Chapter 1: Auditions
I felt it as soon as I saw the article in the weekly local newspaper. It wasn't exactly a lump in the throat, more like butterflies in the tummy. Well, warm butterflies anyway that slowly spread through my whole body. And not really starting in my tummy, maybe just a little lower.
The article was just a short announcement that a nearby community theater was holding auditions the next week for their fall musical. I had been in a few plays in high school but hadn't really considering trying out for something this year. After all, I had just transferred to a different college and was getting ready to start my sophomore year in a new town and in my own apartment, far from family and friends. But as soon as I saw that article, I knew I'd have to audition. The play was "Gypsy," and not only had that been one of my favorite musicals growing up, but it played right into one of my favorite fantasies...imagining I was a stripper! I love dressing in a sexy outfit and then standing in front of a mirror in my room and bumping and grinding as I take off my clothes. As I read through the article, it suddenly occurred to me that this could be the perfect way to live out that fantasy.
The notice said that auditions would be held next Monday with callbacks later in the week, in a town about ten miles from campus. There would then be a month of rehearsals, three weekends of performances, with everything over before Thanksgiving. Perfect, I thought. No one will know me and the chances of anyone from college hearing about it were pretty slim. And without any real friends in town, I knew I'd have plenty of free time. And I also knew exactly the part I wanted: Louise the little girl who becomes Gypsy Rose Lee. That way, I would get to sing Let Me Entertain You while taking off my clothes in front of hundreds of strangers.
The next Monday all I could think about was the audition. Yes, I was very nervous but that never stops me. When it comes to auditioning, I don't look at the people because that makes me more nervous, so I just pretend that there is a wall in front of me. That helps me a lot. Of course there's the saying "if you get nervous, picture the audience naked," but in this case I had a different picture in mind – the audience imagining me naked! But I tried not to think about that.
The audition didn't start that well since everyone else seemed to know each other and were standing and chatting. A few people politely introduced themselves but then went back to talking with their friends. Finally, the assistant director came by to ask a few questions.
Hi Nikki, where are you from?" I explained that I was just starting my sophomore year at the nearby college, and then answered some other basic questions, including the role or roles I was auditioning for. When I said "Louise," he looked up from his clipboard briefly, then flipped through a couple of sheets of paper and said, "ah, then I have a couple of extra questions." The questions seemed a little surprising: age (19), height (5 foot 7), weight (128 pounds, I answered, giving myself the benefit of a couple of future workouts at the gym), and measurements (I hesitated just a minute before saying 34-24-35).
"And cup size?" he added, just a little awkwardly. Without thinking, I almost gave the answer I've given to almost every guy who's asked me that, namely, "none of your business," but remembered how much I really wanted this part. "Um, B cup, 34B." "And," he said as he jotted down a few last notes, "I see you're a brunette with brown eyes. I guess that's all I need for now," and he moved on to the next girl.
When my turn came, I sang the song I had been practicing, spent a few minutes with the choreographer going over some basic dance routines, and then was given four or five pages containing lines to practice for each of the lead roles in case I got a call back. I flipped through it on my way to the car and was a little surprised to see that the lines for Louise were not a scene with another actor. Instead they were a monologue that she delivers to the audience in the middle of her big strip scene. Hmmm, I thought, I really hope I make this first cut.
I got an email the next night inviting me back on Thursday. I was totally excited until I got there and saw my competition. Two other girls had also been asked back to read for Louise. I recognized one as Jennifer, the girl who had introduced herself to me the other night. She had grown up in the town, gone away to college, and had just moved home after graduation. Everyone from the theater group seemed to know her, and I heard someone say that she had been in five of their productions in the past. Not a good sign for me, the new kid in town. And my heart sunk further when I heard the other girl, Samantha, sing a bit. She had a beautiful, professionally trained voice that seemed significantly better than anyone else's I had heard at Monday's auditions.
