Friday, October 19, 2012

I Auditioned to be a Disney Princess...and LIVED to Tell the Tale!

Earlier this week, an Improv scene required me to be a drunk Disney princess. Not a real Disney princess; the kind you meet at Disneyland. I’m always happy when two things I love—Improv and Disney—join forces. It happens a lot. Usually, because of me. One of the many fun things about Improv is you can incorporate all the geeky stuff you like into various scenes. This can cause trouble if your scene partners don’t know what you’re referencing, but luckily for me, almost everyone knows Disney. This particular scene involved two princesses breaking out a flask behind the scenes as we changed out of our gowns. Once the smoke of the scene had cleared and we were on our way to imbibing some real alcohol after the show, I became nostalgic for older days. Especially a day in May 2009, the same week I graduated college, when I auditioned to be a Disney princess.

 Disneyland Princesses

This was 70% pipe dream, 30% end-of-college panic. I'm a big Disney fan, so “Disney jobs” was a common Google search as my senior year drew to a close. When I found out there would be a character audition in NYC right before my graduation, it felt like a sign. After all, pretending to be a Disney princess was a lifelong pastime for me. To my 21-year-old self, terrified of reality and desperate for a change, getting paid for it seemed too good to be true. And it totally was! 

The Disney princesses are a big deal. The ladies who don those costumes have a huge responsibility, and they know it. I was five when I first met Cinderella in the Magic Kingdom. I remember waiting in line, growing more and more scared because I had no clue what to say to her. What could possibly be good enough? This was Cinderella. She had a castle with her name on it; I had thick glasses and a speech impediment. All the mouse ears in the world did not qualify me to talk to Cinderella. But when my turn came, she talked to me. She asked me questions, she gave me a hug, and for that small moment, she made me feel special. Like she knew me and had been waiting for me to say hi. 

That makes a BIG impression on a kid. 20 years later, I still remember how awesome it felt. The idea of being able to give that experience to others helped the idea grow from a “wouldn’t-it-be-funny” joke with my roommate to an actual goal. The fact that it didn’t go well had nothing to do with my passion for Disney. In fact, if jobs could be acquired through passion alone, I would be running the Disney Company by now. 

People think that because I’m a big fan and know a lot about Disney movies, I had a good shot at getting a part. They assume (as I did) that the audition process involved answering trivia questions or reciting famous quotes. So naturally, they’re always surprised to hear I didn’t even make the first cut. Especially since, when they ask why, I say, “Too tall.” 

I’m 5’7. That is just about the tallest a Disney princess can be. I’m not sure how hard and fast this rule is, because I distinctly remember hearing that 5’8 was the cut off, while a good friend of mine—who used to work for Disney—told me it was 5’6. Either way, 5’7 is pushing it. When I showed up at the audition center, I was the tallest person there. They were also casting Peter Pan that day, so this includes the boys. I felt (and probably looked) like Dorothy in Munchkinland. Luckily, a guy showed up who towered over me, so when the time came I didn’t stand out too much. (I’m pretty sure this guy was eventually cast as Goofy, because he was basically Goofy in human form).  

As much as I love to blame my height, the fact of the matter is I was not that good in the audition. I was self-conscious and reserved. I never forgot there were people there judging me. This insecurity began when we were sectioned off into groups to wait until to be called. As I waited, I talked with the other girls in my group. This was absolutely my favorite part of the experience. Some of these girls looked eerily like the real deal. One girl had hair exactly like Sleeping Beauty’s. Exactly. It was actually a little scary. Sleeping Beauty has long blond hair, divided into perfect sections with perfect curls at the bottom. It’s a stylized design. It’s not supposed to exist in real life, and I never thought it could, but this girl had it. It took every ounce of will power not to touch it. Fortunately, I remembered I was no longer five-years-old.  Grown-ups do not touch a stranger's hair.

Another girl was Belle. Seriously. She was tall and lithe with brown hair, appropriately worn in a ponytail, and big brown eyes. She even sounded a little like Belle. I wish I could say she treated us like furniture because that joke writes itself, but no. Like Belle, she was very sweet. And graceful. Ugh. When I was a kid, I imitated Belle’s walk (she walks with her toes out like a ballerina), and it never looked right because I was not graceful. This girl, appropriately, was a dancer so she had that nice easy calm. Belle reeks of calm. She asked me if I was hoping for Ariel because I have red hair. When I said I’d take anything, she laughed and said it doesn't matter because they plop a wig on you anyway. I laughed back like I knew what she was talking about. 

