Ask just about any professional performer what the most stressful part of their career is, and they’ll answer in one word: “Auditions.” We never get over it, somehow—no matter how long we’ve been doing theatre, no matter how well we know the material, no matter how “right” we know we are for the part, auditioning always seems to generate a special kind of stomach-knot.
That’s why I’m thrilled to announce a new opportunity for Musical Theatre performers of all ages in Central Pennsylvania: The “Second-Saturday” Audition Workshop series!
From 10 AM to noon on Saturday, September 8, and continuing on the second Saturday of each month following, I and a plucky group of MT performers will gather in the upstairs common room of The Perfect 5th Musical Arts Center in Mechanicsburg to practice audition material and “workshop” it—identifying strengths and opportunities for improving each performance, so every performer can bring their “A Game” to their next audition, whether it’s for a community theatre production, a college admissions audition, or a professional gig!
You don’t have to have an audition in your immediate future to participate—remember, your goal is to get so solid on your audition material that you can do it even with a roomful of disinterested strangers judging you. So even if you’re looking ahead to an audition that’s a few months away, it’s a great idea to start preparing early, and then to bring your material back for multiple sessions so you can celebrate your progress and increase your confidence as the date draws closer!
I wrote the following as an “open-ish” letter to the cast of a high-school show I music-directed back in 2014, and originally shared it with them as a post to the cast Facebook group, on the day of the “Apollo Awards,” a local fundraiser event that mimics the Tony Awards, but for high-school musicals. Seems like every year at this time (and sometimes at other times) I feel an urge to revisit these words. So, to anyone who’s found a calling in “show biz”:
Well, folks, today’s the day. By the time you call it a night tonight you’ll know whether our work together is officially “Apollo-Award-winning,” or… or not.
It would be an overstatement of my noble indifference for me to say I don’t care about tonight’s results. I do care, though not by much, and not because I hope we “win.” The “not by much” part is a symptom of the wisdom that experience brings: I’ve “won” awards and competitions with work I was dissatisfied with, and some of my best work has “lost” recognition I felt sure it deserved. (And I have a feeling I’m not alone in that.) The “I do care” part is because I know how tempting it is—not “especially,” but certainly at your age—to base your sense of self-worth on the opinions others express. And I’ve known people whose artistic souls have been crushed by others’ failure to appreciate their gifts.
There’s nothing wrong, per se, with looking to others for affirmation. A big part of growing up is deciding whose opinion should matter to you, and whose shouldn’t. (And the most important part of that process, IMHO, is realizing how much smaller that first group is than the second.) We define those groups—and re-define them—slowly and carefully and often painfully, as we realize that seeking “this” person’s approval has tended to bring us exhaustion or frustration or even pain, and that “that” person has continued to offer us affirmation and encouragement and loving challenge even when their opinions felt irrelevant or outdated or unwanted. Defining those groups is something you never ever finish with, and it’s a task only you can do for yourself. So it might seem like only an arrogant jerk would offer someone else advice on that process.
But I, as you know, am just exactly that kind of arrogant jerk, so here’s my take on it:
The “Apollos” judges don’t belong in that first group.
If we take home “best in” every category tonight, it doesn’t mean our show was better than we thought it was. It doesn’t mean we told the story better than we thought we had. And it doesn’t mean we didn’t make the mistakes we thought we made, or that we couldn’t have done better.
And if our show isn’t named for a single award, it won’t mean that our pride in our work was misplaced. It won’t mean that we didn’t overcome the challenges of cancelled rehearsals and condensed timelines. And it won’t mean that there weren’t moments—I saw them on your faces—when you couldn’t believe art that powerful could come out of your bodies and voices and souls.
So here’s my challenge to you: decide NOW whether our production was worth the time and heart you put into it. Decide NOW whether you’re proud of the work you and your teammates did. Decide NOW whether we did good work together. And then, before the judges even open their mouths, decide who else on the planet has a right to try to change your mind about any of that.
When you get the hang of that, you’ll be an artist.
Which is really just another word for a whole human being.
There are so many things I hate about Christmas, that I struggle to list them in order of hatedness. Granted, I can name three or four things I hate about Christmas at a moment’s notice, any day of the year, but when I really sit down to focus my un-charitability toward the holiday? Hoo boy. Look out. Consider:
I hate Late-October Christmas, in which jacks-o-lantern are chased away by (or in many cases share porches and storefronts with) Christmas decorations, as though we fear we won’t survive the 54 days between the bucket of Baby Ruths and Smarties we scored from our neighbors, and the sack of trinkets we expect to receive from family, friends, and an inexplicably jolly elf with unnerving home invasion skills.
