(Photo Credit: Michael Dapper)
Having the opportunity to participate in musical theater this year felt a bit like the Make a Wish Foundation granted me an all expense paid vacation…with just one small, itsy-bitsy, little caveat. Along the cruise, there would be an exciting off-boat excursion! Through all nine layers of Dante’s Inferno. No bigs. Just my own personal hell.
Let me first say, I have always wanted to be in musical theater. I LOVE every bit of it. For a variety of reasons, it didn’t work out though: my high school was too small for productions, my family had lingering concerns it would lead to some compromising situations, and most importantly I
had have a crippling fear of failure with a dose of perfectionism.
By the time I could try out for my first musical in college, I had no experience and auditioned horribly. I immediately decided my only option was to give up. I would often think of that moment and wish I would have just taken a class or at least not acquiesced so easily. Sixteen years later, I got the chance to try again, which brings me to my recent journey through the underworld. “Abandon all hope, you who enter here.”
Layer 1. Auditions – Excited Terror
Layer 2. Callbacks – Contradictory Emotions
“Notice me. NO. Wait! Don’t notice me! I’m just going to hide behind this person here so you don’t force me to sing in front of everyone. Yes, I’m fully aware that is the whole point of musical theater. What!? We have to sing alone! I can’t read music. Oh sweet Jesus, let the rapture happen right now. NO. Wait! Notice me!”
Layer 3. Casting – Brief Confident Interlude
Excitedly accept a role! “Hooray! This is going to be great. Even better, I, Melissa Lund, am going to be great!”
Layer 4. Only 20 Minutes Later – Reality Check – Blind Panic
“Holy Sh**! I can’t do this. I have no experience! I can’t sing, act, or dance! Certainly not all at the same time. I am in serious, serious trouble.” Weep publicly with a friend in a restaurant. Try to hide underneath the booth. Contemplate running away. Maybe a bus could run you over?
Layer 5. Accept Role Anyway – Anxious Desperation
Watch every TED talk on finding some level of confidence. Smile. Put your hands on your hips. Be vulnerable. Dare greatly. Blame all of these lovely, brilliant, EVIL academics for putting you through this sick torment. Start referring to Brené Brown as the devil.
Layer 6. Rehearsals – Neurosis Ensue
Start talking to yourself while you walk off stage. Twitch occasionally. Co-dependently drape yourself onto everyone. Mid-conversation, wander off in sort of a malaria-induced fever minus the mosquitoes. Forget everything. Lose several IQ points.
Layer 7. Tech Week – Move to Australia
Mentally compose letters to all three directors about your unfortunate need to step down from each respective role. In the letters, apologize profusely. Feign amnesia. Describe your malaria symptoms! Again, running away is an excellent option. I hear Sydney is lovely. Instead, decide to have a glass of wine. Ok, two.
Layer 8. Performances – Perfectionist’s Spinning Wheel of Death
Obsess over every mistake. Spiral into negativity. Have a mental seizure on stage and stutter while singing during an actual performance. Control. Alt. Delete.
Layer 9. Hours After Show – Despair
Sob. Until your eyes are so swollen you look as if you had an allergic reaction. Take a Benadryl for good measure.
And then, miraculously, the inferno is over. That’s the beauty. The inferno does end, if you’re willing to keep travelling through it. In each successive production, I descended.* After stumbling through the first weekend of performances, I finally had this obvious realization: I cannot acquire 5 or 20 years of experience overnight.** No matter how much I want to be the best and hit every note perfectly, say every line authentically, and for the love of god-remember the choreography, I am still going to be at a performance level that matches my experience and skills. Yes, I can work hard. Yes, I can practice. But I am still going to do amateur things because I am an amateur. And that’s ok. I don’t need to pay penance for being where I am.
The epiphany stuck. For the second weekend of shows, everything changed. I decided I could either exit every scene kicking myself, ready to
write yet another tearful apology letter to the audience, or I could do my best and actually have fun. I don’t know that it improved my performances necessarily, but I wasn’t having mental breakdowns backstage anymore. I started enjoying the process. What’s even better is that my mind slowed down enough to actually connect with an amazing community of people.
Traversing Dante’s Glee-filled Inferno hasn’t cured me of perfectionism or my fear of failure. At this exact moment, the thought of stepping out of my comfort zone again doesn’t sound entirely appealing, but I will. If there is anything I learned from experiencing theater this year, it’s that. Be present. Make mistakes. Be mindful. Then, move on. In the end, sometimes our wretched inferno is actually the personal hell we created for ourselves.
(Photo Credit: Shelly Lehner)
* “IN. TO. THE. PIT.” (Teehee, Gift Tree Cast!)
** “It could happen.” (Standing O, Mike!)