Years of voice lessons, weeks of rehearsals and countless hours of my youth spent singing along with Maria from West Side Story, Luisa from The Fantasticks, and Irene Cara from Fame (all manner of musical theater ingenues with names ending in “a”) prepared me for this moment as Eliza in My Fair Lady.
On preview night, the black box theater audience held a smattering of my actor peers. By this point in my University Theater Acting Career I had the confidence to carry a show and had done so in two previous productions. I stood on the jewel box of a set, wearing layers of skirts, soot on my face, and a basket of plastic nosegays in-hand. The local repertory theater’s artistic director played Henry Higgins to my Eliza Doolittle—opportunity staring me directly in the face, nose-to-nose in the case of our dance during The Rain in Spain. But, well before our bellies bounced off of one another during that awkward Spanish Tango, my naked ambition stole the show.
I sailed through the opening scene. Wouldn’t It Be Loverly was loverly, and I made my way into ‘Enry ‘Iggins parlor. That’s when I spotted Jeremy, watching me from the wings. Jeremy had graduated Summa Cum StageStar from Oberlin, and made Madison a summer stopover en route to a prized internship in casting at The Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
As act one progressed, so did the play within the play. While beffudled Eliza tried to suss out Henry Higgins’ intentions, enterprising Ann Krinsky wondered over Jeremy-Future-Goodman casting intern. My mouth spoke my Doolittle dialogue, while my brain increasingly heeded my inner-diva-dialogue:
Does Jeremy think I’m talented? How talented does Jeremy think I am on a scale of one to ten? Make that “Woan teu Teh” (Cockney!). Does he think my accent sounds totally authentic? Exactly how much does he despise turning my ass around on these revolves? Oh God, will he hold that against me? Can’t he see how down I am with the hardworking stage crew?!? This could totally get me a part at The Goodman. This is practically my audition for the Goodman right now, only wearing a wig that makes me look like Felicity when she cuts off all of her hair, but I don’t know that reference yet because it’s only 1995. Does he think I’m hot despite the fact that he likes boys? Does this curly Cabbage Patch boy doll wig with a bun make me more or less alluring? I mean alluring on a scale of one to ten for a pissed-off almost Goodman intern who has to turn my ass on a revolve all summer long?
Then, quite suddenly, all dialogue—both spoken and internal–eluded me. Yellow stage light bounced off of the shellacked floor into my unblinking eyes. A bead of sweat ran down my stocking and into the arch of my lace-up boots.
Blink. Blink. Blink.
Nothing except muted me, Repertory Director Doolittle looking on expectantly, a live audience waiting, and perhaps some ghosts of the theater (and maybe Jeremy) laughing and anteing up on their fantasy thespian league bets.
I called into the blackness of the house.
The voice of my director and close friend John crossed over to my side of the fourth wall, breaking the imaginary separation between actors and audience. Of course no one would be feeding me my line. We’d put our scripts down weeks before. His two syllables resounded thick with disappointment, and simultaneously sounded a mandate for me to kick my own flower-girl butt back into Covington Garden.
‘Enry ‘Iggins ad-libbed until I stammered out a few words and made my way off stage and into tears. This majorly-freaked Mezzo still had two acts, hundreds of words of dialogue and six solo songs to get through.
My dresser helped salvage my make-up and get me into costume two of five, as I curbed my ego and tried to find my confidence. A quick hug from a cast mate and her simple advice took me through the rest of that evening, in fact the rest of my stage career and several other acts of my life: Just breathe and the words will come. Whenever I found myself faltering–whether on stage, in a sales pitch, client presentation, or even during particularly overwhelming moments of motherhood, I breathed and trusted the words would come. They always did.
Lately parenting has found me at a loss for words in unexpected places. How I wish I could call LINE and have parenting gurus Wendy Mogul or Adele Fabur and Elaine Mazlish feed me parenting dialogue:
Seven: Tony knocked the wind out of me on the playground yesterday, but I didn’t care. It didn’t hurt at all. It was fun! [LINE!]
Farting rainbows! (Seven’s audience response–in front of an entire school cafeteria–to a storyteller’s question “What kind of superpower should we give him?”) [LINE!]
Ten: So how, exactly, does the sperm shoot out of the penis to find the vagina egg? [LINE LINE LINE LINE LINE!]
Please join me a week from Sunday, March 23 at 2:30 at The Natural Parenting Expo, where I will feed you the lines–and hopefully funny ones. Thanks to a just-announced sponsorship by The Isthmus, the event will now be FREE with a regular expo pass. Get your free ticket with expo pass purchase here.