As I write this blog post, I am currently performing in “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” at Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, and it is my very first Equity contract. Like any aspiring young NYC performer would, I had been anticipating this contract for months, but I could never have anticipated what I was going to learn through this rehearsal process.
I could not contain my excitement heading into the first day of rehearsal. It was exactly what you’d expect from a “first day of school.” The cast all gathered into one room and we finally got to meet our entire team. We learned what everyone’s job was, what our set was going to look like (they built an actual house onstage!), and then we heard from our fearless leader, the incredible Parker Esse. He gave us background on the show, told us about his personal connection to it, and what some of his visions were for our production. He made one last announcement before we all dispersed for rehearsal: “On Saturday afternoon, we will all be doing character improv about a major turning point in your character’s life. It must include 15 seconds of silence, a musical element, a Texas patriotic symbol, and be 2–3 minutes long.”
My heart dropped into my stomach. If there is one word that will always make me panic, it’s improv, and this was 3 days away! My knowledge of the show was limited and, although this is extremely ironic having chosen a life as a performer, the thought of all those eyes on me, the eyes of my peers, gave me (and still gives me!) a lot of anxiety. I felt my walls start to go up. The typical thoughts of “there’s no way you’ll ever be able to do this,” “you aren’t good enough for this,” started flooding my brain. But, this was my job; rehearsals were starting and I did not have a choice. I had to put on my big girl pants and make it happen.
Thankfully, the panic didn’t have too much time to simmer. We immediately broke into rehearsals and I had to focus on the task at hand: piecing together the show! My brain would have to work hard to learn this show in only seven days. No matter who you are, that requires focus and that focus helped alleviate a great deal of my stress and panic. There simply wasn’t time or space in my brain to hold stress while I concentrated on assimilating the show.
We received our scripts the same morning as the instructions for the impending character improv, so I took advantage of our breaks throughout the day to begin making my way through the story and search for inspiration to create the backstory for my character, Beatrice. With learning the show in such a short amount of time, down time was few and far between; I sat down that evening and finished making my way through the script. Next, I did research about what happened in the world in the 1970s. I latched onto the Christian influence in the show, as well as in Texan culture, and that the Vietnam War, in the show’s setting, had been going on for 18 years. I’m normally someone who takes her time making decisions and I struggle to trust my instincts, but there simply wasn’t time for that. Once a clear story formed in my brain I went with it. I started writing, fleshed out the details, and there she was: Beatrice. The best part was, her story felt right. It didn’t feel rushed or thrown together, it was a story that made sense and gave Beatrice maturity and a sense of power over her life.
I used my lunch break and my evenings over the next 2 days to practice, which also included a lot of self love and reassuring talk. I kept reminding myself that there were no wrong answers and I deserved to be standing alongside this insanely talented company. I was smart, talented and I could do this if I just kept breathing and chose to trust myself. When Saturday afternoon rolled around, I was as prepared as possible.
It was showtime. After lunch was over on Saturday we all gathered in the rehearsal room, took our seats, and we were off. Parker explained that the process would be first come first serve. If you wanted to go, you just went; and when you were done the group would offer observations as you sat and simply listened. If you had anything to add or if anything was missed, you could add on at the end. My heart started pounding, my breath became shorter, and the fear washed over me.
It is a major fear of mine to sit in front of a group of people as they speak about me. I am terrified that they won’t actually see me; that the responses will be negative or just extremely superficial. It has happened to me before, and it is extremely painful. We all want to be seen, and it sucks when you sense that no one actually saw you for you.
When an unforeseen curveball like this gets thrown at me and triggers panic and fear, I have a hard time trusting myself and staying focused on the work. However, I knew I could not stay stuck on this point, I had a job to do. So I consciously slowed my breathing down to relax my body, took expansive breaths, focused on the work I had prepared, and I kept repeating the mantra, “you are enough.”
In doing the work to calm my nerves, I chose to sit and watch for a bit before getting up to perform. As everyone began performing their improv, I was blown away. Everyone’s story was specific and gave such clarity to their character. It was beautiful to watch what every person created. People were bold, they were vulnerable, they were authentic, and they were committed. I felt such overwhelming gratitude being surrounded by a room full of brave and talented people. In the observations after each person everyone was so kind and generous. Everything was positive and incredibly specific to what we had just witnessed. Everyone was invested, and you could feel the support flowing from each soul in that room.
After watching for awhile I finally worked up the nerve and I went for it. My heart was still pounding, but I trusted my work and I performed what I had planned. The performance came and went and I was happy with the work I had done. I breathed a sigh of relief that it was over and braced myself for the audience observation. I took a breath and forced myself to stay present in the moment.
Everyone had only kind and supportive things to say.
It was amazing, my body relaxed and I could think clearly again, allowing me to truly hear what everyone was saying. They understood my storyline and how it connected to my character. They respected the journey my character had to take to make it to the Chicken Ranch, and they could see my connection to the Texas State of Arms locket, which I used as my character’s patriotic symbol. I was told I had done really good work, and I could feel the genuine support from everyone around the room. It was over, it had gone well, and I could not have been more proud of myself.
The rest of the group completed their performances, and each one was as magnificent as the next. When everything was said and done, Parker got up and spoke before we were all released for the day. He told us how impressed he was with all of our work and how well we all had done. He spoke about how important and equally valuable every single character is in this story, from the leads to every last ensemble member. The ensemble is made up of real people and the leads must understand who they are interacting with. He told us that our stories had inspired him. So much so, that he planned to reconstruct certain moments in the show, so that they made sense with the characters we had created. I was blown away by his respect and value for every single person’s voice in that room.
As an ensemble dancer in this industry, it is easy and all too common to feel looked over, as if you are just another face in the crowd. There are so many of us and so few jobs, it is easy to feel as if you are 100% replaceable and that your individuality isn’t valued or even acknowledged. But, in that moment and throughout this whole process, I have never felt so respected and worthy by not only a Director, but by an entire company of people. I will never forget the energy in the room that day. There was respect, support, care, kindness, love and a newfound drive and fire to continue attacking this show, together.
In hindsight, I am so grateful that we had to do this exercise. I would not have done as much research or thought as much about my character if it had not been for this. Now going forward, I can’t imagine not doing this. The sense of specificity it brought to my life within the show, as well as my relationships to all of the other characters, is incredible, and, on a personal level, having mustered the courage to get up and do this was such a powerful moment for me. A few years ago I don’t know that I would have had the strength to do it. This day of rehearsal made me feel worthy to be standing amongst this group of people and it made me feel capable to keep pushing forward in this business.
In tackling improv, a concept that is foreign and scary to me, I had to face fears and triggers that in years past have been completely debilitating. I had to call on techniques such as conscious breathing, repeating of mantras, and a whole lot of self-love talk; things I use to tackle auditioning day in and day out in NYC. It was an incredibly scary moment and process for me and I am so privileged to have experienced it in such an open and constructive artistic environment. It was a challenge both professionally and personally, but learning the value of specificity, trusting in myself and my craft, and that I can truly stand on my own two feet and make anything happen, is something I am incredibly grateful for. I am a stronger person and artist because of this and I will be carrying this lesson with me into all my future endeavors.
Anna Terese Stone
Editor: Brian Crawford Scott