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Theater Thursday: Young Frankenstein - Part One

Acting hasn't been a part of my life for too long, but in the last few years it has been incredibly influential and undeniably eye-opening. As I've completed eleven production in almost five years, the conversations I've had and the memories I've shared with my theater family have made me realize I don't remember all of my previous productions as well as I had thought. So this blog series seeks to delve deep into the experiences I've had thus far, as few as they may be when compared to many people I've acted beside.

In many ways, it felt like every show I've done - from Dearly Departed to Play On! - had been leading up to this. I've said before that the process of doing this next show - my most recent show - felt in many ways like my first production. That is a clear sign that I was growing as a performer, and that this show was expanding my skills in ways beyond my previous shows. I'm talking, of course, about Brainerd Community Theater's 2018 production of Young Frankenstein...

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In Loving Memory

I never fully realized this until now, but I never would've been in Young Frankenstein if it weren't for the late Thurman Knight.

I understand that requires a fair bit of extrapolation.

As I mentioned in my very first post in the Theater Thursday series, Thurman Knight was a very influential instructor I had at CLC who taught me a lot in the short time I knew him. He passed away in 2016, and Patrick Spradlin was working to garner community support to rename Thurman's room - room E151 - to the Thurman Knight room in his honor. I had submitted a testimonial to Patrick as part of that campaign (which was ultimately unsuccessful, sadly), and that email became a conversation between the two of us in which he asked me about my availability for the 2018 theater schedule.

To be clear, he had asked me about what he wanted to do in the summer of 2018, which was a comedy called The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged. However, he followed that up by asking me "do you sing?"

What followed was me getting penciled into Young Frankenstein auditions. It seems so simple when I'm recounting it right now; he asked me and I said sure. But in reality it was much different, at least internally for myself.

I had zero formal music training - in truth, other than purchasing a djembe drum on a whim and playing it at our local parks a few times during one summer years ago, I had zero music experience at all. I don't really sing in front of people too much, and when I do I turn it into a joke rather than actually singing, since it's easier to respond with "that's the joke, I was trying to sing poorly" if anybody points out my lack of talent.

The weeks leading up to the auditions saw me getting progressively more and more anxious. I didn't know where to start for audition songs - I knew 'If I Were a Rich Man' from Fiddler on the Roof like the back of my hand, but I didn't know if that song would play to my vocal strengths or not. Hell, I didn't even know if I had any vocal strengths, let alone what those would be. 48 hours before audition I confided in my wife my extreme anxiety. I remember telling her that I didn't even want to do this anymore, that my trepidation was getting the better of me. She responded by saying that I needed to do this. Laura reminded me that doing musical theater was on my bucket list (yes, I have an actual bucket list), and that she wouldn't let me miss auditions. And so, thanks to her kind - and adamant - encouragement, I steeled myself for what was undoubtedly going to be the first in a long line of evenings to test my spirit and devotion to my life as an actor.

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"Will We Be Doing Line Readings?"

I arrived early to auditions, as is my norm. I filled out the paperwork, and immediately pulled out my phone to help get my mind off of the fact that in a short while I'd be singing. I hoped it would only be in front of the director - Patrick Spradlin - but somehow I knew it would be in front of everyone who arrived this night to audition.

Slowly other people started to arrive. Eric Boyles, a former coworker who had played Sir Robin in BCT's Spamalot two years prior, was one of the first, and he and I spoke for a bit. I confided my anxiety in him, and he assured me that I would do fine. After him came Travis Chaput and Rachael Lynn, two fellow actors who perform primarily in musicals and who I had spoken with a few times in the past, but never worked with nor really knew that well. And one by one more people came, and soon I was able to drift aside and blend into the group a bit, keeping to myself as I did what I could to not bolt for the door and flee back home.

It was then that we were informed that Lakeland Public Television - the local news station - would be with us, filming some parts of the auditions for a news package on local community arts. Great. So not only was I going to be singing in front of people for the first time, but it would eventually make its way onto the news. Awesome.

