“I am the greatest, greatest star.”
We were the best of the best back home. Everyone knew our names. No one could touch us. We got used to it.
Our stories are different, but the theme is the same.
Mine began in San Antonio, Texas, when I was cast as Sleeping Beauty in kindergarten. I loved being someone else. I had a rough childhood with an abusive father, so I spent my early years in my bedroom, singing to every Broadway album, recreating every role, acting my heart out, imagining an audience out there loving what I did. Music ruled my life and influenced everything. I sang all the time, to the annoyance of my parents. As new shows opened on Broadway, I rushed out and got the cast album. I knew them all by heart. I could sing and act every role.
I’d stand on the bed in front of a large mirror and belt out the songs, critiquing myself. I’d find my little sister Chris peeking in from the doorway, and she became my audience. Late at night I’d lie in that bed listening to my albums on my record player. There were no iPods or iPhones in those days. I would stack the records, and I was set to go for hours.
We relocated to Ohio when I was nine, and I immediately joined the junior group of the Canton Players Guild, a local community theater. It didn’t take long before I was rewarded with good roles in the youth productions. In high school I got leading roles in my sophomore year, edging out seniors. Not exactly conducive for making friends. I didn’t care. My whole world revolved around the theater. When I played Fanny Brice in Funny Girl my senior year, my name was in the review’s headline, a first for me.
In the summers I worked at a local theater. More leading roles. I got cast as one of the Kit Kat girls in Cabaret at a professional theater, Canal Fulton Summer Arena, when I was sixteen. When my parents saw the costume— or lack of costume— they said no, absolutely not. Did I forget to tell you? I was raised Catholic.
I went to a state college for a year, Bowling Green, boasting a stellar theater department. I was cast in leading roles immediately, again edging out the upperclassmen. It was here I first heard about the Drama Division of the Juilliard School.
Curious, I sent away for their brochure. After weeks of begging, my parents agreed to take me with them for my father’s medical convention in New York City over the Christmas break. I contacted Juilliard, and they arranged a tour of the Drama Division for me.
We stayed at the Hilton on Sixth Avenue where my father’s symposium was held. The interior of the plush hotel was beautiful with every creature comfort we could want or need. But I didn’t care about the hotel. I wanted to see NEW YORK! While my father was in meetings all day, my mother and I took off to explore what was referred to as The Big Apple.
My first glimpse of the mecca I would call home for many years wasn’t what I expected. It was dark and dirty. Cold and impersonal. I was disappointed, but not deterred.
As we walked a few blocks towards Broadway, we passed a man slumped against a building, sound asleep. He was filthy, the soles of his shoes full of holes, and an empty bottle of whiskey was clutched in his grimy hand.
Neon lights of garish colors blinked in our faces, even during the day. Everywhere you looked were billboards and street signs luring you inside to visit “the girls,” who’d love to entertain you in every way possible. Hookers approached single men, whispering in their ears and stroking their arms.
Garbage cans overflowed. Restaurants piped their kitchen aromas outside, hoping to entice people inside. The smell mixed with rotting garbage was repulsive. We encountered a man dressed as a Viking, including the headdress and a spear. He stood motionless, like a statue. I later learned he was a fixture in the area, just one of a dozen colorful characters inhabiting the somewhat vulgar theater district.
As we continued down Broadway, I focused on the theaters tucked into the side streets, their marquees advertising musicals like Purlie and The Rothschilds. The magnificent Palace Theater overlooking Times Square boasted Applause, starring Lauren Bacall.
When a backstage tour of a Broadway theater was arranged for the doctors’ wives, I could barely contain my excitement. Sadly, the old theater we visited was a disappointment. The front of the house was gorgeous, of course, all velvet seats and crystal chandeliers. But when we got backstage everything changed. It was cramped, dark and dismal, the dressing rooms tiny. My state college in Ohio had more comfortable and roomier dressing rooms than a Broadway theater. But when I stood in the center of that vast stage, staring out at the rows and rows of empty seats, at the multiple balconies, and pictured them full of cheering theatergoers on their feet, none of it mattered.
The gritty reality of New York City was tarnishing my dreams, but seeing my first Broadway musical restored them. Company, starring Larry Kert, was innovative and exciting. From the opening discordant chords to the heart-pounding finale, I was enchanted.
