“You’re doing what?” my wife asked.
“You heard me.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Why not?” I answered. So the odyssey began. Mind you I wasn’t trying out for anything Broadway-esque, not even Missoula-esque, just our small town’s attempt at doing community theater. No big deal, right? That’s what I thought. Yes, the play was a musical, but I was playing it safe. I was going out for a bit part that didn’t have any singing. No sweat.
The production was an original, all-age rendition of Sleeping Beauty entitled Briar Rose. Less than two weeks prior to opening, auditions were held. I walked in thinking I would snag the King role. After all, I procured a script and spent time perusing it and, being cocky and brash, knew that the role wasn’t too much of a reach. Safe territory. Did I mention that I practiced the lines?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this wasn’t an ordinary small-town production. The creator of the script, the composer of
the original score, and a professional director would be overseeing the process. I thought it was cool until at auditions, I was told Brad Hagen, the composer, was going to interview each potential cast member. The interview consisted of going into the ‘music’ room and singing Happy Birthday.
No big deal, right?
Maybe for you. When I first started talking with Tammy in the early days of our long-distance relationship, she asked me to sing to her. I warned her against the idea. She said I couldn’t be that bad. After three notes, she said that I was right. I was that bad. It was the only time in fourteen years she ever admits to me being right. Henceforth she requested that I not sing in her presence. That last bit may or may not be an exaggeration, but you get the idea.
Anyway, waiting for my turn to step into the music room butterflies took residence in my gut. I looked for any excuse to delay my audition. I felt like a kid waiting his turn in the dentist chair. When the time came, I was greeted by a gentle, silver haired giant sitting behind the piano. He immediately engaged in witchcraft, a nasty trick: He started a conversation and put me at ease. We talked music. In the snap of a finger, I was disarmed and he asked me to sing. A voice came out of my mouth I never heard before. Steady, unwavering, deeper than I imagined. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t good by any stretch of the imagination, but the best I’ve heard come from me.
Rumor proceeded Brad. It was said that he could teach anyone to sing. I figured people were pumping sunshine up his nether parts because there was no way he could teach this creature. In short, I’m a frustrated musician with no sense of rhythm, and a high-pitch voice which still cracks at fifty. My only foray into playing an instrument led to personal tragedy. I got my fingers caught in guitar strings which led to near amputation and the death of said acoustic guitar. I’m content to know my art is storytelling.
Next came dancing. Now, as bad at singing as I am, there’s no hope for me with dance. Even crazy frog dances that were
designed for kids were beyond my scope of practice. Though it was humorous being in the room and going through the paces with townsfolk that one would never imagine in such situations. I struck out on two pitches and was glad. Acting came next. Some may know that I consider myself an actor in the consummation of my day job. I’ve never met an improv situation I didn’t like. Our gunfights are the epitome of improvisation. In short, as much as I was sucking at the first two, I was confident I could act up a storm. And act I did, right into a roll I didn’t want.
After auditions we were told to sit tight. Casting was happening right then and there. I sat back sure that I secured my spot as monarch. When the cast list was hung on the wall, I distinctly felt my scrotum crawl inside my intestines. I was assigned the Prince role. I was Prince Fucking Charming! And I had to sing! Like I said I was familiar with the script. What I thought was going to be fun turned into a nightmare.
I had the impulse to pack it in and quit. But, I know quitting is like stepping out of a rollercoaster line. It feels good for about ten minutes and then one’s left wondering why everybody coming off the ride is laughing and smiling. I didn’t want to regret not doing this. I took a deep breath and committed myself to being artist’s clay. I would let the professionals mold me. If I shit the bed, I took the attitude it was their problem. So began eight days of being apt pupil.
My hockey experience kicked in and I committed myself to being the first to rehearsals and last to leave. I even shaved my beard. What I learned is that during such an intensive process most people hit the wall and have a meltdown. Mine occurred away from the action. Tammy and I had plans to take Anamae and her mommy to Glacier Park the Friday after auditions. Every time I hold my granddaughter, I sing her Joe Cocker’s version of You’re so Beautiful. Even though it’s a great song, it’s hard to sing it worse than Joe Cocker. It’s a piece of art that is so good because it is so bad. After recording it and teasing me that she would post it to Youtube, I had my meltdown. What little confidence I had wavered. Resolute, I planned on walking into rehearsals the next day and quit. Again hockey kicked in. This was a team effort. I wasn’t going to be the one to derail the process. I sucked it up and tucked in my skirt.
With dread I pushed forward. Away from cast action, I squirreled myself away in the music room for remedial singing lessons,
or in the gayest moment of the experience, hiding in the room with my duet partner and belting out a rendition that had all the stray cats in the neighborhood running for refuge as if Yellowstone had erupted.
The next moment of despair came when director Brenda Kane announced that Monday we would go off book. Which meant we had to know our lines, without referring to the script. I can’t speak for anyone else, but it was a butt-clenching experience. I had over a hundred lines and up to that point I had problems memorizing my wife’s last name. Fear kicked in and I cut up a script, taped my lines to plastic container lids and carried them with me everywhere. When I drove I would look at the lines, when I went to the bathroom I studied them. Then something Tammy said kicked in. Two magic words. Voice recorder.