And then friend and actress Stephanie White - who I soon learned was stage managing and choreographing Young Frankenstein - told me that I would be dancing for the first part of the audition.

Excuse me? I wasn't told I'd be dancing. That was like handing some dry pine needles to the burning fire that was my anxiety - it flared up immediately. I could feel myself starting to sweat just standing in the hallway like that.

The dancing was bad. I messed up a lot, and loosed more than one curse at myself as I missed steps and lost the rhythm. I wanted to put my best foot forward with the first part of auditions, and now it felt like my feet were tied together.

Once we were done with dancing, we went into the music room for vocal warm ups. Even standing there in front of the piano as vocal director Sarah Amodt led the warm ups, I felt my knees shaking. I couldn't make eye contact with anybody, and instead looked up just over the top of Sarah's head, doing my best to match the notes she played before sitting back down at the back of the group.

The actual singing started with Travis, who sang beautifully and immediately hammered my anxiety home even more. I couldn't help but think things like 'What am I doing here?' and 'I don't belong here.' Patrick - who knew well the reluctance with which I came to auditions - sat beside me for most of the vocal numbers. We listened to the other hopeful actors together, occasionally sharing a few words about other upcoming shows, about plans for the following year, anything to help calm my nerves. During our time sitting together, I asked "Will we be doing line readings for this?" To which he said no, and then asked why. I answered by saying "well, I'd like to do something I know I'm good at." He chuckled and told me I'd do fine.

After each other person sang, I told myself I'd get up and do my part. I had to put the sheet music down, for fear the If I Were a Rich Man would soak too much sweat from my hands and become illegible to Sarah on the piano. But I remained seated, and any time there was a lull as everyone waited to see who would go next, I could feel the thoughts of people like Travis and Rachael, of Eric and Marc. I could almost hear them think 'Nick should go!' Of course, I have no idea if anybody actually thought that, but when you're in such a heightened state of anxiety as I was, your imagination runs wild, assuming everyone is painfully aware of your presence.

Needless to say, I went last. I couldn't even remember the name of the show my song was from, when I was introducing myself. Sarah started playing, and I sang, my eyes going up to the wall behind everyone else as they watched and listened. I sang the opening verse and the chorus and then called it quits. Everyone was mostly silent, and then Patrick asked "Is there a big finish?"

"Kind of," I said.

"Can you do it?" He asked.

"Uhm, sure," I said. And I did, picking up from the line 'Lord you made the lion and the lamb.' I felt my knees quaking like crazy the whole time, but I told myself that I needed to belt it out. I needed to sell this. I needed to prove to them that I could at least pretend to have skill, whether or not that skill was actually there.

They applauded. I sat down. Travis made a joking comment about my proclamation of having no singing voice, to which I told him to "shut up. No, seriously, shut up." I appreciated his words, but the last thing I wanted at that moment was for people to be focused on me. I wanted to recede back to the back of the group and quietly wait the rest of our time out.

Stephanie told me I did very well, and that I had nothing to worry about. From these very first few moments she would become one of the foremost voices of encouragement for me, alongside Travis and Rachael, and for them I am eternally grateful. I honestly believe I would've caved under my own overwhelming concerns were it not for them.

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"I'm Going to Throw You into the Deep End."

Days went by, and I knew that I should settle in for an extended wait before I heard anything from Patrick. He takes his time on decisions, undoubtedly weighing every possibility very carefully. A few nights after auditions, after our children were put down to bed, I got a call from Patrick. He told me I did very well during auditions, and asked how I felt about it. I assured him that I would do much better about my anxiety in the future. Now, thanks to the reactions of the other auditioning actors, I knew that I could sing, whereas before I really didn't have any evidence of that. I told him that knowing I can sing was all that I needed to get over that hump, and now I was ready to work with whatever role he gave me. He said that he was considering me for a principal role, he just wasn't sure which, and he said that he wanted to throw me into the deep end of musical theater. He asked me if that was okay.

