Theater People: The Best Audiences in the World

I meet David for coffee on a Saturday afternoon. The building is strangely shaped; there’s a pocket behind a wall where customers can surreptitiously sip their drinks. If you don’t walk around it, it’s easy to miss whoever’s behind it. Without thinking, I staked a spot at a corner table by a window and didn’t check to see if he had already arrived. A few minutes after the hour, I text him and he emerges laughing from around the secret coffee corner, his drink already half-consumed.

“Sorry about that,” I say. Usually I’m more careful with things like this.

Our paths have crossed a few times in recent years; we share a mutual network of musician friends, actors, and creatives, but have only interacted in person a handful of times. One of these was a voice lesson, in which I supposedly intimidated him, and the other was an awkward encounter at the local grocery store at 7 or 8 pm on a Saturday, and I’m pretty sure I was wearing sweat-soaked yoga pants, purchasing oranges and tampons, and he was with his mother. While we haven’t really come to know one another personally, there’s a familiarity to to our conversation, like we’re old friends who don’t really know much about each other other than that he likes to sing and I like to eat and menstrate.

David’s story fascinates me. He’s 49 years old and he just gave his first voice recital. It occurs to me that technically, he has given the same number of solo, formally prepared recitals as I have (maybe I should step up my game). The son of two musicians (one of them a professor of voice…no presure), David played trombone in college, but put music away for 20 years as he studied psychology, occupational therapy, and education. He’s works in the health field, but he took up voice four years ago so he could audition for musicals, and was cast in one role after another in the community theater scene. They’ve all been supporting parts, but he holds a certain reserved hope that his feature role will go down soon. After all, he’s male and can sing. Without undercutting the work he’s done, that’s pretty much the only requirement for guys in community theater, other than the ability to match pitch (even then, that’s negotiable, especially if they can buffalo or lift women in the air).

His program was impressive and varied, with regards to musical theater: Andrew Lloyd Webber, William Finn, Mel Brooks, Jason Robert Brown. Fifteen pieces in all. He shared with his audience the personal connection he felt with each piece. Trained musicians should really do this more. He brought in a guest vocalist to break up sets and give him rests. His voice teacher, also a pianist (and the subject of a later interview…most fascinating) accompanied him.

With musical theater, he says he’s found his tribe. “I feel totally in my element.” He calls theater people the “best audiences in the world.” They want to see others do well. They root for the people onstage. They came to his recital, where he passionately forgot the lyrics to a part of one song, but committed to the mistake and ran with it. Teaching this skill is like to teaching astrophysics to a sixth grader. How do you say to someone, “it’s okay, just rewire your neurons to fire in the face of adversity…oh, and by the way, if you mess up, just keep going. It’ll work, trust me.”

It doesn’t always work. I’ve witnessed pianists shut down during a performance. I once had a middle school gentledude really not do so well at a recital, and afterwards he told me he would never perform again. He did, and he’s cool now, but still…the only way to fix it is to do it, and it takes significant effort to convince a middle-schooler they should try again, because that could happen again. The task at hand was to basically unbraid his bodily chemistry, which you can barely do with a high-functioning adult, let alone a hormonal preteen, let alone a male hormonal preteen.

David and I have both forgotten lyrics; that is our common ground. We both have found a niche in musical theater, and we both get what it means to be vulnerable in front of an audience. We both have decided how music should function in our lives. David is a testament to the fact that you can have complete control over how to make art, and no voice professor, father, voice professor/father, or chosen career path can totally dictate that. Influence, yes. Control? No. If anything, David’s path is really more convincing of this fact than my own, because of course, a trained musician would power through mistakes. The only thing that separates us is a piece of paper, really. That, and coffee preference.

David is a community engager and a late bloomer. I haven’t interviewed many of his kind yet, but they’re everywhere. They are the unsung interactors. They carry communities with willing flair, but books aren’t written about them. Anju says these are the kind of people who will give up four hours of their Thursday night to rehearse motown (read that story here). They don’t have music degrees, but they’ll catch you at Hy-Vee on a Saturday and tell you what a good job you did in your latest leading role. They understand the plight of singing Jason Robert Brown, and the struggle of musical consistency (“my low notes sound like Dean Martin, but my high notes sound like Jerry Lewis.” His words.)

His breed does, indeed, like to lurk behind walls and curtains. They share secrets that trained musicians keep, for fear of embarrassment or compromised profile. They emerge when you least expect it, of their own accord, ready to take on the world.

And armed with caffeine.

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