My first theatrical performance ever was in 1982. The show was a new musical being tested and re-worked with an undergraduate cast before launching its Off-Broadway premiere. So pretty much the entire artistic staff were professional artists from New York.
I was an 18-year-old freshman, and my tiny rural high school had offered no drama program whatsoever. I’m not exactly certain how I wound up in a theater class as one of my first-semester electives at UNC, but I did. And one day the professor announced upcoming auditions.
I remember finding my way up the narrow staircase to the second floor of Graham Memorial (then the home of the Drama Department) and hesitating profoundly before adding my name to the audition sign-up sheet on the bulletin board. I wasn’t sure what I was hoping for, nor what I was getting myself into. And somehow putting my name on that list seemed a bit like signing over my soul. I suppose it was. And I suppose I did.
Several days later I mustered the nerve to actually show up for auditions. Looking back, I can truthfully say it was an extremely intimidating first audition.
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We were assigned numbers which we pinned to our shirts. Then we were divided into groups and sent bustling up and down stairs to various rooms where we were asked to sing, act, dance and sword fight.
I don’t remember the acting audition at all.
But I do remember the singing audition quite clearly. My group was left crowded in a hallway to await our individual turns. And the singers among us were making themselves known with all sorts of vocal calisthenics and general heavy breathing. I stood silently in a corner and realized I was totally unprepared: no sheet music, no pre-rehearsed song, no high notes. Nothing.
When my turn came I squeezed into a small room which was barely large enough to contain an upright piano, the accompanist, the music director, and my trembling self. I told the music director I had a head cold (a lie) and hadn’t prepared a song. I then sang Happy Birthday at his suggestion. He laughed at me, told me point blank that I didn’t have a cold, had me sing through the musical scales, notated my range, and sent me on my way. He was a nice guy honest, jovial, and demanding.
My group was then sent down the stairs for a brief sword-fighting lesson. After which I had to execute a choreographed fight with another auditionee. My partner was a thin young woman who stood about 5 foot 2, and I think the spark of combat and competition was burning even more brightly in her eyes than in my own. Again, the fight choreographer was a nice guy patient, generous and demanding.
Then came the dance audition. I think this was the point at which my adrenaline rush transformed into a cold sweat. My group was led into a rehearsal hall that looked for all the world like that big room in which Jennifer Beals auditioned in the movie “Flashdance.” Paneled walls, parquet floor, large windows, it was the real deal. The choreographer acerbic, sympathetic, and demanding taught us a short dance phrase, divided us into smaller groups, and sent us back into the hallway to await our turn. We then had to walk back in and perform in front of a backlit panel of directors and other production personnel.
The choreography involved twisting and turning and changing directions, which had me flustered. But I distinctly remember the aid of one of the people watching. She genuinely seemed to want me to succeed and was giving little signs to indicate which way I should turn next. I loved her in that moment. I don’t think I ever saw her again (who was she?) but I love her to this day.
And then it was over.
I was exhausted and exhilarated. As I walked back to my dorm that night I thought about the people I’d just met. The directors, the choreographers, the other auditionees. Everyone had seemed serious and extremely focused on the tasks at hand, but also light-hearted about the obvious failures, generous with encouragement, and always demanding of a better performance.
I was cast as a dancing and sword-fighting, but non-singing and non-speaking, chorus member.
I don’t think that musical ever went on to any kind of commercial success. But, in that initial production, I had the time of my life.
Well over 30 years later, Im lucky enough to still be working in the theater. As I said earlier, I suppose I did sign over my soul. And I still marvel at the work ethic I saw at that first audition. I’ve seen it again and again with theater artists ranging from young students to seasoned professionals: bringing their best; expecting the best from others; being light-hearted and forgiving about failures; being generous with encouragement. And always, always demanding more.
Derrick Ivey is an actor, directer, designer, and gentleman farmer who lives in Chatham County.