The Sun Came Out This Weekend – Again

CTP Annie posterThe Broadway smash hit musical Annie has a special place in my heart. In the summer of 1987, I met my husband while playing the role of Mrs. Greer in a summer stock production of Annie, working backstage also as assistant director/stage manager. We began dating during that production and after twenty-eight years, it’s safe to say we are “together forever”.

CTP Annie photo

One of the two Annies from the 1987 production

In 2007, exactly twenty years after that summer stock experience, we found out that our daughters’ high school was going to produce Annie as their summer stock musical. Auditions were open to students and adults as well, both professionals and amateurs, so my husband auditioned for (and received) the same role he had in our first production together. We decided to do the show together, along with our high school daughters, to celebrate our first meeting twenty years earlier. It was so much fun to do a play as a family and of course, it added for me yet another special meaning to Annie.

HR Annie ProgramThis past weekend was the culmination of nine weeks of rehearsals and several additional weeks of planning for my middle school’s annual spring musical. Rehearsals from 3:00-5:30 three days a week, wrangling thirty-five 7th and 8th graders into song and dance numbers, training them on the discipline required for a quality production, scrounging for costume pieces at thrift stores and making emergency sewing repairs, all while teaching language arts full time, adds up to one tired human being. However, it is worth every single minute of it, especially when met with the smashing success of the weekend’s three performances.

Sound of Music

Me (far right) as Frau Schmidt

In the spring of 1987 I was asked by the director to be assistant director/stage manager for a production of Annie. I initially said no. I knew the show would be very popular and little girls would come skipping out of the wood-works to audition to be Annie or at least an orphan in the production. The previous summer I had been heavily involved in a production of The Sound of Music, onstage as Frau Schmidt and offstage as producer, where all seven of the Von Trapp children had been double cast. This meant fourteen children backstage at all times, and in the theatre, fourteen sets of stage parents. It also meant fourteen sets of costumes, because God forbid any one pair of children cast in the same role could actually fit in the same costume.

billboard for SoM

Thank God my phone number wasn’t on the billboard!

The show was ridiculously popular, and somehow, my home phone number had been put on publicity posters and flyers as the contact number for tickets. My phone rang off the hook for weeks, and once all eight performances were sold out, things got really nasty. Grandparents, godparents, neighbors, aunts and uncles, and friends of those fourteen children wanted tickets but there were none left.

 

Daigle_Steven_crop-250x332I tried to explain this to my friend, Steven Daigle, now an accomplished director and professor at the renown Eastman School of Music. What I really wanted was to be Miss Hannigan. I had been secretly rehearsing a startling and shocking (for me, at least) rendition of “It’s Raining Men” for my audition piece. He begged and flattered me, saying he really needed me backstage with all those orphans, etc., and finally a deal was struck, one that sealed my fate, so to speak. I would audition for Miss Hannigan, but if I didn’t get the part, I would take a smaller part in the servants’ ensemble and be Chief Orphan Wrangler.

I didn’t get the part.

school flowers and tshirt

Flowers from the principal and an Annie Jr. t-shirt

Just before my audition, my accompanist could see that I was beyond nervous and he was worried that I would blow it so he talked me into taking a small nip from his flask just before going onstage. Did I mention that he was auditioning for the role of Rooster? (He was perfect for the part.) So, I went out there, slightly tipsy from a guzzle of straight Jack Daniels and sang my heart out.

I didn’t get the part.

scharmal schrockScharmal Schrock, a university music professor who was the music director for the production, gave me her blunt response to my audition: “Well, you’ve got guts, I’ll give you that.” Later she called me aside and told me the hard and cold truth, “You just don’t have a strong enough voice for this role. So, take a small role and help Steve with the orphans.” She then added, “Everyone knows Kay is going to be Miss Hannigan. It’s perfect for her.”

Okay, I see. Sure, I’ll be Mrs. Greer, “Blue’s her color, no green, I think.” That’s it, that was my one line.

I have two dream roles that I would give anything to play, one being Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde, and the other, well, let’s just say I don’t think I’m ever gonna be on Easy Street.

800px-Frances_Perkins_cph.3a04983For the rest of the Annie auditions, I manned a clipboard and helped Steve and Scharmal bring up the droves of actors and actresses up for their moment on stage. This is where my lack of a proper education in American history let me down. I announced to the packed auditorium that all men auditioning for the role of Frances Perkins should come up to the stage. I heard someone say, “Uh, excuse me, you would want the women who are auditioning for that part, since Frances Perkins was the first female cabinet member.”

I was mortified and quickly called up women as I had been duly corrected. I had just been “schooled” by my future husband, a history buff of first order. Needless to say, we didn’t start dating right away. I had already tried to catch his attention the previous summer, unsuccessfully, even to the extent of joining the church choir he sang in to try to get to know him. This public history lesson did not endear him to me that particular night.

roses from Annie

Roses from a cast member after closing night

But as the weeks of rehearsals went on, I softened (truth be told, I still had a massive crush on him) and offered to type a grad school paper for him on my office computer. I learned a great deal about what Hungary was doing the day I was born. To pay me back he offered to take me to dinner, and the rest, as they say, is history.

