Saturday, August 1, 2015

A Long, Last Look Down 42nd Street

Are you auditioning for 42nd STREET?
Audition? Seriously? Don't you know who I am?
 My friend encouraged me to take a shot. 
"I don't tap dance," I replied. 
"Abner doesn't dance," she answered, recognizing a lame excuse when she heard one. 
"They are auditioning Equity talent all over the country. They are not going to hire a local actor for a principle role. Besides, I'm tired. I need a break. No, I won't be auditioning for 42nd STREET."

Had I been honest, I would have admitted that I was intimidated as hell. On the community and semi-pro stages of Lexington, I was a big shot. Now there would be real pros in town: people who had paid their dues, not given up on their dreams like I had done. Auditioning for these companies would mean competing with artists who had been honing their craft for thirty or forty years. Bottom line? I was scared.

I told myself I was a serious actor, not some song and dance doofus who mugged and chirped for the crowd. I was King Lear. I was freaking Frankenstein's monster. So I stirred some arrogance into my cowardly stew and skipped the Lexington auditions.That decision, but for the grace of God and a couple of Guardian Angels, could have turned out to be my biggest mistake in a long, long time.
My Guardian Angels

Angels with a Dream
Jeromy and Lyndy Franklin Smith worked for years to bring  locally produced, professional musical theatre to Lexington. I met them ever so briefly last year when I was featured in the opening number of a musical review at the University of Kentucky called A Grand Night for Singing. They impressed me with their professional demeanor, their creative partnership, and their joyful spirit. Still, when Lyndy reached out to ask if I was interested in reading for the role of Abner, (yep, same role my friend had suggested) I was shocked. They had already been to audition sites all over the country. Now they wanted to see me, the clumsy actor who couldn't hold a candle to legitimate, trained singers, and couldn't even remember the dumbed down choreography they came up with for me. But for some reason, they believed in me. I auditioned. They hired me. And so began my post-graduate education in the art of professional show business.

The BEST People are the Best PEOPLE

Mr Big Shot
Two decades of considering myself as "The Pro From Dover" left me with some very bad habits and a shitty, shitty attitude. Many people here have always treated me like a Big Shot. The newspapers write about me. Younger actors tell me how honored they are to work with me. Directors put up with my wise cracks. I started thinking of myself as a star, and expected to be treated like one.
Karen Ziemba: A Leading Lady in every sense of the word
The pros showed me the best are also the best people. Nobody ever humiliated or ridiculed me when I screwed up. When I missed an entrance on opening night, the four-time Tony award nominee who I had left hanging on stage met me in the wings to laugh and tell me how much she was getting wrong that night, too. When I blew my last line and brought the show to what felt like a screeching halt just as we were racing toward the big finale, a 22 year old actress stood behind me before my curtain call and told me how well I had covered. When I would wise crack during rehearsals, begging for attention and approval from the people around me, people didn't judge or tell me to shut up, they just continued about their business, showing me in the kindest way possible that there were more important tasks at hand at the moment, and that we could be friendly and funny later. And, surprise! Even without my bag of tricks, I still received love and respect from everybody in the cast. 

The Iconic Opening Image

The Grandest of Finales
Something else about the pros: they work their asses off. I used to stand in the wings at the end of a 10 hour rehearsal and marvel at the energy and commitment the dancers threw into every turn and fah-lap ball-change. They never settled for good enough. Perfection was good enough, whether it was at 10:00 AM atwarmups, or 9:50 PM for the thousandth try at making a line laser straight or a fifty heel stomps sound like one. We started principle rehearsals 10 days before our first audience, and I probably saw someone carrying a book for lines about four times. College kids sat next to seasoned professionals pouring over their scripts, working every free moment to get the text down flawlessly, as if we were playing Shakespeare, and not musical comedy. And nobody complained. The crew busted their humps getting enormous set pieces on and off the stage. Lights and sound never seemed to stop fine tuning, right up to the moment the ushers let the first audience members into the auditorium. The dancers massaged their muscles, taped their ankles, iced their bruises, grabbed a snack, and jumped back on the stage for take after take. Two days (!) of ten hour (!) tech rehearsals were conducted with joyful patience. We all knew that something special was happening. And we trusted each other to be there when the time was ripe.

Back Dues to be Payed
They taught me a lot about myself. I need to be better prepared for the first day of rehearsals. We were two days into a five performance run before I felt really ready to open. I won't make that mistake again. I lost a lot of time feeling intimidated by people whose experience and training made them better at their jobs than I was. I have always coasted on my voice, but never really kept up my training as a singer. It's time to change that, too. And finally, I have gotten used to people making accommodations for me. If I don't have my blocking quite right or if I learn my lines wrong, I let others work around me. The Diva act stops here. Too much depends on precision and coordinated effort for me to play fast and loose with other people's work.
I don't want to come away from this experience with a bunch of empty resolutions that disappear as soon as the next Shiny Object catches my attention. I just spent two years becoming the best water fitness instructor I could be. I can put that same level of intention toward my acting. I've already started. I'm working with our musical director to find a voice coach who can help me sing at a more professional level. A generous photographer has offered to make me real head shots: the first I've had in about 30 years. I've started re-working my resume to make it a document I can be proud to send to any casting director anywhere. And I am assembling the repertoire of audition pieces that every true pro has at their fingertips. Just in case I meet Steven Spielberg at the Y some afternoon and he wants to see two minutes of comic Shakespeare. I don't have any intention of leaving Lexington to go off in search of my fortune on one of the coasts.  But it's time I started treating my art with the respect it deserves. Maybe then, I won't feel like I need to work so hard to pry attention and approval out of the people around me.


Come On Along and Listen
Along with my determination to improve, I felt a sense of glorious triumph. My Lord, that curtain call! It wasn't because people were clapping for me. Hardly. But, every night I stood on the apron of my hometown's beautiful Opera House stage, and saw hundreds of people smiling and applauding and celebrating something that ALL of us had accomplished together. The kids from local universities, the troupers from all over the country, the experienced pros, and one very grateful Big Fish from a Little Pond in the Bluegrass had joined with an audience that nobody was sure would show up and made an amazing evening of theatre happen. Proud of myself? Sure, a little. But I was so damn proud of Lexington as we stood together and grinned and waved and hooted at one another. I believe that my theatre family's world changed forever during those five performances. I know that mine did.

And it all happened because a friend, two angels, and a company of artists believed in me more than I believed in myself. I will never forget it.

Side by side, They're glorified, 
Where the underworld can meet the elite

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