Exposed thoughts on Theater from a Newbie 38 year old single mom with NO acting experience!
“Oh, Mom’s at it again,” say my three children with a deep, bored to tears sigh of near acceptance. They are standing around me in the garage as I’m bent half-over a bar stool spray painting Winter Formal decorations for my son’s dance in the theme of Mardi Gras. It would be great, except he didn’t really ask me to do it, and for some reason didn’t think my getting authentic masks right from New Orleans for the students to wear was as ‘awesome’ as I did. What were the other mom’s doing? Oh, baking … yeah, I can’t do that.
To my children, I was as I always have been; the crazy mama. My son even has a song titled, “Crazy Mama” to illustrate said point. I’d climbed our Colorado roof countless times at sunset, hoisting my toddlers up and over my shoulders early in the morning just to see what it is they could see … to be a part of their world and to bask in the innocence of it. I’d danced on kitchen tables, showed up at their schools in costume’s, written plays for their class, and read Hemingway, Poe, and the likes of Charlotte Perkins late into the nights before they could spell their names. It was how I always knew to love them, and it is all the ways they never understood why. When I graduated from college they stood in the stands cheering for me, but even later at dinner reminded me of my odd ways when Brandin quietly asks, “Why couldn’t you have done it like normal people, like gone to college before you had kids?” It is a fair question.
I’d taken risks in the creative ways I’d raised my children, but had a I ever truly and really taken a risk for myself? Were my risks examples I wanted to teach them, or were they simply me being the out of the box mom I couldn’t help but be? Aside from going back to college while working full time to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology, I realized I never stepped out of myself; for myself.
I’d never done the one thing I’d always longed to do. Act. Albeit my very bones are strengthened by the actor gene in our family as my father is a graduate of the theater, but I’d never for a single second believed I could ever have what it took to take a stage, or be a presence in the light. I’d never even tried, despite the longing. So, one day the year of my 35th birthday, I drove myself down to the local community theater.
I sat in the parking lot for nearly an hour before garnering the courage to go in. Moments into a brisk walk back to my car I realized the receptionist hadn’t even looked up at me when she handed me the script to the play I was going to, probably, try out for. So much for what other people think of me.
Less than 48 hours, I finally inform my children of what I was about to do. They respond as usual with a roll of the eyes, but as I head to leave, at the front door, I turned. Samantha spoke first from the couch, “Aren’t you going?” I didn’t think I could do it. “Come with me. I need you to go with me.” Both of them grumbled and despite their reluctance against the whispers of, “Here she goes again,” they did above and beyond their best at supporting me along the drive with, “Mom, I don’t know why you’re worried, you can totally do this.”
I wasn’t worried about their thinking I was crazy, I’d done farfetched before – but I was deathly afraid of failing them. It was told later on, by a cast member, Andrew, who auditioned with me that I came out like a ball of fire, and was so over the top that I caused others to feel intimidated. I loved him more in those words than he knew. To this day, even three years and three plays later, I can’t get over that perception as it was so the opposite of how I felt. I only knew I wanted that role so badly that I couldn’t walk out of that room not having given it everything I had. I suppose having no idea what an audition looked like, or was, helped because I was so naive to the process.
I lied on the form the director asked me to fill out, making something out of nothing just to have a little on it as not to let anyone know that I had absolutely no experience. I pretended I wasn’t afraid, but if it hadn’t been for my girls sitting in the back when my name was called to the front, I would have ran.
I shook for three days, couldn’t eat anything, and had several minor panic attacks. I didn’t tell anyone outside of my children what I had done, and even when a co-worker who held season tickets to WCP mentioned the upcoming play and how excited she was to go see it, I held my breath. When the director called to tell me I’d been given the role of Bridget, I pulled the car over onto the side of the road, and I cried for a very long time.
I was a thirty five year old divorced mother of three, and despite raising amazing children while working and getting a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology, I suddenly felt overwhelmed with how that very moment brought me closer to a part of myself I didn’t realize I hadn’t paid attention to. In those strange seconds on the side of a rural highway, I remembered the way I felt when my father would tell me his theater stories, just as I’d felt when I had wanted to become a writer. The thing about writing however is that I can do it all alone in my room and no one ever need tell me it’s good enough. Acting, on the other hand, would be a sure validation or rejection, of my innate talent. It wasn’t until that evening I realized I’d never tried, because I was too afraid to fail. Too afraid to not measure up. Pulling back onto the road I finally gave myself permission to let loose of my joy and laughed as I adjusted my thoughts, “Well girl, you got the part – now what the hell are you gonna do?”
