How I Got
THE YOUNG MAN stood at the curb, looking across the street towards the stage door. He pulled up the collar of his coat. The icy wind bit his face as it hastened down the street. He looked at his hands. Trembling. It was not from the cold, though. Thoughts of confusion furiously hurled around in his head. What does he want from me? I have given everything I have to give. Tears were already swelling up behind his eyes. There was no world in which these next few hours would go well. Hesitantly, he walked across the street, pushed the handle of the stage door and disappeared into the darkness.
Every good message needs a good story, and the story behind my books goes like this...
Once upon a time in a faraway land, where ugly ducklings turned into beautiful swans; where lives were understood backwards but lived forwards; where princes in ancient castles lamented over life and death; being or not being, while holding up skulls in wonder – yes, the above was a test of your knowledge about the country of Denmark (you can find the answers in the back of the book) – there lived a young man, whose wildest dreams were about to come true. Or so he had thought.
It was not many years ago that these dreams had been planted in his young mind. Like the mustard seed, the dreams had grown in good soil and taken a firm hold of him. Since his first appearance on stage in a high school play, the rush of adrenaline from the recognition of the applauding audience had taken him off guard. It was an instant craving for more. In only a few months, he went from the quiet kid in the class to the outgoing performer who sought every opportunity to get into the spotlight. The kid grew into a young man. He studied his craft and became good. He had talent. He could go all the way. The sky was the limit. He was accepted into a leading academy for the Performing Arts, and five years later he was ready to make his professional debut in a musical. Most up-and-coming performers started out doing ensemble work for a few years before they got a role. Not this young man. His first show was in a leading role. The role of The Emcee in the musical Cabaret. All the attention. All the spotlights. All the responsibility.
He was only nine hours away from the opening night. From what he expected to be his big breakthrough. He could envision all the raving reviews. All the comments and the praise that would come from both audiences, fellow cast members and, of course, family. The phone calls in the weeks to follow with offers about other roles. And maybe most important of all... The girls he could impress. The sex he would get. That all of this was not to happen, because he was not aware of other peoples ́ general perception of him being rather arrogant, was a different matter. He had already envisioned it all because he was that confident, and confidence is so easily mistaken for arrogance. Or at least he had been, because right now he could not feel his usual confidence. It had all but evaporated.
It was a week ago since the entire cast had moved the production from the rehearsal space onto the main stage. Full orchestra in the pit, technical rehearsals, lights, soundcheck, costumes, wigs, make-up – everything being tied together. However, the director suddenly seemed to have changed his opinion about the young man and his rendition of the role. The young man had primarily worked with the American choreographer for the first four weeks of the rehearsal. The director had just seen some fragments of the performance until they were now going into the crucial and stressful phase of putting it all together. This is where things changed for the worse.
Every night, after each run-through of the show, the young man only got negative feedback that he did not know how to respond to. Feedback like:
“You are too nice. It has to be uglier. It is not enough.”
The young man did not know how to be ugly. He did not want to be ugly. He wanted to dazzle the crowds. Every night he tried to up his game, but just got the same opaque feedback from the director. Finally, after the last dress rehearsal the director had proclaimed to the young man in front of the entire cast:
“Can you come in tomorrow morning for an extra rehearsal? I want to go over all of your solos.”
The young man felt a torrent of emotions he was unaccustomed to and ill-equipped to deal with. He felt ashamed for getting bad reviews in front of the others. He felt confused because he did not know how to deliver what the director wanted. He felt physically and emotionally drained for having rehearsed and performed his ass off for five weeks, seemingly in vain. He felt lost.
Of course, he was blissfully unaware of the fact that the problem had nothing to do with his performance or his talent or his efforts. The problem was the young man should never have been on a stage in the first place. Only much later would he discover that he was there for all the wrong reasons.
The young man tugged his coat tightly as he crossed the street and approached the stage door. The chilly rain slammed the door in waves. He pushed the handle resolutely to get inside and away from the cold. Once inside the darkness, he looked up the steep climb of stairs. He did not want to go up there. Everything in him wanted to run away. Run away from the confusion and the embarrassment. He felt so fragile. As if all it would take was the slightest poke and he would crumble into a heap of tears. The most frightening part of this state was the unknown. He had never felt like this. Fragile. Unsure of himself. At least not to the best of recollection. There was no way he could get on stage in this state. He knew it. There was nothing left to give. Knowing that this rehearsal was utterly pointless did not make matters any better. Opening night was nine hours away. He should be at the peak of his game right now. He should be feeling invincible. Instead, he felt like climbing these stairs was physically impossible.