During this conversation, one of the would-be Peter Pans stuck his head in to reveal some unpleasant details about the job. It’s worth noting I was not auditioning to be a character in the theme park, but on the cruise, and he wanted to make sure we knew it sucked. Maybe he was trying to talk us out of wanting the job so he’d have a better chance, but since we were all there for different roles, I don’t see the point of that. He also swore profusely and said a lot of mean things about his former co-stars (he had been Peter Pan before). I didn’t like that. This was supposed to be Disney, after all, and such behavior is supposed to be UN-Disney. The idea that Disney was like everywhere else (but pretending not to be) left a bad taste in my mouth. 

For the sake of mental imagery, please remember that from the outside, this looked like Peter Pan actually talking to Belle and Sleeping Beauty. Or more appropriately, to three Belles, two Sleeping Beauties, two Cinderellas, and one really tall redhead. 

It was at this point that I realized I was a lovely snowball on the express elevator to hell. Except for a handful of intrepid school plays, I didn’t have a theater background. I had never auditioned for Broadway. I couldn’t do a jump kick. I wasn’t even really an actor. I was a writer who did a good Snow White impression. Even before I was called, I knew I wasn’t getting it, and contrary to everything Disney had taught me, no amount of wishing would make it otherwise.

When the time came for the actual audition, they piled several groups into a room (the usual kind with the boarded floor and the giant mirror) and told us to “pretend to greet a family, paying special attention to the child / children and take a picture.” All in manner of seconds. We all did it at the same time and then they divided us up into groups of five and did it again. I was not good. I’m awkward at auditions. I get self-conscious and overly critical. I think if I did it now, with a ton of Improv training and experience under my belt, it would be a lot better, but back then, I was not good. 

Also at this point, I really didn’t want it anymore. That sounds like a cop-out, but it’s true. Here I was surrounded by people who were trained and experienced. Maybe they were Disney fans, maybe they weren’t. I didn’t know because it didn’t matter; for them, it was a job interview like any other. They took it seriously on a whole other level, and I no longer felt like I belonged there. The longer I stayed there, the more I wished I were home writing. This is the standard of measurement by which I judge everything. “At the end of the day, would I rather be writing?” I know you don’t have to have scads of training to succeed, and surely, anyone who wants to audition for something should, but I discovered that for me, being a Disney princess is better left to the imagination. 

So I did not make the first cut. Sleeping Beauty Hair didn’t either. Belle did, but that was a given. What happened to Peter Pan is anyone’s guess. If he developed a drug addiction and started rehab before the audition ended, it would not have surprised me. I moved back to New Jersey, became a telemarketer, and did a lot of writing. Life went in a different direction. I regret nothing. It was still a crazy cool experience, and now I get to play the occasional drunk princess in comedy shows.

But if anyone asks, it’s because I was too tall.

 Aurora's bouncy hair - disney-princess Photo

Look at that hair. I was not exaggerating. My Sleeping Beauty Barbie didn't even have that hair, and somewhere there's a real person who does.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

See Something Say Something?

I don’t usually use this virtual megaphone as a soapbox. I try to keep it light and fluffy. Its main reason for existing is so I can avoid my actual writing and fill the Internet with even MORE stuff to distract you while you’re at work. However, the best way I deal with anything is to write about it, so here we go. 

Two nights ago, I was on a train from Brooklyn to Manhattan with a group of friends. It was after 1 AM, and the train was neither crowded nor empty. At the opposite end of our car, a man was yelling loudly at the person sitting across from him. He was a big man, and obviously drunk. For most of the ride, we ignored him, enjoying our own conversation. Loud drunk people are pretty common on the subway. In my experience, they mostly keep to themselves. We were one stop away from Manhattan when the man crossed the car in three giant strides, and started yelling at one of my friends. This friend, the only guy in our group and the only one of us standing, didn’t react at first. He just stared. The man was very close to him, and obviously trying to pick a fight. He accused us of talking too loudly, and started cursing. When my friend tried to calm him down, offering to shake his hand, the man flip-flopped from one extreme to another, first making crass disgusting remarks, then wishing us all a good night—before cursing some more. I honestly thought he was going to hit my friend; he was so clearly itching for it. Luckily, he went back to his seat, and at the next stop, we moved down a few cars. 

Two of my friends, including the one who had been cornered, got off the train shortly after. Now there were just three of us, all ladies. We were one stop into Manhattan when the drunk man entered our car. As soon as he saw us, he started yelling again, deriding us for passing between the cars (even though he had just done it himself). Instinctively, I gripped my umbrella, handle up, bracing myself to hit him if necessary, surprised at how truly scared I was. Before we just had the misfortune to be in his car. Now he was following us, deliberately seeking us out. As he yelled, I realized I no longer felt safe without a guy in our group, which brought on the guilt faster than a burger on Good Friday. 