For six weeks I got to know a part of myself I never knew. I wasn’t a mom, I wasn’t a friend, I wasn’t an employee – I wasn’t divorced, I didn’t have luggage, and I was light – each night I stepped into rehearsals, I floated. None of my cast mates, not even my director, knew anything about me other than the moves I made, the lines I read, and the way I interacted with my character, and theirs. For six weeks I was exactly who I was in my heart without any heavy role to belong to aside from being the self I was discovering. From the first day when we did our “read,” which of course I pretended to know what that was – to the first few days of “blocking” – which I had to Google to find out what it was I had been doing all night – to watching other cast members as to pick up on and learn how to stand, how to move, how loud to talk, and what to say to the director and the assistant stage manager when they called out strange sayings I didn’t understand; I was in a world I absolutely knew I belonged to. In this world, I wasn’t afraid to be me. I was satisfied with the journey I had taken, and what I had seen and discovered along the way.
Along the same rural highway, a year later, I answered my second call from the director. Not from relief, but from shock, I again pulled over to the crumbled side of an old farm house driveway. Would I take a part? But, I hadn’t auditioned. Before thinking I sputtered out the words, “Of course Chuck, of course, I would love too!” I didn’t even know what the play was. Didn’t he remember that I didn’t know what I was doing?
Rushing into the house I hollered out the news, but even in my own excitement I saw the reactions of my children as their shoulders dropped and their frowns spoke. “Aren’t you happy for me?” I asked them.
My youngest, Samantha, “It’s just … well, it’s just that you’re gone so much when you do that.”
My father had once told me that a good mother does what is best for her children. As I stood before my precious babies, I knew I had a difficult choice to make. I’d always put them first, and always would – but I just couldn’t bring the words to my lips that I would give the part up. Sometimes, a mother knows that doing what is best for her children also means doing what is best for her. I wasn’t dating, I was working full time, I spent every moment being there for them – if I didn’t do something for myself I would be an empty vessel and in my loneliness and lack of living, I wouldn’t be the woman I was which would eventually take away the mother I intended to be. I took the part, and explained to my kids that mom deserved to have some “me” time. Guilt.
And the guilt kept coming. No matter how hard I tried to shake it, I would find myself enjoying rehearsal’s suddenly wracked with the knowing that my children were wishing I were at home. Then, everything in my world turned upside down when I got a call from the hospital as I was driving to rehearsal one night. My oldest seventeen year old daughter, Amanda, had a drug over-dose, and even though she was stable I knew my life was about to change severely.
I hadn’t seen it. Even having been a social worker who worked with teenage girls in crisis, I missed it. She was on the honor roll, she was Senior Class President, she was working part time, and while I knew she’d been distracted I never in a million years would have thought drugs. I had to call the director and miss rehearsal that night. I didn’t even know at that point if I would ever make it back again.
Part of me was grateful that I had committed to something that required my presence, just a few hours to pretend that this really wasn’t happening to my family was almost as vital as my breathing. I don’t remember driving to the theater the next night. I recall panicking, working it over and over in my mind how I would possibly be able to let down my cast mates and knowing that while I had good reason, the director would likely not cast me again if I backed out at this point. But, the panic was short lived.
I found my way down the stairs, past the mirrors, and into the dressing room and straight into the arms of Linda, my motherly cast mate who didn’t say anything but to hold me long enough to allow me to cry. Would my daughter be okay? I didn’t know. How I would save her, I had no idea. Yet, something miraculous happened in those few moments in a smelly basement dressing room of a glorious old theater in the arms of an actress who took the role of mother without having too. She looked right into my eyes and she lit up, her entire body animated, her hands squeezing my shoulders and as if shoving strength right into my very veins she willed me, “The show will go on my darling, the show will go on.” And I knew, she wasn’t talking about Butterscotch. That evening, in the dressing room, she played the part of a heroine that bonded me to her far beyond the curtain and the applause.
Without question, whatever had conspired the director to call me up and give me a part, had known that I would need that play and I would need Linda, so that I could survive those painful weeks of my nearly losing my daughter. Her words resonated with me time and time again as I held Amanda and brought her back to life. “Theater magic,” my father said one night as I told him how precious her arms were night after night, when with the tilt of her head on stage she was encouraging me on. And I began to understand.
Amanda went on to successfully graduate from high school, and with relentless mothering we moved forward from painful experiences – in truth, despite the agony and heart-ache we are closer than ever before. Time moves us to revelation, requires our intense seeking of hope so that when we sing life’s chorus, it is done so with a true melody. Butterscotch, my second play, was the song of my heart. Each night I took the stage I battled to win against the demons of guilt and hopelessness and in the face of every audience member I purposed to bring about joy – standing tall in victory that what should come against me will not win for I choose to be brave, and I choose to be me. No one can take that.