Twenty minutes later he slumped down in a chair at the back of the grand auditorium facing the view, which the audiences would take in that same evening. The glorious view of the opening scene of their show. His show. His stage. But he saw nothing. He just sat there next to the lighting desk and the sound desk, with all the nobs and faders controlling the technique of the show, staring into his own hands with a dead look in his eyes.
Had someone walked by the young man, with a decent amount of empathetic acumen, they would have spotted the panic in the young man's eyes immediately. He searched desperately inside his untangled mind for answers to this bewildered state of his but found nothing. No answers. No solution. No comfort, and no salvation. How was he to know that he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown?
Abruptly and late, the director burst through the side doors with papers and scripts falling out of his hands and exalted, “Alright, let’s get started. You just get up on stage, and we’ll take it from the top.”
The young man uttered no words, but a river of tears started flowing down his face at a steady but seemingly relentless pace. He felt paralyzed from head to toe. Unable to stand. Unable to perform. The director was caught off guard and had not been aware of the young man's mental decline over the past week. Moments of awkwardness resembling an eternity of indecision passed before the director again took charge. He had likely pondered his options and had to prioritise. What was more important to the director? The rehearsal and the changes he wanted in his leading character, or a functional actor for opening night. Eventually, there was of course only one outcome, as the young man was in no shape for rehearsal. The director dismissed him and left as abruptly as he had arrived.
The young man sat in the silent auditorium for a while, before he finally dragged his tired body out of the chair. For the first and only time that morning, he glanced into the silence of the empty theatre. It was strange how silence could seem to reverberate. Some technician had arrived and was fiddling around on stage. The young man buttoned up his coat, which he had not bothered to remove before the scheduled rehearsal, and left. With tears still streaming out of his eyes, he walked back down the stairs, out of the stage door in the back of the theatre, and down the street away from the street. He kept walking. Kept crying.
Confused and scared, the young man walked away from the theatre, with no real care where he was heading. He just needed to escape, and part of what scared him was that he did not understand why he wanted to escape. What the hell was happening? Why was he feeling like this? Why was he suddenly afraid to get onto that stage? He had never been scared to go on stage. The stage had for years been his safe place. The place where he felt seen and where people recognised his talent. He kept walking. He kept crying.
The theatre was in a province city about three hours from the capital where he lived. The theatre had thus afforded an apartment for him during the production period. He passed the apartment without even considering going up there. He did not want to face his roommate in this condition. He did not want to be seen as weak and not in control of himself. He was after all the leading man in the show, and he needed to feel as such. He headed for the sea. A good twenty minutes later he had waves tumbling towards him. He stood for a moment looking out over the uninviting, rough winter sea, with all these conflicting thoughts and feelings swirling around in his head. The tears kept coming and kept icing up on the skin of his cheeks. He turned and walked along the water. He got the earplugs out of his pocket, put them in his ears and pressed play on the old cassette Walkman inside his pocket. He knew which tape was in. The same that had been playing an hour earlier on the way to the theatre.
Why was the director being like this? It was like he had suddenly decided he wanted someone else to play this part. Like he had just changed his mind about casting the young man in the first place. Like the director wanted to start over and redirect the entire character, with a week to go until opening mind. Why doesn’t he trust me? I have worked day and night for five weeks on this character. On this show. We were doing fine and now it’s like everything I do is wrong. All that he says is: it’s too nice. I have to be uglier. What does that mean? Well, tell me how! I can’t redo the whole character now. What did he expect? And I don’t want to be uglier. The young man was years away from realising what was going on. The director had broken the young man's otherwise rock-solid confidence in himself. An hour later, the music in his ears stopped. He stopped and looked up from the rocky beach his eyes had been fixed on for his feet to navigate. The wind on his face made him aware that he had stopped crying. He glanced out over the relentless waters and finally came to a realisation. I can’t give him what he wants, because, apparently, what he doesn't want is me. All I can do is get on that stage tonight and enjoy myself. I’m just going to enjoy myself.
A few hours later, the curtain went up. The warmth of the spotlight hit the young man’s face. The orchestra set in, and he started to sing.
During the intermission after the first act, the young man sat in his dressing looking into the mirror in front of him. He was happy. There was a buzz in the air. Makeup artists, hairdressers and wardrobe were bustling around him, getting him ready for the second act. Five more numbers and five more costume changes. Suddenly, the American choreographer popped his head in and said, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but it's fantastic. Keep it up.”
