The summer I was going into eighth grade, I auditioned for a community theater production of Godspell. I rolled up to the audition wearing a tie dye shirt that I had done myself (it was green and purple and puke colored where the green and purple blended together), green converse with song lyrics from Wicked written in purple sharpie, and a knee length brown skirt that was supposed to be a mini skirt. I wore this because on the audition call they said to wear “dance attire.” This was my idea of “dance attire.”
The audition took place in a blackbox space called the Cubiculo above The Carlisle Theater, a theater located in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. This was my first outside of school audition. The previous year, in seventh grade, I had auditioned for my school’s musical revue, but got extreme stage fright halfway through the audition and started crying. The teacher told me to take a breath and sing “Happy Birthday.” When the cast list came out, I was in the ensemble of the song “These Are The Days” by Keith Urban. It was the only song in the whole revue where there was no dancing.
But I knew that the Godspell audition would be different. I had gained confidence in my singing abilities, and had attended a week long theater camp where I mastered Miranda’s opening monologue from “The Tempest” (a play I learned was by William Shakespeare). Upon entering the audition, there were three different middle aged white women with short spiky haircuts sitting at a table. One of them asked me to fill out an availability form, another one asked to take my photo, and the last one sat there scowling with a t-shirt that said “Tree of Life Church.” The lady in the middle took my photo and gave a halfhearted little smile.
These were the days when I was just learning about hair products for my large head of Ashkenazi ringlets. My hair was covered in mousse by Herbal Essences and was in an extremely unflattering low ponytail. I felt very Jewish, and not in the fun way where I got to do things like “have a Bat Mitzvah.” The audition had a weird culty-Christian vibe. The kind where it seemed like most people in the audition hallway went to the same church. The kind of church where they said, “Jesus was a Jew.”
Anyways, I went to do my singing and acting. It was my first audition where I was required to bring sheet music. I did not have sheet music, so I brought a CD with a karaoke track of the song “Maybe” from the musical Annie. The directors were two middle aged white men named Steve. One of them had long grey hair and wore a suit jacket even though it was in the middle of August, and the other wore a short sleeve button down and looked like someone’s dad. They refused to look me in the eye. I did not make the cut.
One week later I auditioned for a competing community theater production of Grease, taking place downstairs in The Carlisle Theater itself. This audition also required “dance attire,” so I showed up wearing my tie dye shirt, knee length brown skirt, and converse. Unlike the Godspell audition, this audition gave off less “Christian” and more “competitive” vibes. For one, the dance portion was incredibly difficult, and at one point I stood there rocking my hips back and forth to look like I was doing something while the rest of the people auditioning smoothly memorized the dance moves to “Grease Lightning.”
This was my first experience seeing blatant male mediocrity get accepted over blatant female mediocrity (me). The only other person who could not memorize the dance moves (apart from my friend Maddie and myself), was a 14 year old boy named Dominick. He was rewarded with the role of “high school principal.” Maddie and I did not make the cut.
Overall, this audition left me feeling incredibly mature. They required us to do a “cold read.” I had never heard this term before, so I imagined reading a passage from a book that had been in the fridge for a few hours. That was not what it was. Turns out, a “cold read” is when you read part of a script for the first time in front of the director. The scene was from the part in Grease when Rizzo tells one of the pink ladies that she’s pregnant. It was very moving.
I found out that I did not get into Grease on a voicemail on my family’s landline from Maddie.
“I’m not going to tell you if you got in or not, but I didn’t.” I immediately knew what that meant. I held my head high.
“That’s the industry,” I thought to myself, and auditioned for my middle school play about bullying. It was called The Secret Life of Girls and the director was a middle aged ex-Rockette with anger management issues. I got the role of Kayla, one of the side characters, who was a member of the volleyball team. Although this crowd was neither competitive nor Christian, they were passionate about acting. We had to be, since we were forced to perform The Secret Life of Girls at school assemblies where none of the students wanted to watch our play.
Around November, I said in math class that the Twilight series was overrated. My math teacher, Mrs. Weisinger yelled at me and said that I was being unkind, since several of my classmates, in fact, enjoyed the Twilight series.
“What if I were to tell you that I found your play overrated? Would you like that?” Mrs. Weisinger said. I found that to be an unfair comparison, as none of my classmates had written the Twilight series, or acted in the movies.
“Yes, Mrs. Weisinger. I understand. I will do better.”
Mrs. Weisinger was in her mid-forties and would always curl the ends of her hair. It made her look like one of those adults who’s still obsessed with Disney.
That night, I went and auditioned for another community theater show called The Craving from the same company that produced Godspell. I was cast in a role that had three lines. Her name was Jo Jo. One of my counterparts was kicked out of the show by her mom because she was caught having sex on top of a piano with the male lead, a guy named Dan. I heard a rumor that it was the piano in Tree of Life church. Dan’s parents let him stay in the show.
My experience with The Craving wasn’t remotely fun. Not that it was terrible, but it wasn’t the joyous community theater vibe that I had been hoping for. It probably had to do with having three lines, and always being unsure when I was supposed to say them. The Secret Life of Girls was a much more dramatically challenging show, which was unfortunate because it gave me zero theatrical clout.
So the following year, my freshman year of high school, I discovered the art form that would give me the most clout: improv comedy. Short form. A performance art run by Jews and women.* At last, I was able to ditch community theater and dive head first into the “yes and” whirlwind of late night high school comedy.
I can’t say that I don’t miss community theater. The smell of hairspray in the dressing room, the tears after closing, the outings to Friendly’s after opening night…there was a specific kind of glamour to it. Sometimes, when I’m lying in bed at night, I like to look at the glow in the dark stars on my ceiling. I wonder… what would have happened had I not excelled in short form improv comedy in high school? Would I still be auditioning for productions of The Music Man in the Cubiculo, and if so, would I still be getting cut or getting measly three line roles? Or would I be local royalty, thriving the way that my friend’s pediatrician dad thrived when he played Daddy Warbucks in The Carlisle Theater production of Annie?
These are of course unanswerable questions. But I do know one thing: I wouldn’t have experienced the thrill of making something up on the spot, had I not forgotten all three of my lines in The Craving.
Was my high school improv experience perfect? God no. But did I thrive because of my community theater tragedies? Yes. Yes. I did.
*Actually, Catherine’s high school improv experience was 70% white Christian boys and the teacher who ran it- a politically moderate English teacher in his 30’s.