I hate Aircraft-Diversion Christmas, the holiday mocked by Chevy Chase movies but misguidedly imitated by so many, in which the light pollution of competitive gaudiness and flair renders invisible the tranquil beauty of stars in the winter sky.
I hate Cookie Christmas, in which we prepare ridiculous quantities of labor-intensive, horrifyingly sweet, unjustifiably gaudy confections and distribute them to friends and family, all while patting our slightly-less-svelte-than-we-wish-they-were bellies and chuckling demurely, “oh, no, I really couldn’t.”
I hate Santa Christmas, by which children are indoctrinated to associate material wealth with good behavior—as though the Koch brothers were the kind of people we want our children to grow up to be—and by which kids learn early on that the people who teach us wrong from right clearly don’t have a clue how the world actually works.
I hate Suddenly Religious Christmas, which pretends that December 24 is a more important day for spiritual community than, say, September 10, and accepts rote recitation of mythology in place of authentic, disciplined relationship with transcendence.
I hate “It’s-The-Thought-That-Counts” Christmas, that condescendingly self-righteous holiday that serves not to liberate its participants from blatant consumerism, but rather to justify their perceived need to purchase self-worth by wasting money on unnecessary, unwanted gewgaws that, in a slightly less imperfect world, would hit the dustbin along with the wrapping paper, saving the recipient the awkward “It-Was-A-Gift” period during which they are socially bound to pretend they appreciated the gesture.
I even hate “Merry Christmas,” as a phrase. For musicians and religious professionals and retailers and medical professionals and so many others in service positions, December is the busiest, most stressful time of the year. Generally, if I can make it through a day in December without cursing anyone out I call it a success. “Full of cheerfulness or gaiety? Joyous in disposition?” Take that and lump it, and just let me go home and lock the door and be alone with hubby and the cats until January, thankyouverymuch.
And I hate—heaven help me, I hate so excruciatingly, rage-inducingly much—Retail Christmas. The jingle bells that underscore every commercial for the last 25% of the year… the countless (but expensive) things “’tis the season” for… the way one can’t shop even for everyday necessities like groceries without suggestions that one really should be spending more money than one had planned to. How I loathe Retail Christmas, to which the American economy is inextricably yoked, on whose under-the-wire profits solo business owners and megacorp execs alike depend, and at whose altar so many of the other things I hate about Christmas bow!
But most most most of all, I hate “Real-Meaning-Of” Christmas: the insidious ways our culture tries to convinces us that we’re wrong to question any of it—that if we speak out against mindless tradition, compulsory pleasantries, or consumerism, we’re committing a mortal sin against the Holy of Holies.
Kids, cover your ears.
I mean, pardon my French and all, but this is something about which I feel quite strongly. And I feel strongly about it because (don’t tell anyone) I really, really need Christmas. But I need a different kind of Christmas than the one that I drown in for far too many weeks every winter.
I need the kind of Christmas that finds divine, world-redeeming purpose in a child born out of wedlock to a political refugee and her fiancé.
I need the kind of God who would surrender omnipotence and omniscience to fully understand the hungers and fears and uncertainties of humanness.
I need the kind of good news that is delivered late at night to dirty, exhausted, hard-working tradespeople, because the folks whose power was handed down to them find it threatening, and collude to silence it.
So every year I climb on my high horse, put on my Grinch face, update my non-gift wishlist, take lots and lots and lots of deep breaths, and start counting down the days until January. Not because I have a right to claim my own kind of Christmas—though I do—but because I have a feeling I’m not alone.
(My good friend, the amazingly and multi-facetedly impressive Sarah Jebian, recently asked some of her colleagues if they’d be willing to write blog posts that Sarah could share with her voice and acting students in her monthly newsletter. Here’s mine:)
I saw it coming. I knew a solid 8 bars before the high G# that it wasn’t going to come out. We had learned the notes and marked the breaths and identified the vowels and done all of those other Things You’re Supposed to Do Before You Sing a Song. He’d even taken a good, low breath before starting the piece. But as the key changed into the last refrain and the momentum started to build, I saw the self-consciousness chiseling itself into his forehead: was his soft palate high enough? his tongue low enough? his ribcage maintaining noble posture? his base of support sturdy enough?
The irony, of course, is that all of these things are important to consider as you’re building the muscle memory to get your body through the “money note” moment of the song. But focusing on them in that moment is lethal to the art. And telling yourself not to think about them is as effective as telling yourself not to think about pink elephants. So what do you put into your mind when you don’t want to think about how hard it is to be an excellent singer?
