Published February 2010
My butterflies turning rapidly to dragonflies, I thought back to just how stupid I must have seemed to Paula Scotland.
The day before, I had interviewed Paula as she prepared to audition for a chorus role in the Durham Savoyards’ production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado. She’d been with the august, 47-year-old community theater group for years and had auditioned many times.
I asked her if she was nervous and actually was surprised to hear her say yes, yes she was.
“Really?” foolish, ignorant, incorrigible me had asked that Sunday afternoon at the Durham Arts Council.
“You’ve done this a bunch of times. You’re just auditioning for the chorus [i.e. not a principal role with solos and whatnot]. You’re going to get in,” I added, as if I knew. “And you’re still nervous?” Yes, she repeated, politely.
I shook my head, said “wow” and thanked her for her time.
Pish-Tush. (Inside joke alert!) It’s just singing a little diddy for four people for less than two minutes. Yet, to a person, nearly everyone confessed to some level of pre- and even post-audition anxiety. “How trying can it be?” I asked myself.
It was my second completely idiotic question of the day.
You probably see where this is going.
I decided, you know, for the sake of journalistic exploration, to take a stab at auditioning myself.
I asked producer Sarah Nevill, a delightfully cheery person with an equally delightful British accent, if that’d be OK.
She said, and I paraphrase, “Jolly good, then.”
Alright. No biggie. I managed to make it through the day Monday without feeling anything akin to dread.
I sweated a bit over my song choice, in large part because, to be honest, I didn’t know the first thing about Gilbert & Sullivan.
It was a relief to discover that chorus auditioners could sing any song they liked. I wanted to stay within a whiff of the genre, so I chose Jolly Holiday from Mary Poppins. My sports bar buddies no doubt got a kick out of that last sentence, but the Disney classic is mother’s milk to me, having watched it early and often throughout childhood. I reckoned a selection from this sort-of British musical would be close enough to the very British operettas G&S turned out in the mid-19th century.
Song selection, as it turned out, was the least of my problems.
Many Savoyards told me even the best among them contend with nerves. No matter if you’re confident in your abilities, studies have shown that human beings are hard-wired to fear the naked vulnerability of performing solo. I tried to stave that off with preparedness. I found myself that Monday singing Jolly Holiday while driving, while walking down the street, even a couple of times pacing around a Durham Arts Council restroom. I kept trying to make the same case I had made to Paula Scotland: It wasn’t as if I was auditioning for a lead part. Shoot, I wasn’t even really auditioning.
Or so I thought. As the moment of truth approached, I grew more and more manic. Sputtering a mile a minute, my stomach in knots, I paced around the lobby. Finally, I sought out Sarah and begged her to talk me off the ledge.
“You know you can only do what you can do, so it doesn’t matter,” she said in that soothing English accent.
“What if I really stink, though?”
“They will encourage you to have another go,” she said. “They’re not going to kill you.”
“That helps,” I said, taking a gulp of air. “I’m not going to die.”
Then, the door opened. I was on.
I was so nervous I forgot to take with me the sheet indicating what role I was seeking. So, after reaching the metal music stand, I had to walk back out and grab the sheet. A great start.
“I’m going to do a bit of Jolly Holiday,” I told the directors, “hopefully sans terrible Cockney accent.”
My rehearsed joke at poor Dick Van Dyke’s expense sounded forced and in no way masked my trembling voice.
So, I just started belting.
It’d be nice to say the song that followed was as good as I sometimes imagine it sounds in the shower. Or at least wasn’t totally awful. That would be really, really nice.
But, as luck would have it, I had left my audio recorder rolling in my pocket throughout the entire audition. I know better.
Now, this recorder has failed me on too many occasions to count, failing to pick up a source’s voice above the din of a crowded room or cutting out in the middle of a long-sought interview. Of course, for this, the recorder buried deep in my pocket registered every falter, every strained high note, every single time I wasn’t even close to the right pitch.
Listening to it was excruciating. Can’t imagine what those directors were thinking the whole time, in part because I avoided eye contact with them. (Instead, I employed a trick I’d learned from a fellow auditioner and stared at the tops of their heads.)
The song ended, and I said, “That’s it.” But it wasn’t it.
I had to stand there and sing scales until they found my range, such as it is. (Two whole octaves!) Perspiring and not nearly as relieved as I thought I would feel, I made a beeline for the door. Director Derrick Ivey kindly asked me mid-retreat if I would take a part should one be offered. I mumbled something about having to check my schedule, then said, “Sure. Why not?”
The e-mail from Sarah came two days later. “It is my pleasure to write and offer you a role as a bass in the Royal Chorus for the Durham Savoyards 2010 production of The Mikado.”
Honestly, I was floored. Getting into the Royal Chorus, i.e. the singers who never appear on stage, isn’t terribly difficult, I’m told. But I really thought I’d been so bad they would have passed. Then I remembered I was there officially to write about the group. Maybe they figured it’d be best to stick the writer up in the rafters rather than tell him, “You stink, but can’t wait to read the article!”
Alan Riley Jones, the longtime music director for the Savoyards, a great singer and composer in his own right and a real mensch to boot, put that theory to rest as best he could.
“Your audition was good,” he says. “I could tell you may have been ill at ease.”
Me: “That’s a nice way of putting it.”
He told me that directors have heard enough nerve-addled auditions to be able to discern how well the person can sing when not trembling with fright. “If you couldn’t carry a tune, I wouldn’t have invited you to join,” he said. “If I didn’t think you would be an asset to the chorus, I wouldn’t have let you in.”
“Seriously,” he says. “Your audition was a valid and a good audition.”
His graciousness – and that of the other directors, who should train doctors on bedside manner – reminded me of another pervasive theme that shone through every interview. “The Savoyards is kind of like an extended family,” says John Adams, a Savoyard since the early 1990s. “There are lifelong friends among them. I’ve seen lots come and go, but everyone remains family. I had a hiatus of five years between shows. When I came back, it was just like I’d never left.”
This quirky group isn’t out to embarrass folks or exclude them. At heart, the Savoyards wants to assemble a group of dedicated, if imperfect, singers and actors from all walks of life, then surprise even themselves at just how good community theater can be.
And have an absolute blast doing it.
Who’s gonna say no to being a part of that?
So, when the curtain is raised at The Carolina Theatre, I implore you to keep your eyes glued to the amazing on-stage performances.
But, if your gaze does wander up to the opera boxes, I’ll be one of the basses in the back, doing my level best to come in at the right times, to hit every note, to avoid at all costs being the black sheep of my new extended family. DM