By Christanna Rowader
One of my most favorite musicals I was blessed enough to perform in was the historically based 1776. I remember when I was prepping for auditions how closely related I felt to the character Abigail Adams. Although my peers said I was a perfect Martha Jefferson, I wanted Abigail. She was a woman of strength and compassion and independence. In a way, one could say she represented the soon-to-be country’s independence John Adams was fighting for.
By studying the character through historical accounts from a history major and the letters she wrote to her husband, memorizing songs and scenes from the show itself, I walked into the auditions as Abigail. And was lucky enough to convince the director, Nick DeGruccio, and musical director, Steven Applegate, to believe that I was too. So when my agent called to tell me I got the part, you can imagine how ecstatic I was.
Where is the nightmare? Just wait…
Rehearsals were a joy. The directors and cast and crew were all wonderful to work with. We became a little family of our own. Everything was professionally run, efficient, and fast, but that’s not to forget all the fun we had as well. It was, at the time, the best production I had been apart of.
Of course, life as a surviving actress isn’t all glitz ‘n glory and playtime. As most other performers know too well, in order to play your dreams, you have to work your jobs. So I had my fulltime job as server to sustain me while I played out Abigail Adams at night. I worked and went to rehearsal every day. Even on my days off from rehearsal, I was working. On my days off from working, I was in rehearsal. I loved it though. The excitement and adrenaline of “never stopping” is addicting somehow. Although, I will admit I would’ve rather the “other” job I was working to not be so physically and mentally exhausting. People always wonder why actors are so skinny, and I joke that if they all live like me, then there’s your answer. I think I remember being able to squeeze in one meal per day.
Finally, opening night was only a week away. We were all so excited to bring this show to the audience. I was at work telling everyone to come, that they couldn’t miss this one, that the show was epic, moving, and beautiful, as if it were a movie being played live on stage to a John Williams score. And that’s when I noticed a tickle in my throat. That tickle became a draining nose and into full-fledged chest cough by the next morning. Opening night was only a few days away and I was just starting to get sick. Straight plays, you can get away with being sick, film and tv, absolutely, but musicals???
I can’t tell you what it felt like to walk in with a bag of cold medicine, tea, citrus, bottles of water, cough drops, and tissue on opening night. I felt like I needed to be confined from the cast so I didn’t spread my disease. The director and music director were naturally concerned, which made it even more awful for me. Being a perfectionist, the last thing I needed was people being worried about me or my performance. No actor feels good about that.
I would laugh about it, sarcastically joke about how I deserve it somehow, all the while I was crying inside. How perfectly awful can it get? I had two weeks only to be apart of the storytelling of 1776 which just so happened to be my favorite production, cast, show, orchestra, crew, and character.
But, the show must go on, as it somehow does, and I had to figure out how I would get through every night. I would walk on stage with a cough drop tucked in my cheek to help keep my scratchy throat from igniting a phlegm-filled coughing fit, sing with John, say my dialogue in a congested lower register, and hurry off stage to hack up my lungs. Every moment off stage, I kept myself warmed up and drinking bottles of water, and return on stage to face another possible skip in my singing voice, another horrific tickling in the back of my throat, and not to forget my nose wanting to drip out everything it had inside. I could only wish I had some ability to signal to the sound crew, “Turn off my mic! Turn it off cause I have a big sniff and hack coming!”
Needless to say, I barely recovered for the two week production of 1776 and as much as I loved the show and the people I worked with, I did not enjoy those two weeks. I would walk on stage and instead of being engulfed in the character and the music, I was overwhelmed with keeping myself from blowing a lung out into the audience.
There are many times I can say I hate being human. It can be very heartbreaking for an actor to think they’ve failed to impress the audience with their storytelling. But there was one thing that kept me from burying myself in misery. A reminder from Director Nick DeGruccio and something I‘ll never forget: “Honey, we’re just putting on show—it’s not like we’re saving babies.” Truth! That’s what we are. We’re storytellers, not saviors. And I think that’s the most important thing to remember as an performer. Although, there are those rare moments when a story does save a life…but don’t let it go to your head! I know I haven’t saved anything yet.