Playing the Waiting Game...

Jennifer Butler

  • OnStage Massachusetts Columnist

I recently told someone that I was playing the waiting game, waiting to find out if I had been cast in a play. They replied with, "oh what fun". And in my head, I was thinking that this isn't "fun" at all. More like anxious, nervous, totally dreading the results if it's a no, and yet also imagining what if I did receive the call. 

Back at the audition they said “We are here to watch you and we want you to succeed.” Something to the effect of “We’re not judging you, we are just looking for the best for the show” was also said. Yet here I am, two days after callbacks, sitting and waiting for the phone to ring. Waiting for the casting committee to decide my fate. To find out if I’ll get a chance to make a stage debut in the world of Community Theater.

And just as a watched pot doesn’t boil, a watched phone doesn’t ring. Which seems to make the waiting game feel a little longer. Going back and forth in my head about my audition and my anxiety level rising with each passing hour, I feel like I lost all logic during these three days and I know that checking my phone will not help the casting committee make their decision any faster yet I keep my phone in my pocket and check it every chance I get. I also logically know that the decision that is being made is not a life or death decision. Not getting cast in the show will not mean the end for me in life or in Community Theater. There is always another show to be worked on or another opportunity to audition for something, shows are happening all of the time.  Yet, I act as though it is a matter of life and death and that the answer that I am waiting to hear will affect my life dramatically. You see, earlier in the year I was the one making casting decisions and now at the end of the year it’s the flip side.  I am waiting to hear my fate.

Now that I have experienced the audition process from both sides of the table, you would think it would make the waiting game easier. I know that the director not only wants the best person for the role but also wants an entire group that will work well together. He or she wants to make the show as successful as possible and in the end wants the cast that will best tell the story. And not that anything is ever guaranteed but I was hoping that because the director thought of me for the part and suggested that I come out and audition, that the results might work on in my favor. 

However, after all of the waiting (which was only three days but felt like so much longer) I received the dreaded email. The one that told me that I didn’t make the cut that I wasn’t going to be in the show. And although it wasn’t the answer that I wanted to hear, in the end I am glad that I auditioned. I learned so much from the process and I enjoyed all the preparation that went into my audition. I am glad to be able to take what I have learned and apply it to whatever it is that I decide to do next. Now all that’s left to do is to find fun ways to use my British accent in everyday life, oh and one other thing-finish watching the rest of Downton Abbey, I really want to know how it ends. 

An Actor's Perspective - Opening Night

Jennifer Kuzmeskas

- OnStage Massachusetts Columnist

In my humble opinion, if you don’t have jitters on opening night then you are doing something wrong. You have poured your heart and soul into something for months now and you are going to present it to the world, people will be judging it and your performance. No pressure or anything, just make sure that everything you do is perfect.  

Our final dress rehearsal is over, we have changed everything we can change, we know our stuff and it’s time to present our version of this story to an audience. What is the very best thing you can hope for?  The answer to that question can be unique for every actor/actress, production staff and creative team. For me I would hope we can inspire our audiences, make them laugh and cry, but most of all, make them think! 

This show is unique, the space is unique, we are being creative with the set-up and thus we had some challenges. The actual stage in this space is extremely small, so we decided not to use it for the cast, but we are putting our pit orchestra on the stage instead. So our “stage” is actually on the floor of the hall and we added risers for our audience so everyone would be able to see. This made for some interesting staging. 

To add to everything else that makes you nervous on opening night, let’s add that you are performing in a completely unique space where the audience will be practically on top of you. Many have probably performed in a black box theatre before and if that is the case, then this set-up won’t be at all intimidating. For those of us who haven’t, it’s one more thing to add to the “Things to be Nervous About” list. 

Throughout the day, leading up to opening night there are so many things running through my head. I have to work that day too. Let’s just say my concentration level is very low. Do I have all my costumes? Do I have time to go over my lines, one more time? Why is my stomach in knots? Should I try to eat something before I go?  Do I truly know all the lyrics? I am not going to forget my blocking, am I?  Should I do my make-up before I leave the house? Plus, about 100 more questions, that I will not bore you with right now. 

