A director asked me to describe the worst experience I’ve ever had on a job. Luckily, this was not at an audition, but on the lunch break during a shoot. I had already been cast, and it seemed I was doing good work, as we were well ahead of schedule. Far enough ahead of schedule to take an extended lunch break while waiting for the later call to arrive.
Even so, it’s a tricky question to answer. Every actor has a handful of stories about things going wrong on stage, or on set, and those stories can be very funny. Especially since the actors have told them more than once or twice, and have carefully honed the best punchlines, the most surprising plot twists. It’s easy to forget that you are talking to an industry person, and tempting to feel free enough to ramble on about things that are by their nature, negative. No matter how funny you make the tale, it’s still a tale of mishaps.
I did my best not to dodge the question, but not to linger on it, either. Instead of filling in the details, I gave a summary of the main points. How the job was unpleasant because of the amount of stress placed on everyone by the producers on set. Watching the clock and counting the dollar signs, each department at odds with the others. Then I changed the subject.
Too bad I hadn’t thought of describing the most fun job I’ve ever had, instead.
There have been more than a few shows I was sorry to see come to an end, since I’d made friends in the cast, or loved the script, or the theatre, or enjoyed playing the character, but I would have to say I’ve never had more fun onstage (or on set) than the time I played Tigger in Winnie the Pooh.
It was at a theatre in New Jersey, where I had just been in a production of Hamlet. This theatre was lucky enough to have a professional Shakespeare company, a community theatre company, and a children’s theatre company. So the schedule was always full of productions in rehearsal while others were in performance. Weekends with full houses of kids showing up in costume to see their favorite princess or pirate, weekend nights with local actors performing in a full scale musical, and weekdays set aside for New York talent making the journey for love of classical theatre.
After Hamlet closed, the director asked me if I wanted to be Tigger. Not the kind of offer any actor with sense would turn down.
My one reservation was the singing. Every time I’ve been cast in a musical, and it has happened more times than I can believe, I have struggled to keep up with the rest of the company. Unsuccessfully.
I can’t sing. Not well. It’s a challenge for me to find the right key, to memorize my starting note, to follow the accompaniment. I’ve tried. What keeps happening is the director hears my speaking voice and assumes I can sing. Then casts me in a role that requires singing, sometimes without even telling me that I will have to sing.
Something like that happened when I played Max in Lend Me a Tenor. Max has to sing opera! The writer includes a note in the play, stating that it’s more important to find an actor who is funny and can produce a sort of operatic sound, rather than find an actual singer who may not understand the physical comedy. So I auditioned.
The director had all the actors sing for him. All the actors except for me. Since he did not ask me to sing, I figured he wasn’t considering me. When he offered me the role, I said yes before he could take it back. I remember spending an hour each night in the barn behind the theatre, practicing the vocal exercises I’d been doing for a month. One full hour, before the performance each night.
The show ends with my character hitting three big notes. I never got them right. Not once. Not in performance, anyway. During the warmups, or even just after the show, I could do it, but after two hours on stage, running through door slamming bits, and crazy rapid fire costume changes, it was beyond my reach. I’d be half a step flat and could feel the audience cringe, but applaud anyway because by that point in the show they all liked me so much. (Max is an extremely ingratiating character.)
Once, I auditioned for a musical, knowing it was a musical, but I went in with a talkie type song. A very funny talkie type song. The audition went well, and they cast me, then asked the musical director to write my character a song! Which I never once got right. Even though it was written for me. For my range. For my voice.
In rehearsal, sitting next to the guitar, I was able to do it just fine. However, during the performance, the song came after a chase sequence, and I was out of breath, and there was no amplification, and we were performing out of doors, and I could never hear the music and even if I could, I would probably not have been able to keep up.
So when I came to the first rehearsal for Winnie the Pooh, which was with the musical director, and we were to cover all the songs in the show, I was nervous. I’d been through this before and was prepared for a struggle.
The lady at the piano got rid of all of that right from the start. She took every bit of stress away, with her bubbly personality, as well as her advice that this is easy stuff. The songs are not hard, they are not written to be hard. They are children’s songs. There aren’t many notes, and even if you miss a few of those, it won’t matter as long as you are having fun.
Talk the notes you are afraid of. Don’t try to sing them if you think you can’t. It’s fine. Make it a choice.
That’s exactly what I did, and with that out of the way, I could relax into creating my version of the bouncy tiger. I still worked hard on the songs, and did the vocal warm ups, and tried my best to sing all the right notes. It’s just that this time, it was fun.
The show was a blast. I was laughing backstage every step of the way, and sometimes onstage as well. Tigger gets to swing from the rafters. Jump off the stage into the front row. Dance a high spirited waltz with Pooh. It was fun, fun, and then some more fun.
In addition to Tigger, I doubled as Rabbit. For some reason that I cannot recall, I chose to make him a country rabbit. So he was given a country song. That too, was fun. The singing was not straight forward, it was disguised behind the twangy accent, and I found it was much easier singing in a character voice, than in my own.
There were the inevitable costume malfunctions and missed entrances and the unexpected things that go wrong with live children’s theatre, but all of it was taken with good humor and great joy. No tale of mishaps. The show went on as it must, and anyway, we were too busy having fun to mind.