When I told my Dad I intended to major in theatre, his response was typical of a pragmatic, no-nonsense man who had seen hard times and knew that making a living sometimes meant earning a paycheck instead of chasing a dream.
When I told my Dad I intended to major in theatre, he told me: “Girl, you’d better learn to type.”
Also being my mother’s daughter, I went to the audition anyway, landing a theatre scholarship to my intended college. I was soon packed and headed for Life Upon The Wicked Stage.
I’m not really sure when I became smitten with the smell of grease paint and the roar of the crowd. When I was four, I was in a nursery school production of “The Farmer in the Dell,” televised on the local station in Ada, OK. I’m sure I was fabulous. I’m not sure why talent scouts didn’t pluck me from obscurity and whisk me off to my destiny then, but alas, it did not happen. My next major role was the Virgin Mary in the second-grade Christmas pageant. I’m sure I must have been stellar. My mom said so. The cafeteria lady said so. Monty Montgomery — the boy who sat behind me in Mrs. LaFever’s class and tugged on my ponytail as I tried to concentrate on spelling words — said so before he tripped me and ran off to play dodge ball.
I shed Mary’s purity for junior high roles, playing opposite squeaky-voiced leading “men.” I traipsed on to high school and college stages, falling more madly in love with Theatre with each new script. I loved the dark, dusty corners backstage; the crowded prop and costume rooms that looked like rummage sales gone wrong; I loved being on stage where makeup and make believe become magic. My love for this Muse called Theatre was fierce, passionate, steadfast.
But practicality — and my Dad’s disapproval — eventually convinced me to change my Theatre major to Journalism. I cried the day I told my college advisor. My Muse had been demoted. Just like my Daddy told me, I had to learn to type.
When I graduated college, I landed my first newspaper gig at The Atlanta Journal Constitution, then later, back in Texas, writing for a chain of suburban dailies. In Texas, I reconnected with my theatre chums and was soon, once again, posing for headshots and searching for auditions. I felt like an alcoholic, falling off the wagon; an addict, searching for the next high.
I wanted a play again. I wanted to line a script with yellow highlighter and scrawl blocking in the margins. I wanted to create a character and become someone else — at least when the house lights dimmed and the curtain rose. I wanted to be part of some misfit band of players; a family of spirited souls who got together to put on a play.
Before long, I was back in a show, writing by day and rehearsing by night. Ah, the energy of the young. My daytime co-workers politely came to my performances, attending the plays in groups — for safety, I suppose. I’m sure they were amused by “my little hobby” — much like you appreciate the lopsided birdhouses your crazy Uncle Ned glues together out of popsicle sticks and gives out at Christmas.”Oh, how nice, Uncle Ned. Another bird house. Gee, uh, thanks.” These serious and talented wordsmiths couldn’t fathom why I didn’t prefer a life of bylines and deadlines to late nights in dingy theatres in bad neighborhoods.
But, my habit was growing, and, like a horse corralled too long, I yearned to jump the fence and head for higher pastures. I’d heard about a regional audition in Atlanta. On a whim, I scheduled vacation time from the paper, booked a flight and checked into the Atlanta Peachtree Hotel for my first, huge, cattle call audition.
Auditionees wear a number, pinned to their shoulder, and are called into a mammoth auditorium in groups of 10. Performers have one minute to perform for a roomful of directors. After hours and hours, hundreds and hundreds of auditions, lists are posted from different theatres with the numbers of the actors the directors want to see again at a call back. A call back might mean reading for a role. A reading might mean a job. I was terrified.
I was equally shocked when I scanned the lists and saw my number; I had gotten several callbacks. I attended a callback audition the next day at the hotel. A small theatre in Virginia had lost the rights for the show it was planning to produce and was subbing a new script. I read for the female lead in the new show.
Later that afternoon, back in my room, I got a call: I had gotten the part! Giddy, elated, still terrified, I called my boss in Texas, told him my good news, asked if I could take a leave of absence to do the show. He told me he wished me the best, but he could not keep my job open while I galivanted around the country; There were stories to write, papers to be printed. I thanked him and hung up.