Work ends after what seems like an endless day and I can make my final preparations before leaving the house. I put my make up on carefully, making sure it looks great. I pack my make-up bag, which also has all kids of emergency items too…safety pins (LOTS of safety pins), medical tape (AKA: mic tape), band aids, bobby pins (again, LOTS of bobby pins) and many other useful items that may be needed throughout the course of the show. I go over my checklist one last time, kiss my other half goodbye, get some well wishes from him and I am off.  

The buzz at the theatre amongst the actors is not like any other night. You can literally feel the excitement and nervous energy in the air.  Everyone else is feeling the same way you are, no words need to be exchanged, all the feelings are understood by everyone. 

The time comes, lights dim and suddenly I can’t remember anything. Then out of nowhere the music starts and it all comes back, muscle memory is an amazing thing.  Suddenly I remember the choreography, blocking, music, lyrics, etc. Then before you know it, it’s over. Just like that in the blink of an eye opening night is over.  The audience was amazing, the standing ovation made you beam, it was all worth it, everything leading up to tonight was worth it.   

As you are going through whatever your opening night routine is, take a moment. Remember why you love doing this, take a moment so you can look back and remember how exciting this night was. Then when you have a tough rehearsal for a future show you can look back on this opening night and remember what all those opening night feels.   

Photo: Malone Opera Theater

Auditions: "May the Odds Ever Be In Your Favor"

Jennifer Butler

  • Massachusetts Columnist

The saying “May the odds be ever in your favor” from the movie The Hunger Games applies like no other to the theater audition process. And unlike other auditions that I have gone to in the past, this time I took that quote a little more seriously and put all the tools I have to good use, in hopes that all the preparation would increase my odds and I would finally have my turn on stage.

The role of Edith in “Blithe Spirit” was not a role that I thought I really wanted until I started my preparation. I just wanted an opportunity to be on stage and thought this might be my chance. So with the encouragement of the director, I decided that I would put forth my best effort and give it my all. When I read the description of the character and realized that it was an exact description of me in real life, I realized that I am right for this part and I really want it. However, knowing that you're right for the part doesn't make it a guarantee that the part is yours. It just doesn't make it so. You have to prove that you're the best and with that comes the proper preparation for the show.  In my case I did things such as getting a copy of the script and became familiar with it. Knowing the role that you are auditioning for, and as in my current case, learning a British accent, puts the odds more in my favor.  

Audition preparation never really occurred to me until the actual role of Edith came across my desk. The important role of Edith was never one of those dream roles or shows that I even knew about until I was encouraged to come audition. But once I realized that I wanted it, I had to work on something that I had never done before. It wasn't the acting or inflection but the accent that I was most concerned about. As silly as it sounds, I feel like the role of Edith is the British version of my real self and in order to get cast I needed that to come across at the time of the audition. 

So besides doing the obvious of reading the script and working on the lines, I watched YouTube videos and found the show on CD to listen to in the car. And, as suggested by the director, I also started watching Downton Abbey. After just a few days I was really enjoying the research that I was doing for the role. I was enjoying it so much that I said to someone, “If I had to watch Downton Abbey for research in college, I may have done better.” That’s what fun about theater is; doing this kind of research to better learn about a show and a character, so the more you can learn, the better you can get the story across. 

I realized about a week into preparation that I wanted this role badly and that it was more than just wanting to be onstage again. I took what I was learning at home and started to apply it elsewhere. I took lines from the script, learned them in the accent and started doing a British phrase of the day to be able to rehearse the lines and the accent all the time.  

Over time, what I have come to realize from my past experiences of not being cast is that when you want something and you want it bad enough, no amount of preparation is too small.  That is the point that I am trying to make here. When you work hard and you can prepare and get cast. I know that nothing is handed to me no matter how much I know how right I am for the part and I don’t ever expect it to be. If you want something bad enough, you will do what it takes to get the role. 

