Stumbling Around the Stage: Reschooling with Musical Theater

“I am way out of my league,” I thought as I walked into the lobby of Jackson’s New Stage Theatre this afternoon to audition for the musical Smokey Joe’s Cafe. This thought was only reinforced as I filled out the bright yellow form that I’d gotten from Chris, the theater’s friendly Education Director.

List previous acting experience (or attach a resume):


What I chose not to mention was that Roomers was my eighth grade play, and that Altimira is the name of my middle school. I decided that listing my title role in Mrs. Hurryup and the Runaway Presents in fourth grade wouldn’t boost my credibility.


Hmm. We didn’t have fittings for the middle school play. I think I wore jeans and borrowed a sweater from my dad. I filled in what I could.

The title of the next section was “Skills.” I wondered which I should list. My ability to beat third-graders at chess? My prowess at pancake making? I jotted down my random mix of experience in music and dance. Ballet as a child, piano lessons as a teenager, and voice and dance classes as an adult.

I’d found out about these auditions just the night before, when I’d seen another play at New Stage. I’d been hoping to act in a play in Jackson, just for the fun of it, and Smokey Joe’s Cafe seemed like a good fit. It features 39 pop standards, like “Yakkety Yak,” and “Jailhouse Rock,” many of which I knew already. For the audition, I decided that I’d play “Come On, Let’s Go” by Ritchie Valens, which had three simple chords and a peppy rock beat.

I practiced for a couple of hours this morning and performed for Darren before heading to the theater to give the audition my best shot. I brought with me a dusty guitar, which Darren’s mom had graciously lent me, even though I knew that everyone else would bring a cassette tape or sheet music. I felt a bit foolish carrying it inside by its neck and propping it against the wall of the lobby.

I could hear loud strains of song coming from the auditorium, where people had begun their audition pieces. Opera. Broadway. The singers all sounded experienced, though some had that shrieky vocal style of a bad American Idol contestant, as if to say, “I can’t carry a tune so I’ll just sing more loudly.”

As I waited to be called in, I looked around at the others waiting in the lobby to see how I stacked up. More than half were black, and the rest were white. They were mostly in their 20s and 30s, though a couple were older. A few, like me, had tried to dress in the 50s and 60s style of the musical, and others wore pressed slacks and button-down shirts. Everyone seemed relaxed, filling out their own yellow audition cards and talking amongst themselves. Theater people seem to be drawn to each other by a magnetic pull wherever they go, so I think that many already knew each other.

The woman next to me was making me nervous. She was practicing a monologue under her breath and sighing as if she were stressed out. I got up and asked Chris, the Education Director, if we’d needed to prepare a monologue, and he said, “No, just a song. We’re auditioning for a Eudora Welty play in the other theater.”

Whew. I sat down and watched a heavyset young woman pirouetting around the lobby in dance shoes, and another woman singing softly from a Broadway book of sheet music.

“Melia,” Chris called to me. “Go ahead.” I straightened my poofy black skirt, grabbed my guitar, and swung open the double doors to the auditorium.

The director, who was conversing with the accompanist onstage, beckoned for me to approach. He was a short, slight bald man with glasses and sharp features.

“I have a bit of an unconventional audition piece,” I told the director and accompanist as I climbed the stairs to the stage. “I just found out about these auditions last night.”

“That’s just fine,” said the director. “Whenever you’re ready.”

I took a deep breath and strummed my three-chord song, trying to remember to smile and project my voice. Since the song was short, the accompanist asked me to sing scales with her and the digital keyboard. I hadn’t done this in the nearly seven years since I took voice lessons in college. I hit each pitch cleanly, but my voice, parched by dehydration and clogged by allergies, cracked like a pubescent boy’s at the high notes. I cringed. Luckily, I fared better on the low tones.

The director nodded and wrote a few notes on his clipboard. “Can you stick around? We’ll be doing a group dance number in a little while.” I said yes and returned to the lobby. I felt relieved to have made it past the first part of the audition.

After about an hour, which I spent reading a magazine and fidgeting, the director peeked his head out of the auditorium and gestured for those waiting to come inside.

“We’re going to teach you a short dance number and then put it to music,” he said. “Don’t worry. It’s easy.”

He split the seven men into two groups, and the seven women into another two. Of course I was part of the group who had to learn the dance number first. It was to the first bars of “On Broadway” and involved snapping and pivoting, a 360-degree “pencil turn,” and serious jazz hands. So much for “easy.”

