“Let me call you back. I just stepped out of theatre rehearsal for a second and I’m wearing a fish on my head,” I whispered into the phone… to my doctor. He was calling to follow up on an episode of insane acid reflux, but I had to go. King Triton was angry and all things “Under the Sea” were so tenuous that I wasn’t willing to miss my cue… doctor’s excuse or not. This is theater people, and at that moment, the 85 other esophagi carrying on in the mirrored dance studio that Eastern Shore Repertory Theater inhabits mattered just as much as mine.
This spring I joined a local cast of the Broadway version of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. It wasn’t exactly on purpose. The Eastern Shore Repertory Theatre is predominantly a program for children – a program that my 10-year-old daughter has wanted to be involved with since her first ESRT summer camp four years ago. This was the first show that her three-night-a-week-gymnastics schedule appeared to reasonably align with. And since the spring show – held on Fairhope’s historic Henry George bluff – incorporates adult performers, I thought “hey, I’m going to be driving her to all of the practices, why don’t I do this WITH her? You know, while she still WANTS to do stuff with me!”
It’s been roughly four months and three shows since auditions and today was the first chance I had to sleep in. But would I do it all over again? Here’s are 10 things I learned joining the cast of a children’s musical theatre… at age 39.
#1 Musical Theatre Requires Focus
When is the last time as an adult you tried to memorize something? Like really kept words strung together, in order, in the order the author designed them in your brain for more than thirty-two seconds? While landing at a precise place at a precise point in time adorned in a costume and approximating the body language of whichever human or animal you’re supposed to be?
As a recent expatriate of Sippy Cup Island, I can assure you the answer for me is not recently. Unless, we’re counting Intermediate School pickup at 3:05 as I shout my daughter’s name through a crack in my window because – once again – the paper plate with her name written in Sharpie has been tossed over the weekend. But since I’m half-responsible for naming her, remember those lines don’t count.
Wanna be amazed? Watch a kid absorb and repeat someone else’s lines.
#2 Musical Theatre Requires Commitment
Remember those 85 esophagi I referenced? They’ve all made arrangements to be there. On time. And even if you’re ocean tumbleweed #4, if you’ve missed, you’ve just stunted the scene because now when the Blowfish* “BLOWS” and delivers his standing back tuck, he will back tuck straight onto your face. Be there and it MIGHT not happen.
The point is, we’ve all got stuff, but this whole thing doesn’t work unless everyone’s on the bus at the same time.
*No Blowfish actually landed on anyone’s face. As far as I know.
#3 Musical Theatre Requires Endurance
I don’t know if you’ve ever done choreography, but learning and rehearsing these expertly-crafted moves during the big number is EXACTLY like a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout. You run :30 worth of the number, pause for :15 while someone waives their arms (dramatically of course, because this IS theatre) while yelling “No no no!” And then it’s back to start to run it again.
You will do this for three hours. At the end of these choreography sessions your only sense of accomplishment will be the shedding of two pounds of fluid and that you didn’t die on someone’s smartphone reference video.
In all seriousness, this is a picture of my legs after our first dress rehearsal on the bluff. In the reprise to “Les Poisson” I slipped on an audio cable while chasing a chef who was chasing a crab. I didn’t even know I was hurting until the number was over and we got back to the tent. I think they call that adrenaline.
#4 Musical Theatre Requires Dancing… or at least a willingess to learn
Speaking of choreography, I’m not sure how this one slipped by me, but there is dancing involved in musical theatre. Maybe not for every part, but at least for the audition process. If you, like me, have to look up the spelling of, much less learn how to do a “chaine” (sha-nay) turn, you will find yourself knocking at the door of the nearest dance family to try to figure it out. They will promise not to judge you but you will catch them giggling. You might then spend additional hours in front of your mirror still not doing a chaine turn.
This will still be true opening night except you’ll be wearing fish on your head and hands, and now you’ll be trying not to “not chaine” into the clownfish next to you.
#5 Musical Theatre requires taking risks
And pretty much obliterating your comfort zone. We’re here to tell a story and a story can only be told if every person in the cast is willing to honor it. Unless you’re playing yourself, you can’t do that and not be willing to step outside of yourself.
I was cast as a school of fish, a chef and a princess. I’ll be honest – it was easy for me to get lost in the wonder and puppetry of how fish might move under the water and the absurdness of a bunch of adult French chefs chasing a crab. Might as well have been a regular day of being Adrienne Gray.
