Sunday, February 20, 2011

Confessions of a Staunch Perfectionist

This is a photograph of me right after I pulled my head out of my ass (and you thought I was naturally brunette - ha!).
At some point in the last few weeks, I discovered that it’s okay to make mistakes - probably because I’ve made quite a few recently and survived. But why this pearl of wisdom has eluded me for so long is a mystery to me, especially since I can now remember having learned this lesson decades ago: a pivotal moment in my life which determined the professional path I would soon take to the stage. 
In my elementary school, as in many others, lunch was served in a multi-purpose room. During lunch time it was the cafeteria, obviously, and throughout the day it was used as a gymnasium, an assembly room and, for the school performances, a theater. 
Three staff members from Cragin Elementary will always remain emblazoned in my memory: Mario the Italian janitor, Goofy the Mexican janitor (we called him Goofy because he was always wearing a T-Shirt with Goofy on it), and Mrs. White, the cafeteria monitor. I would love to know how this woman, hailing from what sounded like New York or New Jersey, ended up in Tucson, Arizona supervising a bunch of school kids while they ate. Her voice could penetrate the entire gymnasium when she shouted “Quiet!” (pronounced:  kwaaaaaa-yit), or “Announcement!” (pronounced: a-naaaaaaaaaauuuuuuuns-smint).
The rule was, when Mrs. White shouted “Quiet!” we were supposed to be, well, quiet. Sometimes she would even say “Silent” (pronounced: soooooy-lint), that’s how kwaaaaa-yit we were supposed to be. And if you weren’t quiet, you got in trouble. She would point at you with her wrinkly, sausagey pointer finger and say, “You! To the stage!”
(Can you see where I’m going with this?)
Yes, in this multi-purpose room, there was a stage, and when you got in trouble during lunch, the only way Mrs. White could keep an eye on you was if you went to the stage. We didn’t have to actually stand ON the stage, rather at the edge of it, where we could put our lunch tray up on the stage floor and continue eating while standing. Alone. For all the other kids to see.
Now I had been to the stage on several occasions - playing clarinet in the school band, singing in the school choir, or acting in the school’s Christmas pageant written by my sixth grade teacher, Miss Rinker (who, incidentally, took our class to go see La Traviata, and even gave me a ride home in her Toyota Chinook). But I had NEVER been to the stage for getting in trouble. Except for one day ...
One day in third grade during lunch, the girl sitting next to me asked me a question. I don’t remember who the girl was, or what she asked me, but those of you who know me well, know that I love to finish my sentences, and I don’t like being interrupted. It was, then, most unfortunate that Mrs. White shouted “Quiet!” at the precise moment that I was in the middle of giving this girl her answer.
“Yyyeeeeeeeeeewwww! To the staaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa-jjjjuh!”
I couldn’t believe it. I had to go to the stage? Moi?? But I was so well-behaved! 
I was traumatized. I couldn’t help it. My eyes welled up with tears and my chin started to quiver. I began to cry. “But I was just answering her question!” I pleaded (already trying to shift the blame away from me, of course, another favorite trick of mine). Mrs. White didn’t scream. Instead she spoke very softly and sweetly and tried to console me by saying, “It’s okay. Lots of kids have to go to the stage.” I remember looking across the stage at Tina Springer with her big, blonde ponytail, smiling at me. I don’t know why she had been sent to the stage, but I do remember that she played the lead role in Ray Bradbury's “All Summer in a Day” -- our class project about making films. I was a cameraman. I was robbed (that’s probably why she had to go to the stage - for stealing the lead role away from me!).
Never again did I have to go to the stage, not in that capacity at least. The few times I got “in trouble” after that were very perplexing, probably because I never intended to misbehave in the first place, nor have I ever learned how to deal with it. 
It’s hard to believe that this deficiency in my basic human training still has an effect on my adult life. Just a couple months ago when I’d forgotten a bit of staging during a rehearsal and got yelled at by the director, the nine-year-old girl in me heard Mrs. White’s booming voice saying, “You! To the stage!” (confusing, indeed, since I was already on it), welled up with tears and ran offstage. Perhaps it was then, when I later apologized to the director for my outburst, and when he told me what a great job I was doing, that I realized getting in trouble is not equivalent to dislike, and perfection is only a goal, not a reality.
Armed with this new attitude, I went to an audition last week with an aria that I hadn’t sung in quite a while. Somewhere in the middle of the da capo I got lost. The two bars rest turned into a rather long interlude when it occurred to me that I should have been singing for the last four bars. Oops. Thinking that the pianist might go back and pick me up where I sort of left off (which would have been an amazing feat on his part in the midst of all that baroque ornamentation), I dared re-entry at an appropriate cadence. I noticed he was playing the final bars of the piece long before I was finished, so I just stopped and began to laugh. “Sorry,” I said, “I must’ve gotten lost!!” The adjudicators laughed as well, and said they hadn’t noticed since they were already discussing amongst themselves (hopefully about my fabulous phrasing, impeccable intonation and captivating character). “No problem, I’ve already sung the highest note,” I joked. “Yes, we noticed!” they replied.
I left the stage feeling better about that audition than any one I have ever sung. If for any reason they should decide not to hire me, I know it’s not because of my musical screw-up. Don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t mean that I’m happy about it when things go awry during an audition, or especially during a performance -- like forgetting the words to my own aria, or not finding my prop until I trip over it (not that this has ever happened to me -- especially not on Friday during my performance of Un Ballo in Maschera). The little slip-ups along the way are nothing to fret about. It only gives me gray hair -- which is precisely why I dye it! (see photo).
Being a great artist is not about avoiding mistakes. It’s about masterfully covering them up.