Betting on yourself
Theatre wraps season with musical Head Over Heels
April 18, 2023 – DENTON – Everyone thinks they can sing.
In the privacy of a home or room or shower, everyone can sing. If only the world could hear that voice then a star would be born.
But it takes some kind of guts to stand on a stage and find out if someone else thinks you can sing.
In January, approximately 30 people checked their doubt at the door and tested their courage in an audition for roles in the final production of the Texas Woman's University Theatre's 2022-23 season, Head Over Heels, which will run April 21-23 and 28-30 at the RedBud Theatre.
Head Over Heels is a jukebox musical, a show using modern popular songs instead of original music. It's an adaptation of The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, a 16th-century romance by Sir Philip Sidney, which follows the royal family of Arcadia. The musical opened in 2015 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, then on Broadway in 2018.
The pop music in Head Over Heels is, as anyone who listened to rock in the 1980s can guess, from the Go-Go's, one of the most successful all-female bands who sold more than 7 million records and earned a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Among the Go-Go's hits which are included in the play are "We Got the Beat," "Our Lips Are Sealed," "Vacation" and "Head Over Heels," as well as Go-Go's lead singer Belinda Carlisle's solo debut, "Mad About You."
But Head Over Heels is not a Go-Go's tribute show, and director Steven Young was not looking for a cast that could recreate the band's sound.
"It's about getting the spirit of it and telling the story," Young said. "We want to do things where we'll have a little dance pit that will pull up audience members to dance, and hopefully we'll get people on stage at the end dancing with the cast. And it's kind of a celebration of life, the era, their music, everything."
Being able to audition is, perhaps, the most essential skill a performer can possess. If you can't audition, you can't get parts, and then you're doing something else for a living. The TWU Theatre division has a class in the audition.
"I always encourage them to try," said Young, TWU associate professor of theatre who teaches an audition class. "Let a director tell you you're not right."
The process of assembling a musical begins in Red Bud's audition hall. The room is large, its ceiling high. One wall is covered in mirrors, the others are white in need of a new coat of paint. Theatrical gear is stacked and stowed in the corners.
The center of the room is empty, offering room for the performers to move while they perform. This stage is fronted by a single table, where sits the audience of one, Young. Over two evenings, a parade of hopefuls will cross the audition room to sing, do a monologue and tell a joke. Not all are theatre majors.
"What are you going to do for us today?" Young greets each actor.
Young interacts with the actors during audition, working with them, coaching them, making suggestions, offering encouragement. In this setting, he doesn't have the numbers and the choices that a professional production attracts.
"What I would love is if they have a feel for rock and roll, sort of because it's a pop musical and that it's the Go-Go's," Young said. "I'm not looking for people that can imitate the Go-Go's, but they have that feel of that music and that spirit of it. And it is a comedy, so I'm also looking at are they funny or can they have the potential to be funny as well?
"Sometimes in educational theater, you alter the range of the work to match the singer. You want to put the best people up there, but you also want to have people who have a shot of succeeding as well. People always say you can learn by failure. I also think you can learn a lot by success. So you want people to play over their head in educational theater, but you don't want them to drown either. Today I'll be looking at physical types and vocal ranges. On Saturday, they'll move, speak, and sing, and I'll start to put them in initial roles."
The auditions begin at 4:30, and the first hopeful is ready at 4:30 on the dot.
Accompaniment is provided by recordings or karaoke tracks played on smart phones or assistant director Gwenivere Webb's laptop and pumped through a Bluetooth speaker when the technology cooperates.
Then it's time to put that musical skill on trial.
"It takes a certain amount of fortitude to do this," Young said.
They have been instructed to be ready to sing 32 bars of an up-tempo Broadway or rock-n-roll song (using the songs of the Go-Go’s is perfectly acceptable). The actor is expected to provide music or Karaoke tracks.
A bar of music. It's an expression most have heard. How many actually know what it is? How long is a bar? Most of us were lucky to find Middle C on a piano, and have long since learned that our musical talent is limited to pressing a PLAY button. There's single bars and double bars and end bars and time signatures and…better stick to pressing the PLAY button.
"When you have younger actors, there's the fear that they're not good enough, or they're just plain afraid, or they came from a program where they may have been assigned a role versus having to audition," Young said. "I could sit there and assign who I think should be in the role, but you miss inspiration, you miss people who might be at a level you weren't ready for. But you're also preparing them, because this is how they get work once they're out in the world. The more times they audition here, the more comfortable they are doing it out there."
I've been doing this for 40 some years, and I still get nervous every time I audition," Young added. "You're up there and they're judging you, and the feedback is instantaneous. When they have the audition class, I talk to them a lot about prepare everything in advance that you can control. Be ready for it. Some of them are a little more seasoned at it, some dread it, but it's about getting comfortable. And I don't mean that you should be relaxed and not nervous, but this is how you're going to earn your living. If you live in Chicago or New York or L.A., you could be auditioning five and six times a day."
The musical choices run the gamut and include modern pop, show tunes and classic rock like "People Are Strange" by The Doors. One sung "Happy Birthday."