Sunday evening I read every scene that I appeared into the recorder. Every part. I learned my lines, other’s lines, my cues. I played it while I slept, I played it to and from work. During independent study time at rehearsal, I squirreled myself into a classroom and interacted with the recorder. It didn’t stop me from bombing Monday night. I only nailed half my lines. I left Monday night in despair. After a stopping for a beer, I settled in for a miserable ride home.
Then an omen appeared. As I rounded a corner a mountain lion sat in the middle of the road, its eyes glistened in my headlights. Not until I was yards away did it scamper off the road and bound up a hill. The grace and power from which it acted brought a smile to my face. In that moment, I knew everything would be okay. It didn’t mean I didn’t have a ton of work, but I knew I would do it.
The next hurdle was memorizing the lyrics to the song I had to perform. For two hours after Tuesday’s practice I put on headphones and listened to the song’s melody while mumbling the lyrics. Measure after measure I put into a loop, which meant I repeated each measure dozens if not hundreds of times. The process worked. The curse is that I doomed to forever remember the lyrics.
With each day captured more of my lines. Even though I was mastering a great majority of them, I
still had a half-dozen hurdles. Lines that if I missed would cause a domino effect of blunders. One such line was: “I’ve never seen anything like them.” Pretty simple, straightforward. It was my personal hell. In one rehearsal it caused me to forget the rest of a scene. I took to writing it on my palm.
During the last rehearsal, Thursday night, a mere twenty-four hours before the opening, after being complimented on knowing my lines, I forgot another line in the same scene. I did as we were instructed. I asked: “Line.”
The director pitched the curve ball. “What? There’s no one on book. What are you going to do tomorrow night? Ask the crowd?” Brad’s voice played in my head. He had mentioned productions in which actors nailed rehearsals but when something unexpected happened in the show, they didn’t have the muscle to overcome and the wheels came off. It was the medicine I needed. I felt a defiant smile come over me. The improv license was granted.
During the same practice I belted out the song. Of course there was a cheer, it was the three directors job and the lingering
cast members to applaud. At this point, reassurance in any manner is needed and taken. The comment that stuck was from Summer Drey, the actress who played Wendy the Wicked Witch. “That song will be your eulogy.” I’m still not sure what she meant, but I think it had something to do with the eardrums I would be forever known for bursting.
Opening day arrived like every other day. I completed my outside world obligations and was at the school by noon-thirty. Six and a half hours to show time. I ran through the script three times and worked on the song. During that process a curious mental block sprung up. I forgot the melody to the song. Since my laptop had crashed, I hadn’t a means to replay it. I wandered around the rest of the day in a semi-panic. I contemplated asking Brad to play it for me, but he was busy with other technical details. I did what anyone else would do, I tortured myself trying to remember it. I had the chorus, but for the life of me couldn’t recall the rest. Luckily I remembered the lyrics.
The clock ticked. There comes a point when you have to put everything down. Another Brad quote rang in my head: “If you try too hard, you can cause irreparable damage. Trust yourself. It’s muscle memory, Trust it.” The picture was taken in the Green Room before a dress rehearsal, but my expression is still: “Oh shit, I hope Brad’s right.”
Places, five minutes before show time. I’m alone in the school’s kitchen. The hum of refrigerators blocking my thoughts. I tried remembering random lines. Nothing popped up. I heard Brad again. “Self-defeating behavior. It tries to get you.” I focused on my breathing. The lights dropped. I took a deep breath and stepped before a full house. Without much thought, muscle memory did kick in. Lines came from my mouth like in practice. Nerves fell aside. Especially when I took a seat on the log behind a ‘campfire’ and looked into the crowd. Many familiar and friendly faces caught my attention. James Hetfield of Metallica speaks of looking into the crowd and finding a person and looking into their eyes and if needed, wordlessly asking them for help. Whenever crazy thoughts rose I took Hetfield’s advice. It worked.
Luckily for me, my favorite scene to portray was the one leading up to my act of dismemberment by vocals in front of one hundred-fifty people. The Prince muses about destiny and love. It’s a scene that I can relate to, and in acting it I felt as if I was tapping into Tammy and my story. So, despite my anxiety, it mentally prepared me for song. I spoke my lines, took my cue, moved to center stage and the lights came up. Immediately the melody flooded my mind and I heard my voice. One word gave the next and not much thought went into recalling lyrics. Before I knew it the lights dropped, I opened my eyes and heard applause.
The rest of the show was downhill. Including a moment of pure improvisational gold. In a scene which I was interacting with
the audience, I had to ask what the symbol the witch had cast to open and close the Briar Patch. Without boring you with details, the shadow of a little boy appears in the spotlight, I can hear his voice say you take your left hand, make a L and put it next to your nose and say: “Weavers wobble but they don’t fall down.” The line was a joke in the play, but the little guy was listening and wove together the joke and the witch’s curse. For me it was the highlight of the entire experience.
Of the dragons, two lay dead on the floor – one was memorization, two was singing in front of people – but there’s a third lurking in my neurotic mind. I’m not ready to hear a recording. I’m still convinced everybody is playing nice. Maybe I’ll give it a listen when I stop waking up in the middle of the night repeating my lines. They’re a ghost I don’t want to give up, yet.