I had worn a cute skirt and top, and just before getting called in to read my lines, I totally focused on my fantasy of stripping in public. I could feel the energy flowing and the butterflies starting. As I entered the other room, the director got up from the table and introduced himself, and then went around and introduced the three women with him as the music director, the producer, and someone he referred to as the president of the board. Just my luck, I thought – only one guy in the group! But it was too late to change my plans now, so I launched into the lines we'd been asked to deliver, the speech that Gypsy delivers to the audience.
"Some man accused me of being an ecdysiast. Do you know what that means? Do you? Do you? Oh, you do! Aha! He's embarrassed! Don't be embarrassed...I like men without hair! An ecdysiast is one who, or that which, sheds its skin. In vulgar parlance: a stripper. But I'm not a stripper! At these prices, I'm an ecdysiast."
As I delivered the speech, I slowly unbuttoned my top and untucked it from skirt, giving the group a peek at my best lacy bra and just a glimpse of my bare tummy. I finished with a little flourish, raising my arms with my hands outstretched so my shirt pulled a little further apart.
The polite silence that followed, with a brief, "thank you, Ms. Morales, you can take a seat outside" suddenly sapped all of my confidence. I awkwardly buttoned up and left the room, feeling I had totally blown the audition. I was in no mood to talk to anyone, so I pulled out one of my textbooks and started to read. I didn't want this to be a complete waste of an evening, I thought.
I sat there for about a half hour while they auditioned some guys for Herbie, the male lead, and then the two finalists for Mama Rose, which is the real starring role in the play. They appeared to quickly settle on their choices for Rose and Herbie but then huddled together in the audition room talking in hushed tones but in obvious disagreement with one another. Finally, after a few minutes, the president broke away from the others and came over to me. Putting her arm around my shoulder, she said "Nikki, let's find a quiet place talk." We went down a hallway and into an empty room, turned on the light, and sat down. "Why don't you pull up a chair down, dear? I need to have a little heart to heart with you."
"I'm going to be perfectly honest with you, which sometimes can be a mistake. But I think you're a big girl and can handle this. So, let's be frank. Do you know what the board of directors do in a community theater," she asked. I had to confess that I really had no idea other than show up at some rehearsals and that the president usually welcomes people at the start of each performance.
She chuckled and said, "Well, yes, that's all true, and as the president I will be there every night." But I'm also responsible for making sure the theater stays in business, that we raise enough money and earn enough from our performances to cover our costs and have a little in reserve so we can plan for our next season. And I don't mind telling you that it gets harder every year to do that."
"That's one of the reasons we chose to do Gypsy. It's a popular musical, it's got a good sized cast, which means that parents and relatives and friends buy tickets and show up. And it's also got a bit of sex in it. I mean, after all, it is about a stripper. And you've auditioned for the part of the stripper."
I blushed a little and felt that same warm tingly feeling I had felt when I first read the audition notice. I wanted to look away, but my actress instincts told me to look at her right in the face.
"I've advised the director and producer to be a little more, um, how should I say this, adventurous with this play, to try some things that aren't usually done and that may surprise the audience a bit. That should generate some buzz, some word of mouth, and some ticket sales. Maybe even some repeaters, people who will come to see the show two or three times. And that's where you come in."
"Please don't take this the wrong way," she continued. "You have a decent singing voice and we could work with you on your dancing, but the other two girls who auditioned for Louise are a lot better singers and they've been with us in other productions. That always means a lot, because we don't like surprises, at least not unpleasant ones. So I need to be certain that I can count on you to stick with this, see it through to the end, and do whatever is asked of you."
I nodded vigorously and said I would definitely do anything they wanted, that I could be here every evening and weekend to rehearse, and that it had always been a dream of mine to play Louise. She nodded and said that she could sense that during the audition. "But there was something else I noticed during the audition. To be blunt, you're prettier than the other girls, you appear to have a good figure, and you have great stage presence. And I want all three in our Louise."
"Then I'm your girl. I promise I won't disappoint you." Even as I said that, I somehow knew that Lorraine hadn't quite finished with everything she had to say. "But there's something else, isn't there," I asked.
