Rachel Spencer Hewitt
I went on yesterday for my Broadway Debut. Up until then I had gladly, ecstatically considered my debut the silent 3-second cross in the final scene as “Attendant.” I loved that moment. It was and is magic.
Then Saturday, Dec. 12 happened. I was sitting in the green room quite settled in before the Saturday matinee. I had been there for a bit (because free wifi and vanity lights) and just finished a phone call for day-job work. My laptop open, water with airborne in a cup, snacking on goodness knows what, I commenced my tradition of answering emails and running social media campaigns while occasionally taking breaks to coach and cheer whoever stopped by the green room to attempt their max on the pull-up bar hooked to the green room door.
About 1o minutes before half hour, I get a text from Barclay, the stage manager:
Jess* not feeling well. Seems ok at the moment but just a heads up. [theater mask emoji, ok sign emoji].
I answer back “Gotcha! thx” and with a shrug check in to my center where Jess’ character lived, ran lines in my heart and head, and then returned to scrolling through funny videos. My non-chalance was only half denial. I always front-load my work, and even more so always front-load my work when I understudy. That means I was virtually off-book before the job started and invested heavily in every rehearsal possible. Am I paranoid? No. Do I expect to go on? Not really. The reason is because it’s FUN. I love learning lines, and I love figuring out movement and I know myself – I do work best if I do homework early. Rehearsals are a blast because you just get to play all day, so I may as well do the work that lets me play as freely as possible.
Thanks to my possibly naive uber-optimism, I was ready for yesterday. Well, as ready as one can be I guess. Sitting in the green room, I hear places called over the loud speaker, file Barclay’s text under “be ready possibly for the evening show,” and pull up an e-store page to study the commerce report in relation to social media advertisement. As the bells ring through the loud speaker to open the prologue, Stephen, the ASM, and Melissa, hair and makeup, both walk into the green room casually with tight smiles.
“You should mentally and physically prepare to…potentially go on as Jess.” Stephen, sweet Stephen very tall and calm, had his hands placed lightly on his thighs as though explaining to a small child that Santa uses magic to get around the world. This was not a condescending tactic – it was fully appropriate as my comprehension levels were low. LOW. As proof of just how low, a dumb smile pulled across my face, and I offered a sweet “ok” to his recommendation. Anything for Stephen, really. Our stage management team was so patient and kind, I would believe them if they really did tell me Santa uses magic. Yes. I’d jump down a chimney for them. And that’s about what they asked me to do.
“Should I start playing with her hair now? Try some things?” Melissa asked Stephen, and I watched them exchange glances like two loving but concerned parents silently debating if I was old enough to know the truth about Santa: Do we tell her now or wait for the kids at school to break it to her? Everything on the outside must have been happening very fast, but – as my comprehension was still very low – my experience at this point remained at a dream-pace. Gosh, mom and dad are so great. I moved my computer aside to edge closer to Melissa so my hair was available to her. As she reached for me, Stephen nodded to her and sweetly added, “You know, maybe we should try downstairs. Should we move downstairs? We can play with that downstairs.” A little tick went off in my mind that he said downstairs three times in a row, but my ease remained because there was that Stephen smile again. Cool as a cucumber, so sure, so there for me. I nodded agreeably and followed him out, passing under the chin-up bar with Melissa close behind. I felt like a kindergartner going on a big-kid day trip, willing to take a hand to cross the street. This was, of course, before being pushed into traffic. But the push comes later.
We walked down the four floors worth of steps toward the stage left quick-change booth, a quick-rig made of piping and drape – all black, invisible to the eye in the shadows of the wings if not for the glowing white tape lining the entrance and small lamp spilling light through the drapery cracks. Time slowed even further as I crossed over the stairwell doorway and stepped backstage. Through the downstage left doorway space I could see the first scene already taking place. I followed the carpeted path through a body of actors, passing right by Prince Harry* – my yet-to-be-known soon-to-be scene partner who stared at my passing and asked “what’s going on?” I didn’t answer but just held his gaze for a moment, staring at him like he was one of the sights on a Disneyworld ride. Yes, he was a Norwegian doll on the “It’s A Small World” boat ride. My only thoughts the equivalent of Look at the embroidery on their tiny costumes. How sweet. As I turned to face forward, Stephen’s silhouette bobbed toward glowing white tape, and I learned that the speed of time altered the moment you broke the entrance to the quick change booth. A hand parted the curtain and I was thrown into the light. Suddenly, everything was very fast.
Sandy Binion, jewelry queen extraordinaire, actress, and super-dresser for the show began asking me questions along the lines of “do you have a mic belt?” and I felt my mouth answer truthfully and logically in time “No” while my mind noted that my arms had snapped instinctively into the air, and I could feel a cool chill on my naked back and chest. “I’m wearing the wrong bra.” I heard myself mutter, feeling astute. Was I trying to be helpful? Probably. Good job, me. What would they do without you?
