This week, we've teamed up with the folks at Groundhog Day for our "Creating Punxsutawney" week at The Ensemblist. Everyday this week, we will bring you an insider look at how the talented ensemble of the show developed their characters. Today, friend of the podcast Heather Ayers (On A Clear Day You Can See Forever) shares how her own mother inspired her role in the show.
Last September, I was happily living with my boyfriend in LA while unhappily not finding much work. During said down time, I started a project to help feed my creative side: I taped myself reading actual emails from my Mom as my Mom. My sister Becca and I have always done impressions of her because she consistently has such a cheery outlook on absolutely everything which we find both baffling and hilarious. I called the series “Good Morning Dear” because that’s how she opens every email to us. (Maybe to everyone - she’s that sunny!) Little did I know, as I was cultivating my Mother character, I was also creating my Mrs. Lancaster.
I received an email from my agents asking me to submit an audition tape for the musical version of Groundhog Day. I had been cast by Jim Carnahan in the revival of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever starring Harry Connick Jr. and Jessie Mueller. Plus the sides resonated with me. The tape was recorded, emailed and forgotten - a technique I have honed as I have been known to plan out my entire future on the sheer excitement of a possible opportunity. But this time, a callback! Which isn’t crazy, except when you live on the opposite side of the country. I’ve made that flight many times, and the pressure of the price tag mixed with jet lag is not an ideal audition cocktail. But you gotta go, right!?!
Upon arrival, I found myself “learning” three dance combinations containing steps with names like, “I’m cold!” “Over here!” and, my personal favorite, “M’boot’s stuck!” Believe me when I say they wanted to feel all those exclamation points in the execution. Good news: they gave us a day to practice at home. Bad news: I’d have to survive a Peter Darling dance call before I could sing and read! So this actor/singer/mover pushed aside her sister Becca’s coffee table, rolled the rug up and “repetition, repetition repetition.” Big apologies go out to her downstairs neighbor for that tap combo...
I was grateful for the time to get my body and brain on the same page so, on the day, I wouldn’t feel like a huge asshole, just a tiny pucker. (I can say “asshole” because our writer Danny Rubin uses it in the script. “Pucker” you’re just gonna have to relax and deal with.)
Day of: I’m workin’ it. My confidence wilts when, to really seal the deal, they throw a fourth combination at us to see how we handle it on the spot. Hope fades. But I cling to the wisdom I was taught by Karyl Morrison, my first elementary school dance teacher: “distract ‘em with lots of teeth.” And I’m singing! Out comes my favorite Pat Benatar! I’m reading the sides!
Well, my Mom is. Oh, side note, I’m wearing my latest thrift store treasure: a cardigan embroidered with women in long dresses riding horses and playing croquet. When director Matthew Warchus comments on my fashion choice, I blithely inform him that these are the sports that women are allowed to play. Maybe that’s why I wound up with the old lady part...
A year ago, Broadway and NYC seemed so far away. Today, I am laughing every day with this amazing cast which truly is an ensemble. I only wish I’d been warned how much the aging women of Punxsutawney actually dance!