Acting in Plays, Singing/Moving Forward as a Disabled Actress
Warning: Life history.
I've been meaning to write to you for years now. I'm in a bit of a unique situation. I was diagnosed with a disease called Alport Syndrome when I was in the first grade. The doctor basically said it was a kidney disease, and that it shouldn't affect my life. I started taking voice lessons as a 12 year old, lost kidney function at 19, transplant at 21. I kept up my vocal studies throughout my health crises. I played Aldonza while I was on dialysis, a month before my transplant.
At 24, I was confident enough to audition for music schools. I chose one, auditioned, and got in (I guess I was extremely confident). So I picked up and moved to Denver where I was flattened by the altitude within 6 months. I decided to stay in Denver, and I met some people involved with a unique theater company. At the time, they were the Physically Handicapped Actors and Musical Artists League, but now they just go by the Phamaly Theater Company.
When I convinced myself I was disabled enough to audition, I took my back pocket audition song and got in. At the rehearsals, I started noticing something was wrong. I was having difficulty hearing. I went to an ENT and got an audiogram with the confirmation. It took years futzing around with different hearing aids and monitors before I gained even a portion of my confidence back. I kept studying voice the entire time.
Eventually, an audition turned up for a production of Threepenny Opera! Almost unheard of outside of the university circuit! I was determined, and I got cast! Cue more crises. I ended up in the hospital on opening night. Couple that with dangerous personal problems, and I ended up back in MA and homeless after what I consider to be 9 years of hard earned success.
I haven't had a voice lesson in over two years. I made it a point not to look at casting calls. Sometimes when I sing nowadays, I can't believe there is a voice coming out of me. I'm getting back on my feet, but I'm pretty much isolated from everything and everyone I love.
My awesome boyfriend looked up audition notices on my behalf. Mary Poppins and A Little Night Music.
I'm a "legit" mezzo with a passion for Kurt Weill. Every time I bring a Kurt Weill song to an audition, I get cast. Barbara Song was my back pocket audition song until I retired it after ridiculously using it at an audition for The Wiz and still getting cast! I used I'm a Stranger Here Myself for the 3PO audition.
Mary Poppins will be a competitive audition. It is the only theater in the area that does musicals (there are exactly 2 theaters), and they are at a pro level. A Little Night Music seems more like a community theater setting. They are both summer shows, so I'm expecting auditions to be in March or April. Plenty of time to add something to my repertoire.
Back to the voice. I'm 35 years old. My voice is big. I missed out on solos in my early 20's because my voice sounded too grown up to the people casting things. I don't belt, but I have a good mix. My break has always been around E flat 5. I wouldn't sing above a G5 in public right now, nor below F#3. I'm not a natural singer. I didn't get voice lessons because I was particularly talented. I begged for them because I wanted to sing.
Beyond song advice, I have a couple more specific questions. That dreaded X you have to stand on at the beginning of your audition: If the piano (or, worse, the keyboard) is far away, what's the most graceful way to better position myself if I need to hear better? When do I divulge I am hearing impaired? Assuming it goes well, after I sing? It would seem unfair to spring it on them if I get cast, although my story would be great for PR.
Also, I can handle rejection. I have a lot harder time with success. What do I do if I succeed? I have plenty of doctors to handle that side of things, but I've been spoiled by working with a company of disabled actors. If I succeed, what accommodations are appropriate to request?
I wish I had a recording to offer for more particular feedback. I know I gave you a lot of information, but I've invested my whole life into this. I might as well see through until it gets worse. As long as the voice is there, right?
Thanks for taking the time to read my story. I've really wanted to get impartial feedback on this for a while. Therapists don't understand the business side. Kristin Chenowith with her Meniere's Disease is an outlier in this world. Gosh, I hope this makes sense. I've been proofreading poorly all day.
Hello, Briana –
Thank you for contacting me. I very much appreciate your frankness and trust.
As a professional coach, I have worked with a number of singers who are hearing impaired. Those with Equity cards include that information on their resumé. Those working toward gaining their Equity cards include that information on their resumé.
The vast majority of my clients come to me through recommendation. They heard someone I work with in a performance or audition and asked for my contact information. Like you, most of them realize they need some tuning-up before going to an all-important audition – such as a show or an academic situation. My job is to help them audition effectively.
Solving problems about pitch and pitch control is at the core of what I do during a typical coaching session. How I deal with that varies from person to person. But the working solutions are understood by the client before the session is over. I make them repeat the exercises we have gone through so they understand absolutely how to practice until we meet again. The principles of those exercises are then applied to the material they want to work on or have been assigned. In other words, applying the acquired Technique (the options) to every moment – especially the potential problem moments – of the material they will present. Whether it’s the pitch on the entrance note / the climax note / the final note -- you have to drill, baby, drill. Again, my job is to teach you HOW to drill until you get it right and be able to do that drill on your own – everyday without fail – if what you want to do is convince the Producer and the Music Director and your Agent that you have what it takes to sell tickets. Simple.
By the time you are actually on that spot marked with an X – you should be able to pull that pitch out of the air – with or without a piano. The sonic path of your material should be in every pore of your body before you step on that stage. It’s no different a discussion than the choreography that goes with being a concert violinist playing “Flight of the Bumblebee” with a symphony orchestra – every little movement has a meaning all its own.
In the meantime –
You must figure out which roles in either show you are best suited for. What kind of quick judgments do you think the Audition Panel is going to make about you as you enter the room and journey toward the X? Which characters might they see you as before you open your mouth? Once you get that, then choose your favorite piece of Sondheim and sing it in the key that works best for you. Do the same for the Disney show. Sing your favorite Disney song and in the spirit of a production of Mary Poppins. Also keep in mind that some musical theatre auditions start with the choreographer and it doesn’t matter how much dancing or singing the character actually does.
Your need to sing must outweigh whatever importance you attach to any job opportunity – especially something as fleeting as any role in any musical of whatever strata of theatre company. What if you don’t make it in to either show? What is Plan B? When and Where are we going to hear you sing? What are you going to sing? How much repertoire do you have that is either ready-to-go or could be worked up in a short period of time?
While you are thinking about that – also consider that a major part of your responsibility as a potential professional who travels is to know more about The Business of Singing than any agent in any Agency. You must be the one who knows how to accept or negotiate a contract – even if it’s to sing at a friend’s wedding or funeral. There is a ton of information out there on every aspect of the music business. That’s what libraries are for.
Bottom line – you must get into a regimen of daily vocal practice and fitness training no matter when the next opportunity comes along or, better – one you create yourself.
See my recent articles on HuffingtonPost.com – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sean-martinfield/