Finally it was time to get down to business, to focus on why I’d come to New York in the first place. Juilliard.
Entering that austere building for the first time was intimidating. Halted by a stern-faced guard, I waited while he found my name on a list and issued me a visitor’s pass. As I followed my young tour guide, as I took it all in, as I peeked into classrooms and eavesdropped on hallway conversations between students, there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that this was where I wanted to be. I could feel the intensity of the actors, the dedication of the teachers, and the artistry in the very walls. Juilliard was the gateway to my future on the stage.
My audition was scheduled for late February at the school. Auditions were held all over the country. Chicago. LA. San Francisco. Dallas. I was to bring two contrasting monologues: a classical and a contemporary. I prepared for my audition as if it was my day job. I set aside a large chunk of time every day to work on my pieces. We were told not to enlist any help or coaching. The work had to come from us, from our own interpretation, and I didn’t cheat. In my spare time I read the books I bought while in New York. Biographies of the great playwrights and actors. The history of Broadway. Even the history of New York City. I was obsessed.
In the days before I departed for New York City, I auditioned for the role of Anita in West Side Story at Bowling Green. The college combined their vast theater and music departments once every two years to produce an enormous musical. Everyone wanted a role. Hundreds of people auditioned. For three days I acted, sang, and danced for the people casting the show. Anita is a HUGE dancing role, not my forte, and the choreography was difficult. I came away with no sense of how I did. Probably because I was focused on the audition for Juilliard.
On D Day, my mom accompanied me to New York. We arrived a few days before the audition because I wanted to soak up the vibes of the city, to toughen myself up. We spent our days walking and our nights seeing Broadway shows. I’d sit in the audience, inhaling the whole experience. This was my world, where I belonged. It was the pinnacle of my eighteen years on this earth, sitting here in a Broadway theater, watching great actors show me how it’s done. I was such a little drama queen. It makes me chuckle now, my rose-colored glasses having been shattered over the years.
One of the biggest ironies occurred when we saw the Tony Award-winning play Sleuth. The star of this magnificent cat-and-mouse drama was Sir Anthony Quayle, who won a Drama Desk Award for his performance. After the show I waited patiently at the Stage Door for a glimpse of him. Little did I know as he graciously signed my program that I would one day play his daughter in a production at the Kennedy Center. Better still, Tony and I would remain close friends until his death in 1989. Tony Quayle was a remarkably kind man and a great actor. The theater can be a wondrous, magical world to inhabit, a surprise lingering around every corner.
As I climbed into bed that night, my thoughts still lingering on the intricacies of the performances I just saw, I realized my grandmother’s engagement ring was missing from my pinky finger. She gave it to me years earlier when my grandpa replaced it with a flashier one. It was nothing special, just a tiny gold band with a diamond chip in it. But it was my good-luck charm, and it was missing!
I remembered seeing it on my hand when I was clutching my program at the Stage Door, but I couldn’t remember if I was wearing it when we had a bite to eat afterwards. I leapt out of bed, checked the sheets and the room. Nothing. My spirits plummeted. How could I audition without that ring?
The next morning I went to the front desk and told them it was missing. Maybe it slipped from my finger somewhere in the hotel. We retraced our steps of the previous night. I knew it was hopeless. Even if it had been found, who would turn in a gold ring in a city like New York?
We saw a matinee, had an early dinner, then went back to the hotel.
And there on the dresser was my ring with a note from the housekeeper who took care of our room. She found it under the bed. I literally burst into tears. Besides having my ring back, this honest lady restored my faith in humanity. It was also a glaring reminder not to stereotype New York or the people who populate the city, something that would become my mantra over the years.
As I worked on my pieces for the next day’s audition, the hotel room phone rang. It was my roommate from Bowling Green telling me the cast list went up for West Side Story. I got the role of Anita!
For the first time in months, something mattered more than Juilliard. I was about to play one of my dream roles. I went to bed with a smile on my face and my cherished ring on my finger. My nerves about tomorrow disappeared. No matter which way the audition went, I had something to look forward to. Life was good.
