When I was a child, one of the surest indications that someone was an adult was if he or she smiled back at you when you made eye contact with them. Those my own age either just kept staring blankly at you or looked away nervously. Adults, however, tended to catch your gaze and project a warm smile. Of course my young concept of adulthood was a nebulously defined stage in life in which you knew more than I did but weren’t yet an old person. Old people did not smile; they scowled. Unless they were my grandparents, who did smile back and let me eat more dessert than my parents (they specialized in pies)
The smiling epiphany came to me as I sat waiting in a room full of children who were all auditioning for various plays (or was it for television this time?). I was walking through a bright green hallway in search of either a water fountain (I had to sing for the audition) or a bathroom (I had to pee from all the water I was drinking). As I headed back to the waiting room, the door whose handle I was about to push opened before me, and an improbably tall blonde woman (everyone was improbably tall) peered down at me and smiled as she walked the opposite way.
That’s what grown up people do when they see children, I thought for the first time, and would continue thinking for the remaining years of elementary school. Thinking back, she was probably only in her teens.
I am not certain as to how my mother knew of and got me to these various auditions. I remember the stakes seeming somewhat higher after my first audition, which took place in a brightly lit multi-purpose room somewhere in Windsor, Connecticut. It was, all in all, an enjoyable experience. I was auditioning for the part of Jerome in South Pacific. To a first or second grader (I cannot recall exactly how old I was), the empty room with its very high ceilings and linoleum floors seemed huge. The only things in the room were the brown upright piano, and the folding table behind which sat three grown ups, one of whom had a mustache and glasses.
I remember being amazed that the piano player could play the music for the song I had brought without ever having practiced it. I had just been a chorus member for the Roaring Brook Elementary School’s production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown earlier in the year, and while singing the title song, I couldn’t help but be amazed that the stranger behind the keys was producing a near exact rendition of the tempo and dynamics that I had heard for many rehearsals and a performance in the school’s cafeteria.
During the audition, I marched in circles as I sang, in the same manner as I had done for the school performance, which didn’t seem to offend the casting crew. And when they laughed at the end and applauded, I beamed, and rushed off to tell my mother and father how it went.
I ended up getting the part. My least favorite aspect of the role was that I had to appear shirtless, wearing only what I perceived to be a skirt. My favorite aspect of the role was that during the live performances, in the final scene, in which Emile walks triumphantly onto stage, the soup that I was sipping was actually root beer.
The cast parties mid-week facilitated half-days at my elementary school, as my parents allowed me to sleep-in. There would be quite the reversal in attitude following high school chorus concerts, to my teenaged bewilderment.
As noted, this role in South Pacific did inspire a new round of auditions in significantly more sophisticated venues. And the waiting room where the teenage adult smiled at the elementary school version of me was, for a brief while, a trend.
In these settings, there always seemed to be a sea of children and parents preparing themselves for their test performance, and then long expanses of empty corridors. Lines being recited, notes being sung, a maternal reminder to strike the pose they had been practicing earlier that day at the end of the song. And then an echoing silence walking down the hall, either to the bathroom or to a studio or a room where I would sing.
One particular audition comes to mind, if only because I have no idea why I was auditioning for it. I don’t recall it interesting me all that much, but the idea of being able to travel overseas (to Russia, was it?) to perform was enough of a draw, either to myself or to my mother.
I think it was in West Hartford, in one of the high schools, but I have little evidence to back up that feeling. It was on the second floor of the building, where I was called into a room that was oddly shaped (the wall was curved) and somewhat dark (the shades were drawn). Unlike my audition for South Pacific, I do not recall any details of who was in charge of casting. What I do recall was being caught unawares that there was to be a dance component to this audition. I had never danced before, short of sock-footed jump-around romps in the family room to a video of Raffi. This was uncharted territory.
I answered honestly, and not without shame that I had never danced on stage before, in a group or solo performance. When asked if I would dance for them (the anonymous, faceless individuals conducting this audition), I said yes.