Being a princess absolutely terrified me. I haven’t done the time on the couch to figure out why – probably has something to do with being about as girly as a puppy chasing geese on the Fairhope beach (see the photo of bruised calves above). Still, the story needed some princesses and I had to jump over whatever it was inside of me that resisted “Princessing”.Trusting the creative process, I knew I needed to find a device to springboard over that fear and I found that very thing in my fellow princesses. There was comfort and camaraderie in interacting with the incredibly varied and outrageous characters brought to life by each woman – extraordinary in her own right. By closing night, I felt like I’d finally found my groove.
#6 Musical Theatre Requires Humility
Maybe it’s just this first-timer, but I think there’s this idea that the keycode to the stage door requires having it all figured out… like you’ve won some part on your merit of being an expert at that part.
So. Not. True.
Sure, it takes a certain confidence and performance leaning to step out and do something like community theatre to begin with, but the audition was just a baseline. For me, the real work and growth came through the study of everyone who’d been at this for a while.The way 5th graders facial expressions could rise to the level of electric. The way that junior high and high-school seagulls spent their time exploring 100-different ways to be a seagull. Studying a full treasure trove of high-school girls who could just have easily been cast as the lead but were embracing their supporting roles as though they had been written especially for them.
Studying the leads and being wowed by their mastery and watching their open spirits accept critique beautifully in spite of being picked apart in a room full of people who might have liked to be standing where they are. And watching those leads learn something new every time like ballroom dancing so well so that we all believed them.We all grew together. But no one can grow unless they’re teachable. And this was a teachable bunch.
#7 Musical Theatre Requires Leadership
Leaders look like different things at different times. This image was drawn by two high-school girls in order to prep us all for show makeup. Y’all, I understand HOW to do makeup because I spent 10 years working with recording artists for all kinds of different lighting. But Homegirl does not actually wear more than three brush strokes of mascara and some lip gloss. And that’s on Sunday.
So having these gals hold our hands through the process was so important. They had a gift and they used it to pull the rest of us through.
Also holding the entire production together was a team of dancers known as “The Sirens.” They appeared in almost every scene almost non-stopped, dancing for over two hours. They worked harder than all of us. And they were largely choreographed by one of their own – a SOPHMORE in high school. They figured it out.Three sailors were hurt after we moved the production out to the bluff. Not one of them skipped a moment. One of these I didn’t know about until curtain call on opening night when he whispered to me “don’t touch my left arm!”
Personal responsibility. Leaders, y ‘all.
#8 Musical Theatre Requires Trust
Trust. Mostly in invisible heroes. You stare in this mirror for months, wondering exactly how this will all come alive. You see your lily-white winter legs bouncing through a chef scene. You watch kids mimic crab movements and Ariel and Prince Eric sitting on folding chairs in a non-existent boat. You know somehow it all comes together, but you’re working in the blind with a faith that it will all somehow make sense.
Wardrobe. Auxiliary moms. Photographer/Designers. Carpenters, set-makers and audio engineers. Lighting designers who double as techs (and maybe Disney executives). Did I mention choreographers?
For every kid who got up and sang and danced during this 2.5 hour show, there was a mom driving an SUV, a grandmother painting and molding foam for a sea creature, spouses coming home early from work to cover the rest of the household, a dad building set pieces or running audio cables and even King Triton loaning out his warehouse to store these monstrosities. These kids are where they are because of the undying support of a whole community who believes in them.
Personally, I think the auxiliary officers and our wardrobe designer should have done the princess scene.
#9 Musical Theatre Requires A Director
Lawd almighty, Erin Langley. Our director. As founder and the driving force behind this whole thing, I have to dote for a minute. The way this wife and mother of two commands a room and manages to motivate children and adults creatively while pulling a feat of a show through the rigorous expectations and landmines of this community is something that you should have to experience to understand. But I’m going to try to explain it anyway.
Imagine walking into an echoey mirror-clad room cooled by an a/c unit with the decibel-level of a jet engine. You’ve got excited children yammering. Some of them are flipping bottles. Others are flipping their bodies. Invariably there are one or two staring at themselves in the mirror doing dance moves from google-knows which musical they’ve been youtubing. Roughly 1/4 had their ADD meds wear off and another 1/4 are probably medicating through the theatre program. High-school students are laid about, laptops open, doing homework and studying for finals.
Here and again… the odd whiff of feet.
There are adults scattered about, having escaped today’s life crises now entering this mish-mash of creative steam-release and three-ring circus. Invariably the adults back themselves against the back and side walls into pseudo-safety – a mixutre of decompression and working through whatever odd set of personal proclivities got them into this room to start with.
