I stood backstage watching the quartet singing and dancing. “We’ve got elegance. If you ain’t got elegance, you can never ever carry it off.” That’s when it hit me – that stomach-gripping, heart-stopping, cold-sweating, sick-to-your-stomach panic. My hands were shaking; there was a buzzing in my ears. I was just about to pass out. And, worst of all, I couldn’t remember a single word or note of my song. I couldn’t even remember what the song was. And I had to go out on that stage in 30 seconds and sing it. And there was no time to go ask somebody. My script was just 30 feet away in the next room, but it might as well have been on the moon. And then, the quartet finished their song and dashed offstage.
I had no idea what I was going to do – my mind a total blank. Panic and anxiety had completely taken over. I stepped onstage and the spotlight hit me. The orchestra hit one note and . . . “Sweet Rosie O’Grady” came screeching from my lips – just like it was supposed to. I crossed the stage and bumped into the show’s leading man, grabbed his hand and jerked him offstage, just as we had rehearsed time after time during the past six weeks.
We ran around to make our grand entrance into “Harmonia Gardens”, the next scene of “Hello, Dolly!” and the play proceeded as though nothing had happened. I said every word I was supposed to say when I was supposed to say it. I heard the other actors talking and singing. I heard the laughter of the audience – and their applause.
After that horrifying experience, you would think that nothing would ever induce me to go onstage again. But the truth is, I couldn’t wait for the next audition. Why? That’s what actors have been asked for years. Why expose yourself to that kind of stress?
I can’t speak for all actors; the reasons for wanting – needing – to be onstage are as varied as the performers themselves. I can only tell you why I can’t wait to put on the costumes and makeup, feel the lights, and hear the words, “Places, Act I.”
I have always gravitated toward creative, talented and passionate people. As a young girl, my heroes were Doris Day, Katherine Hepburn and Debbie Reynolds. In fact the thing that attracted me to my husband was watching his intensity as he played guitar in our 8th grade classroom. (And now, 50 years later, I still love watching him play.) I always envied and admired anyone who could play an instrument, sing or act. But I thought I would never be able to do any of those things. I took chorus in high school, but was always too scared to try to sing a solo – I just didn’t think I was good enough. Our high school chorus department produced “Camelot” and, as much as I wanted to be in it, I just couldn’t bring myself to audition. I became head costumer.
Years later, I saw an audition notice for a musical at a local community theater, bucked up my courage and decided to go for it. I had no idea what to expect. The notice in the newspaper only said to be prepared to read and sing and that you needed to provide sheet music. I went to a music store and chose a song I was familiar with. The song that was totally wrong for my voice and not really appropriate for an audition piece (a country hit), but I didn’t know that at the time. The one distinct advantage of this particular piece of music was that I knew the words. That was my sole reason for choosing it. When I went to the audition, I was so scared, I could barely breathe. My voice was very “breathy” and I’m sure the director could see me shaking like a leaf. A few days later, I got a letter saying, “Thank you for auditioning but . . .”. There it was, in black and white, reinforcement that I wasn’t good enough. What had only been a feeling was now confirmed. And that was the end of my attempts at acting – well, at least for several years.
I lived with a husband who could play any instrument he picked up, had been playing in rock bands since he was 14. And I was raising two very artistic sons. They could do all the things I always wanted to do, but just didn’t think I had the talent. When my oldest son was in high school, I became involved in his drama club. I ran errands, helped find props, and, during the performances, tried to keep the students quiet backstage. Over the weeks of rehearsal and during the performances, I found myself wishing I were onstage instead of backstage shushing teenagers.
The week before my son’s play opened, I saw a notice in the paper that Kernersville Little Theatre was holding auditions for “Music Man”. Even though I had lived just outside Kernersville for years, it was the first I’d heard of Kernersville Little Theatre. I decided to audition. I showed up at the designated time and place with no music, no preparation and no clue. But it was totally different from my first audition experience. This time I was greeted at the door by two volunteers who made me feel right at home. They even offered to let me look through their music to see if I could use any of it. I chose a song (again based solely on the fact that I knew most of the words) and went in to “face the music”. Actually what I faced was a director, music director, stage manager and piano accompanist. I stumbled through the song, apologizing for not being more prepared, and the music director assured me I did fine. Then he asked me to sing some scales with the piano to find my range. Turns out I was a soprano. By the time I left the singing part of the auditions, I was feeling pretty good about it. Then I found out about the dance portion. Well, here I am a 39-year-old, out-of-shape woman who had not danced in years – and then it was dances like the Twist, Mashed Potato, Watusi; well, you get the picture. But I gave it my best shot, and I found out I wasn’t the only one auditioning with two left feet. After practicing for a while, my group went onstage and performed our little dance routine in front of those same four people plus the choreographer. Anyway, at least I survived the dance audition – and it actually turned out to be rather fun.
When the dance portion of the audition had ended, our group was told that they may be calling some of us to come back the following night to read for parts. The stage manager also said that if we didn’t get a call, not to worry, that didn’t mean we weren’t being cast in the show. I got a “call back”. They actually wanted me to read for Mrs. Paroo – a pretty large role. WOW! I was jumping up and down and giggling like a teenager.
The next evening, I found out there was only one other person reading for that part but that was enough. She was good and had a lot of experience. We each sang, and read the part. Then the director asked us if we could read it with an Irish accent. I went first and I’m not sure what accent I was using but I think it probably sounded more Australian than Irish. Then “she” read – and she sounded just like she had lived all her life at Galway Bay. This would not be the last time I lost a role to this very talented woman who became my friend.
I ended up in the chorus and had a line or two – and that was fine. My experience of working on that show was wonderful. I met some of the finest people I’ve ever known – people who are still my friends now, over 25 years later. Because of this very positive experience, I have had the courage to audition for many more community theatre shows. I have gotten a part in quite a few of them, and gotten that rejection call quite a few as well. I have to admit that I have never gotten over being very nervous at auditions or at performances, and I think that is a good thing. I’ve heard it gives you an edge and I’m not sure about that, but I know that it does make it more exciting.
One other lesson I’ve learned is that there is a lot more talent involved in theatre than you see onstage. There is a behind the scenes group that make it all possible – the director; stage manager; choreographer; music director; orchestra; lighting designers and operators; sound designers and operators; set designers, builders and painters; costume designers and makers; folks who find and make props and set pieces; people who design and print the flyers, posters and playbills; people who market the show; people who find sponsors; people who sell tickets and greet people as they come to see the show. It takes a lot of people with a lot of different talents to create that magical moment for the actors when they take their bow and receive their applause at the end of the show.
Over the years I have had the opportunity to perform in and work behind the scenes in some wonderful shows with some very talented people. I’ve had some plum roles in musicals, comedies and dramas. And none of that would have happened if it were not for the friendly welcome and encouragement from the volunteers at Kernersville Little Theatre. I will be forever grateful to them.