Fane Harrison lingers outside the door to the studio behind the box office, housed in one of a dozen red longhouses that belong to the Black Hills Playhouse in Custer State Park, South Dakota.
She arrived six weeks ago, her undergrad diploma still warm in her suitcase, eager to rack up as many stage credits as possible before heading east to make her mark on Broadway. But since her name didn’t even appear on the callback sheets for the first two shows, she fears she might not be as talented as she believed. That’s why she signed up for coaching with Ron and LuAnn Moyer, so she can kick ass on her audition for the next show—A Streetcar Named Desire.
Fane has pined for the role of Blanche Dubois ever since she saw the movie with Brando and Vivian Leigh. She’s worked on scenes from the show in every acting class over the last four years. The last time she played the scene where Mitch confronts Blanche about her past, Professor Davidson said, “There’s nothing else for me to say. You’ve absorbed all I have to offer.” Now she fears his statement was nothing more than a nice way of saying, “Good luck and good riddance.” But she can’t go back to the cornfields of Orange City, Iowa. She’d rather die than live in the shadow of her high school glory as cheerleading captain and Homecoming Queen, with nothing more to look forward to than a wedding reception at the VFW hall.
The studio door opens and Fane collides with Jill London, who’s currently playing Ruth in Blythe Spirit. The actress chuckles and grabs Fane’s shoulders to prevent the two from falling.
“Sorry,” Jill says, before leaning in as if to share a secret. “The Moyers are a blast to work with. Have fun.”
If one of the most experienced actresses in the company is being coached for Streetcar, does that mean Fane shouldn’t bother?
The studio is a mini thrust theatre with two rows of movie seats on three sides of the stage floor. A baby grand sits stage right in front of the worn velvet curtain that was left open for easy access to the rehearsal chairs and tables. Hand props are shelved on the horizontal studs of the unfinished upstage wall. The stage is swept daily, but dust lingers on the curtain adding weight to the current humidity. Six Fresnel lighting instruments with burnt out gels illuminate the stage.
Ron and LuAnn sit in the movie seats, house right, drenched in shadow. They tell her to proceed as if this were a real audition.
“Hello, I’m Fane Harrison. I’ll be performing Blanche…”
“No selections from the play,” Ron says.
Her stomach somersaults. All her college auditions were script readings. Monologue work was done in acting class, but other than Streetcar, she never bothered to retained the pieces.
Ron adjusts his glasses. LuAnn waits expectantly without losing the tiny ever-present smile she’s known for.
Like a contestant on Jeopardy, Fane says, “Viola from Twelfth Night.” The show closed a few weeks before graduation. She should be able to get through the ring speech.
I left no ring with her: what means this lady? Fortune forbid my outside have not charm’d her! She made good view of me; indeed, so much…
“What’s she feeling?” Ron says.
The remainder of the speech coagulates in Fane’s throat. She scored the entire play during rehearsal. She just needs to remember. “Well, her objective…”
“You’re not listening,” Ron says. “What’s happening now? What’s pulsing inside her? What does she taste in her mouth?”
Sweat trickles down the sides of Fane’s ribs, as the lights of Broadway fade out.
“You’re a dancer,” LuAnn states as a matter of fact, even though she’s never seen Fane dance. “But your characters are stiff.”
“Do you know that when you walk you hold your left hand parallel to the ground,” Ron says. “You did it just now and in your previous auditions.”
The lump in Fane’s throat expands.
LuAnn sits forward, on the edge of being lit, caught in a kind of limbo, not unlike Fane’s own state. “You’re choking the emotion out of your characters.”
A weight pushes against Fane’s breastbone. Professor Davidson never said anything about her being emotionless. Was she so pumped up on future stardom, she missed his subtext? “There’s nothing left for me to say because you’re hopelessly untalented.”
Ron and LuAnn ask her to dance.
“What do you mean?” Fane studied ballet, tap, and modern all through school, but all she ever wanted to be was an actress. Her mind races. What does she need to do to prove they’re mistaken about her. She casts wide eyes upon them.
