The first performance I can ever remember doing was a little skit in kindergarten singing "There's a Hole in the Bucket" with another boy in my class.
It was in the gymnasium of St. Mary's Catholic School for some event I can't remember. But what I do remember is all the bright lights, and all the people, and at the end when I was supposed to kiss the boy but he runs away before I can, all I hear is the laughter and applause. I was funny. And they liked me. And I loved it.
There were other performances here and there. In my private Born-Again Christian school, I got a major role one year, and the lead role another (fifth and sixth grades, although not sure which was which). The lead role had something to do with a girl not believing in the "Miracle of Christmas," and I got to sing a song called "Spectarama-jingl-ish-iss-tinsle-ribbon-ismas" (a riff on "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," clearly). And I was the LEAD. I think I cried when I got the part I was so excited.
Like many of us, the first reason I got into theatre and performance was for the attention. And like many of us, divorce played a major role.
It was during this 5th/6th grade period when my Mom met and married my stepfather. And as with any new divorcee parental relationship, getting shuffled back and forth between houses and what not, I was left feeling left out. Classic middle child syndrome perhaps, but theatre became that outlet where it felt like I was getting the attention I was longing for.
Looking back, 9th Grade was where theatre first saved me.
Although the year was short on plays, I did get heavily involved with the performance side of High School Forensics (not the crime scene stuff for you laymen, the drama and debate stuff), in Altoona, Wisconsin. The best part being that rehearsals took up nights, and performances took up Saturdays, keeping me out of the house and away from my bully stepfather for a good deal of the week. The less I was at home, the less chance for confrontation and accusations of bad behavior I wasn't doing. Sex, drinking, smoking, all of it. Accused of it, but doing none of it. Then punishments for lying. Sometimes having my room trashed and then being told to clean it up. Sometimes including a wooden paddle to my ass. You know, because he "loved" me.
After moving out of my mother's, the theatre department became my real home when I returned to Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Hamlet in the "Fifteen Minute Hamlet," Beatrice in "Much Ado About Nothing," student one acts or student directed plays - whatever I could get into, I did. By my junior year, drama (ironically) kept me out of a house I desperately wanted to avoid, where an alcoholic who got tougher and smarter (in his mind, at least) the more he drank sat in reflective bitterness about his divorce from my mother. He never got violent, but he could yell and berate with the best of them until I was crying on my bedroom floor. So rehearsals became the means to keep me out of the house until late, sometimes even after he often times passed out in bed before 9pm. There were days on end where I didn't see him at all.
Theatre not only spared me from nights at home with a drunk, but also the cafeteria and bullies during the school lunch hour all the way through senior year.
Oh, Mr. Hansen. Good ole, Mr. Hansen. Lincoln High School's resident Drama Teacher for all of eternity. Played Bob Marley in the local production of a Christmas Carol for years and years. That man put up with us gaggle of theatre geeks at lunchtime and saved us all from some ugly and threatening bullying for years. When lunch hit, I would sneak downstairs to the cafeteria, grab some crap, and I mean CRAP, out of the vending machines, then head directly to Mr. Hansen's classroom where all of my other drama losers were. And we'd talk and squawk within the safety of those walls about all the dorky theatre stuff we could think of until the half hour was up. I owe quite a bit of sanity to that man.
I had a good run there, with role after role. Until my senior year where I experienced audition heartbreak for the first time. I'll be the first to tell you I'm not the biggest fan of musicals. Not that I can't sing (I come from a family of singers after all), but singing in an audition makes me 300 times more nervous than speaking in an audition. There's something about the threat of an obvious failure that paralyzes my vocals chords. Flub a monologue? No problem, just improvise. Flub a note in a song, whelp, nice knowing you kid. And that spring, my last semester of high school, the music department was doing "The Secret Garden." There was no way Mr. Hansen was helping me with this one.
I can admit now that I was a bit of a jerk during those auditions.