Our director walks in, raises her arm, waiving a jazz hand, waiting for the room to mirror her and come to order. She gives a red-lipped smile and sets out the mission for the day. Sometimes her eyes flash with excitement before telling us about props that have come in or the whispers around town buzzing about the show. And sometimes they flash with the knowledge that there’s a full moon out and if she doesn’t bring these kids and adults to a place of focus and high self-expectation quickly, they will dissolve into talented ADD werewolves in front of her.
Outside there’s an auxiliary of parents she’s just finished meeting with on issues like permits, ticket sales, dedicating the production to a local ballerina who’s fighting cancer in Texas and random social media rumors that we’re siphoning tax-payer dollars to build a new stage (we weren’t). She’s probably fileded at least three emails today of various flavors from other parents. She’s been approached by at least five of her 85 cast members with a special request of some kind. And a few adults in the room look at her with a lost expression while fourteen-year-olds are leading us into warm-up split-stretches.
And yet here we are. Being pushed to dig deeper, believe in ourselves and each other, find the greater good for the group in support of the story so that we can ultimately bring the audience to escape for an evening… building something outlandishly greater than the sum of it’s parts that will inspire a sense of community, a sense of wonder and a sense of acheivement in the lives of the young ones at the center of all of this.
Compliments and critiques are delivered even-handedly. She buries her head in her hands with giggles as a Mersister delivers comedic gold and as Chef Louis unveils his latest homicidal fish prop. She leads the room in appluase for a crustacean who’s done the hard work with his accent, Ursula whose voice really delievered and a flock of seagulls who’ve landed “Positoovity.”
Sometimes she was head and shoulders the adult in the room. And sometimes I think she was a creative kindred enjoying the company of a group of dynamo kids. Wherever the truth lies, she’s found a niche in this community for excellence. One that honors the creative spirit, focuses on carving out character and mutual respect and is building one helluva theatre program.
#10 Musical Theatre Is Worth It
Lest you think I’ve whined and complained with my tales of theatre life, there’s a conclusion I’ve come to. It is all worth it. The time, the extraordinary energy, the focus and the prioritization… it paid Sydney and I dividends in the end.
I wrote this blog less than a week since our wrap. I didn’t make a social media post after our first show because I was still processing exactly what I’d just lived through. The day after the show ended, I felt like I had been beaten by the flu-stick or had my mitochondria altered by zombies. But I made a lifetime’s worth of memories with my eldest daughter and just this morning woke to the sounds of she and her younger sister belting out tunes from the show.I’ll end with a story. Through the course of the rehearsals, the number that took the longest to find its sea legs was “Under the Sea.” It was supremely ambitious. Take the youngest cast members (and two of the… ahem… oldest) dress them in gargantuous costumes and have them dance and sing to ‘the big number.’ 7-year-olds were holding giant fish on poles. Jellyfish held led-lit umbrellas. And I was constantly getting whacked in the face by spray-painted pool noodles. Every rehearsal ended the same – with a smile from our director that didn’t quite match the words coming from her mouth. “It needs to be bigger. They need to believe you. The audience needs to believe you’re having the best time ever. For all of Act 1, I was stationed with the sea creatures at their “backstage” at the bottom of the bluff. These babies had their own baskets with ipads, blankets, bug spray and makeup while they waited for their cues. The responsibility for their stuff and getting onstage was on them. They got a little guidance from an overbearing mama fish they called “Mrs. Adrienne” but ultimately, it was up to them to be ready to go on or sit the scene out. On opening night, two baby fish had to sit out the first scene because they didn’t have their props at the ready. These are some of the good lessons y’all.
But then something happened. Saturday night, a few bars into “Under the Sea,” the generator died and the lights went out.
But the sea creatures, they kept going.
There were a few whispers here and there, but largely, everyone sang louder and danced harder. The Blowfish did his back flip… in the dark. The Sirens did aerials and back handsprings and nobody died. Just as the key-change happened, the lights came back on.
You guys, it couldn’t have been bigger or more electric. The crowd (of nearly a thousand) went wild.
These kids – ranging from 7-47 – figured it out and rose to the occasion. Live theatre took its best swing and they beat it back it by taking every hour that they’d spent preparing, converted it into performing and were now propelling.
I exited from the stage to the tent where the rest of the cast stood in awe, some with tears in their eyes. Many of the sea creature props were lit with LED lights and for a little while, the lights out looked intentional. When the audience caught on, they began to raise their cellphone flash lights to light the way while the entire cast family stood just offstage singing at the top of their lungs and cheering these kids on.
Because these life lessons? In an age where instant gratification threatens our character and excellence and when self-promotion takes precedence over the greater good… when too often uniformity and checking the box is rewarded… when kids struggle to find worth and purpose… it’s these kinds of lessons that are alive and well in musical theatre.
And it’s these kinds of lessons that make musical theatre totally worth it.