Thus began my career in musical theatre.
I’ve always liked performing and danced at the local ballet school from an early age. One of my greatest artistic achievements was my role as head chick in the Armidale Ballet School Premiere of The Ugly Duckling. Left backstage to dress myself, I slipped on my ballet shoes, secured my cardboard beak and climbed into my matching yellow leotard…backwards. Out onto stage I danced, my little hands tucked into my armpits like wings, no idea that my four-year-old nipples were proudly on display. Things haven’t really improved much since then. I’ve been weed on onstage by a terrified goat, forgotten by my scene partner who was playing cards in the green room, and competed for stage time with a theatre’s resident squirrel.
This is the reason people like live entertainment. Schadenfreude. The thrilling possibility that something will go wrong and the performers are made to look exceedingly foolish. (People hope for it in real life too of course, hence the unstoppable machine that is reality TV).
In actuality, me trying to get a job in theatre would provide far more schadenfreude than if I actually had one. Most people aren’t privy to the mysteries behind getting a gig in theatre (come to think of it neither am I) so let me try to help you out.
First you read the audition notices in the weekly trade rag. Every Thursday there’s a new issue and it’s just like Christmas; you know what you put on your list – decent theatres, decent roles and decent pay – but you never know if Santa ignored you and gave you a lump of coal instead. After skipping castings that say things like ‘seeking talented actress with infected toe’ you plot your day so as to hit as many auditions as possible. Then you pack your bag. I imagine the rate of back injuries is higher in New York than anywhere else in the world because of the number of actors trolling the streets and subways weighed down by said bag. In it, you have several copies of your resume and headshot (it should look like you on a blind date; groomed but realistic) leotard, dance tights sans ladders, tap, jazz, ballet and theatre shoes, repertoire book (a gargantuan folder filled with musical excerpts ranging from Oklahoma to Celine Dion’s rendition of My Heart Will Go On), plenty of reading material and countless snacks to keep you going on what could easily become a ten hour day. You arrive at the audition studios, ignore the stares of the other women each trying to ascertain if you’re a threat to their chances of employment, follow the sign to the small stuffy holding room, add your name to the list that at nine a.m. is already at two hundred and fifty-six and wedge yourself between a wall and a window that has a view of the snowy fire escape of the building next door. Now, your location in the holding room is far more crucial than you would assume. You can’t just plonk yourself down in the first available seat. That would be holding room suicide. You’ve got to treat it like the war zone it is. Survey the land, identify the terrorists and head for neutral territory. Beware the girl doing splits up the wall and carrying on a conversation like it’s perfectly normal. Also avoid the girl talking extra loud about how her manager didn’t even want her to audition for this role and she’s only here because the casting director called her in. “I was just about to take a pilates class when he called. Lucky I’d already washed and styled my hair. I just threw this dress on and ran down here. It’s so handy living in midtown.”
There’s always some twit warming up at the top of her lungs, right next to the sign saying ‘no vocalising permitted’ or a girl at your elbow hogging all the mirror space so she can curl her hair because ‘that’s how the girl in the original cast had it.’
There you sit squashed in your corner, sipping on your bad NYC coffee and ignoring the girl with the manager who says loudly to no one in particular; “you know, you should never drink coffee before singing. It dehydrates your vocal chords.”
She may be correct, but there are two very important factors involved here that she hasn’t even considered. One – I don’t live in midtown, so I’ve been up for much longer than her just to get here in time and two – I paid ninety cents for that acrid, burnt, thicker than tar coffee and have no intention of letting it go to waste.
When your number finally comes up (number two hundred and fifty-six can take quite a while) the monitor collects your headshot and bio, marches you into the hallway and lines you up along the wall outside the audition room. Here you will see some of the greatest theatre of all. Someone always assumes the role of the bitch and actively tries to sabotage her competitors; “you’re not going to sing that are you? The director is a friend of mine and I know he hates that song.” It’s like ten pin bowling. If you play well, you can roll a strike, unsettle all the other pins and clear the way for yourself.
Soon it’s your turn and the monitor opens the door, ushers you inside and closes it quickly before the girl behind you gets a chance to take a look. Going through the audition room door is like going through the wardrobe to Narnia. Everybody visits the same place, but has a totally different experience.
“The panel is lovely.”
“The accompanist is horrible.”
“They asked me to sing four songs.”
“They were all eating hamburgers, I should have sung the McDonald’s commercial.”
You take your music to the accompanist and inform him about your songs without upsetting his delicate professional sensibilities (never, ever tap the tempo of your piece on the surface of the instrument) and head to the centre of the room, sometimes stopping on a gaffa taped X that makes you feel like you’re facing a firing squad and not a bunch of musical theatre queens. Thirty seconds later it’s over, and you’re back on the other side of the wardrobe with no idea if they loved you or thought you should consider an alternate career in plumbing.
Dance auditions are something else entirely. Often they’re after the singing and the room is filled with a horrid mix if diva dancers (the ones who, when their tights ladder, cut out the crotch and wear them as tops), sopranos who aren’t used to doing much else but standing on stage and singing really high, and the rest of us who fall somewhere in between. It’s like riding a bike. You have to share the road with wide-loads spilling out of their lanes, riders who took their training wheels off a little too early, and the occasional Cadel Evans (Lance Armstrong for the Americans) who puts the rest of us to shame. In either activity, you still end up with a sore groin.
My friend Libby has the greatest dance audition story. She is a fabulous actress with a dynamite voice but no ability to grasp choreographed movement whatsoever. She absolutely cannot dance. She tried to convince a panel of this, who nonetheless coerced her into attending the dance call later that day. There she stood in her shorts and t-shirt, dead in the middle of the room, desperately trying to learn the combination. Step kick step leap, arabesque lunge pirouette. Pirouette! Oh no, this is going to be bad. Still, just as she saw the others do, she prepped for the turn, attempted it…and took down all six people dancing around her. Climbing to her feet, she dusted herself off, sent a “see I told you so” to the panel, a “sorry” to her fallen comrades, gathered her bag and quickly exited the room. I really wish I’d been there for that one.
Sometimes, despite the odds, you manage to land a gig. I’ve been a whore, a nun, a princess, a peasant, a murderess, a cow and a dancing plate in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Backstage for that show was a riot. The green room looked like a giant’s kitchen cupboard. Four-foot forks and spoons were propped against the wall (we broke the knives in final dress and didn’t have time to fix them), the clock couldn’t get up the stairs unless he hopped and the guy playing the magic carpet wrestled with his costume like a criminal in a straight jacket. Final dress would have been better entertainment than the show itself I reckon. I had a collision with the teapot, a serviette broke the staircase, the beast busted a chair, the kick-line forgot the teacup and the wardrobe lost her drawers.
It is at times like that, dressed in a gold lame headpiece with matching waistband and leotard, a huge spinning plate harnessed to my back, that I consider the career choices of my high school friends. Accountants, teachers, scientists, town planners. Sensible, stable, perpetually necessary professions with a base salary that keeps you above the poverty line. Because that’s the biggest schadenfreude of it all. Theatre – unless you’re a star on Broadway – doesn’t even pay well. My first salary was two hundred and fifty dollars a week. Even a tight arse like me finds it difficult to live on that.
So I considered medicine again. I grappled with my aversion to years of study, got out my calculator, worked out how much I’d need to live on, how much it would cost me to get the degree, and how long it would take me to pay it all back.
In the end it just wasn’t worth it. I decided to stick with theatre and the magic of make-believe. At least then I could do what I want and pretend the money will come.