by Nicky Venditti
When I got the call from my agent to audition for Wicked - again, I had already been seen for the show three times. The last time I went in it was between myself and one other guy, and the other guy got it. Instead of letting frustration get the better of me, I chose to trust in the momentum I felt from my last callback and to go for it. In fact, I even recall saying to myself, “I am going to book this job” the morning of the audition, and I may or may not have been looking at myself in the mirror when I said it. Dra-MA. I know.
So, myself, my very colorful outfit, and my messy hair (I was told to show up looking like I just rolled out of bed) showed up steady and ready to kill it. I had no idea at the time that my dramatic mirror proclamation and messy “I don’t care” get up would book me a job that would change the course of my life for the next 10 years.
I was hired to open the second national tour of Wicked as a swing, which did not come as a total surprise as I remember being asked to partner and lift three different girls at the audition. This would be my first time swinging a show, and I definitely had a bit of trepidation about taking on the task. I once again got all cinematic with myself and I said, “self, you can do this!” I also had an inclination that the demanding aspects of being a swing would be good for my noggin, and I was right. The fact that as a swing you have to absorb a ton of information and be ready to execute on a dime requires an immense amount of focus, homework, and (ahem)... wine.
But, with the challenges come the reward of feeling like a total badass in situations like when you go on for your third or fourth track of the week and you’re all like, “I just did that!” The mistakes will happen, it’s a fact, but there is also a life lesson in there about letting go of perfectionism and simply producing from a place of presence and focus when duty calls. This is a philosophy that I take with me into everyday life. (I could go on and on about the many life metaphors that lie within the world of being a swing, but that would require a separate blog. Back to Wicked...)
After my first nine months on the tour, I left to play Paul in the national tour of the A Chorus Line revival. Playing Paul was a dream of mine, and I was thrilled for the opportunity to tell his story and to be a part of the legend that is ACL. Shortly after the tour closed, I was asked to go back to Wicked, this time it was to play Chistery for the final two months of the San Francisco sit-down company. Over the course of the next few years, I would go back and forth between both Wicked national tours to fill in as an unofficial vacation swing. (Yet another benefit of being a swing: you are super valuable!) I eventually ended up back on the second national tour permanently as one of the dance captains.
At this point, I had known the show quite well from my time as a swing, so the progression to DC made sense. I spent almost two years as the DC on the road before I left again to be the assistant to the choreographer for Trip Of Love Off-Broadway. Eventually, in November of 2015, the dance captain position for Wicked Broadway opened up, and I stepped in to take over and I have been with the company ever since.
Having the rare opportunity of being part of a show for over 10 years has truly been a gift, but as you might it imagine there are challenges that come with it as well. A steady paycheck is always nice, and not having to hustle for a gig is also very nice. Seriously: hashtag blessed all the way for all of that. But on the other side of that coin lies the cons of consistency. For the times that I am onstage as an actor in the show, I have to continually check in and practice presence. The slope to running on autopilot is a slippery one, and you have to be mindful to not fall down it when you are doing something that is so in your body that it feels like second nature. For me, this practice usually means taking a moment for myself before the curtain goes up to check in and pull myself into the world of the show. The pre-show rituals and behavior of a long-running show inevitably veer towards casual in nature over time, and it takes a deliberate shift in focus to ground yourself for performance.
My duties as one of the dance captains of the show comes with its own separate rewards and challenges. In addition to the twelve male ensemble tracks that I am required to know and perform as a swing, I have to know the principal choreographic blocking as well so that myself, my co-dance captain and our PSM can all work together in teaching the actors and get them ready to go into the show. This takes about three weeks depending on how many principals we are turning over at one time. Wicked is unique in that the principal cast on average turns over once a year, so the energy (and the rehearsal) is ever flowing. In addition to teaching the new principals, my co-DC and I are also rehearsing with any new ensemble members that are joining or re-joining the company at any given time. Not so surprisingly, this all demands a lot of time, focus, and energy. Being a dance captain or a stage manager for a long-running musical requires showing up and reinvesting in the material again and again to ensure that you are guiding the actors towards success. I think that the constant reinvestment in energy is perhaps the clearest distinction between being a part of a newer show as opposed to a longer running one.
When I think back to when I first ventured into the world of Wicked, I see that I have grown to know the show on a much deeper level over the last 10 years. It sounds like a total clichè, but I don’t really know how else to say it. Starting out as a swing already allowed me to view the staging through a much wider lens than if I had to only learn one track. Then to go on and get to be an integral part of introducing actors to the show as a dance captain and working so closely with them for the weeks right up until their first performance has been a next level experience. Yes, showing up and reinvesting again and again can certainly be tricky at times, but I’m always down for a challenge. And, although it comes with a lot of responsibility, there is something really special about preparing someone to hit the stage for the first time and seeing the work you’ve done together actually manifest. The hours and the energy that I put into the show have made me feel like I am truly a part of something. In the moments that I get to actually step back and take in this beautifully told and staged story, I know that I am a part of something pretty damn special. For that, I am grateful.