The director demonstrated the steps in front of us a few times, and my group and I tried to follow along. Then he said, “OK, let’s see it with the music.”

The opening bars sounded, and three women and I began the choreography. I felt terrible for the woman next to me. I kept spinning left when everyone else spun right. After pirouetting into her personal space several times, I smacked into her so hard that it made a sound. She rubbed her arm.

“I’m so sorry!” I said, and skulked off to the edge of the stage.

This is how I remembered that although I can dance pretty well in a club — whether I’m doing salsa, swing, or hip-hop — choreography and I take a while to warm up to each other. And unfortunately, you don’t have the luxury of time and practice in an audition.

It only got worse from there. The last move involved turning away from the audience, snaking your head behind you coquettishly, and spinning back around to finish with flair. By flair, I mean punching the air quickly six times, right-left, and dramatically crossing the wrists above the head on the final beat. My flair was more of a flail. A Tae Bo-inspired, pseudo-karate, “hi-YA!” sort of flail. I kept cracking up after each botched attempt, which probably suggested to the director that I was not taking the audition seriously.

“Thank you,” the director said to my group, scribbling notes on his clipboard. He turned to the first group of guys. “Group 2, you’re next.”

Thus we were dismissed, to hear back by April about whether we’d gotten a part. I would think that this was a long wait, if I expected to hear back at all.

I drove home with a bit of a lump in my throat, and my bruised left arm throbbing, but I felt proud of myself for jumping into the audition as a rookie. I hadn’t overprepared as I usually would have, and I hadn’t burst into tears at not being perfect. I’d done my first audition in 14 years, my first ever audition for a community play. Getting over that initial hurdle meant that I’d probably feel comfortable enough with auditioning to try it again in the future. Maybe for a play without so many pirouettes.

And who knows. Maybe Smokey Joe’s Cafe has an open role for “Flailing Jazz Hands Girl #1.”

Your Two Cents: Leave a Comment!

When have you jumped into a new situation without being totally qualified, and what did it teach you?

Comments (8)

  1. Mom

    I myself am both a jazzercise and a bellydancing dropout, so I’m afraid I didn’t give you many good dance genes. I think it was very brave of you to audition. You know what they say: Whatever doesn’t kill you makes a good story afterwards.

  2. Melia

    I didn’t know that you’d tried bellydancing! There’s actually a class here, so I think I’m going to give it a go.

    I’ve dealt with obstacles much better now that I’m writing, because I start crafting a funny version of the story in my head as soon as something goes wrong. You’re right, if I get nothing else out of the experience, I’ve got fresh material, which is priceless.

  3. KD Griffin

    In the words of Darren, “That’s awesome.” Just remember no matter what happens, there are more auditions. We’ve got several really strong theater groups and you’ll find your niche. I’m still bummed about the Monologues but there’s always next year.

  4. Gilliebean

    Wow, I am so out of the loop. I didn’t know you auditioned for this! It is amazingly “balls-to-the-wall,” as Gener would say. It sounds like you did really well for your first time auditioning since Altimira. I’ve only auditioned for one real play in my life (yeah, I was Mercy Lewis in Sonoma High’s production of “The Crucible. I had five lines.) and it was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. And I didn’t have to sing either!

    I’m proud of you, and the Tae-Bo dance routine cracked me up. You’ll have to demonstrate when I see you tonight.

  5. Melia

    Kimberly, I would have LOVED to audition for the Monologues and am seriously still bummed that the dates didn’t work out. Next year for sure. In the meantime, I’ve heard that Fondren Theatre Workshop is a great place to get started, and I’ll be checking out an improv group soon.

    Gill, the Crucible was really good for a high school production. And didn’t you get to shake a girl until she snapped out of her bewitched daze? I miss reading scenes of plays together just for fun; Darren and I did that at a party the other night, and it rocked. We did “Tenement” from The State. “Another poopy day!”

    If you show me your moves from Tae Bo Extreme, I’ll show you my forty pieces of flail.

  6. Deirdra

    Oh, jazz hands: I love you! I have such a soft spot in my heart for musical theatre.

    Congratulations for putting yourself out there: auditioning is nerve-wracking, and it sounds like you approached it with the proper dose of humor.

    I’m very much enjoying your blog!

  7. Pingback: Reschooling Tool #18: Personal Firsts As a Sign of Progress - Reschool Yourself

  8. Melia

    I love musical theater, too. I wish people burst into song mid-sentence in real life.

    Thanks for following the blog, and hope to see ya around Jackson soon.


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