by Rory Donovan
Imposter syndrome is real. And in no other place is it more prevalent than in the theatre, particularly musical theatre.
The idea that you’re not where you belong and at any moment you will be found out and asked to leave. I guess our director David Leveaux sensed this energy in the cavernous basement rehearsal space at St. Paul the Apostle Church on 59th Street. He approached the cast during our first music rehearsal and asked if he could have moment to share something with us. What followed was one of the most important and personally effective speeches I have ever heard from a director. He granted us permission to be in the room.
Of course I’m paraphrasing, and he delivered it in the much more charming, eloquent, and very British manner we would all come to know and love him for. But at its core the message was clear: we, the members of the ensemble, have permission to be here. He let us know that we were each individually in that room for a very specific reason. He knew exactly who we all were and what we could do, and that’s what he wanted to see. It was permission to bring nothing less than our whole, unique selves to this project. He was asking us as an ensemble not to blend in, but stand out.
This fed directly into his next message (and this one I remember verbatim). “Ensemble is not a synonym for ‘structured anonymity.’” Like I said, charming and eloquent. He lamented that the ensembles of Jesus Christ Superstar all to often fall into the category of a generic Greek chorus. He begged us push against the notion that the ensemble of Jesus Christ Superstar is utilitarian, and instead to create a group of individuals, ourselves. He had only one request and this was his final message. When making choices “choose love, love, and more love.” He encouraged us to avoid making choices that stemmed out of anger or hate, which he dismissed as “easy” and “overdone.” But to instead make the choice that is born out of love. Hate is rejection, which is easy, and love is connection, which can be terrifying. Make the terrifying choice.
He finished the speech and let us get back to work feeling empowered and, more importantly, relieved. Relieved that we had permission to be in this room and that we weren’t here by some cosmic accident. At no time would a P.A. politely walk up, tap us on the shoulder and say, “I’m so sorry, there has been some mistake. You’re an untalented hack and David would like you to leave with your head hung in shame.” We were the ensemble of Jesus Christ Superstar Live, ready and willing to love, love, and more love. And by love, love, and more love, David didn’t mean for us to all wallow all over the stage in some Hair-esque cuddle puddle (although cuddle puddles were not uncommon- who doesn’t love a cuddle puddle.) He simply wanted our intentions and our story to be one that was born of love. Love of Justice, Love of Jesus, Love of the poor, love of community, love of each other.
And whether he knew it or not, David planted the seeds that day for one of the most judgment-free rehearsal rooms of which I have ever been a part. The insecurities and fear of judgment that can exist in the rehearsal room had all but vanished and we were left with what can be best described as a free and open play space. We were all collectively willing and eager to engage. Eye contact was met with that very specific smile that said, “We got this; We’re in this together.” It was a room where when you reached out to grab someone’s hand, they squeezed yours tighter. Support was never in short supply on either side of the table.
This was especially true for those of us who were understudying certain principal roles. Now I use the term “understudy” in a very loose sense. Loose because there was no actual chance for us to perform the role during the taping. We were closer to “rehearsal stand-ins” since principal actor availability was spotty, especially during those first few weeks. But if we were stand-ins, we were treated as such in name only. We were given full liberty to create, explore, and have fun with these roles.
Understudying can be a tricky thing. As actors we are conditioned to always want (need) to establish our value, but as an understudy you never want to seem like you’re claiming ownership over a role. In this room, none of that mattered. They knew our value and we knew that we were only “renting” these roles. The only thing that mattered to the team was that you brought your whole self to whatever you were doing. And the result was nothing short of thrilling. I joked with my fellow understudies that one of my favorite things about us was that we never once marked. As amazing as it was to watch Justin blow the roof off the room singing “Gethsemane,” Heath absolutely shred “Heaven on Their Minds” or wünderkind Micalea bring us to tears with “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” it was never seen as a challenge to the actors holding the role. Instead it was a collective celebration of our whole selves, and to bring anything less than our whole selves would ultimately be a disservice to the process. We knew we weren’t doing it on the day and this was the only time we’d get, so why the hell not have some fun. And that’s what it was, we were all having fun. No ego, no insecurity, just fun.
And that was the room that David Leveaux created with that speech. That was the room choreographer Camille Brown created when we realized she would never judge us as non-dancers, but instead celebrate and challenge us and, in my humble opinion, make us look damn good in the process. And it all started with a very simple ingredient. Permission. Permission to be ourselves. Permission to bring our talent. Permission to make the wrong choice and laugh about it. Permission to have fun.
And most importantly, permission to Love, Love, and more Love.