Then he was gone. The young man looked in the mirror and smiled.
The next day the reviews were in the papers, and they were good. Very good. The whole show got outstanding reviews as a well-crafted, highly entertaining and thought-provoking performance. The young man got special attention in numerous reviews, and one paper went so far as to crown him as the shining star of the show. Not a word from the director. Not a single word.
Ten years later, the young man had gone out of his usual private comfort zone to attend the birthday party of a famous vocal coach in the industry. He was not so young anymore and was supposed to be a grown up by now. He knew the place would be filled with like-minded peers from showbiz. All people that he actually did not care too much for being around, but he understood the importance of networking. This was such a day.
While hovering over the buffet pondering the difference between pawn and shrimp, as one does, a blast from the past was suddenly next to him. The director was there. The two had not spoken since the last performance of Cabaret ten years earlier. A new production of the same show was running at the time of the birthday party, so the young man found a way to ask some questions he had been yearning to ask for years.
“Have you seen the new Cabaret?”
“Yes. As a matter of fact, I have.”
“What did you think of it?”
“It was good. I think ours was better.”
The young man (and let us keep calling him the young man, for the sake of narrative consistency) snug a curious glance at the director to read his eyes to interpret the somewhat vague statement.
“And what did you think of the Emcee?”
The director turned to the young man and looked him straight in the eye.
“Look. You have to understand. When we did the Cabaret together, it was personal to me. First, what you probably don’t know is, I had already directed two productions of Cabaret before the one with you. You are not the first Emcee I have directed. Second, I am German. Third, I am Jewish.”
The young man looked at the director with a sudden empathy, as he knew what that meant. Cabaret was about an impossible love story in pre-second world war Berlin; a story about the holocaust and racism. The young man’s train of thoughts had just left the station at full throttle, but the director stopped him dead in his tracks.
“Do you remember that day at rehearsal, when you sang your solo number, I Don’t Care Much, for the first time on stage? You tried to get out of singing it in front of the cast, sitting in the auditorium because you were vain, but I forced you to do it, anyway. Just you and the piano. I have never heard anything like it. The whole auditorium fell silent when you sang. You could hear a pin drop.”
The young man looked up in surprise, but the director continued.
“I have never seen a better Emcee before or after you.”
The young man was taken back. This was not at all the conversation or the response he had expected, and the impact and perspective of the director’s words did not sink until he had left the party, and to a certain extent until years later.
Ten years earlier, the young man had been in the middle of his life's greatest opportunity to shine and become the star he so yearned to be. The director was dealing with a third go at a terrifying story about one of the darkest moments in human history, the holocaust, with a deeply personal and cultural attachment to said history. And there the young man had been. A 25-year-old white kid playing the director’s leading role, without a shred of a chance at understanding or grasping the enormity of the perspective the director had on the story. The young man had spent a solid five weeks of rehearsals trying to impress everybody and doing a fine job of it with everyone except the director, who did not care for being impressed. The young man had done exactly what all 25-year-old guys do. Try to impress. Because, at the end of the day, this is all guys care about at that age. Looking cool, so they can ultimately get laid. However, that night, on opening night, for the first time, the young man had walked on stage broken. He had lost the ability to impress. For a week, the director had disregarded his attempts to impress to where the young man had lost confidence in his confidence. The young man was used to walking on stage being vulnerable, with the courage that that requires. And actually, vulnerability does not require that much courage, but it will make you stronger. When the young man had a packed auditorium of people in front of him, he could easily accept that not all would like would he did up there. But he knew that if he did well, he could win most of them over to where the ones that did like him would be the majority. But for a week, his entire audience had consisted of one person only. The director. And when you have to go up there and you know your entire audience of one will disapprove of you; when you know you are going up there to be criticised, to be crucified... that is not vulnerability. That is psychological torture, which will not make you stronger. It will break you.
Suddenly, and for the first time, the young man was up there not trying to impress. He went up there with nothing but himself, whatever that was. That opening night was undoubtedly not his finest moment, but through that cracked armour shone the light of the artist inside the young man, and with the armour broken, that light continued to shine and grow brighter. Ultimately, the artist emerged. The artist, the director had wanted all along. Not necessarily an artist who had to be ugly, but an artist who dared to be honest.
Photo: © Michael Jensen, world-photo.dk 2002