They asked me if I had brought a song along to which I would dance. Given that I was not expecting to have to dance in the first place, I did not.
They then asked what I might like to dance to, then. What kind of music did I listen to at home?
“The Beach Boys,” I responded.
I imagine that they nodded, or looked at each other, conferred with their eyes that this was a no-go, and then turned back to smile at me.
I asked them if they had “Kokomo,” on cassette tape. They did not have the particular song, but they did have a Beach Boys tape on hand. There were several clicks on the cassette player (opening the tape deck, closing it, pushing the play button), and then the music came on.
My suspicion is that things went horribly. I can vaguely see myself waving my arms slowly, contorting in a way that I thought might please the adults watching. I cringe a little bit looking back, much like one might when at a magic show where none of the magician’s tricks go as planned. I was not called back, and would, as a result, not end up dancing or performing in Russia, or wherever it was that this particular company was heading.
Musical performances would thus remain out of the picture until summer theatre after I graduated from the eighth grade, where I played Rooster Hannigan in Annie, and watched on tragically as my friend who played Daddy Warbucks tried without success to court the girl who played Grace Farrell, who, I should note, sang quite well and, owing to a history of gymnastics, revealed herself to be quite flexible at one of the cast parties to the gawking amazement of almost every boy there.
While still in grade school, however, I did manage to appear on stage as Augustus Gloop for a small theater company in New Britain, Connecticut. I was likely the darkest, least Germanic boy ever the play the part in the history of any production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Certain details stick out more than the actual production process. The chocolate river into which I fell was a bunch of sheets, painted brown and stitched together, shaken by the tech crew on either side of the stage. And, I suppose it should be admitted that I did not so much fall as gingerly step over the shaking sheets, at which point I had to lie down on my back on a skateboard, which was attached to a rope. I would kick and flail and scream as someone offstage pulled me towards the edge of the set closest to exit and to the concession stand, where I would with my father’s money, purchase Airheads after most rehearsals.
The strangest part of the production was the fact that, instead of singing, the oompa loompas rapped.
The young woman who played my mother began playing around with a German accent halfway through our series of rehearsals which I found gravely disorienting. She announced either to me or the group that she was trying it out, and it made me nervous. I asked her and the director if that meant that I should put on an accent, too. They said that I did not need to, which was a great relief, if only because I had no idea how to alter my voice at that point in my life, unless, of course, it was to sing.
On the last run of the show, the young woman who played my mother was quite sick; I don’t recall if we had an understudy. We made it through both acts, if in fact there were two. After I got whisked away on the tethered skateboard for the last time, however, and she made her final protest to Willy Wonka that something had to be done to save my life, the two of us were backstage with the stage manager, discussing the fact that she was truly not feeling well, and had to leave.
The stage manager was quite understanding, which, given how sharp-tongued and short-tempered she had been at certain times throughout the production, surprised me.
And so the young woman who played my mother, turned to me, in tears that she had to abandon me on this final performance. She asked if I would be comfortable bowing alone; she said that she hated to leave me like this, but she simply couldn’t take it, whatever it was.
My biggest concern was that I had historically just followed her onto stage to bow. I did not have a working knowledge of who had preceded us. I expressed as much to her, not sure if I was supposed to be crying with her. She assured me that the stage manager, who was still present, would wave at me from across the stage when it was my turn to bow; the stage manager indicated that this was true.
In that case, I said, it should be okay. “Feel better,” I said.
She was on her knees, so as to be speaking at the same height as me. Or if not at the same height, then at least not towering over me. She was still teary, smiling, and I asked her to say my name, Augustus Gloop, one more time in her German accent, since I wouldn’t be hearing it again if she was leaving.
She did so, and hugged me before she left, putting on a coat that I vaguely recall as being too big for her.
I loitered quietly backstage with the oompa loompas until the end of the show (one of them was drawing a cartoon rat), and then waited for the stage manager’s cue.