Not only because of "Senioritis," but also because it was the last theatrical chance of my high school career, and when I set the expectations high, I can get a little, well, goofy. Cracking jokes left and right. It's how I deal, albeit rather awkwardly, with stress. And the junior running the choreography auditions already didn't care for me in the first place, even less so after that. If there was anything that told me after that not to mess with the choreographer, I can tell you word got to the musical director.
I was cast in the chorus.
And I was angry. And heartbroken. Angry and sad and heartbroken. I had just played Beatrice in "Much Ado" that past fall and now I'm going to be in the CHORUS for the closing of my high school drama career? Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no! I marched up to the director after the cast list was posted (starting at the top and going ALL. THE. WAY. TO. THE. BOTTOM.) and told him I was NOT going to be in the musical. He countered with telling me he thought it would be a "great opportunity for me." I think I may have mumbled something about Beatrice and then just walked away. Through the tears. Then I ended up doing "South Pacific" with a local community theatre group. In the chorus. It was an okay time as I recall it. I'm still not sure what the lesson is there. Other than maybe facing rejection by turning around and getting right back on that horse.
And that summer as with the previous summer I did the musical with Peter Quince Performing Company, the local community theatre group for teens and young adults. I remember being anxious for those auditions, but not panicked. I was home. Comfortable. Amongst friends. And with rehearsals and work, my life had purpose and direction, and (mostly) kept me out of trouble. Outside of that underage drinking ticket. Whoops. But hey, Wisconsin. And I did manage to stay far away from drugs, as some of my friends began to experiment. In retrospect I'm glad I never went down that path, despite being offered many things, many times.
But if I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times:
I'm terrible at auditions.
I'm not really sure where it started or if it's always been, but I'm certain my audition anxiety has increased over the years. I've found I'm absolutely better off when I work with a director long enough to the point auditions are moot. Precast, if you will. My first experience with this happened after I dropped out of college the first time and went back to my hometown. There was a new director at the UW-Extension, and because locals could audition for productions, I gave it a shot. Why not? Now that I was 18, I could avoid home at all costs. And this new director and I just clicked. Very similar theatre aesthetics, so we really spoke the same theatrical language. A couple of shows at the Extension, then "Buried Child" up in Tisch Mills, Wisconsin at the Little Sandwich Theatre Dinner Theatre. I turned 19 that summer playing Shelly and was having the time of my life with friends, falling in love with Sam Shepard plays, and another human being for the first time in my life.
It was easy when I didn't have to audition. Sure I still experienced anxiety for the first few shows, as with any show, but the palm-sweating, mouth-drying, word-stammering, knee-knocking, heart-pounding (yes ALL of that) of auditions was something I didn't miss. After all this time I can honestly say I'm not a bad actor, just a bad auditioner. Which is obviously not the least bit helpful when you're trying to get your damn foot in the door. Again, if anyone has any advice for me, I'm open. I've tried just about every technique I could think of to try and calm my audition and stage nerves. Meditation. Tough talks with myself. Vodka. Yes. I've even tried a shot of vodka to kill whatever mechanism exists in my brain that sounds the alarms. My fight or flight response is a fierce one. If I could bottle that energy I'd be a self-made millionaire.
And because of this anxiety, I've had hundreds of little heartbreaks along the way.
Every time I audition and don't get a callback, there's a little heartbreak. Or when I know I've just completely bombed an audition, a little heartbreak. Like the time I auditioned for the Professional Theatre Training Program at the University of Delaware and was so nervous I said my monologue was Kristen from "The Days of Wine and Roses" and immediately kicked myself (it's Kirsten), then watched Sanford (Sandy) Robbins roll his eyes and sigh. Openly. In front of my face. That audition went SWIMMINGLY after that. That one was actually quite a big heartbreak followed by kicking myself for days. Really, that whole grad school audition cycle in 2008 was a big mess of anxiety, heartbreaks, and huge embarrassing failures. As I've said previously, not a single offer.
As I type this, I'm wondering if maybe the amplification of my audition anxiety exists in that last round of grad school auditions, and subsequent moving to Chicago with auditions for the big dogs like Steppenwolf and the Goodman. And the expectations I put on myself therein.