Curtain call for Happy Birthday, my first play, gave resounding applause to my life for the year that came after and renewed my connection to my father in ways I will forever cling to. As the curtain dropped on the last night of Butterscotch, my second play, I entered into a steady calm knowing that no matter what could ever happen in my life the show would go on, because I would be strong. I looked forward to and anticipated auditions for Noises Off for many months, excited for the next play and stage in my life that would define itself as simply fun – a carefree, wonderland – a farce to top all, and with all things in my life going so wonderfully I counted the days like a child before Christmas.
Then, just two weeks shy of auditions I was let go from my employer. Regardless of being told it was not due to performance and only because in my refusal to take a pay cut, they could not afford to keep my management position – I crumbled at the idea of failure. In the parking lot, with my things in boxes in the trunk, halfway into a cry-fest I suddenly remembered the words, “The show must go on!” And without the trying of it, an irrational peace fell over me and I laughed. This was my blessing in disguise. This, finally, was my time to write.
I’d written several books but only had the courage to publish one of them, and despite the publisher being a small press and the book only having a 3 year run, I had at one time been satisfied with that. I’d always told myself if it weren’t for having to work full time, or if it weren’t for my not having a degree, or if it weren’t for some excuse … I’d write. I’d run flat out of excuses. So, I registered for unemployment and I wrote a book. It took me 9 days.
I’m not sure what I expected, only that after fifteen years of having so many people in my life telling me to stop wasting time and write, I was emotionally let down at the response I received. My father read the book first. If it never sees the light of a publishing day, his response secured my decision and never before whether by moon-light fire over Poe or a tearful ‘break a leg’ had I ever felt so loved. But, he was my father. My best friend – and that’s what daddy’s and best friends do. My mother took two days to read the book and called me from her car in the parking lot of her work crying, saying again and again how amazed and proud she was. Healing waters for a thirsty soul. My best friend of twenty-one years read it also in two days and yelled over the phone at me, “About damn time bitch!” She’s always been my kick in the ass and I love her for it. But as anyone in any creative trade knows, having your family or your best friend validate your craft just doesn’t carry the momentum of those who have little to no investment in you. I’d given the book to six people outside of my friends and family. None of them had even read the book.
The day of auditions for Noises Off I’d spent nine hours trying hard not to change the integrity of a book I knew I needed to change but didn’t want too – and also fought with Iowa Student Loans putting my account into collections – I was going down in a sinking ship fast. I’d lost my job, tried to write, and now was facing losing my unemployment to garnishments of a college degree I wasn’t even using. When the devil comes to call he pulls out all the cards and just an hour before I knew I had to leave for auditions I faced the mirror in my bedroom and knew I’d gained too much weight to look good on stage. The mind carries on like the empty stomach – willing to eat dirt if that’s all you have to feed it with. I was a mud pit, and not even the hot sexy kind with beers and bikini’s. So, I pulled out one last ditch effort to hose myself off – I called Andrew. “Let’s meet for drinks before auditions,” I told him – in the back of my mind knowing that at least I wouldn’t give up yet.
In true form, late and well groomed, Andrew and I sat sharing his usual cheese balls and my usual pretending to be okay self. I knew I could count on him to remind me of that woman I was when I first auditioned – and if he reminded me of her – I could try it again. He didn’t know I showed up waiting for it – and he still doesn’t know to this day that the reason I went to that audition was because he said what I needed him to say. I needed someone to remember me – to know me – to acknowledge and validate just my simple wanting of something and maybe, just maybe, my being good enough for it.
What no one knew, including Andrew – and even Linda, when she walked into the room in her full glory, was that I nearly walked out before auditions even started. I’d only been to one audition before and there were less than fifteen people at that one – auditions for Noises Off, just that first night, had over twenty people! They were young and beautiful and experienced and they all knew one another and had theater degree’s and within minutes I could barely breathe, suffocating from my own sense of inadequacy. I sat in my chair and the only thing I could hear were my own demons taunting me, “You just got fired, you wrote a bad book, you’re broke, you’re kids are pissed you’re doing this again, what the hell is wrong with you?” I had to hold the edges of my chair to keep me down.
I could hardly see past my own fears much less see the lines to read, and by the end of auditions I was such a mess that even though I didn’t have to be anywhere I lied to Andrew and several others that I had to go home when they invited me out. I was ashamed of myself. Later, when Andrew invited me to watch Noises Off the movie, I agreed to come over only because I adored him so much and didn’t want my own stupid insecurities to make him feel that I didn’t want to be around him – but the truth was, I didn’t want to see the movie – I didn’t want to feel bad about getting invested in it with him and then letting him down and not getting a part. But the next day, something happened to me.