She smiled, adding "And you're smart and perceptive, not bad qualities for an actress. Yes, there is something else. I've suggested, and the director has agreed, that we need to take Louise's strips a little farther than you usually see in a local production. "
I could feel the blush spreading upward and the heat growing, and she must have sensed that. "Now, don't worry, we're going to ask you to appear naked on stage. This is a play about a real person, and Gypsy Rose Lee was always more about the tease than anything else. But usually when Louise does her big strip number and takes off her dress, she grabs the curtain and covers herself with it and that's the end of it. And that is never going to get people coming back night after night."
"I know the other girls and they're not going to go any farther than that. But that's what we want our Louise to do, and that's why I've prevailed on the director and producer to allow me to offer the part to you."
I practically jumped out of my chair and ran to hug her. "Oh Lorraine, that's wonderful. And yes, you can count on me." I thought of all the little fantasies I'd had over the years and about practicing my little striptease in my room and added, "You can count on me to do anything."
Once again that brought a smile to her face. "Well, don't worry dear, I don't think things are as desperate as all that. But we will want to make sure you're wearing some skimpy little thing under your gowns, and we want to be sure the audience has a chance to see what you're wearing. We want the strip and the tease."
I hugged her again, and we walked back into the main audition room where the director and producer were still waiting. "We have our Louise," Lorraine announced, and after sharing hugs with them all, I picked up a copy of the score and a copy of my lines and left for the evening. When I walked out to my car, there was a bit of a chill in the air, and I shivered slightly. But maybe it wasn't from the cold; maybe it was just a little bit of nervousness and excitement as I wondered just what had I gotten myself into.
Chapter 2: Rehearsals
We had four weeks of rehearsals leading into three weeks of performances with shows every Friday and Saturday night. In addition, there would be a preview on the first Thursday evening and a Sunday "family" matinee the second week. Eight performances and only a month to get ready, so I was kept busy pretty much five nights a week. Monday and Wednesday were the ensemble rehearsals, working on some of the group numbers in the first part of the play. Tuesdays and Thursday the main leads got together; we did readings, blocked out our scenes together, and worked on our songs. Saturday I spent several hours practicing with the music director (I guess my singing really wasn't all that strong), and the rest of the day discussing costume decisions with the director and doing some shopping with the designer. Occasionally Lorraine would drop by to get an update and offer her advice.
The strip scene actually includes four strips and each one requires a separate gown. The first one is Louise's debut when she's asked at the last minute to fill in for the missing headliner. She's never done anything remotely like this, and Mama really pushes her into it. She's nervous and awkward and literally has to be directed (by a very loud offstage Mama) as she stumbles through the number. But by the end, she's realized she loves the attention and her confidence grows. This is followed by two quick strips, with only twenty or thirty seconds for costume changes between each. So, if you don't already have the dress off by the end of the strip, you have to get out of it and into the next costume in less than a half minute – no time to change anything else. The fourth strip is a big production number with ten chorus girls starting it off, which gives Louise – meaning, me – about a minute and a half to get into a new outfit.
With the usual staging of this number, the actress can simply wear one set of "protective clothing" – with the budget of a community theater it's usually a bathing suit or leotard, which means that any unzipping during the strips can't go too far or the effect is spoiled. It also means no embarrassing moments backstage, since you have to do your costume changes in plain sight of everyone who's around. The final strip ends with Louise literally wrapping herself in one of the curtains as she peels off the dress, pulling it closed as she finishes singing. It's kind of a tradition that the actress then quickly parts the curtains to give the audience a final peek at her. With community theater productions, the audiences know they're going to see something that's less revealing than what you'd see at a beach or pool. And the director told me that in one local production, the extremely modest actress playing Louise had insisted on wearing a slip (her only concession being that it could be black). The disappointed sighs from the audience were audible even backstage. I began to understand why Lorraine had been so direct with me when I auditioned for the role.
