How Starring in a Community Theater Musical Changed My Life
I wasn't in search of a starring role. Not even a spot in the chorus. My 12-year-old daughter had wanted to audition for the musical, and I figured I would sit on the sidelines and cheer for her, my veteran performer girl, during the tryouts.
As I filled out her registration form, however, the assistant director sidled up to me and said, "Hey, Mom, why don't you audition, too?"
"Oh no," I said, flushing. "This isn't my thing."
"Come on," he cajoled. "It'll be fun."
My daughter got in on the act. "Yeah, Mom, go for it," she said.
My heart started to race, and that's when I knew I would say yes, even though every other fiber of my being resisted. Over the years, I've found that my heart always races right before I take a risk, whether it's speaking up in class (something I used to find terrifying) or jumping off a bungee tower or kissing someone for the first time. If my heart isn't racing, I know I'm not going to step outside my comfort zone.
The assistant director smiled and handed me another registration form.
I threw myself into the audition process, telling myself that maybe one day I'd write a character who wanted to audition for something, and if I experienced the process, I'd be able to write about it with more authenticity. Writing makes me braver than I really am; it has been like that since I was a little girl.
So, in service of my writing, I danced up a storm (my one place of comfort -- I'd done a lot of performing as a dancer), read lines in a hammy Western accent I didn't know was in me, gathered up my courage and sang "Happy Birthday" to a piano accompaniment as loudly as my lungs would allow.
To my shock, I was called back for another audition, a showdown with one other woman; to my even greater shock, I was handed the lead role on the spot.
I can remember driving home with my daughter, who had been cast as my sister, Minnie, after getting the news. I couldn't stop laughing or swearing -- another thing I rarely did -- as Hannah sat beside me, laughing at her out-of-character (or perhaps newly-in-character) mom.
"I'm f@%*ing Annie Oakley!" I kept hooting, and I could feel something shift and open inside my rib cage as night streamed past the windows.
The months of rehearsal were transformative. I found that acting was quite a bit like writing fiction; I had to step out of my own way to let the character blast through in all her feisty glory. I had to move past fear, find a wild new energy to draw upon. And I found a new community in the process. We weren't the most talented bunch to ever hit the stage, but there was something sweet and democratic about the gaggle of us everyday folks putting on a show, putting ourselves out there, body and soul.
My heart beat faster and harder than I thought humanly possible before the first performance, but once I was on stage, my anxiety somehow melted away. Through the blinding spotlights, I could make out my parents in the audience, my mom putting a hand over her own heart. None of us ever could have imagined this moment, me at center stage, hair dyed red (my first dye job ever), rifle on my shoulder, but here it was -- and it was exhilarating.
I've never felt more alive or playful than I did during the short but intense run of the show: five performances in three days. I learned to think on my feet, to improvise when I realized I had put my dress on backwards during a quick change or when the little boy playing my brother forgot his lines. It was especially meaningful to share such a charged, amazing experience with my daughter.
After the final performance, after all the sets were broken down and I had wiped the makeup (which I don't wear in real life) off my face, I felt bereft. Who was I now that I was no longer Annie?
Two years later, I made the difficult decision to leave my first husband, something else I never imagined I'd do, and which I may not have had the courage to follow through with had I not accessed my inner Annie Oakley. A few months afterwards, I reconnected with my co-star from the play, Michael, and we started dating. We had become friends during the rehearsal process, and because we had already seen each other at our most vulnerable, our most strong, it was easy for us to open our hearts to one another.
I found myself pregnant the following year, another thing I had never dared imagine, not with a son in college and a daughter in high school. Michael and I decided to get married; at our wedding, we surprised everyone by adding an unscheduled duet from "Annie Get Your Gun" -- "Old Fashioned Wedding" -- to the ceremony.
Our son Asher is 17 months old now, and the greatest gift; he has helped us weather the loss of our moms, who both died unexpectedly within the first four months of his life. He brings the same giddy sort of joy I found on stage.
People sometimes ask if I'll ever do another musical. I'm pretty sure the answer is no. I find I want to keep my unexpected adventure as Annie Oakley pure, have it remain its own magical aberration, its own shining memory.
I'm not ruling out the possibility completely, however. The last few years have taught me that life is full of surprises, that we may find ourselves in situations we never could have anticipated, taking leaps we never could have dreamed. I can still be quite shy, but a spark of Annie Oakley continues to sizzle inside of me, encouraging me to be more daring, more sassy, more willing to use my voice, than I ever could have been on my own.
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