‘Oompa Loompa’ was my lowest point

It was cool at the time

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“Hi, my name is Shannon O’Hara. I’m 14 years old, and I’ll be singing ‘Somewhere That’s Green’ from ‘Little Shop of Horrors.’ ”

I nod to the piano accompanist, and she begins to play the introductory vamp. I look down at my feet and shift back and forth a few times to make it look like I’m taking a moment to get into character.

“A matchbooooooox of our own,” I begin to sing. I hold out the “o” in matchbox so that I can fake a vibrato. “A fence of real chain-link.” I close my eyes on the words “real chain-link” to emphasis how badly I want this fence. Real chain-link! Oh, to imagine it! Look, I care so much about it that I closed my eyes! I’m picturing it in my head; I can see the fence! I was born to be an actor!

I did my first show when I was four years old, and I was in at least two shows a year (usually three or four) until I turned 18. That’s more than 30 shows, and only three times have I ever played lead roles. I was the rugged, world-weary frequenter of the ensemble, like the old man in a western movie who hasn’t left his saloon barstool for more than 20 years.

“A grill out on the patio, disposal in the siiiiiink.” I’m so busy showing off how long I can hold this note that I get behind the accompanist. I skip the next three words to get back on track.

The director is looking at my resume. He reads: Poppy flower in “The Wizard of Oz,” Princess No. 5 in “Once Upon a Mattress,” Villager in Angry Mob in “Beauty and the Beast” and Oompa Loompa in “Willy Wonka.”

When I finish singing, I flash the director an enthusiastic smile. The blog I read told me that if I look like I’m easy and fun to work with, they’ll overlook any lack of talent I might have. I go to collect my sheet music and thank the accompanist really loudly, so the director can hear how kind and polite I am.

No matter how dearly I loved theater, I was naturally inclined to be bad at it. After playing ensemble part after ensemble part, all I wanted to do was have a starring role. I wanted to wear the prettiest wig, to kiss someone onstage, to be the last person to bow. I coveted all these things, but I didn’t have the skills to get me there.

The only thing I could think to do was to fake my way into it. I bought expensive sweatpants and grew my hair out long just so I could have a nice ponytail. I whitened my teeth and learned how to put on eyeliner. I read audition advice blogs and taught myself to fake a vibrato.

When the cast list comes out, I have to scroll all the way to the bottom to find my name. It’s in a block of 20 other names; we’re all playing “the crowd.” The crowd! That’s even less impressive than an oompa loompa! I thought I couldn’t sink any lower than an oompa loompa, but I have been proven wrong. For the next two months, my only job will be to cross stage right to stage left to make the set look busier. At least an oompa loompa had a career.

“Ugh, the whole world is against me,” I say to my bathroom mirror. “I did everything I was supposed to do, and they still won’t give me a lead. I should’ve worn the yoga pants instead. It’s all because they’re just OBSESSED with Bella. It’s so biased.”

Then I play “My Immortal” by Evanescence on repeat for four hours.  

This pattern repeated itself over and over again. Stupid blog, fancy sweatpants, audition room, fake vibrato, cast list, torrential angst. And I couldn’t figure out how to break out of it.

Rather than invest my time in rehearsing or preparation, I put all my chips in on the height of my ponytail. I thought looking the part was as far as I needed to go. If I had spent half as much time actually training as I did trying to appear talented, I might’ve gotten myself somewhere. But it was easier to blame the politics and nepotism of the theater rather than own up to the fact that everybody in the audition room could see right through me.

There are a few lessons in all 20-something of my failed auditions. I had to learn that the easy way is probably easy because you’re going downhill. Working on something and impersonating people who work on something are not the same things. Never put all your faith in a blog.

But also, enjoy your oompa loompas. Because really, they’re still pretty fun to play.

Shannon O’Hara writes the Thursday arts & entertainment column on growing up through entertainment. Contact her at [email protected].