Well, whatever I am doing seems to be working, as I received a callback to go again in a couple of days. But just because I received a callback doesn’t mean that I will stop preparing. I will read the script again, rehearse the accent whenever I can and of course continue to watch “Downton Abbey”.  And although final casting won’t be announced until after callbacks, I am okay with whatever happens.  I am pleased with my initial audition and if I don’t end up getting cast, I have learned a lot for the next time. However, I have never felt as good about an audition as I do about this one, so hopefully the casting committee liked what they saw and that “the odds are ever in my favor.” 

Photo: Hard Road Theatre

In Defense of Small Theaters

Liz Chirico

  • Massachusetts Columnist

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing “Peter and the Starcatcher” at the Cannon Theatre in Littleon, MA. It’s a show that I knew astonishingly little about apart from the fact that I previously worked at the author’s high school alma mater. Unfortunately life and rehearsal for my own show prevented me from seeing “Peter” until its final weekend but to any OnStage fans in the greater Boston area looking for something to do tonight or tomorrow I recommend going. There’s some marvelous acting and the story itself is both funny and touching. Plus it features some incredible use of space. Which brings me back to the main point of my piece.

The Cannon Theatre is… umm… well there’s no way around this. It’s small. I think my college dorm room was bigger (not really. But you get my point.) It’s a black box theater that seats around 60. Quite comfortably too, which is a nice change from the folding chairs I’ve sat on for many a performance. There’s room for one set at a time on the stage that isn’t even large enough to fit the entire cast in a straight line for curtain call, they had to bend a bit. There’s no room for a pit, just a pianist in the rear of the theater on a mezzanine above the audience.

I love small theaters. And when I say small I don’t mean theaters on a shoe-string budget, I’m talking about theaters with a significant lack of space be it on stage or off. Because a small theater can’t rely on opulent sets, dazzling special effects and tons of props to divert your attention away from a poorly conceived/acted/directed story. 

At a small theater like Cannon, intimate is the first word that springs to mind. Seated in the 2nd row, I was close enough to see individual beads of sweat on a couple performer’s foreheads. But I’m pretty sure the folks in the last row could see it as well. Which means the acting has to be on point. All the time. By everyone. And at least with “Peter” everyone’s acting was phenomenal. These characters came to life in a way I didn’t anticipate and I found myself totally immersed in the action.

As I mentioned this stage is tiny. “Peter and the Starcatcher” features 2 boats from Her Royal Majesty Queen Victoria’s (God Save the Queen!- Inside reference to the show, really go see it ) fleet, the underbelly of said ships, an island, an ocean grotto. a mountain, a forest/jungle… I think that’s everything. With such limited space it would be impossible to create scenery and backdrops for each scene and Cannon didn’t even try which I loved. Instead they used a couple of ladder/stair things on wheels (the types you see at the big box stores), some rope riggings set up on the far wall , beautifully painted surfboards and a handful of props to set each scene. It worked for me. Did I truly think I was inside a grotto with water all around? No. But that’s theater. In theater you should be exercising your own imagination, suspending your reality for the time you’re there. Let TV and movies put everything in your face. The small theaters have to be incredibly creative and judicious with their space. Usually the results end up being more exciting and transporting than the larger companies with all their backdrops and set pieces.

Not everything is rosy for small theaters. They have to be cognizant of their limitations and pick shows that will work well in a streamlined environment. That being said I think almost any show could stand to be stripped down provided you have the right mix of actors and vision behind the scenes. If you haven’t performed with, or seen a show in a small theater find one near you and visit today. 

Timing is Everything

Jennifer Butler

  • Massachusetts Columnist

I recently read an article that stated “Time is a very interesting concept” and that really got me thinking about how each individual moment in a play or musical has to be timed to the second with entrance exits. Key lines must be delivered with military preciseness in order to gain the laugh of a funny line or the jaw dropping surprise when we all figure out who did it.  Things need to be timed right or the magic of theater will no longer be that; magical. We want the audience to believe the story and if something does not happen at the right moment and the story gets interrupted you may lose your audience. Certain things can be recovered from, like a dropped or missed line but other things can't be and here’s why.