LuAnn meets her gaze. “Improvise.”
Make something up? Her heart pounds. She closes her eyes. An hourglass appears. She watches the sand pass from the upper bulb to the bottom. Her chest tightens. If she doesn’t move before the last grain drops, all will be lost. She forces a sway that grows into sweeping movements across the floor until the hourglass dissolves and she’s fully present with her body.
“Yes,” Ron says. “Now you’re giving us a range of emotion we can connect with.”
LuAnn agrees. “Look at Nina from The Seagull. Choreograph the emotions that ebb and flow in her scene with Konstantin. No words, just the emotional movement.”
Their desire to continue to work with her is enough encouragement for Fane to do what she’s told. She meets with them three more times, slowly adding in the words from Nina’s monologue. Confidence returns.
But Streetcar goes into rehearsal without her.
Auditions for South Pacific are next. Fane thinks about volunteering to run the light board. Musicals need actors who are triple threats. Fane can carry a tune in the chorus, but a solo, forget it. Still, all actors are required to audition. She watches from the back of the theatre, hoping to be forgotten. The pianist calls her name. She signed up to sing “Honey Bun.” The intro plays. Her voice comes out thin and offkey. She bolts.
Helen, the actress who’s having an affair with the actor whose Mormon wife works in the box office, runs after her. Asks her to wait up. Helen, who never spends anytime talking to anyone other than her lover, invites Fane back to her room for a drink. It makes no sense. But why not? She can use a bracer before hitchhiking to Orange City.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Helen says, refilling their shot glasses with ouzo. “No one wants to live in, Iowa.”
Fane downs the shot. “Where else am I going to go? If I can’t get cast here, how am I supposed to make it in New York.”
“Good point.” Helen shoots her shot and refills. “But there’s lots more theaters looking for talent.”
“Too bad I don’t have any.” Fane empties her shot glass.
“Stop.” This time Helen pours until the ouzo dribbles over the sides and sweetens their fingers. “This business isn’t a picnic for anyone. Do you know what the odds are for a working actor like Jill to get cast? One in sixty-four.”
“Exactly, that’s why…”
“Shut up and drink.” Fane tosses back her shot. Helen pours. “And stop boohooing. If you sucked as an actor you would’ve never been hired. Get your head out of the clouds and audition for everything.” Helen raises her shot glass. “Opa!”
“Opa!” The ouzo goes down as smooth as a hot fudge sundae, and Fane envisions herself as Kristine, on Broadway in A Chorus Line, singing about how she could never really sing. Twelve shots later she’s ready.
To sidestep the memory of what happened earlier, she insists on entering from the back of the house. Helen sets it up. The intro plays. On cue, Fane belts out the song and flirts with the actors in the company as she sashays down the aisle. She can’t tell whether she’s offkey or on, and she doesn’t give a damn. Her voice is open and resonates through every pore of her body, and she’s having fun.
That night the cast list goes up. Helen lands the role of Nellie, and Fane snags a speaking role— Bessie Mae Sue Ellen Yeager. Rumor hath it, the name belonged to Mary Martin’s best friend, and Mary insisted Bessie’s name be used whenever possible in her productions. Fane is so jazzed, she considers taking Yeager as a stage name as a good luck charm
During the middle of the run Jill, who’s now playing Bloody Mary, grabs Fane’s hand and pulls her aside in the dressing room between shows. One of her director friends caught the matinee.
“He said Nelly was miscast. He said you should’ve had the part.”
Fane’s body lights up like she downed another twelve shots of ouzo. “That’s so cool, but did you tell him I can’t sing?”
“You don’t have to sing to make a living as an actress. Marnie Nixon sang for Natalie Wood, Audrey Hepburn and Deborah Kerr. All you need to do is let yourself shine.”
Fane squeezes Jill’s hand. She’ll be waitressing for a long time in the Big Apple, but better that than a wedding reception at the VFW.
“I’ll drink to that.”