My First Lead Role in a Play
Or, how I learned confidence was possibly the most important tool of the trade
The first play I ever auditioned for was in the second semester of my sophomore year in high school. I landed 2 tiny roles, with 6 lines between them. True. My first character had 4 lines in one scene in the first act. That was all I did in the first act. My second character, same costume but with washed out aged makeup and hair so I looked young again (and no cane), had 2 lines in one scene and 2 scenes total (as I recall). In the second scene of the second act, I stood onstage and whispered with my “wife” about some dude she had a crush on in the front row — we were extras in that scene, or scenery if you will for a funeral scene. I can’t recall if she ever hooked up with the guy or not.
I’m not making fun of this experience, it was my first ever show and I knew so very little about acting. And honestly, I can say that: a) I did an impersonation for the first character, and b) nothing for the second. So, yeah, no acting was involved with either characters. So yeah… probably fine I only had 6 lines.
After that show wrapped up, I did an audition for a role in a college-level production. I read for the role with the director and one of the cast members. The show was a Cinderella retelling, it took place in the early 1900’s and was completely absurd for the most part. A lot of fun. The show was narrated/hosted by a goofy hillbilly character who broke the fourth wall regularly and would glide in and out of scenes. It was called A Toby Show. I read for the “prince charming” character and landed it very quickly.
It was my first lead role.
I went from 6 lines between 2 characters to a lead role.
The awkwardness of working with older actors.
You always hear about the awkwardness of working with child actors, but what about the other way around? I can say that as a 15 year old at the time, it was awkward working with people significantly older than me. The youngest person in the cast (other than me) was 19. She was the Cinderella character.
All of the cast was in college, some returning to college, and I had little in common with these people at their current lot in life. And they all smoked, including the director, and every so often (very often) there would be smoke breaks during rehearsals. Everyone would file out the back of the theatre and smoke in the parking lot. I stayed inside and worked my lines. I was too young to smoke legally, and didn’t care to anyway. As a matter of fact, I kinda hated the habit at the time. I have more patience with it now, but definitely still lack the interest.
Was that fast? I thought that was fast.
The production was the most thrown-together, insane production I’ve ever been in — I think. The production was a last minute, “Hey, you know what would be cool” sorta thing. A theatre appreciation class had decided part way through the semester to produce their own show. From the time I auditioned to the performance date was one month. We rehearsed once a week, for 3 hours. The show was 3 acts, and we managed to only rehearse the third act once. Which means, we blocked it once and technically never really rehearsed it at all.
I was new enough to the game that I had no idea how insane what we were doing was going to be. I didn’t know that one month was very little time to memorize all of your lead character’s lines for a 3-act play. It didn’t occur to me until the night before the performance. Because it was the night before the performance, and I didn’t have any of the third act memorized.
“If I don’t have this now, I’m never going to have it.”
The above quote is something I sometimes tell myself before setting aside my script. I don’t use this quote often, only in those rare cases where enough time has not been allotted for memorization or something. The first time I ever told myself this was on the day of the performance for A Toby Show.
So the night before I had realized I didn’t have any lines memorized for the third act, which meant I was scrambling all day. I went to school and all day I was cramming lines between bells. I tried so hard to work those lines, but it was so hard with classes starting and ending.
Finally, it was seventh hour, and I closed my script. I was frustrated. And that’s when I said it internally to myself:
If I don’t have this now, I’m never going to have it.
In that moment I decided to stop looking at my lines. I knew the character, and I knew what happened. All I needed to do was just go out there and make it happen. And staring at those lines over and over was not going to make me any better at them, and it sure wasn’t going to make me any more confident in giving them. I put the script in my backpack and decided to focus on two things:
- Relaxing and being emotionally ready for the performance
I knew what needed to happen in those scenes of Act 3, and I knew what I needed to do and how I needed to do it. I had it. And stressing myself out over the lines and looking at them constantly was never going to convince me of that. It was always going to plant the seed of doubt in my mind. No, if I didn’t have it at that moment, I was never going to have it. No matter how much I stressed over it and poured my eyes over it before curtain call. It was too late for that. It was time to focus on doing the job at hand. And I could do that.
Wait, it’s over? Lessons learned all around, then.
I don’t remember much about the rest of the afternoon or time leading into the performance. Which means, I did a good job of settling into that mindset and just got it done. And I did, too. Even blew myself a way.
Not one missed cue. Not one flubbed line.
After that performance, I realized how powerful confidence was for performing. I was convinced I didn’t know those lines. I was going through that script, flubbing and forgetting every one of them just about all day. There was no evidence I had those lines memorized, and yet — I did. What that told me is that being that close to a curtain call, that close to a performance, and stressing over it was pointless. Once you are there, there’s no more time for looking at lines and checking cues and checking entrances and whatever. You either have it, or you don’t. Anything you do during that time is just stressed out hoopla and won’t prove anything.
At a certain point, you have to put the script down. You have to tell yourself you have it. And then, relax. Chill. Be comfortable.
Getting relaxed before going out on the stage is so important, and you can’t do that if you’re thinking about the show. You have to put that away. The show will come naturally when you walk onto the stage. In the meantime, chill. Relax, mediate (if it helps), joke around with your fellow cast members. Enjoy life for a bit.
So, that show only had one performance. That’s right. ONE. We opened and closed on the same night. It was the most depressed feeling after you finished. I felt so energized because I had fought the lines and won, and was feeling energized to continue on, but nope. It was a one night stand.
And if you’ve ever been in a show, you know how rough that is because the first night is always a little sketchy. You always feel like you wanna come back the next days and improve. But nope. One performance.
That was my other lesson: Never schedule a play for one night only. It’s too depressing.
Side note: Even though my performance was well received, I know for a fact that I (again) was still not acting. I impersonated, as best I could at 15, Matthew Perry. I still had a lot to learn. Thankfully, the director of that play, A Toby Show, would take me under her wing and become my mentor.