Two weeks later, I was sitting at a table with the director, reading the script with cast members who hailed from Georgia, North Carolina, Florida and New York. The director was from Nashville. Thrown together by timing, chance or fate, we started the project as strangers. A misfit band of players, we became a family of spirited souls who got together to put on a play. My mom and a couple of friends flew in for opening night. At curtain call, I took my bow, scanning the audience for a familiar face. My Dad wasn’t there.
Another callback, another show. For the next several years, I auditioned and traveled, packing up and heading to the next town, the next theatre, the next role. I was young, single, broke and happy. I was traveling, acting, living my dream. I met incredible people, saw beautiful places across this vast country; got the chance to play make believe and get paid for it. My gypsy days of acting took me from Nevada to New York, Tulsa to Tinsel Town.
I loaded up my Pontiac Sunbird, dragging a U-Haul across the desert. When I got to the state line, a California inspector made me open the back. I asked him what he was looking for. “Fire ants,” he declared simply. “Texas Fire Ants. Big problem. If you got ’em, we don’t want ’em.”
Once he figured out I was Fire Ant Free, he tipped his hat, and I was on my way to LA. I found a studio apartment located above a dentist office in the Hollywood Hills. Each morning, I had to pad down to the parking lot in my pajamas and move my car to make room for the patients. I’d drive up into the Hills, find a tight spot, squeeze in the Sunbird, hike back down, head back to bed and hit the snooze button for a few more rounds. Such was the glamorous life.
In LA, I auditioned for television and commercial work, infomercials and game shows. I worked as an extra, a day player, a Five and Under. I had auditions with agents, on studio lots and in crummy back offices in dingy buildings in places like Hawthorne and Compton. I was in LA for the Rodney King riots and experienced my first earthquake sitting in a theatre in West Hollywood. During my second earthquake, my then-roommate and I ran outside to the apartment pool and watched the water slosh like waves. The third earthquake — The Northridge Quake — is a whole other story for another day. Living in LA was a grand adventure.
One day while going through a fast-food drive-through, I saw a barefoot man with bandaged arms dressed in a hospital gown, asking for change. He looked like Jesus. To this day, I have wondered about the man’s story. Why was he there, in a hospital gown, his wrists taped and bandaged? To this day, I feel guilty I didn’t give him a few coins. To this day, I wonder what happened to Suicide Jesus?
I was fairly lucky in LA. I got an agent — albeit a B-rated one. I managed to land a few decent acting jobs. I never made a lot of money, but I made enough to get by; I made enough to pay rent and to eat out once in awhile. I wasn’t living in my car. I wasn’t standing at the Burger Box with Suicide Jesus.
No, I never got my “big break.” I never made a blockbuster movie or got cast in a hit sitcom. I auditioned for a few — Got close when I was cast in a pilot, playing the ditsy maid at run-down Hollywood motel operated by twin brothers. We shot the pilot. Production money was on the table. The project was green-lighted. A few weeks later, the plug was pulled. Just like that, it was over. We were all unemployed, back to pounding the pavement, looking for a new paycheck.
My agent called with another audition: a commercial needing a “quirky, comedic young mom” type. Yes, time had passed without much notice. Funny, how one minute you’re the romantic lead and before you know it, you’ve morphed into “young mom type.” Quirky and comedic was my thing. I could act like a young mom.
A couple of days later, the agent called again. “They want to see you again. Wear the same thing. Do the same thing you did before.”
I fished through the hamper, found my two-day-ago outfit and decided it wasn’t too wrinkled. I sprayed it with Febreeze. I went, wore the same thing, did the same thing, just like my agent said.
The next day, the agent called. “You’re on avail. I’ll let you know.”
Avail means you are to make yourself available for the project — if they cast you, if they decide to use you, if the project actually gets shot.
Three long days later, the phone rang again. “You’re booked. You’re flying into Dallas to shoot. You leave tomorrow. Get packed. Get some sleep.”
I boarded the plane with my carry-on, hair curlers and makeup bag. I sat in first class next to a businessman from Houston. We chatted amiably and he told me about working for some oil company; I told him about my trip to Dallas. When the plane landed, he told me he’d look for my name in lights.
In Dallas, I stayed at a favorite landmark hotel. That night, I couldn’t sleep. I took a hot bath, ordered room service, willed my mind to shut down and shut up. When I’m excited, sleep is elusive.
