My Life as a Spotlight Whore

My Life as a Spotlight Whore

By Tom Nussbaum

My Fair Lady

 

I’ve always been a spotlight whore. Performing never frightened me. Having an audience didn’t scare me. But there always had to be one underlying condition: I had to have some control of the situation, like costume details or amount of frontal nudity. My recent forays into acting and live theater, however, have challenged my need and ability to control my appearances in the spotlight.  

In high school, since I was more a joke than a jock, I became a yell leader. I’ve always rationalized it was my way of participating in sports. But it really was an opportunity to perform. One might assume, then, since I had that need, I participated in the drama program. I didn’t. While the reasons were complex and valid, I’ve always regretted it.

As an adult, I would volunteer whenever a call was put out for participants in any type of show. I’ve been a chorus boy in a patriotic Fourth of July production. I’ve ridden floats in major parades. I’ve marched with school district employees at numerous Pride Parades. I’ve competed, and won, on a TV game show. I haven’t avoided being seen or having a spotlight shine on me.

As a high school staff member, I participated in assemblies when staff members were needed. When a drama teacher asked for staff volunteers to fill out crowd scenes in Bye Bye Birdie, I was the only one to step forward.

And that brings me to my more recent attempts at performing. I have, in Ajijic, participated in three lip-sync shows, as 1940s-50s Hollywood musical regular Howard Keel, Bruce Springsteen, and folksinger Tom Rush. The positive comments I received gave me the confidence to attempt a longtime dream, to perform in musical theater. The perfect opportunity arose in 2019 when a casting call was posted for a Lakeside Little Theater production of My Fair Lady.

Clearly in-tune-singing-challenged, I scanned the roles searching for one without vocals. Enter Zoltan Karpathy, Hungarian linguist whose purpose is to expose flower girl-turned-lady Eliza Doolittle as a fraud. Ah, this might be the role, I thought. I can do an Eastern European accent. But I wondered if I could memorize the 130 words of dialogue. Verbatim memorization has never been a forte of mine.

Inexperienced as I was, I got the part. Perhaps it was because I was the only reader for the role or, as I choose to believe, my audition was brilliant. I wasn’t, however, only cast as Karpathy; I also landed a role in the chorus, dancing and doing my atonal version of singing in many of the musical numbers. How that happened remains a mystery to me, like the musical success of Ozzy Osbourne or Yoko Ono.

But then I discovered the role and power of the director and how he made decisions I wanted to make about my performance. I didn’t have control of the situation. Theater, I discovered, is a collaborative effort. Who knew?

I managed to learn Karpathy’s lines. Luckily, the exchange was short and with only one other character. Nothing complicated. The “singing” and dancing was more involved, but I eventually learned that, too.

When the My Fair Lady run ended, I thought that I’d like to try a small role in a drama or comedy. The 130 words I had to memorize, however, appeared to be near my max. Could I go much beyond that?

Then COVID-19 hit and theaters worldwide went dark and the question became moot.

A year and a half later, however, I saw a casting call for a local production of an Edward Albee adaption. Albee, possessor of several Tony Awards and Pulitzer Prizes for Drama, has been described as “the foremost American playwright of his generation.” And I thought, I could actually be in an Albee play! The call asked for three men who may have had little or no stage experience and would like to attempt theater. The roles would be small.

Maybe there’s a bartender who listens to customers and nods a lot, I thought. Or a deliveryman who gets shot in the back waiting for someone to answer the doorbell. I requested a copy of the script. To my surprise, the three “small” roles each had between 50-65 lines and physical cues. I’m not sure I can handle that, I thought. But I auditioned anyway. And got cast.

There was a pesky director again, making the decisions, taking away my control and I thought, This collaboration thing is just stupid. Who the hell invented it?

In the end, I believe I bit off more than I could chew. Learning my lines was about all I could handle. But as an untrained actor, I learned from the celebrated director, with her wealth of experience and knowledge, I was using my voice incorrectly. I also discovered the importance of breathing prior to projecting a line. I’m supposed to relearn those basics now? I thought. You can’t teach an old geezer new tricks. I’m somewhere between Social Security and Betty White.

I had difficulties, was problematic, and probably was downright irritating during rehearsals. Things got better during the run. I had good nights, but I also had bad ones. Forgotten lines, sputtered ones, and missed cues were more common than Meryl Streep Oscar nominations. It was embarrassing and I felt bad that my lapses reflected on or stressed the director and rest of the cast. For that I apologize. Early in the run, I realized that perhaps my brain and memory had passed its peak or that this form of entertainment did not fit my limited skill set.

Will I try to grab the spotlight again? Who knows? But I’ll keep all doors open. I’d even consider publishing my writing in El Ojo del Lago.

 

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