Great songs are great songs because they tell great stories. They’re great because they say something to us, or help us to say something we didn’t know how to say ourselves. Because great music has power—because the world is a different place after a great song has been sung well. And that power, I believe, comes from a singer’s immersion in the story—in the world of the song.
I stopped my student during the last phrase before the high G#. “Wait a minute,” I said.
Then I asked him the six questions I ask just about all of my students at some point about every song, every monologue, and every scene:
1. Who are you?
What is your character’s origin story? What archetypes do they echo? What assumptions, values, “baggage” do they carry? What is their super-objective in the play?
2. Whom are you talking to?
What is their power dynamic with your character? What power do they hold over others that you don’t?
3. What do you want from your partner?
There will usually be a text-specific answer and a more essential, archetypical answer. (At the Alsedek Theatre School we call this latter category your “Essential Action,” an idea our founder gleaned from conversations with William H. Macy, Felicity Huffman, and other students of the Atlantic Theatre Company.)
4. How important is your goal?
What are the stakes if you fail? What is the reward if you succeed?
5. What’s in the way?
What (or who) is making it difficult to achieve your goal? What tactics might you employ to overcome those obstacles?
6. How will you know when you’ve succeeded?
What behavior from your scene partner will let you know you’ve accomplished your goal?
We talked through the answers to these questions for several minutes, and as we talked I saw the furrows in his forehead loosen, his shoulders drop, and his breathing slow. The desperate attention to technique relaxed away, and in its place I saw a heartfelt need to tell this character’s story.
When I was 16, I came within a mile of killing myself.
A mile, or roughly two minutes. At the spot where the impulse struck me, on Route 175 in Columbia, MD, the roadside was all gently sloping grass—no trees or telephone poles or even concrete safety barriers to ram a car against. A mile further down the road, and I could have found any of those sturdy car-smashing targets—but before I got that far, I’d thought better of it. But in that instant, in the car alone, after the boy I was in love with told me he wasn’t in love with me, that he thought of me as a good friend but nothing more than that… if the chance had been there, my teen-angst-ful self would have taken it.
Next month, in case you’ve missed any of my earlier from-the-rooftop announcements, I’ll be playing Bruce Bechdel in Fun Home, the musical based upon Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical “tragicomic.” Bruce was Alison’s father; he was passionate about literature and photography and art and design, and he made sure the home Alison grew up in was pristine and fashionable and full of beauty. He was also gay. And four months after Alison came out to him as lesbian, he killed himself.
I’ve been talking a lot with my therapist about this show. Playing Bruce, I told her, is like riding my bike riiiiiight along the edge of a cliff—trying to match its curves and twists without falling in and crashing.
Some days it’s terrifying.
But unlike 16-year-old me, I’ve learned to think, as I’m teetering on the edge of that cliff, about the people around me—my husband, of course, who is the best friend I’ve ever had; but also my sister and our parents, and a select group of other close friends—who aren’t afraid to see me hurting, or angry, or scared. These are people who have seen me cry, and have let me cry, and have sat with me without fixing or masking or ignoring what’s wrong. They’ve been with me in moments when the fact that they were with me was the only good thing I could see, and they stayed there until I could see more good things than that.
These are the people who’ve saved my life over and over again.
And one moment, on Route 150 in Beech Creek, PA, Bruce couldn’t think of anyone like that.
I hope you’ll come see FUN HOME because it is—and I give you my word that this is not an exaggeration—the best-written musical I have ever read. I hope you’ll come see it because the story is funny and poignant and sweet, and the music is fun and glorious and haunting. I hope you’ll come see us because the cast includes some of the most insightful, vulnerable, dedicated actors and singers I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. I hope you’ll come see us because I feel as though playing Bruce at this moment in my life—I’m just 2 years older now than Bruce was when he died—is something that had to happen.
But most of all, I hope you’ll come see us because someday, someone else will need you to be there for them. And they’ll need you to be able to see their pain and their grief and their shame and their terror, and not be afraid of any of it. The edge of the cliff can be a horrible place to find yourself, and if you’re not careful, at the wrong moment, you can fall in. But if you’ve learned the terrain—if you’ve been there before, with someone who knows the way, and who can grab your hand if you start to slip—it’s not quite as scary.
Will you join us?
To buy tickets for the October 7 performance, benefiting the LGBT Center of Central PA, please use this form. (These sales must be completed by October 1.)