At the next stop, we got off the train, and made a B-line for the station manager’s box. As we talked, the gruff man on the other side of the glass stared at us as if we were telling him the weather. Then in a voice that couldn’t have sounded less concerned, he asked why we didn't push the emergency button. The emergency button stops the train, and the last thing we wanted to do was trap ourselves underground with a drunk, possibly violent, man who was following us. My friend explained this, encouraging him yet again to contact someone so the man could be found at the next stop. He just looked us over and said, “What were you girls doing on the train so late? On your way home from a club?” 

The derision in his voice was startling. 

We said that we were performers and had a late show, that it didn’t matter why we were on the train, that the man was getting away. The station manager’s reply? “Well, it’s almost 2 AM. You’re young girls. You should have an escort.” Basically, you should have known better, ladies. If you’re going to ride the train after midnight, at least have the decency to bring a man with you, because otherwise what do you expect?

First of all, my friends and I are not young girls. We’re grown women, ranging in age from 24 to 30, but this man obviously had no issue infantilizing us. Second of all, isn’t this 2012? Aren’t we past the time when women were considered unusually tall children with breeding abilities? Apparently, not. Or, with his not too subtle club reference, was he suggesting we were out looking for fun?  

In the end, the station manager, with the wisdom of the ages, concluded that nothing could be done. We should have pushed the emergency button. We shouldn’t have been on the train period. Thank you, goodnight. At least he let us back onto the platform, free of charge. 

I’m sure some of you are thinking, well what were you doing on the subway at 2 AM? Yeah, people shouldn’t steal, but you should still lock your doors et cetera. Even I said it myself. Why didn’t I just take a cab? Didn’t I feel safer when my guy friend was there? Why was I even out that late? Of course, it’s important to be smart and take care of yourself. I know this. My parents instilled a healthy paranoia in me that’s kept me safe on many occasions. But it was not our fault that a man got drunk and decided to yell at people on the train. We did nothing wrong, and when we tried to report a potentially dangerous person, we were scolded for being women without men.

Sadly, this is a blame-the-victim society. Specifically blame-the-woman. As women we’re taught to feel stupid for the scary stuff that happens to us, as if our actions, no matter what they are, encourage bad behavior. If you hadn’t done this, if you had only done that. Don’t wear those clothes. Don’t go to that bar. Shame on you for existing; you know how that can rile people up. What's even worse is that women walk away believing this garbage. They blame themselves. As soon as the station manager said "escort," I remembered my own feelings of helplessness at being deprived of my male protector, and the tremendous guilt these feelings caused. 

I wonder if the station manager would have been so quick to judge if he knew we first encountered the man “safe” in the company of an “escort,” and the man still bothered us. 

Side note: cabs are not foolproof. People forget that it’s basically hitchhiking. Cab drivers have leered at me, asked invasive questions (mostly about my love life), and commented on my appearance. It may not be life-threatening, but it's damn uncomfortable. One night, I asked to be let off a block away from my building so the guy wouldn’t know where I lived. At least on the subway, you’re with other people. 

Also cabs are expensive. Life would be grand if this weren’t an issue, but it is. 

I don’t mean this to be a bad reflection of the city I call home. I love New York, and 99.9% of the time I feel safe here. I’m careful, I’m smart, and so far I’ve been lucky (in case you didn’t hear, I just knocked on wood). That said, what happened to me the other night was incredibly disappointing. I don’t even really care about the drunk man. It was scary at the time, but I honestly don’t think it would have gone beyond him yelling some more. What’s scarier is that New Yorkers are encouraged to report dangerous situations, but when we did, somebody who could have helped did nothing and treated us like silly little girls.  Silly little girls who brought it on ourselves. Fun times.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Come on down to the Improv Sock-Hop!

I do Improv. Have I mentioned this?

Nope. I never talk about Improv on here. Of course, lately, I don’t talk about a lot on here as my level of blog-neglect has shot up from inconsiderate to irresponsible.

Improv is great. I’ve been doing it for a year and a half now, and I love it. For those who don’t know, Improv is the art of making up the show as you go along. The most important rule is: “Yes and….” In other words: listen to your scene partners and be supportive. The goal is to build a great scene, not to be the star. It’s usually funny, but it doesn’t have to be. For some, Improv is a hobby. For others, it’s a lifestyle. It’s changed my life. It has made me a better writer, a more confident person, and it’s introduced me to a bunch of truly wonderful people.

