BY CHRISTANNA ROWADER
This is the story of an understudy.
Recently I got a Facebook message from Karen, someone who I worked with during my first year in California who I hadn’t seen since. She asked me if I could cover one of the sopranos in Bruce Kimmel’s show Pure Imagination for Pacific Resident Theatre. Karen thought of me through another girl named Jen, who I also hadn’t seen in four years. A truly small world, this acting biz is. The show was a musical review of Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse songs, so I knew I could handle the style.
I spent two full weeks memorizing seventy pages of music and movement, with one rough rehearsal. No problem, right? I’m a fast memorizer. Newley & Bricusse songs, let me TELL you, are extremely wordy; lyrics that don’t repeat themselves…as in “you-can’t-just-fall-back-and-relax-into-the-chorus-of-the-song” because there ISN’T one. Very Stephen Sondheim-esque. One of the most stressful songs was “Typically English,” where I had to switch from English to German to Russian to American and back to English again, fast and furious-like with words that a tongue could easily trip and fall on; the kind of song that IF you did mess up, there would be no time to stop and fix, cover, or fake. You’d just have to mumble your way through it until you grabbed back on. Nevertheless, a very fun song. Two weeks of learning and one rough rehearsal made for a very nerve-wracking performance.
But was I gonna let anyone know how nervous I was? HELL no. I said yes to this understudying experience and assured myself I wasn’t going to even blink a nervous glint!
But oh, was I…Oh, man, was I ever.
Ever since I had a nightmare audition come true, where I started singing a song I had had memorized since fourth grade, but somehow horribly forgot all the words to, I’ve always been shakily uncertain of my brain memory capacity. So I guess you could say this show was my ticket to personal redemption. I said to myself, “If I can remember ALL of this, I can fly again.”
I had my rehearsal the Tuesday before the opening performance on Thursday. I had some slip-ups and mild mistakes, but that was okay; I wanted to go blank on this day. If there was ever a mess up, it needed to be during rehearsal. I should also mention that I’m a really potent perfectionist, the kind that will rip myself apart before anyone has the blinking chance to do it to me first. (It’s okay, you don’t need to tell me that sucked. I already know it…trying to fix now.)
Thursday came around. I had a callback for The Music Man which I couldn’t get to because I had to be at the theater for Pure Imagination and I was bummed because it was my FIRST callback for a production company that I’d been trying to get into for four years. How I finagled my callback situation is another bloggery to be told…
I went to the theater and quickly ran through every song and movement in my head an hour before curtain. This was a make-or-break-situation; An if-you-mess-up-you-die moment. There was no turning back now. You can’t cry to Mommy. You can’t run and hide behind the curtains. This is a true Understudy Feeling and my first Understudy Experience. I’ve had people understudy ME before, but now I get how they felt.
Thank God everyone I was working with was super nice and supporting. Even the soprano I was covering for left me an encouraging little note on my dressing table that made me feel a little better. Nobody knew, mind you, just HOW sick to my stomach I was. Being that I’ve never been nervous before a performance, ‘twas a new feeling indeed.
Then it was time.
The stage manager announced “Places!” – the lights went out, we moved to our positions on stage, the lights went up, and the singing began.
My brain had never been more aware of every movement, key change, lyric, tempo, and emotional expression in my life. There were times when it felt like my legs were as stiff as a robot’s. I really hoped that I was the only one who noticed. I kept telling myself, “Remember, or die. Remember, or die.” I looked out into the audience, but didn’t see anything except the script in my head. It was “Typically English” time, and I prayed to God that I could somehow remember everything. At the same time, the memory of my nightmare audition pushed itself into my head, but I refused to let it sabotage my courage.
Amazingly I remembered it all, with not one stumble or stutter, a miracle in itself. Then the next song came and went, and the next one, all without a fumble. Before I knew it, the show was over and I was bowing, smiling, and thanking God that I lived through it all.
Afterwards, my boyfriend took me out for drinks. I felt so elated, I could barely have one. I think I continued to shake all night…considering the amount of energy I just utilized to survive the show. It was one of those experiences that was awesome…but you wouldn’t want to do it again, because I don’t know if I COULD do it again. I’m writing this, shaking inside, just thinking about it. I think it’s a testament to the human brain. Man, the things you can do when you put your mind to it…
Anyhow, you actors who understudy all the time…my hat’s off to you!
Christanna Rowader has appeared in a number of Ventura County shows, including Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, 1776, and The Music Man.