In last Thursday’s blogpost, I wrote about some of my personal victories. But what about the times when I did not emerge from the stage victorious? What if I felt as though I was a failure?
Failure is such an awful word, so instead of recounting my “personal failures,” I’d like to recount some of my personal NOT-victories. One in particular is a doozy.
As it turns out, I talked about this about ten years ago in a blogpost that I called, “Worst Things That Ever Happened to Me As a Performer.”
To save you a click, I’ll reprise those here with my added comments on them from a ten-years later perspective.
- When I walked up my skirt and fell into the first violinist’s music stand (see previous article on performance anxiety).
My favorite story, and you really have to click on the link to get the full impact. A different impact than I made with the music stand.
- When I pierced my finger with a spindle during a production of Flying Dutchman at Washington Opera.
That could’ve been a lot worse.
- When I was thrown off someone’s back while on tour with Pirates of Penzance and crashed into the stage, dislocating my knee and, as I found out much later, cracking my coccyx. (Didn’t know that until I lost weight and no longer had padding on it.)
Again, could’ve been a lot worse. But it was one of the many things that contributed to my massive knee arthritis.
- When I came home from a Friday luncheon and decided to take a nap, only to sleep through a wedding I was supposed to sing that day – although I woke up deathly ill and wound up being so sick I couldn’t sing or teach for two full weeks.
Boy, I lost a lot of money then, and again in the subsequent never-ending Bronchitis of 2018! But at that time, I had just quit my day job to focus full-time on singing, and it almost felt like the world telling me, “See? You should’ve stayed a legal secretary.” Upper respiratory infections are NO JOKE.
- When I drooled on someone’s head on stage. I was in Rosina at the Skylight, playing Pilar, the slutty landlady, and at one point, the soprano ties a scarf in my mouth and leads me across the stage to a blindfolded man singing a love song (he’s singing to the soprano, but I think he’s singing to me). Well, the scarf hit my tongue in just the right way to make me salivate. So I’m sucking back this mouthful of drool the whole time, trying frantically to keep it in my mouth – and just as I get on top of the baritone – I failed. Fortunately, he was wigged (and still blindfolded) and wasn’t aware of it. I was totally humiliated!!
Although honestly, Pilar probably would drool on someone in the throes of passion. She was not a tidy woman.
- When I had violent abdominal cramps while wearing spandex in A Cudahy Carolers Christmas and wound up going up on a line and breaking character for the first and only time in my life.
That sounds hilarious but….
This one hurts the most and is the most personal,
and I think it is why it was my last stage performance in Milwaukee.
Possibly TMI ahead.
It wasn’t just cramps. I wasn’t just in violent pain. I had some serious digestive issues. And there was one bathroom and it was located backstage. There was another in the lobby, but it only had one toilet, so the audience literally had to come backstage during intermission to use the bathroom. The other alternative was to run out the backstage door into the cold night air in what was a sketchy neighborhood and run around the block to get to the lobby. In costume.
The only time you could flush the backstage toilet during the show was during a laugh line or thunderous applause. By this point in the run (no pun intended), I knew where those moments were, so during the first act, it wasn’t a problem.
The second act was a farce and there was literally NO time to go the bathroom. (Especially when you didn’t know just how long it was going to take …. ) Entrances and exits were lightning quick. I was in such agony and I barely had a moment to catch my breath, I had serious brain fog, I’d actually lost my balance and swayed backwards during the first act finale, and that’s when it happened, right toward the end of the second act:
I walked out on stage and said a line and it was like I was disembodied, watching myself say the line, and I thought, “That was wrong,” so I said it again. And this time, I did say it wrong. So I actually stomped my foot and said it a third time. I watched myself do it in horror. So did the rest of my cast. And the director was in the audience that night because we were doing a photo shoot the next day and she wanted to see which scenes she wanted to capture. She was not pleased with me.
I had no idea why I had done this. I had 20 years of performing experience in my life up to that point, and I had never done anything even remotely like this. Just a few shows earlier, I had my thumb pop out of joint right before my entrance and managed to go on, deliver lines, sing an entire song, and then go off stage and pop my thumb back into place (the joys of being double jointed!).
In my first role, as Princess Margaret in The Student Prince, I literally got kicked in the head during my song by dancers trying to avoid broken glass on the stage – and kept singing.
But this was the first and only time I allowed something to affect me to the point where it was not just a mere distraction but resulted in a totally unprofessional action. And I was too embarrassed to explain anything other than mutter an apology and something about having cramps. I didn’t want to tell them that it was more than that.
(I’m still using euphemisms – perhaps this is just too personal – but I’m not comfortable using anything else in this case.) But the result was that:
I’m pretty convinced that the director thought I was drunk.
Of course, I was not. And honestly, it wasn’t the kind of show where I was being challenged to sing complex arias in a foreign language and needed my wits about me.
I was singing Christmas parodies with dirty lyrics. I could have had wine or beer with dinner and it would have no effect on the technique required to perform this show. I’m not denigrating the show – but we’re not talking about Shakespeare or Mozart here. If I could sing “Wanda’s Glamourland” with a dislocated thumb, surely I could sing it after having a beer.
But I had had nothing to drink before the show. And I was not drunk. But – if I were watching myself from the director’s perspective, I would say, “That woman is drunk.”
No, that woman really has to go to the bathroom and she can’t.
And I didn’t have the guts (again, no pun intended) to tell anyone that. I thought it was a personal failure for me to not be in control of my body, and it was a professional failure for me to respond the way I did. I wasn’t even able to tell anyone what was happening until a few years later. And then it sounded like an excuse to me.
So maybe she thought I was drunk (again, nope). Maybe she thought I was a bad actor (nope). Maybe she thought I was nuts (perhaps, but that wasn’t why)..
All I can say is that I never got another stage gig in Milwaukee again in the subsequent 9 years I stayed there. Because that lack of professionalism, no matter what the trigger, bit me in the butt. Word travels fast, and I’m pretty sure that incident was the turning point in my Milwaukee performing career. I did not have a “second act” there.
But I have it here. And it hasn’t ended yet. I just moved to a different stage – in location, and in my life.
Look at so-called “failures” as not-victories; they could be the result of clumsiness, or bad positioning, or illness. They could result from a lack of focus or technique, but they all are opportunities for growth, if you recognize the lessons you can learn from them.
When something happens that might be considered a failure, remember that it doesn’t mean that you are a failure. Something happened. Let it go and get up again. Whether it’s from a literally spill on the stage or from a bad line reading, get up.