyjoints.org/blog/actress-ra-gets-back-onstage-writes-new-script-arthritis/
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J.G. Chayko is a writer, actress, and international arthritis advocate who’s been involved in theatre for more than 30 years and has published poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction.