Everything in Raúl's dressing room had to be dry-cleaned, washed, or scrubbed, including all his costumes, the new wall-to-wall carpet, sofa, and chair. This could have been a huge problem for me, but Raúl was very nice about it, and so were the stage management and the crew.
It really taught me not to mess around. Whenever we cross paths, the cast and crew of Chitty still give me a hard time about it.
But other child performers had to learn the hard way to follow the rules. In Mary Poppins, one of the girls decided to cut her long blond hair just before rehearsals. When you've signed a contract for a show, it usu- ally states you can't do anything to change your appearance, at least not without permission.
Because she looked very different from before, she had to wear a wig for performances. At first, she thought it was cool to have this new addi- tion to her wardrobe. But the novelty wore off when she had to report to the theater half an hour earlier than before to get the wig styled prop- erly before each show. The wig could also get uncomfortable-it made her head itch. She learned not to change her looks on a whim. Similarly, avoid tattoos and piercings! As an actor, you need to be able to transform yourself into any character you're hired to play-and not every character you audition for will have the same piercings and tattoos you do.
As a general rule, it's a good to have your hair look like it does in your headshot. It's less confusing for casting directors. Another general rule: It's better to have longer rather than very short hair, since it's easier to cut your hair to fit a part than to ask casting directors to imagine you with a wig or with grown-out hair.
I have learned that hair is often a big issue for both actors and stage management. In The Little Mermaid, when I played Flounder, for several days I thought my hair would be dyed bright yellow with neon-blue extensions woven in. Instead they decided on a wig. The wig looked really cool and the audience loved it.
Sometimes you have to dye your hair to match or contrast with the hair of other actors. In The Orphans' Home Cycle, there were three actors, including me, playing the main character. The two other actors had red hair, so I had to get my hair dyed red for consistency. After the show closed, the theater paid to have my hair dyed back to my normal brown.
There are other lessons to learn about your appearance when you are auditioning or performing. If you need braces, try to get the invisible kind, which use clear plastic, rather than metal bands. When I was younger, my teeth were slightly crooked. My orthodontist was able to fix my teeth with Invisalign, a system that uses clear plastic removable trays, kind of like mouthguards, rather than braces. They corrected the problem, and didn't cost me any lost parts, because I could take them out when performing or auditioning.
As a performer, you have to learn to avoid sunburns at all costs. When you are filming, your skin tone needs to be the same every day. Even in the theater, the makeup crew does not like it if you show up with a sun- burn. When I went to the beach as a kid, I was covered in sunblock from head to toe. When I am in a show, I almost always wear hats when I go out in the sun.
Through trial and error, I've also learned what type of work clothes are best for a performer. I usually wear cargo pants every day, simply because the pockets are so useful. I throw my wallet, subway pass, a flashlight, and an energy bar into them. For auditions, I always wear clothes that are appropriate for the role I'm trying out for. In New York, I learned about clothing stores' sample sales, which are good places to buy good-quality clothes inexpensively. I interned at one New York fashion house called Rag & Bone during Fashion Week. I was told to report at nine a.m. to the company's offices, which are in a cool building in the Meatpacking District. When I arrived, the fashion director yelled at me, "You're [exple- tive deleted] late!" He thought I was one of the models for the runway, which was a nice compliment. I got to run all over the city picking up but- tons, fabrics, and Diet Cokes with caffeine for the staff.
The fashion director noticed the parachute-cord bracelets I make, which I was wearing that day. He had me make bracelets for the Rag & Bone models to wear on the runway-each model wore six bracelets. I quickly taught the other interns how to make them so we'd have enough for the show.
But I know better than to wear my parachute-cord bracelets for audi- tions, unless I think the character would normally be wearing street-style jewelry. It's also best to take hats and bling off when you step into an audition room.
While I was learning the importance of appearance in the theater,
I also started learning the history and superstitions of the people who work in entertainment. Actors, stagehands, costumers, and other theater people told me the stories and explained unusual practices to me.
First, theaters always keep what's called a ghost light on, even when everyone has left the building. It's a plain lightbulb housed in a wire cage on top of a tall base, which is always left standing alone at night after the show, or whenever the theater is not being used for rehearsals or per- formances. The ghost light is there for safety, so stagehands can find the light switches when they first enter the building and so the last people off the stage can see where they are exiting-and so no one falls off the stage in the dark!
But the stage story is that the light is there so the theater's ghosts- thought to be the spirits of deceased actors who performed in that theater-can perform at night. The ghost light is also supposed to keep the theater from going "dark"-theater slang for when a show has closed and the theater stands unused, empty of life. No one wants a theater to go dark (except for maintenance), so the ghost light shines to prevent that.
Actors also don't say "Good luck," because the words are considered bad luck. Instead, we say "Break a leg!" (Although ballet and modern dancers never say that, for obvious reasons! Most dancers prefer a French expression-see below.) There are many explanations for the phrase, including an actor taking so many bows because an audience keeps clapping that the actor will be bending (or breaking) his legs. Another explanation is that the theater's karma gives you the opposite of what you ask for, so that if you wish for bad luck, you'll get a successful turn onstage rather than a broken leg.
In other languages, performers have other ways of wishing one another bad luck as a backward way of wishing good luck. In French, they say "Merde!" (which means Poop!-as in "Slip and fall in a pile of --!"). In Italian, they say "In boca al lupo!" (Into the mouth of the wolf!) And in Germany, you spit three times over the other performers' shoulders to scare away the devil. It's useful to know these customs for when you work with European performers.
Another superstition, and one that has a more clear-cut origin, is the practice of not whistling in a theater. In times past, stagehands were often former sailors who used a code of whistle signals, the same signals they had used onboard ship, to tell one another what ropes should be pulled to fly sets in and out. If an actor whistled, it could confuse things backstage, causing real problems. A set piece could come crashing down on someone's head!
Other forbidden behavior is often learned the hard way. For example, never eat anything that might upset your stomach before a show-or before a rehearsal, for that matter. When I was appearing in Mary Poppins, the crew gave us candy before the show on Halloween. Our child wrangler took all the kids on a little "trick-or-treat" run throughout the backstage of the theater. One of the boys ate a lot of the crew's gifts and complained of a stomachache before he went on. You guessed it. He threw up onstage. Luckily, he did it behind a drop screen, so the audience didn't see. It turned out he was allergic to apples and he had eaten a caramel apple.
The stage manager immediately had to substitute another boy for his part. Under union rules, any cast change must be announced over the public-address system to the audience. Show managers really hate to do that because it wrecks the magic of the moment and can throw off the audience and the cast. From then on, before Halloween shows, the kids got quarters and dollars from the crew instead of candy.
Sometimes, you have to learn to improvise onstage when things go wrong. In one scene in Mary Poppins, the two kids run upstairs into the elaborately furnished stage nursery while the lower floors of their house slide toward the back of the stage. The nursery is then supposed to be lowered three and a half stories until it reaches the deck, or stage floor. As a precaution, a stage manager hides in the closet of the nursery with a headset on to watch over the child actors on the set.
On our opening preview performance, we ran into the nursery. The house moved back, the nursery roof rose, but the nursery just stood there. It felt like forever. The stage manager in the closet talked back and forth with the crew. Finally, the curtain went down and an announcement was made, "Ladies and gentlemen, we're having technical difficulties."
It turned out the brake fluid in the apparatus had overheated, which could have affected the nursery's descent, but luckily there was a fail- safe maneuver that stopped things. Tom Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Group, came onstage and told jokes to the audience. About seven minutes later, everything was fixed and the show resumed.
Another time, the house came off its track as it was moving backward. During these moments, the crew is a like a flock of magic fairies. They use muscle and manpower to fix things fast. In this case, the crew pushed and tried to realign the house, but nothing worked. The house had to stay at the back of the stage throughout the rest of the show, but other than some changes to the lighting, the show went on without a hitch.
In Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, we were working with the most expen- sive stage prop ever made-the flying car. It's in the Guinness Book of World Records! It was an amazing piece of machinery, but on a few occa- sions, it did break down during a show. All of us would go to the front of the stage and stall, singing songs and asking who in the audience had their birthday that day. One time, we improvised a skit. One actor, Marc Kudisch, who played the baron of Vulgaria, took my shoe as I was sitting on the edge of the stage, trying to mock drag me into the orchestra pit. We did anything to keep the audience's spirits high. Once we were impro- vising gags for a full forty-five minutes.
Another stage prop, the tea cart in Beauty and the Beast, caused daily problems for me. My character, Chip, spends most of his time in the cart, with his head popping out of the top, with a large foam teacup fram- ing my face. I had the reverse problem of most kids who played Chip-I was too small for the cart. In order to move my head around and open my jaw to talk and sing, it worked best if I stood as tall as possible. So I stood on my toes. I didn't think about it much until after my last show on tour. I was given my "blacks," the black clothes I wore inside the teacart. It wasn't until then that I noticed I had worn a hole on the tips of both of my black shoes from standing on my toes in the cart for seven months. Maybe that's why my ballet teacher said I have a good pointe!
One time, I had to deal with being hurt (by accident) on the stage.
In the last scene of A Christmas Carol, my stage father, Bob Cratchit, car- ried me on his shoulders through a doorway onstage. He forgot to duck and my forehead smacked into the doorframe, knocking the wind out
of me. Fortunately, he had a good grip on my legs and I didn't fall off. Everyone onstage was a bit shocked, but tried to act normal. My stage father propped me up with my crutch in time for my next line. After I said the last line of the show, "God bless us every one," the curtain went down and the whole cast cheered. I wore the huge bump on my head as a badge of honor.
The Washington, DC, cast of A Christmas Carol also had to deal with an unexpected visitor onstage: a rat! During the Christmas party dance scene, Mrs. Fezziwig has some lines about the "good cheer of the season," at which point a rat scurried out onstage. It went straight under Mrs. Fezziwig's floor-length skirt. She didn't see it, but it was at eye level for most of the audience, who murmured and chuckled. Mrs. Fezziwig thought she was really connecting with the audience and gave even more energy to her performance. As if on cue, the rat ran off and exited stage left. He never even came back for a bow.
Some improvisations onstage are necessary because an actor screws up. It happened to me in To Kill a Mockingbird, and believe me, I never made the mistake again. In one scene, my character, Jem, catches his overalls on a fence as he's running offstage to spy on his neighbor, Boo Radley. When Jem returns to the stage, he's wearing just his 1930s boxer briefs.
At one special school matinee, I forgot to put on the ?costume boxers and only wore my regular under-?wear. It wasn't until I was offstage and taking off my overalls in the dark wings that I realized I didn't have on the costume boxers. All I could do was run back onstage in my regular tighty whities and continue with the scene. Some of the kids in the audience shrieked and laughed. I never forgot the boxers again.
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