About a year ago, I worked on a production of Ken Ludwig’s “The Games Afoot or, Holmes for the Holidays”.  For this production I was both the Assistant Stage Manager and the Props Designer., which didn’t prove to be too much of an issue until tech week. But that is a blog post for another day. The most important part of my job was (spoiler alert) conducting the fake stabbing at the end of act one, in a blackout and to get the audience to believe that one of the characters committed the crime. Sounds simple enough right?

Well here comes the biggest example of timing I have faced in theater so far. 10 seconds in a black out, that’s all I had, 10 seconds to get down the stairs, grab the knife off off the weapons wall, hit the actress in the back with a fake hit (connected by magnets in her dress), and get back up the stairs before the lights came up. This all done on the cue of the stage manager because I couldn’t see what was happening on stage. Even at final dress rehearsal, the timing was not right. 

Imagine how nervous I felt on opening night? Literally shaking in my boots. We rehearsed it several times before the curtain went up and when the time came, it went off without a hitch. Well, that night it did and for all but one of the eight performances. During the second performance, the lights went down and I heard my cue. Then right in the middle of the action, the fake hilt slipped from my hand and I couldn't see it in the blackout. All I could hear is the stage manager on headset counting down until the lights came up. I was scrambling to find it and somehow at the last second, the hilt caught my eye and I picked it up to attach it to the actresses’ back, then ran up the 3 steps. Just as I got behind the wall, the lights came up. I missed being seen by all of 2 seconds! 

This is why timing is interesting and is every bit important when putting on a play. Two seconds can be the difference of whether or not the audience would have seen me and the show would be ruined. If I didn’t see the hilt in time and without my ten seconds of theater magic, act two wouldn’t have made sense nor would it have been fun trying to solve the big “who dun it” aspect of the play. 

Photo: Cascade Community Theatre

Handling Rejection...

Jennifer Butler

  • Massachusetts Columnist

We all have that one show that we have been waiting to come around, or that one role that we have always wanted to be. You spend a lot of time preparing and re-reading the script. Then the audition comes and you feel as though you nailed it, yet a few days later you receive that awful email. It reads "You didn't get the role" and then "You were great but so many talented people auditioned." Plus, the whole "We went with someone else for the part."  I understand all of this. In order to be able to put on a great show, you need the right people to make the characters believable. But even knowing that doesn’t make the rejection any easier. At that moment you begin to question everything. That's probably at bit dramatic, but you do. You ask yourself "Am I doing the right thing? It was one rejection why do I feel like a failure?” "That part should have been mine” or “ Did I make a bad choice, why am I here?”  And finally the infamous question that we all ask ourselves "Am I not good enough?”

Of course you are. You are good enough, you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have some level of talent. But this role just wasn’t for you. No matter how badly you wanted it, in the director’s mind, he or she just did not see you for that part. It took me a while to understand that process. For me it took producing a show and sitting on the other side of the audition table to really understand that no matter how good you are, the director has a vision, and they will cast those who best fits their vision. 

And this was probably only one of many rejections that you have or will receive during your lifetime as an actor. In this business of the arts, and the theater, you have to be strong and get used to the rejections. They say that you will hear the word “no” way more times then you will hear “yes.” There will be a lot of bruised egos and broken hearts but once you make it, all the no’s will make that one yes so much sweeter. 

I am currently experiencing this feeling of rejection both in Community Theater and in the job market. Lately, I have had rejections in both aspects of my life. It is causing me to question a lot of things, but what I have come to realize is that the wrong things fall away making room for the right things to fall into place. When I think back to how things were two years ago, I realize how far I have come and that has taught me that when I get rejected, I brush the dust off, stand back up and try again.  


My Pre-Show Rituals

Jennifer Butler

  • Massachusetts Columnist

Pre-Show or Rehearsal Rituals: They don’t happen for me on every show or before my dance performances. When they do occur, it is mostly because I am working backstage at a show and I am responsible for some important piece of theater magic that is a significant aspect of the play.  These rituals do not occur for any shows that I have produced or designed. They have only occurred for shows that I have worked on backstage. 