I told him that, at this point, he probably had a better idea of what I was capable of than I did. I reminded him that - wherever he put me - I would do the work. I would come in, I would learn everything, and I would give my all every night of rehearsals. He said he knew that I would do that, which felt nice - it was good to know that the hard work I put into my previous shows was not just seen and recognized, but was becoming a sort of trademark. Put Nick in, and he'll do the work.

Now, it is no surprise to anyone (or to most everyone reading this, I'd guess) that I was cast in the role of Frederick Frankenstein. I was floored, shocked beyond belief that I was given the leading role in a musical when I had not only no musical theater experience, but very little music experience at all. I wasn't in choir or band or orchestra in high school. I didn't do karaoke. I had fun with friends playing rock band, but I played the guitar or drums more than I sang. I own and have played a djembe drum, but that's about where my music experience started and finished. And now Patrick wanted me to play the lead.

You'd think that my head would've swelled at this (and it did, a bit), but I think a more accurate description of what I was feeling was humbled. I was speechless, which is probably unbelievable considering how much I've said about it so far in this post!

Later on I learned through the grapevine that there were many conversations between those tasked with putting on the show, and that I had someone who championed me as the lead, despite the concerns of others involved. And I do not blame anybody for their concerns - when you have a show as big and as well-known as Young Frankenstein, you want to have the best cast possible. ANYBODY putting on this show would have a little concern with a musical rookie being cast in the leading role. But Patrick and Stephanie took a chance on me, one that they definitely didn't need to as there were other actors at that very audition that fit the look, behavior, and character of Frederick just as well. But they decided on me, and that humbled me beyond belief.

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Let's Rehearse for a Year

Rehearsals were a very different animal than what I was expecting. We started early, doing vocal rehearsals two nights a week. This was sustained for two weeks, and then choreography was added to that schedule for the next two weeks. Then, after a little over a month we finally started the blocking and actually beginning to sculpt the play that existed around the music. It was a long process, full of its share of stresses and annoyances, moments of frustration for everyone involved.

I arrived early to most rehearsals, listening to the Broadway soundtrack and trying to make sense of the sheet music for my songs. I listened intently to the way the great Roger Bart sang and spoke as Frederick, paying attention to his inflection, his voice affectations, and how he sang. I didn't want to be him, but I needed a place to start, since simply looking at the music did very little for me.

During this whole process, I started to wonder again about the opportunity for acting in paid gigs, for turning this hobby of mine into an actual, lucrative endeavor. The thought of acting somewhere other than BCT broke my heart, to a degree. This was my theater home, and the people I acted with were my theater family. I know nothing would ever change that, but at the same time I wasn't sure if I wanted to try and build new relationships from the ground up at a new venue. But it would be easier to justify this hobby if I was getting some level of compensation for it, that much I knew.

I found a few gigs, but all of them were either in the Twin Cities or up in Bemidji, and the commute for those would be around 2 hours in either direction. Not ideal, as it would mean heading to rehearsals immediately after I was done with work during the week, and not being home again until midnight. I would never see my family save for a few minutes in the morning as we all got ready for our days. It wasn't a life I wanted, at least not yet.

I shared a lot of the early rehearsals with Rebecca Timmins, the two of us conversing before rehearsals would actually start. I also sought advice from Travis Chaput, Rachael Lynn, and Sadie Wunder, all three of which I had seen on stage and knew that it would do me well to hear their input. I remember being utterly shocked at the amount of time I was on-stage - it was far more than I had ever had in any other production, and over half of it was singing and dancing.

But as fun and as informative as the early rehearsal days were, the latter half of rehearsals would be the time that I would really begin testing myself. After all, singing in a chair is one thing, but singing as you're moving about the stage, in costume and under the lights, is something else entirely.

Young Frankenstein, and the Theater Thursday series, will come to a close next week!