Lorraine had already made it clear we were going to give the audience more than just a brief glimpse of me in a bathing suit. But that left us with two things still to be determined – just what would I be wearing and how long would that "peek" last. The director thought we could play around a bit with the end of the final strip, but Lorraine kept asking what we could do to liven up the first three strips and implying that the final strip should go on a little longer than usual.
I spent two Saturday afternoons with Michelle, the costume designer, poking around stores that rented theatrical outfits in order to come up with the right gowns, something that showed my 34-24-35 figure off to best advantage. These afternoons were the best part of the month for me; I really felt sexy trying on the gowns and I could feel my butterflies fluttering every time I imagined stripping out of them on stage. I also got to buy my first pairs of opera gloves and, during one shopping trip to a lingerie shop with Lorraine and Michelle, I picked out some very special underwear.
It was just before that trip that we finally worked out exactly what I would be wearing under the dresses. Initially Michelle floated suggested that I strip down to a Brazilian bikini for the final number, thinking that would keep us safe from any local regulations and was probably what I would be most comfortable with. She seemed surprised when I told her I already owned a nice little one that I could wear if, as I said, "If that's as far as you want me to go."
"Well, if you feel that way, we could consider some other possibilities," responded Michelle, with a little bit of a devilish grin. "I've been thinking that I'd have to alter some of the gowns we've picked to make sure the bra straps align with the dress straps and we'd still have to worry about what's going to show as soon as you start unzipping. But if you wear a backless strapless bra, I won't have to do a thing. It's a little more revealing when you're doing your quick changes backstage, but it would work for all four dresses."
I'd never worn a bra like that and wanted to be sure it wouldn't fall off at the wrong time. "No worries about that," said Michelle. "They're self adhesive, and your breasts will be fully covered. But from the side or the back, it will look like you're not wearing anything up top." So, I ended up getting my first backless strapless bra, which is really nothing more than two bra cups joined together in the middle.
Lorraine had a few suggestions to make as well. As we were driving to the lingerie shop, she casually speculated, "You know, I think that quite a few members of our audience would appreciate seeing an attractive young woman like Nikki in a thong." Then, without giving me a chance to responded, she turned to Michelle and asked, "Would that work better with some of the dresses you've picked." Michelle was forced to agree it would, eliminating any concern about panty lines. "And it would also let everyone backstage see Nikki's butt when she changes dresses," added Michelle with a little bit of a giggle
We all smiled as Lorraine continued, "Oh, I know Nikki's a total professional and can handle that." "And I have a couple of other ideas that could be a nice surprise for our audience," Lorraine continued. "But let's see what sort of things they can show us at the store."
And that's how we decided that the first strip would be staged the way it always is, ending with nothing more than the drop of a shoulder strap. The second strip involved some funny dialog, which gave me the option of how far I wanted to go with the zipper, and third strip involved a very large hat (and another funny line), so we decided I could vary that depending on the response I was getting from the audience. The fourth strip would have me taking off the dress and popping out from behind the curtains at the very end to show off my bra and thong. Needless to say, I couldn't wait for opening night!
I went through the blocking of the strips with the choreographer during the third week of rehearsals, and of course every night at home. But it wasn't until the final week before our debut that I actually ran through the number with the rest of the cast. Monday was a dress rehearsal of act one, Tuesday we did a run-through of act two, and then Wednesday we tried the entire play in full costume from start to finish. That was it; then we had a preview performance on Thursday night and the official opening on Friday.
Now I should mention that you almost always get to know the other members of the cast really well. There's a lot of down time, sitting around while other people read lines or practice their songs. And this was a really good group of people. In the first part of the show, there's a number with June and her Farmboys, a group of six teenage boys. And one of them, Tulsa, runs off with June at the end of Act One. Then there are seven girls (plus me) who make up Madame Rose's Toreadorables in Act Two. We were all getting to be good friends, sometimes stopping for a cup of coffee after rehearsal or bringing in a pizza to eat for dinner before getting started.