These pre-show rituals stem from my nervousness and anxiety of wanting things to go right. It just doesn’t happen for one show either. If it works opening night, then it must happen for the entire run.  My pre-show rituals are nothing I created, they just happen. It was nothing I intended to happen. But because I had drank a certain type of juice, listened to a certain song on my way to the theater, or wore new black boots on an opening night that went well, I continued to do the same thing. I convinced myself that these things must have been a good luck charm and so I continue to do what works for me. Thus my pre-show rituals were born. 

A second example that comes to mind is a recent opportunity I had of filling in as a dance teacher at my friend’s studio. The first class that I taught on my own, I happened to have my hair in two braids. That class went well and I convinced myself that it was because of the way I had styled my hair.  For the next class, a few days later, I braided my hair again and had another successful class. I know in reality that the class was successful because I am good at teaching, I know how to dance and that the kids had fun. However I believe that having my hair in braids helped me feel confident so I am going to stick with it until the end of the month, when I finish teaching the class. 

To some, superstitions or rituals may be silly, but if it makes the person feel better and they believe it works, well then just let it be. 

Those Last Four Weeks...

Liz Chirico

  • Massachusetts Columnist

That’s all that left until opening night. Half the rehearsal time is gone. And while half remains there’s still only 4 weeks. 4 weeks to nail the dances, memorize the lyrics, the notes (oh- you wanted me to learn my part, not the part of the person I’m standing next to? My bad!) and bring the show from a loose conglomeration of people somewhat moving and speaking in sync to something worthy of the ticket price, of driving to the theatre, of choosing to attend vs. the myriad of options folks have for entertainment today.

Is it just me or does every show hit this point about halfway through rehearsals when it seems like nothing will be right? The newness of being cast has worn off and it’s no longer a novelty to say, “I can’t, I have rehearsal.” I know, I chose this path but it’s always around this point other seemingly more exciting activities start happening which I have to selectively choose to attend or not. When one entire weekend day is taken over by rehearsals, you become so much more possessive of your other free weekend day.

Tempers start to fray around this point in the process. Nothing akin to tech week but there’s always a moment when frustrations arise over spending time rehearsing an already learned dance again, reviewing a vocal part again, wondering how so-and-so will ever manage to be off book, etc. It’s always around this point in the process I wonder why I do it to myself. I’m too far away from the end (opening night) to be excited for the final product because right now, what I see in rehearsals is nothing like (God I hope it’s nothing like) what performances will resemble. 

This is when it’s helpful to remember that it all comes together in the end. No, really. No matter how bad things look now, it will improve. (It has to, if only because you’re going to start running the show and repetition does wonders.)  That’s not to say you should only rely on rehearsals to practice. I am totally guilty of sitting on the couch on my nights off looking at my dance bag, my script, my music recorder saying, “I should practice but…” or “oh I have time, I’ll practice later.” Now is the time to remove “but” and “later” from my vocabulary. Because later is now. 

Now is the time to practice in the car (I don’t recommend rehearsing dances in the car but it’s a judgement free zone here), sing in the shower, recite lines to coworkers at lunch, whatever it takes for it to stick. Now is the time to take a deep breath at rehearsal and ask so-and-so if they could use a line buddy, a dance partner. After all it’s not just you on that stage. There’s no “i” in ensemble and from the star to the last crew member, we’re all the ensemble. When everyone pulls their weight, and pulls together then everyone wins and is a part of something to be proud of and cherish.

Photo: Auckland Theatre Company

Cancer and the Performing Arts

Jennifer Butler

  • Massachusetts Columnist

For a long time, cancer was not something that you heard about very often. I don’t recall hearing about it or it being discussed when I was younger. Maybe it’s because I have grown up but I feel as though in the past ten years that word cancer really seems to have come to light. You hear more and more these days about people being diagnosed, people who never would have thought they would be the ones to hear “You have cancer.”  We all know that cancer doesn’t discriminate.  Any man, woman, or child could hear those words. Some are more at risk than others, but none the less, it seems all of us are vulnerable. 

More recently TV shows, songs, movies, books, and plays have brought cancer to light. TV shows such as “Chasing Life” and songs such as Martina McBride’s “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” and “Save You” by Simple Plan are just a few that were written about cancer. There are television specials and telethons for charities such as Stand Up To Cancer. There have also been plays where cancer is the subject matter; such as Margaret Edson’s 1999 Pulitzer Prize winning play “Wit.” 