I closed my laptop and felt compelled to go into my office treasure chest and sort through twenty plus years of writing. I got lost, for a while, in the stories of my life in the ways I’d lived them, and found connections to the divine in ways only the supernatural can lead. I recalled the years I’d searched for the son I’d given up for adoption twenty-two years ago, the articles I’d written, the book that was published, the memory book I’d had professionally made – finding him finally, and his adding me on facebook, even though he didn’t want to meet me yet. It had been nearly eight months since he had contacted me. A manila envelope, unopened, post-marked ten years to the day before. Why had I never opened this? A handwritten note from my great-grandfather, giving me all the original poetry written by a great-grandmother I never even knew existed – my blood great-grandmother who had died suddenly when her two boys were only toddlers. How is it that no one in my family told me of her?
I call, weeping I ask my father about his blood grandmother and begin to absorb the eternal connection of my soul to a woman who at this pivotal moment in my existence chose to reach out to me, to connect to me, to wrap her mothering arms around my hurting heart and whisper, “I know you.” My father’s joy that the poetry of our generations was not lost as all thought, and his grief that I – for whatever reason – had been chosen to receive them. Our shared complexity of wonder in the ways of God. I’d written a book ten years before titled, “My Sonnet’s Soul,” about all of our families deepest and most darkest of secrets, the mysteries of a compelling several century journey of deceit, betrayal, passion, and death. I’d handed it out at our one and only family reunion. I’d been told that evening to burn the book. The manila envelope from my great-grandfather containing the original poetry by my blood great-grandmother, who I’d never even been told existed, was post-marked the very next day all those years ago. The day I discovered I had a call back for Noises Off was the day I discovered it, hidden and buried in my crate of old writings.
Putting cold washcloth to my eyes, I laid old papers to safety back inside the envelope and closed the chest. Just before stepping out the door to go to Andrew’s place to watch the movie of Noises Off, my phone dings a familiar alert and I quick check it. It is my son. My son, who I’ve never met outside of the short days I held him after his birth, and whom I’ve not had contact with but on facebook, for eight months. He writes, “Just had you on my mind, hope you are okay.”
I drove to Andrew’s mindlessly repeating the question, “Am I supposed to write? Does all of this mean I’m on the right track? Am I on the right path?” I don’t remember showing up at Andrew’s, and I don’t recall going inside, until the moment I just let loose of it all – and for the first time, I showed myself – the me that had the baggage outside of the stage – simply because I couldn’t hold her in.
He listened. Then, with a tilt of his head as if I already knew it he said, “I’m adopted.” With those words, I knew I hadn’t discovered any great secret with theater – I’d just been welcomed into the magic. For all the time I’d spent with him on stage, I suddenly sat before him in the company of both our necessary dreaming and wanting of something more. It is a fine line, standing at the entrance of stage right, holding the handle, waiting for your cue – that great curtain of permission granting your eternal self the right to be free of it for as long as you are written in the act. How much of us, our essence, our own blood, tears, and fight do we really take with us in that moment we move through the door? And how much of it should we?
I chose to take all of me, that night, when I found the man behind the actor just before we watched the curtain go up and the credits role. Just before we forgot, because it feels good, and laughed out loud with the hope of being able to do the same if we were so lucky to get pulled from the tall black hat of our director.
For the following weeks I went down the rabbit hole with eight other actors, a director, a marketing director, and a cornucopia of brilliant stage and set crew members who gave me magic potions, danced with me on tea tables, sat Nevermore upon a bust of Pallas, and shared the secrets of courage in dreaming the dreams we all dare to dream.
Even without scripted words, my tomorrow carries their every voice, as true and tried as mine – to present oneself for greatness, not always for the applause, but forever in the magic that happens when you dare to go on stage.
But most amusing of all, and quite perfect for such an experience as this was hearing my two children in conversation with a stranger in the green room …
“… thanks, yeah, she was pretty good,” said my son.
The stranger to my children, “So, do any of you act?”
“I just got a lead role in our school play,” responds my youngest.
My son smiles, “I’ve been in a few, I usually get a good part.”
The stranger to my children, “I’m sure you’re both very good.”
In unison, both smiling, “We take after our mom.”
Words I thought I’d never hear. Theater magic. Or, so I’ve been told.
You just never know what secrets you’re going to discover on stage, with those who trust you, without really knowing you. Or, what lessons they may lend, even if they didn’t know it, when you needed to learn the most. I thought I was going to act just for me, but in the end I met myself and found peace in the mother I am.
I learned that if we can harness the courage to take a risk, life honors our strength and presents to us the very rewards of why we took it in the first place. I discovered I could act, and that theater is a wonderful second home to my spirit – but I also made life-long friends, and survived several years of trial and tribulation because I’d made that first ‘Crazy mama’ attempt at finding me.
If you’ve ever, even just for a brief moment, wanted to act … no matter your age – go for it.
I promise you, the magic awaits!