They recite a one-minute comedic monologue from the works of Shakespeare or Moliere, and tell a short joke. The jokes are heavily populated, ironically, by dad jokes.
What does it take to stand up there and be judged like this?
"It's their willingness to embrace their fear," Young said. "Part of it, too, is learning to get past judging yourself, not being embarrassed, and evaluating what you did. It's no different than trying out for a sport or band or whatever. There's a certain amount of, 'I'm going to hurl myself into the arena and do it.' Some of these kids have never auditioned."
Webb recalled her first time.
"It was terrifying because I hadn't really auditioned outside of a high school play," she said. "But once I met the directors, I knew they were nice and understanding, and they can see the talent that some students have."
A significant part of preparation is memorization.
"If I can repeat it three times without looking at the page, I feel like I have it memorized," Webb said. "I try to know the characters that I'm trying to play."
Sitting through two days of amateur singing could be painful, but no one embarrasses themselves. The more experienced project more, are less timid. They don't just recite a monologue, they perform it, expressing themselves with movement. But it’s a mixed crowd of veterans and newcomers who advance to Saturday's callbacks.
Saturday's tone is different. The auditions were to separate the wheat from the chaff: those who can sing and those who can't. The performers were on their own, alone in the middle of their own anxieties. Saturday, however, is a group setting. There will be individual performances, but fellow actors are either onstage or in the wings.
Among the less experienced is Ashleigh Breeding. She struggled with her monologue in the auditions but earned a call back with her powerful singing voice.
"Monday and Tuesday were more nerve wracking," she said. "Today, I'm with my friends."
They go through warm ups. Facial stretches. Buzz the lips. Sprint from off state, stop center stage, then sprint off stage. Walk to the beat of a drum. Skip to the beat.
Theatre warmup is very different from that of sports, and at times it looks a little silly. Then, so does a group of 300-pound linemen in full pads skipping like little kids. All warmup is to prepare the body for activity, which in this play includes dancing.
The warmup extends to voices, and they need to be warm. Musical director Jett Cheek is going to put them through vocal gymnastics. Scales to verify range. Singing "five and four and three and two and one" for lower range. "One and two and one and two and one and two" for upper range.
A few surprise themselves by the range they reach. Stunned looks on their faces as they climb new heights.
"Most people have a bigger range than they think," Cheek said. "If I can trick you into it, you can get there."
"Did you know you could sing that high?" Cheek asks one actor.
"No!" she responds.
"Most people don't think they can sing high because, especially in theater, there's this mindset that you have to belt everything, and if you're not a trained vocalist, then you can only belt up to a certain note, and then you think that's all you've got," Cheek said. "But the fact is there's actually a whole lot more. They just don't know yet how to get there. It's just a matter of getting past the preconceptions in their head.
"This group is strong," he added. "When we were assessing ranges, I made some notes about some voices that I thought were a little bit weak. And then when they came in and sang, they blew me away. I'm excited. I think it's going to be a great cast."
Cheek is a veteran of the north Texas music and theatre scene contracted by TWU. "I'm a musician, so I don't have a full-time job," he said. "I pick up gigs whenever they're offered. I love theater. I played in bands. I teach privately. I direct choirs. Just whatever."
The day gets more and more specific as actors are evaluated for specific roles. Young paces around the stage, listening, considering, coaching them through emotions of the characters for which they're reading. He's already begun assembling a cast at this early stage.
As the actors get acclimated, their characters start to emerge. Singing turns into performance. Recital into selling.
"Whatever will get you the role," Young said.
Because not everyone who made it to Saturday will be in the play.
"I'd love to cast them all," Young said. "That's the ugly thing. Then they go home and think they can't sing, and you could tell them that that's not what it means. Sometimes it does mean that, but it's just the harsh reality of the thing.
"I always say, if you're an actor, you're a risk taker," Young said. "Nobody said, 'Hey, skip engineering and go be an actor.' Every now and then we'll get a student who leaves nursing, and their parents must be so pleased. It's a hard life, but in some ways, if you audition, you've already surpassed the odds because a lot of people won't show up.
"You're betting on yourself."
Ashleigh Breeding took that bet. And she made the cast.
Head Over Heels cast
- Dinvela Adam – Musidorus
- Ashleigh Breeding – Philoclea
- Miles Collier – Basilius
- Emma Dockum – Pamela
- LeeAnn Ducker – Gynecia
- Felix Ferris – Dametas
- Brenna Peterson – Mopsa
- Adrian Theisen – Pythio / Oracle
- Jasmine Cintora – ensemble
- Molly Hudson – ensemble
- Obrey Minor II – ensemble
- Brooklyn Long – ensemble
- Dharma Saiz – ensemble
- Gwenivere Webb – assistant director
- Brooke Overton – stage manager
- Brianna Ditaway – assistant stage manager
Head Over Heels
$10 for adults, including TWU faculty and staff.
$5 for students, children and senior citizens.
Friday, April 21, 8 p.m.
Saturday, April 22, 8 p.m.
Sunday, April 23, 2 p.m.
Friday, April 28, 8 p.m.
Saturday, April 29, 8 p.m.
Sunday, April 30, 2 p.m.
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Page last updated 4:12 PM, April 13, 2023