Welcome to Chapter 10 of my blog-to-book project: Life After High School: Secrets To A Successful Life By Those Who Have Had Twenty Years To Think About It (or) What They Didn’t Teach Us Gen Xers In High School. This chapter is called Hershey. If you missed the last post, click here, otherwise, you can start at the beginning here.
In the coming years, I would go back and forth to New York and Seattle, performing where I could and touring for the 5th Avenue when they would have me. I realized that most of the work to be found in New York City was for outside of New York City. Performers all over the world go there to audition for production companies with regional theaters around the country, or for cruise ships at sea.
I got a job at Hershey Park, Pennsylvania and worked a fall and Christmas season in a Christmas Musical Review show with some fresh young talent and crusty repeat performers. The talent was outstanding and these people were way overqualified, but it was work.
Hershey Park was arguably the toughest theater job I have ever had. It was very close to slave labor, but we loved it anyway. The Chevrolet Music Box Theatre was a little sweat box with bleacher seating at the end of the theme park list of attractions when the New Jersey tourists had finally had enough of dealing with screaming kids. By the time they got to us, the parents were often sleeping with their mouths open and the kids were still shaking in their sugar high.
The audience was cranky and tired and it was a far cry from the prestigious Broadway that we all envisioned ourselves in. Some felt it was like tossing pearls before swine, but I preferred to think of it as the sharpening of iron. I was getting very tough and was honing my craft.
We did six shows a day and worked constantly. I had thirteen costume changes in the one show, and I was in nearly every scene. I wasn’t the only one, either. The small cast all did a crazy amount of work. We would run on stage in multiple layers of winter clothes, complete with scarves and hats, sweating our asses off (literally) before the show even started. After singing at the top of our lungs remixed Christmas tunes, and doing complicated dance patterns, we would run off stage just long enough to tear off an outer layer and come back on within seconds for another number, looking completely different.
The backstage game was even wilder. It was this stage of my life that I learned the term “Musical Theater Performer,” as opposed to “actor” and learned to respect Vaudeville performers.
We did far more than act.
The performers were literally sprinting backstage to get to their next spot, changing shoes, helping each other with “quick-changes,” moving set pieces, and jumping over each other to stay on course. It was an intricately woven choreographic marvel that far outshone the one the audience saw on the stage.
We all lost at least ten pounds every week. It is a wonder we didn’t end up all in the hospital from dehydration. As soon as the show was over, I had just enough time to wring out my t-shirt that was drenched in sweat, put on a fresh one (I had six white undershirts, one for each show), and then reset the rest of my costume. As soon as we set our final piece, the 5-minute warning call came for the next show. Time to get in places and do it all again, and again, and again—for months. We became well-oiled machines, and we all bonded as if we had been in a bunker at war together for months on end being shot at.
The audience did shoot at us too—with words.
Some of the performers just ignored the hecklers and cat-calls, and others could not handle the insults and just walked off. For the most part, we kept that from happening, as we rallied our troops and covered for each other. Occasionally, one of us would come up with witty comebacks and zingers and received many congratulations from the cast. In the end, we were a team.
My roommate was the Swing, which meant he got to learn every single part in the show in case someone got sick or injured. It was an incredible feat of talent that most people cannot do, for which he received nominal additional pay. We earned around $300 per week, but we did have our housing covered and a gym membership.
When you do a show that many times and move past the part of it becoming an automatic reflex, you eventually arrive in the land of where real theater magic happens in a cast. It is the world of silliness and goofy antics that all seasoned performers inevitably live in.
It doesn’t take long for one performer to begin messing with another performer with a practical joke or three, just to see if they can mess them up. At other times, it is a devious imp who changes someone’s costume and a man ends up in a dress.
Sometimes it is a simple thing like a slap on the tush (the level of sexual harassment in a theater company can go to levels never even dreamed of by corporate or governmental sexual harassment education committees), or it could be something extremely risky, like changing the lines or lyrics in the show to get a laugh from the other cast members or making faces on stage that you hope the audience doesn’t see. It becomes a game of who can make the best inside jokes while still executing the show. It takes a great deal of skill and aptitude to pull this off and not destroy a show and lose your job and career.
The ridiculous thing is that in the moment, no one cares and even grow to love the risk. It is a way to bring new life to something that would otherwise become so boring that everyone would go home and commit suicide, which makes for very poor attendance the next day.
I remember one such time at the 5th Avenue Theater.
There was a scene where all the ensemble were dressed as protesters with signs and moved in slow motion in the background as serious drama with the principles happened in the foreground. Show after show and week after week we did our slow motion moves for what felt like hours to us until we wanted to puke.
Little by little, one person after another would make subtle changes that were so imperceptible that it was scarcely noticed by the cast, much less the audience.
Eventually, one of the performers, who had one hand on a sign that was elevated into the air at a certain precise moment in the music, used their other hand to goose the person in front of them who was bending over… Who proceeded, ever so slightly, to change his facial expression to one of curiosity and intrigue.
Over half the cast was facing the direction of the two culprits. The energy immediately shifted and was palpable in the room without a word being spoken. It was as if everyone’s eyes widened and a single bead of sweat started rolling down a forehead here and there, while a soft shake of silent laughter began to emanate from four or five individuals simultaneously.
It took everything we had not to burst out laughing in huge guttural guffaws right then and there. We could not skip a beat and continued with our perfected and synchronized choreography. It was an entirely different conversation that had been started and it was now time for one comedy bit after another.
It didn’t take long before every night the “new” choreography began to get more and more elaborate. Every possible gag and comedy number were being added by every single cast member in the attempt to make someone else crack. Of course, we had to make sure that all these moves would be imperceptible to the audience, so we had to keep the original work intact and add the delightful new material like an invisible layer to a cake.
Our cake now had multiple layers of grotesque and childish humor with a frosting of satire and parody.
We added caricatures that made fun of the show. We added bizarre faces when someone was fortunate enough to have the back of their head toward the audience. We silently mouthed words at key parts of the show to finish the sentences of the leads out front like punch lines to a joke. We turned the entire scene into a huge Freudian slip with double entendres and mock fornication and obscenity. Whatever got a laugh was what we did, and after we left the stage people were in stitches, sometimes crying and nearly unable to go on for their next scene.
This became a highlight of our show and helped us to stay sane enough to repeat the work night after night, week after week, for months. I can only imagine what a Broadway performer must do when they have to do one of those shows for years.
And that is the real life of a chorus person.
In the next post, I will continue with more interesting interviews, like this one with Kwok Yang (Jack) Ng.
Are you from Generation X? I want to hear what you think! Please comment below and participate in the conversation about What They Didn’t Teach Us Gen Xers In High School. What do you wish someone told you when you were eighteen?