Back in 1999, I auditioned for a local production of The Pajama Game. I had been out of the community theatre scene for a couple of years, but I was taking voice lessons and singing a lot—in choirs, at weddings, even in a Christian rock band (that’s material for a another post entirely). Much to my surprise, they cast me as Babe Williams—the spunky union leader at a pajama factory who gets romantically entangled with the new boss. In the movie she was played by Doris Day. At 28 I had played dozens of character parts, but I had never been “the lead” in a musical. A voice teacher once said to me, “You have the voice of a leading lady, in the body of a character actor.” Lovely.
I was beyond excited to finally have my big chance. The rehearsal process was wonderful. The group was incredibly friendly and welcoming. The director was a dream and my leading man was talented and supportive. I worked my tail off. I never drove my car without practicing my music (back in those days we had tape players in cars). I was early to every rehearsal and had my lines memorized before anyone else. I had something to prove—mostly to myself. I always knew I could do it and now I finally had my chance.
The best director I ever had, Jim Steinmeyer, used to remind us of PEACE before we went on stage. PEACE stands for Pacing, Energy, Action, Concentration and Ease. It’s great advice onstage or off. If you can manage those five things, you can get through almost anything. Unfortunately, during one of the performances of The Pajama Game I lost my concentration for a moment. As Mark, the Music Director said later, my brain took a trip to The Bahamas and didn’t even bring back presents.
I saw my brother sitting in the front row of the audience and remembered that I had offered to pay for a ticket and have it waiting for him at the front desk. Busy with preparations for the show I had forgotten to do it. So instead of my mind being completely absorbed in the show I was thinking about my brother and the very strong likelihood that he didn’t have any cash in his wallet. I was singing the very funny song called “I’m Not at All in Love” with twelve women in the cast when the words left my brain. Poof. Gone. There I was, center stage, singing a song I had sung hundreds of times and all that came out of my mouth was, “La, la, la.”
This is what it was supposed to sound like.
I smiled through tears as the audience politely applauded and ran off stage. I wanted to find a dark quiet corner to hide in for the next few days. Tim, my leading man, was waiting in the wings for me. He wrapped me in a bear hug and said, “You’re going to be fine. It’s over now.” Then he took me by the shoulders and looked me square in the face, “Let it go and do the next number.”
As I look at the words on paper, they seem pretty ordinary, but at the time they were just the words I needed to hear. I managed to pull myself together. I took a few deep breaths, changed my costume, and met Tim on stage for our next number. It was a song called, “There Once was a Man” and it was the one I had the most trouble with in rehearsals. The rhythm was very tricky and it made me very nervous even under the best of circumstances. But by then I had regained the concentration I had lost in the last scene. Tim and I nailed the number. This time, the applause was genuine—it was the best we had ever performed that very difficult song.
Despite all of my preparation, I screwed up in a very public way. I wanted to dissolve in a pile of self-pitying Jell-o. Fortunately embarrassment isn’t fatal and neither are most mistakes. I regained my focus, put the mistake behind me, kept going, and put on one hell of a performance.
This post was written in response to the Red Dress Club’s new writing prompt about writing memoir: “This week, we want you to imagine that after you have died and your daughter/son will be given the gift of seeing a single five-minute period of your life through your eyes, feeling and experiencing those moments as you did when they occurred. What five minutes would you have him/her see? Tell us about them in the finest detail. Let’s have a maximum word count of 700 words for this post.”