(It’s also a theater chain, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Because we’re making it up as we go along, we never know what we’re going need, so we have to mime all the props. This is called object work, and sometimes object work defines the scene. For example, an improviser steps out onstage and starts miming making a pizza. Immediately, we know a pizza is being made onstage, but there are a bunch of ways the scene could go. Are we in a pizza parlor? Are we in somebody’s home? Is the scene going to be about two teenage girls who inherit their dead father’s Italian restaurant? Is it going to be about two aliens making pizza for the first time after a trip to Earth? The possibilities go on and on, and they’re all rooted in one improviser’s object work. Which brings us to a weird Improv phenomenon.

While talking with my boyfriend, who is also an improviser, he mentioned how he had started a scene by using a pencil tablet in lieu of a computer mouse. (Incidentally, he uses a pencil tablet in real life). In his mind, his character was on a computer, but to his scene partners, he was writing by hand. A minor misunderstanding, but it changes everything. We just went from an office building on the eve of the Financial Crisis, to Thomas Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence (or some such whatever).

This intrigued me. I thought about what would happen if I initiated a scene by drawing in the air with my finger. In my head, my character was using an iPad, but I knew that in the creative rush of building of scene, my fellow performers would most likely assume I was finger painting. Or a human Etch a Sketch. Or conducting an orchestra comprised entirely of ladybugs and fleas. Or anything but using an iPad. Maybe the iPad would occur to someone, but unless I initiated with, “I love this here iPad!” I don’t see it being a first choice.

(This entry has not been endorsed by Apple. If you’re reading this, Apple, please don’t have me killed.)

Improv is a constantly changing art form. It thrives on the culture around it. Shows are filled with topical details and references. And yet in some ways, Improv doesn’t have much regard for modern technology…or modern anything. Scenes often take place in arcades and ice cream parlors; places that, though they still exist, are hardly the social landmarks they were in the past. Again and again, we name our characters Jimmy and Sally, Billy and Susie; names you’re likelier to find in your parents’ yearbook than at the local bar. I’ve yet to see a scene that hinges on whether anybody has an Internet connection (though, to be fair, I’m sure it’s been done). Improv scenes seem to take place in a permanent limbo of non-specific time where our technological advancements, if they exist at all, are an afterthought.

(By the way, during the aforementioned conversation, my boyfriend referred to this phenomenon as “the Improv Sock-Hop.” Hence the subject line. I now feel compelled to send him royalties for something I am not being paid to write.)

I’m not saying technology has no place in Improv. In two recent shows, some of the biggest laughs of the night came from sudden, clever references to our digital friends. In one of these, after a running gag about two scientists making up increasingly ridiculous names for their fake gadgets, a third character suggested they just use an iPhone. In the other, a murder scene, one character stepped out of his post-crime panic to make a snide remark about his friend still using a flip phone. Anybody living in our digital society could (and did) appreciate the humor of those moments, but these were punchlines to bigger jokes. I’m not saying improvisers are Luddites, but what makes technology useful in the real world can make it boring in Improv.

Technology is everywhere; it’s instinctive. It informs our relationships and indulges our whims. In some ways, it has taken the place of imagination. Why stop and wonder about anything, when you essentially have all the information in the world at your fingertips? Technology exists to make our lives easier, to solve our problems, but it also robs us of uncertainty’s rich potential.  

Improv is all about imagination. It’s all about relationships and listening and creativity, but all those things depend on the imagination of the participants. When I’m eating a hamburger onstage, I’m eating a hamburger. I can see it and taste it. Sometimes if I’m tagged out while I’m eating, I walk offstage still chewing. Maybe modern conveniences don’t always occur to us onstage, because they’re EVERYWHERE ELSE. They don’t stimulate the imagination. They’re boring to mime. They answer all of our questions for us, so what’s the point of asking? There’s plenty of time for texting, real or imaginary, back in the real world. You don’t want use a gadget in a scene because you’d rather be robbing a grave or battling a wizard…or eating a hamburger.

(Trust me. I make the best pretend hamburgers.)

Also as an improviser who was born in the 80’s and frequently performs with people who were born in the 80’s, I think that our reliance on arcades and ice cream parlors is rooted in nostalgia. Likewise, maybe gadgets don’t occur to us as much because we grew up without them, and as we all know, there are few combinations greater (and more productive) than imagination and nostalgia.

Why we keep naming each other Sally is anyone’s guess.