Plus the whole traffic nightmare of just GETTING to the audition on top of it. I've cried in traffic on many occasions. And I'm constantly working and reworking my preparedness to where I'm not underprepared, making me feel underprepared and nervous, but I'm not over-prepared, setting the expectations for myself too high. Almost 30 years in and I still haven't nailed that one. Again. Suggestions. I'm open. And I know some of all of this is wrapped up in a need to just be comfortable with myself. My authentic self. Because what do "they" always say to do in an audition? "Be Yourself." And honestly, when I've been successful with that I've gotten the role. Every. Single. Time. When I'm myself, I get the role. Every time.
Recently I auditioned for and was called back for a role I was perfect for. PERFECT. I hadn't read the play in a really long time, but when I did my head nearly exploded. And you know, as a female, in her 30s, those roles can get a little (COUGH) thin. In addition, it was for a friend's theatre company, and another friend was directing. I'm sure you can feel where the expectation is going from here. PS. Auditioning for friends is the worst. THE. ABSOLUTE. WORST. Friends, if you're reading this, just precast me. You should know by now my nerves are the death of me. *wink*
I spent hours and hours and hours and hours going over the materials. And when I went into the audition, when the nerves took over, I forgot it all. Just went right out of my head as though it never existed. But being that I felt this character was me, I buckled down, or got frustrated, then buckled down, and delivered as I best I could.
The callback went as well as I could have hoped. BE YOURSELF. BE YOURSELF. BE YOURSELF. BE YOURSELF. And I did. I did my thing. Relatively quick and painless. Said goodbye to my friends and felt pretty good on the way home. And then when I got home, the over-thinking began. I pretty much talked myself right out of that part. And lived in agony for about 24 hours when my friend called me about the role.
And told me they decided to cast someone else.
We talked for only a few minutes. The tears started welling so I needed to get off the phone. Fast. That night I cried so hard my eyes were swollen for two days. TWO. DAYS. This one hurt. This one broke me a little. I can honestly tell you that in all my days, I've never felt like not getting a role broke me a little. Until now. Not a heartbreak, it broke me. A little. And right now, after some time, I can tell you it still stings. I'm not yet over this one and my not be for awhile. If ever. This may be the one that got away.
So how do I get back up? Keep going?
Because I know what it's like to be without it. Without support, and without my art. The darkest part of my adult life was the time I gave up theatre for two years (outside of one small show for a friend). Determined to be a good Mom and Partner and live a normal life, whatever that was, I was miserable without theatre in my life. And I don't mean to discount the importance of family at all: Theatre is the extra. The other. It's in my bones. It's kept me out of trouble (largely, not perfectly), saved me countless times from myself and other harms, gives me direction, and gives life meaning in addition to my family and friends that I love so much. It completes me. Anxiety and heartbreaks and all. And I know other people have experienced the same, and will continue to feel the same. And it has and will continue to be a safe haven for generations of kids to come. I hope. If politicians don't kill funding for it first. And it's why I'm such an advocate for it. I'm not the only life theatre has saved or will save in the years to come. I promise you that.
I'll get back on that horse. And have. There's been a few on-camera auditions since that last painful experience, and I tell you what, they've gone pretty well because (temporarily?) I've gone a little cold. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or not. Through all the years, through all the anxiety and heartbreaks, I keep coming back to this art no matter how much hurt because the growth I experience as a human far outweighs whatever ego bashing, rejection, and denials I take. And without that, all the heartbreaks and pain in my life outside of theatre may just have proved too much for my sensitive empathic soul to take. Theatre is my home. Acting is my passion. It gives me purpose and brings order to my Universe. It provides the cathartic conduit to release emotions as this art intends to do. And should no one ever choose to cast me again, so be it. I'll evolve. I'll move forward, and I'll continue to MAKE. ART. even if I'm the only one who believes in me. Well, I do have a small team of believers, and I love them all, and appreciate every single bit of support.
I'm an Actor. Producer. Sometime Director. Artist.
I. will. MAKE. ART.
thoughts? or share your "how theatre saved my life" below in the comments.