“Doesn’t matter,” Sandy answered as silk flowed over my face and she handed me my tights. I didn’t have to take my pants off because they were already gone. That’s convenient. When did that happen? Didn’t matter, because, somehow, now I was wearing tights. Did I put those on? Was that me? I heard myself asking calmly to anyone around me, “I’d like to hear the lines. Can I run the lines? Just the first scene. I think that’d be good” as though I were suggesting somewhere to go for brunch, advocating for my favorite poached egg, best in town. You guys have to try this. Melissa, hair and makeup, offered to go get one of the understudies. I agreed that would be a good idea while watching Sandy maneuver a necklace around Ingrid’s hands currently exploring the topography of my nape. Ingrid was in charge of mics.
“Do we have a mic belt?” Mic belt again. My brain had a faint memory about a mic belt but was preoccupied with Ingrid’s hands now sliding along my skirt, searching. I offered my bra clasp as a place to hook it. No one said anything. Probably impressed by my ingenuity. There I go being helpful again. Gosh. So helpful. Aaaaand where is everyone? All had disappeared but Sandy. It was deathly quiet. She responded to the silence by offering to read the scene with me. I didn’t realize I had asked for the lines again. The understudy hadn’t shown up yet, and my mouth was still making sounds that resembled the words in my calm brunch tone: “I’d like to hear the lines. Just the first scene. I’d be good then. I think that’d be good.” Poached egg. I accepted Sandy’s offer. She began reading the cues, and the lines came out of my mouth feeling smooth, warm, fun. I liked it. I love the scene. This is such a good play.
I don’t think I finished that last thought, actually, because suddenly everyone was back, filling the tight space, including the understudy who appeared to run lines. He hadn’t show up until that moment because everything that just transpired was smashed into the time it took for one roundtrip to retrieve him up and then back down the flights of stairs. Now, there are a lot of stairs, but also – it was very fast. I remember asking the next day why I sat down at that point. I said yes to sitting because I thought it was a good idea but didn’t know why. I was informed that it was so they could do my hair. One of the actors in the play and a totally rad human being rushed in as a blur and asked with a beaming smile how I was doing – I said “Great” before I could even think, and he said in almost congratulatory fashion, “You’ve had a baby! This should be easy!!!” I beamed as he planted a big one on my cheek, and I looked in the mirror thinking, DARN STRAIGHT!…Before realizing what I was really agreeing to.
I stood up in an all-black slinky slip top, skirt, tights, and doc martins (all my high-school-me-dreams). I was the coolest I’d ever looked. My understudy partner stepped back in with the look of a proud brother at his sister’s graduation. I remember feeling that trusting-kid smile I had back in the green room returning to my face, time slowed a bit when I looked at him beaming. I felt my heart say, “I know you” like meeting an old friend in a dream. He ran the lines with me a few times, ran the beginning one time more and then offered wisely, graciously – eyes locked on me, “Don’t worry about the lines. Just go be Jess.” Hands and fingers from dressers and sound were still kneading me like dough to bake me into something watchable for only a few seconds more before I felt the air rush out of the room as Stephen’s floating head popped suddenly into the booth:
“You have 15 seconds to get her on.”
That’s when I knew. That was the call to go on. Oh. That’s what it sounds like. My head wasted .5 seconds snapping back to look at Sandy who grabbed my shoulders and said firmly, pouring her heart into my soul:
“This is it.”
My body was warm from the prints of every person who touched me to ready me seconds before. Sandy dove down to check my laces before physically turning me into Stephen’s waiting arms that sped-walk-guided me into the upstage left entrance and shoved me into the light, my entrance music swallowing me like a portal ring. I flew: a bird out of the nest for the first time. My flapping wings were Jess’ first danceclub moves with back to audience, and I exhaled a passionate, silent prayer of gratitude that Jess’ first moments on stage were her dancing for her life. At least they were that afternoon.
I saw my feet. I saw the brick on the wall. I saw the lights. I recognized every inch. They say the first time you go on becomes a wash, but it didn’t – I felt hyper aware – I remember those seconds even now, those three counts of eight where my belly burrowed into the music, my feet screwed into the floor, my ears sucked up the voices at my back and my breath rushed out. I was dancing. I knew this spot. I had made friends with it in rehearsal. It was even prettier now.
I heard my cue. I turned around and stomped up the stage and shouted my “Hello” to match the voices I had just tuned into and engaged eye to eye with a very open, very generous – very surprised – Prince Harry.
Thank God these characters are meeting for the first time, I thought. Because there we were – meeting for the first time. I had no more thoughts about the backstage experience while onstage after that. I was completely taken by what I saw on his face and heard from his scene partners. Every piece of defiance that I possessed I gave to Jess, and she turned my adrenaline and fear into something magical. I often think of myself as giving something to my characters, but in this moment Jess gave so much more to me. She gave me legs to stand on and a voice that insisted on being heard. I am so grateful to her for it because the rest of the show was a deliciously wild ride of the waves, and her bravery was exactly what I needed to keep afloat.
*Character names only.
Prince Harry has a fictional narrative as the actual person Prince Harry.
Jess is a fictional revolutionary Londoner whose world collides with Prince Harry.
And as it says in the play [King Charles III]: “Dissimilarity does make a match.” (or so we hope).