I was number 490, a staggering, frightening prospect. 489 people had gone before me, and nearly 60 would go after.
If you’re a theater person, particularly a female theater person, you know what this means. It means that a lot of talent had been spilled into that room while you were in your hotel room panicking, while you took a shower and cried your eyes out in fear, while you played a game on your cell phone. And most of those people? They’re women. For every male in theater, there are four females. Every time I walk into a room, there are ten girls at my back, lined up behind me in prettier dresses, sporting longer legs, ready to sing higher notes. You’re never good enough, and that’s a notion you’re used to if you’re in this kind of a business. You are never enough. If you book the job, it’s because Better Than You missed the bus this morning.
I was number 490, and it was my turn. 489 was done screaming his high notes. It was time for me to walk up the ramp to the stage. I took one step, and, as my neurosis declares, memory struck; not the fleeting kind of memory that comes with the ephemeral whiff of the right scent, the passing sight of a familiar color, but the staggering, dream-like kind, the kind that knocks you off balance.
I was number 54. We were going in groups of three. My group was up. I had on black jazz pants, a hot pink American Idol t-shirt, with an equally as hot pink bow in my hair. 54 was stamped onto me like a brand.
We were in the children’s clothing section of Macy’s in an Atlanta mall. This audition in a mall was for children for the ensemble of Beauty and the Beast at the Fox Theatre. I’d sat on the linoleum and waited as 53 kids before me sang the same line of “Be Our Guest.” Over and over. Some were great, some were awful. Of course, most of the great ones were girls. That’s always the way it goes.
My turn. We had to walk up four steps to a platform. This is where we would be judged by three of the most terrifying looking men I’d ever seen. They looked mean, judgmental, ready to reject everyone. The other two kids had to go before me. I was the last in my group. Two verses of “Be Our Guest” were cranked out, and suddenly it was my turn.
The intro started. I glanced toward the back of the crowd, and I saw my mother. She had on her serious face. She never makes an identifiable expression while watching me so as not to distract me. I took my first breath before the first note and gently let go of my focus on her blank face. I turned my gaze out to the crowd, and I performed.
I finished the verse, and glanced down at the auditors. All three were smiling.
I’d done it.
I fervently glanced back toward my mother as we exited the platform. She was beaming, warmly.
I’d really done it.
I snapped back to the reality of my too-high heels making their way up the ramp to the stage without the aid of my jelly legs.
I approached the pianist, gave him the tempo for my song, then stepped on the tape X.
Stepping on Xs means you’re about to be judged. This X was torn up by the countless too-high heels that had made their way into this room before mine.
I looked up to see a dark house filled with directors. These were the Midwestern Theatre Auditions. 30-something summer companies were here, looking for those they needed to fill their casts of summer shows.
I performed, I think, because auditors were laughing pleasantly, and I booked a job. But I don’t remember a thing.
All I remember is shifting in my high heels, wondering what ever happened to my tiny jazz shoes. I felt stiff and odd in my pretty, blue dress. Where were my jazz pants and American Idol t-shirt? Who was this adult with an adult face on her headshot and adult roles on her resume? Who was this girl singing notes she couldn’t sing ten years ago? How did I get there? Where was my mom?
Then, I remembered.
I home schooled in middle school to keep going. That audition in Atlanta was because I didn’t go to school like a normal kid. We drove back and forth to Atlanta so I could move onward and upward, chasing something I couldn’t even name. I went to the worst high school in God’s creation because it had what had been, for years, a peculiarly solid, incredible theatre program. I auditioned in high school for roles I wouldn’t get because of concepts like seniority and favoritism, things I’d never known before. I auditioned all over the country for college theatre programs and settled on one in the middle of nowhere in Ohio. I babysat and housesat last summer because I didn’t get a theatre job. Then, somehow I’d ended up crammed in a car of college kids, driving seven hours to St. Louis in terrible weather to try and get a summer job this time. I traded tag on the playground for tech rehearsals. I traded friends my own age for frustrated, middle-aged gay men. I traded childhood for mic checks and costume fittings and reviews in the paper and senile directors.
I stuffed 490 into my backpack, knowing that I had a serious chance of being hired for the summer. I texted my mother and filled her in on all the details that I bitterly wished she’d been around to see for herself. I wrinkled 490 without care, knowing that it wasn’t the first number to be attached to my clothing and certainly wouldn’t be the last.
When I accepted my job for this summer, committing myself to a theatre and a two show contract, memory struck again.
At an audition for the touring ensemble of The Music Man in Atlanta, a director asked me, “You and your mom drive back forth from Atlanta to Birmingham for all of these rehearsals just for you to be in shows?”
“It’s worth it,” I responded.
In my callback audition at MWTAs nearly seven years later, the artistic director asked me, “You’ve done this all your life, haven’t you?”
“Yes,” I answered, “and shockingly, I’ve loved every minute.”