By the time I reached my senior year in high school, I had been performing onstage for 10 years. Having clawed my way up from a third-grade debut as “Narrator #4” in “Aladdin” to being the president of my high school drama club, director of the improv team and a member of my school choir’s leadership board, I was no stranger to the singularly humiliating experience of the theater audition.
It was a unique kind of gauntlet for me. I’d regularly stand with sweaty palms in front of an older white man seated behind a faux wooden table in my high school’s dingy choir room, and recite a memorized monologue that was hopefully distinct from the 20 other girls who had already recited it to him. Or even worse, I’d have to sing.
By the time I was a senior in high school, privileged with the responsibility of overseeing auditions for soloists to feature in our upcoming Broadway-themed choir show, I was ready to be the one on the other side of that damned faux wooden table. I watched a sophomore with shaky hands belt out “On My Own,” and decided to use my power for good — I leaned over to my choir director after she left and enthusiastically advocated for her to be in the show.
My choir director shook her head, wrinkled her nose and said, “Every girl thinks she can come in and be the big romantic lead. But some girls are just better suited to the side characters. They can’t all be ingénues.”
I thought then about how the only solo she’d given me all semester was one meant for Tracy Turnblad, and how my drama club vice president had once joked with me that we always played the parents in every show because we were the chubbiest kids there. How, at my first ever high school audition, the director told me I was more suited to playing older characters, because I was “so … tall,” despite the fact I still had braces and a criminal case of baby face. I cried in my car as I drove home from auditions that day, and the sophomore girl I fervently vouched for didn’t get the solo. That’s what happens when you pick the wrong song.
Long before I became queen of the theater nerds, I learned never to make that mistake. I discovered early on that if I wanted lines, I’d have to audition for my typecast. Don’t try to go for something you don’t fit, the seniors whose footsteps I eagerly followed told me, or else you’ll never get a part. Know what you’re good at. Know what you look like.
So that’s what I did. Throughout my high school theater career, some of my biggest roles included: Jim’s Mother in “Rebel Without A Cause,” Juliet’s matronly Nurse in “Romeo and Juliet,” and Jeanie in “Hair,” a vibrant, lovesick young woman who — surprise — is heavily pregnant. You know, because I’m so good at playing older characters. Because I’m so tall.
I tried to take it in stride. Depending on what the script called for, I was doting and supportive, or maybe harsh and uptight, but never beautiful or enchanting or eye-catching. I donned my costumes — bulky dresses or hoop skirts to hide my stomach and shapewear I’d purposely bought a size too small — and dutifully executed my blocking. I gamely ushered Juliet off to meet Romeo and then retreated to the cool darkness backstage and did my chemistry homework, because I understood by then that the show wasn’t really concerned with me, and probably never would be.
I knew my lines perfectly, so much that almost two years after I took my last curtain call in patchily applied stage makeup, I’m still struggling not to act them out in college. I couldn’t stand having a Tinder account for more than 24 hours, because inviting men to look at my picture and then being dismissed felt too much like standing in that audition room again and fumbling with the high note in my song. I don’t like exaggerating my physicality for laughs when performing an improv scene, because I don’t want to give audiences license to ridicule my body even more than I think they already are.
I often find myself penned in a corner at parties, feigning interest with my phone and desperately wishing to be home because the sickly pit in my stomach is telling me that regardless of how much makeup I put on or the fact that I actually blow-dried my hair, it will all be for naught. I’m once again silently waiting for Juliet to finish mooning over Romeo so I can interject and tell her to get the hell off that balcony and come inside. Because who’s going to express interest in me, the quirky, bitchy, matronly side character in a cast of ingénues?
I told myself as I grew up that the romantic lead wasn’t my part to play, so I never learned how to perform it properly. I conceded that I wasn’t believably pretty or worthy of being the lead and only auditioned for what I thought I deserved, because at the time it felt like having any role was better than taking a risk and getting cut from the cast list entirely.
But the world is not a cast list, and I’m more than just a stage mom (although I would be doing myself a disservice if I didn’t mention that I killed every single one of those roles). I contain multitudes that no script can touch on in two acts: I’m funny and smart and know lots of Marvel trivia. I’m really good at cooking banana bread and writing essays and yes, I’m pretty. Plus, I make for a great bitchy sidekick when it’s needed.
Maybe my choir director was right — maybe I’m just not meant to be a Juliet. But I think, after leaving behind all of the curtain calls and auditions and monologues, after finally sloughing off my typecast and trying instead to write my own script, that I’m okay with that.
Because the truth is, at the end of the play, Juliet bites the dust and the Nurse gets to live. Perhaps being an ingénue is overrated.
Contact Grace Orriss at [email protected].