The next day, we started early. It was a long day. We shot two commercials at different locations. I was the principal in both. At the end of the day, I was exhausted, but elated. I called my agent and told him that we shot two commercials, not one. He was pleased. It meant more money for me; more money for him. That night, my mom picked me up from the hotel and we had dinner. I flew back to LA the next day and thought I could get used to flying first class. Forever my Father’s daughter, I decided I’d better not get used to flying first class.
Several weeks later, the phone rang at my apartment. I picked it up and heard my Dad’s deep voice on the other end of the line. “I just saw you,” my Dad said, excitedly. “I just saw you on TV.”‘
“What? What are you talking about, Daddy?”
“I just saw you. That commercial — I saw it. I was sitting right here in my chair, and I looked up and there you were,” my Daddy chattered. “You looked mighty pretty. You were really funny. We all thought so. I saw you.”
“Thank you, Daddy,” I said, surprised that my Dad was this excited about a commercial about fried chicken. “I haven’t seen it yet, but, uh, thank you. Thanks for calling, Dad.”
Later that day, my phone started ringing, friends calling, telling me the commercial was airing. It was funny. They liked it. I was looking forward to my first check. I was hoping the commercial aired — a lot. I hoped it ran until I needed dentures. I was looking forward to cashing residual checks.
A few weeks later, I made another trip to Texas. This time, on the plane, I was back in coach. I first visited my mom in Dallas, then my Dad in his small East Texas town. My Dad suggested we grab something to eat and bring it back home for lunch.
“How about chicken?,” he asked.
“Chicken, Dad? Is that what you want?,” I queried, surprised that my cattle-rancher daddy wanted anything but beef.
“He eats chicken all the time now,” my stepmom chimed. “That’s the only place he wants to go.”
My Daddy took a quick right, and pulled into the fast-food restaurant. He ordered at the drive-through speaker and pulled to the window to pick up our order.
“Hello again,” my Dad said to the fast-food worker, who obviously recognized him. “Hey, you know I told you about my daughter? This is her,” he said, pointing to me in the back seat. “She’s the one. She’s on your commercials. See, she’s the one on TV.”
“Yes, sir, we see,” the worker offered politely, leaning out the drive-through window for a better look. “Why, she sure is. Looks the same as she does on TV. Well, maybe shorter. Y’all enjoy that chicken now. See ya next time, ya hear?”
Before he pulled away, my Dad turned, looking back at me, seriously, in the backseat.
“I sure am proud of you. You know that, don’t you?,” my Dad asked.
I blinked back threatening tears, swallowing hard. Another audition, another play. Another theatre, another role. Miles and miles. Years and years. A voice from far away drifted across my memories. “Girl, you’d better learn to type.”
I did learn to type, just like my Daddy told me. It has served me well through the years and paid my bills many times when acting roles did not. But, by listening to my heart, I also got the chance to chase my Muse, to places near and far. I have worked in small theatres, big theatres, new theatres, old. One theatre used to be a church; another a barn; One was a former funeral home, the dressing rooms down in the darkened basement where the embalming room once was. I was afraid to be there alone.
Through theatre, I have met silly souls and serious souls, intelligent, creative and maddening people who gather their talents to create The Magic. I have been part of these misfit bands of players; a family of spirited souls who got together to put on a play. I have met some of my favorite people in the theatre. I also met my husband there. We were cast in the same show in LA. Romance blossomed backstage when the lights were low. We dated at Denny’s Diner after shows, chaperoned by our entire cast.
One might argue that my Dad was right all along: That taking the tried and true, the known and practical, might have been the sure way, the safe way, to live life. By now, I might have a bigger pension, a whopping 401K and more job security. I choose to think that I got the best of both. I have indulged my creative spirit and tempered it with the pragmatism of my Father. And maybe it took a fried chicken commercial for him to meet me half way.
Like a cat, I have lived many lives. I’m grateful for them all and thankful for each chance to write a new chapter, open a new script, read a new play. My life has been a rough and tumble, kaleidoscopic journey of interesting people and places. It has been messy, full of mistakes, mishaps and miracles. I’m glad I took the roads I traveled. The scenery has been breathtaking. The travelers I’ve met along the way have been mostly kind. And on quiet nights like this, when memories keep me company, I am thankful for it all.
Thank you, Daddy. You’ll be happy to know, that yes, this girl did learn to type, afterall.