HSM programWhen our high school daughters, who thankfully got their father’s strong singing voice and not mine, initially heard that their dad was going to be in Annie at their school on their home stage, they were not so sure how that would fly. When I told them that I planned on applying for a backstage tech position so we could be in it together, to mark our twenty years together, I could tell by their expressions that they were worried that we would be horning in on their conversations with their friends or trying to hang out with them. We assured them both that we both knew how to act around their friends and would not embarrass them in any way; we were doing this to relive our first summer together. They soon got on board and in the end both had tech positions as well. It was the Ardillo Family Summer of Musical Theatre. We had such a great time, we all auditioned for and were cast in the summer stock production the next summer, High School Musical, where I mightily tried my damnedest to get the role of Ms. Darbus, unsuccessfully, and had to settle for Ms. Stellar, the science teacher.

HR Annie JrAnd, so, this third time doing Annie, this time the MTI Broadway Junior version, was wonderful and new and different, made even more special by the very talented members of our cast and crew. It’s all over now, after a matinee performance for the whole school on Friday, opening night to a packed house on Friday night, and closing night to another full house on Saturday night. Today I loaded up my car with all my personal belongings that found their way on the set, and cleaned up my classroom which had been turned upside down at the end of strike with everything being dropped off hurriedly in the hallway and doorway so everyone could get to the cast party.

Annie poster HR parents

Souvenir from cast and crew

This is my eleventh year directing middle school plays, nine at my current school. I’ve learned a lot about both adolescents and theatre during that time. I’ve had time to reflect today on the experience of doing Annie a third time: once with adults, once with high school students, and this time with middle school students. Here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

  • You can get 8th grade boys to help you with just about anything if you flatter them by calling them “big” and “strong” in front of the other students. My team of “big boys” moved set pieces, costume racks bulging with clothes, and more every single day of tech week, with no complaints.
  • Something magical happens when you put a costume on a teenager. Even the shyest person comes alive when they are sufficiently masked by a period piece costume or at a minimum, a bright red boa.
  • hyacinths from cast

    From the cast!

    Middle school girls put the “drama” in “drama club”. Enough said.

  • Middle school girls will scream with fear over just about anything:
    • a live wasp that stung someone else,
    • a dead wasp that can no longer sting anyone,
    • the soundtrack being played too loudly,
    • a backstage area, which was fine ten minutes ago, is suddenly “too dark and scary” to enter.
  • When an 8th grade boy is very happy and proud of his performance on stage and wants to say something to you about that, asking if he can have a “fist bump” is as good as a thirty-minute speech of thanks.
  • back page of HR program

    Inside back cover of the program, so sweet!

    Even when they are being normal middle school teenagers and driving you crazy, they somehow manage to poke a hole in your heart and squeeze themselves into it.

  • Just when you think you can’t possibly do this another single year, you find yourself looking at potential musicals for next year.
  • And, finally – and those who know me will know I don’t say this lightly – only nine weeks of rehearsals, a grueling tech week, three performances, and lots of late nights mending of costumes and hot-gluing of butterflies back on hats, can make you feel like teaching language arts full-time is easy work compared to doing it while also directing a school play!

And that, as they say, is a wrap. Curtain!

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The Fatal Bite

I didn’t go looking for drama; it came to me. In early 1984, I was at a very low and dark point in my personal and professional life. I went to work, came home, went to bed, got up, and repeated that process for weeks-no, months-on end. My only foray out of my apartment was to Mass on Sunday. I was not sleeping well, not eating well, and generally, not doing well. And then one Saturday in April of that year a friend came to visit. I was horrified to have an unexpected guest drop in on me and see the way I was existing. In fact, my half-decorated Christmas tree was still up (barely standing) in my living room, a carpet of pine needles surrounding it.

My friend took stock of the situation and sent me upstairs to shower and get dressed. “We are going out,” she said firmly. There was no negotiation allowed. I dragged myself upstairs and did as I had been instructed. When I came back down, my living room was spotless, dead Christmas tree dragged to the dumpster, decorations stacked neatly on my dining room table. That was when she made the announcement: “I’m on my way to audition for a part in the musical South Pacific and you are coming with me. After the auditions we are going out to lunch.”

Uh, no. No thanks. No way. Not happening. But, as friends come, this one is a real spitfire. At this juncture, we had been friends for ten years, after meeting in 1974 as freshmen during sorority rush at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond, Louisiana.

My Phi Mu sisters and me at our National Convention in 1976, Charleston

Here’s my Phi Mu sisters (including my friend) and me (standing, first on left) at our sorority’s National Convention in 1976, Charleston, South Carolina.

She was involved in theatre back then, too. She was an actress, with a great voice, and lots of what I later learned was called stage presence. She had won the lead in the school’s musical as a freshman. Yes, she was good.

After a bit of hemming and hawing, I realized resistance was futile and I followed her to her car. She drove us to the campus of our alma mater and parked at the music building. We went in and she signed the clipboard for those auditioning. We then took our seats in the theatre. I have to admit that once there, it was fun sitting in the dark, cool theatre, watching the people go up on stage under the bright lights and sing a song for their audition. Sometimes, the director or the music director would speak to them or ask them to do something additional. A few were asked to dance a bit or read lines. I had never seen anything like it and I was intrigued.