So why, you may ask, am I writing about this?  Well, in the past five years my vengeance with cancer has become a bit more personal then I would like it to be. It was five years ago this week that my dance teacher, and friend, heard those evil words “You Have Cancer.”  She showed strength and resilience while going through treatment. She never stopped choreographing and teaching dance through it all. When she was too tired to come to class she joined us through video chat. She was determined to win the battle and that she did. Though she is still able to be with us and teach us tap dance, there are those who aren't so fortunate with their battles. Even more recently than that, two years ago my cousin Annmarie was diagnosed with cancer and I have heard from others who have had cancer and are just really starting to share their stories. 

October is breast cancer awareness month but cancer is something that is fought all year long.  We may not be in the medical field but there is so much we can all do to help aid the fight.  Every year since her diagnosis, Barbi, along with the rest of us who are her students and friends, participate in the Relay for Life to raise funds for the American Cancer Society. 

My point is that, cancer can affect anyone; family, friends, business people and even performers. I have seen a variety of people of different genders, races, and occupations get diagnosed and not let it slow them down. Being a performer, teacher, and choreographer can be a crazy, hectic life, even without being sick. But Barbi has shown my fellow dancers and me what true strength is and even though having cancer was not a battle she wanted to face, she did it with her head held high, all while teaching dance.  Her courage helped her continue the planning and performing in our studio’s annual recital. 


How to Survive the Community Theatre Rehearsal Process

Liz Chirico

  • Massachusetts Columnist

Congratulations! You went through the audition process and made it into the cast. Now comes rehearsals. 3 or 4 days a week for a few hours at a time. No problem, right? It wouldn’t be except I’ll bet you still have other things going on in your life. Work/school (maybe both!) and the additional commitments those bring plus family, friends… you get the picture. Plus I’m sure you’d like to eat and sleep at some point too, right? Here’s how to (attempt to) manage it all and stay (somewhat) sane. 

1.    Be ready!

Organize yourself and everyone and everything around you. Take an hour or so a week to plan meals, run errands (better yet- use Amazon Prime!), figure out who needs to be where (for more on this see #2) those sorts of things. The last thing you want to deal with on a rehearsal day is anything else but figuring out how the hell you’re going to learn one more dance. 

2.    Share the spotlight!

Don’t try going at the 8-12 week rehearsal process without knowing you’re going to need to lean on people. You can’t do everything nor should you try. Let your significant other help around the house, cook (or order take-out), ask friends to help shuttle the kids. Warn a theater friend (preferably one who’s not in the same show as you) you may want to vent during the process or need help running lines. Whatever it is don’t feel ashamed/embarrassed to ask for help. Your friends and family will keep you sane. 

3.    Treat yo self!

You know those long days. Those days when you go straight from work/school to rehearsal, arrive home around 10 or 11 p.m. only to still have a mountain of laundry to do, dishes to clean, etc. Sometimes you can enlist help (see #2) sometimes it’s down to you. It’s those days (or the day after) that you need a pick-me-up. Grab yourself a latte (I’m a big fan of Starbucks caramel macchiato in case anyone’s curious), splurge on those cute boots to wear at the cast party, pick up a sassy new lipstick- whatever helps you through those long days.

4.    Remember you!

If you work, chances are you have a built in break. Use that time to eat sure but more importantly use it for you. Take a walk (it might be your only chance for fresh air and sunshine), have your nails done, read a few chapters in your favorite book, whatever it is make sure it’s something to lift you and help keep you sane.

5.    Don’t forget those outside the show.

As rehearsals become more intense and more prevalent, it can feel that the only people you see are your castmates. Which is great because I’m sure they’re all fantastic people but you probably have other folks in your life you’d like to stay in touch with as well. FB and email are fine but nothing beats face-to-face conversation. In lieu of that (because, hello- rehearsal!) call folks. That’s what your phone was designed for after all. I love to call folks as I go to/from rehearsal. I plug in my hands-free headset and I have 30-45 minutes of uninterrupted convo time. 

Of course during tech week, all bets are off.