Fast forward to my sitting on one of those benches in the third-floor hallway of the Juilliard Drama Division. Other young actors paced or leaned against the wall, waiting to audition. I tried to block them out and focus on what I was about to do. I had a new confidence, but the nerves resurfaced. Not necessarily a bad thing. Nerves kept me on my toes.
When I was called into the Drama Workshop, both the stage and house lights were on. I made my way to center stage and looked up at the austere faces staring down at me. This was what Judgment Day must feel like. In the center was God, John Houseman, who introduced the others. Liz Smith (voice & speech). Michael Kahn (acting). Margot Harley (administrator of the Drama Division). Pierre LeFevre (acting). And Marian Seldes (acting).
John told me to begin when I was ready. I took my time, turning my back and taking deep breaths, shaking my hands to chase away the fear. It didn’t work. The knot in my stomach tightened. But when I launched into my first piece from Antigone, my nerves dissipated, and my instincts kicked in. I was someone else, and it was thrilling. I no longer saw the people sitting above me, clipboards in hand.
Afterwards I was told to proceed with my contemporary piece, so I took a moment to get my head into the character of Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. It was over quickly, too quickly, but I felt good about it. I could honestly say I’d done my best, and I never ask more of myself. I thanked them, expecting to leave at that point, but they asked me to do a few improvisations.
First, I was asked to sing Happy Birthday as if everyone forgot my birthday. I started out in the self-pity mode and turned it around to an “I’ll show them!” moment. The gods in the gallery nodded. I thought I was mediocre at best and not very original, but if they liked it …
The second improv? They told me the stage was a pool of mud and I could do what I pleased with it. Without thinking, I dove head-first onto the wooden stage and wallowed in the mud, swimming in it, washing my face and body with it, and laughing. I must have looked like a madwoman.
Then I realized my audience was laughing, too. As I got to my feet, they beamed at me. Okay, that was a high. An enormous high.
Mr. Houseman thanked me and said they’d be in touch.
Back in the hallway one of the people waiting to audition grumbled that I’d been in there a long time. Was I? It seemed to go by in a flash. Several people wanted to know what took so long, but at that point I just wanted to leave. Now that it was over, my hands were shaking. A delayed reaction, I guess. Also, my hipbones were killing me from that swan dive I took into the “mud.” I had bruises for weeks. I didn’t care. The bruises were medals of honor for a job well done.
My letter of acceptance to the Juilliard School of Drama came in a huge manilla envelope a month later. To this day I believe finding out I got the role of Anita the night before the audition played a huge part in being successful. Over the course of my career I always got the job when the audition wasn’t a life-or-death situation, when I had something to fall back on. Directors can smell fear, and desperation can be the kiss of death. It can kill an audition. No one wants to watch an actor sweat. Confidence, on the other hand, gives off the aura that you know who you are and what you can do, that you’re more than ready to show a director you’re exactly what he needs for his play. I’m not talking about egotism. There’s a big difference between the two. Egos are abundant in the theater, but they need to be leashed. Directors are attracted to a confident actor.
Over the years I swapped audition stories with my classmates. Some were similar to mine, right down to the improvs and the panel of teachers. Others were very different. And some came with quirks or surprises.
Some examples …
Donald Corren was an adorable guy with expressive chocolate brown eyes, a head full of dark curls, and a quick sense of humor. Growing up in California, Donald was all about being an actor, like me. Unlike me, he wanted time off after high school to figure out who else he was. Because Vietnam threatened and he had a low draft number, he had no choice but to spend a year at the University of California at Berkeley, keeping him from the possibility of wearing army fatigues in Southeast Asia. Knowing how unhappy Donald was at Berkeley, his high school drama teacher convinced him to check out Juilliard. He auditioned in San Francisco, performing pieces from As You Like It and A Thousand Clowns, but there were no improvisations. After being told he was on the short list, he was finally accepted into Group IV. Donald is a remarkable talent, so it astounds me he wasn’t scooped up immediately, but auditions can be fickle things, depending on how an actor feels on any given day. In essence, we bring who we are to the stage, so if we’re not feeling well or there’s a lack of focus or confidence, it can bleed through in an audition. Thankfully the-powers-that-be saw enough in Donald to know he had a future on the stage. So Donald was off to New York City, a young man of nineteen who was still trying to figure out who he was. Like many of us.