Eventually my friend was called up. She did a great job (or so I thought, but what did I know, never having been in a play before). Then the most shocking thing happened. The woman with the clipboard called my name over the microphone. WHAT? I didn’t sign up for anything! I just sat there stunned. My name was called again. My friend literally raised me up by my elbow and said, “She’s here!” I blubbered something about just being there to watch but I soon found myself being “escorted” by my friend up the stairs to the stage, the music director shouting at me, “What piece are you singing?” My friend then said, “Oh, she didn’t prepare anything, she’s just going to sing ‘Happy Birthday’.”

I cowered next to the baby grand piano parked stage right, waiting for further instruction. The accompanist started playing and I just stood there, mute. The music director shouted, “Are you going to sing or what?” So, I sang “Happy Birthday”, badly and I am sure pretty off-key.

You can imagine my shock and surprise a few days later when I saw my name on the cast list, under the ensemble group, Frenchwomen’s Chorus. I was even more shocked to see my friend’s name in the same ensemble group. She was so good, how could we be given the same part? By this time, I had been “convinced” that this would be good for me: I would have a place to go in the evenings, meet new people, try something different, and have the opportunity to act and sing and dance. So, I was thrilled to see my name there, even though it was a very small part, singing just one song, “Bali Ha’i”, and later in another scene, singing its reprise. My friend was not so thrilled at being cast as ensemble but we vowed to hang in there together, me the novice, she the veteran.

Along with music and/or stage rehearsals every weeknight, there were costume fittings, shopping trips to purchase stage make-up and character shoes, props to find, sets to build and paint, and of course, the requisite nightcap at a local bar after rehearsals on Friday night. My friend was right. I made a lot of new friends and had fun while doing it. TheatreBug1-copyright200And, as they say, come opening night, when those bright lights hit me in the face and I basked in the applause during the curtain call, I had been bitten by the theatre bug.

For the next five years, I was a fixture with that theatre group. I joined the group officially, ran for office, headed up committees, volunteered for anything and everything under the sun, and auditioned for each and every play that came up, even when there wasn’t a part that was really right for me.

The place where my best high school memories took place, that's me in first row left, in white drum major costume

The home place of my best high school memories, marching band. That’s me in first row left, in white drum major costume.

Dracula

Cast of the Columbia Theatre Players’ 1986 production of Dracula. First row, far left in grey suit, me as Professor Van Helsing, a male role recast as female just for me!

I parlayed my four years of high school band and two years of childhood piano lessons into being able to read music well enough to get a part in the chorus of the summer musical each year. I gave it everything I had but in return I received much more. While I never got a major singing role, I did get the female lead in two straight plays and had the opportunity to direct two plays during my time with that group. My five years of performing in front of audiences taught me self-discipline and problem-solving as well as improving my self-confidence and public speaking skills. Serving as producer for several of the large joint productions also gave me great experience at organizing a major event involving significant sums of money. Being the editor of the group’s quarterly newsletter gave me a creative outlet for burgeoning writing skills, as well as experience in marketing and public relations for a non-profit group.

My cast for the second play I directed for CTP, Beth Henleys e Miss Firecracker Contest, 1987

My cast for the second play I directed for CTP, Beth Henley’s play The Miss Firecracker Contest, 1987. That is me seated on the right, second row.

In 1988, after over twenty productions with the group, I had to say goodbye to my friends at Columbia Theatre Players. My “day job” as a paralegal had also brought me success, and eventually, a cross-country move for a job with a Fortune 500 commercial real estate development company. Soon after, I married and had children, and my long evenings in a dark theatre came to an end, paving the way for watching our daughters in school plays and encouraging their creative talents.

After twenty years in the legal field, I decided to become a teacher. Hoping to find a teaching position where I could marry my love of theatre with my love of literature, I attended a Catholic schools job fair, with a large silver brooch of the Greek comedy and tragedy masks on my suit jacket. comedy and tragedy masksI stopped at all the booths of schools showing an opening for a language arts teacher. At one booth, a woman said to me, “Is that the symbol for theatre?” After I told her yes, she said, “Stay right here. I’ll be right back.” She returned shortly with her principal and they told me that the teacher who had directed their school plays had recently retired. “Would you be interested in doing that if you were offered a teaching position?”

Cast and crew of my latest production, Disneys High School Musical J

Cast and crew of my latest production, Disney’s High School Musical Junior, April 2015. That’s me in the teal jacket.

And, so, for the last eight years, that is how I have fed and nurtured the theatre bug that bit me so many years ago. It makes for a very long day, teaching all day and then holding auditions, running rehearsals, building sets, searching for costumes and props, coaxing shy students to project and sing out. After rehearsals are over, there are still lesson plans to make, essays to grade, tests and quizzes to create, parent emails to respond to. It leaves little time for leisure with family and friends, and energy for my own creative endeavors is short-changed. TheatreBug2-copyright200But, how can I give it up when I have been given so much in return? It seems that the bite of the theatre bug is indeed fatal.