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Opening to Receive Rather Than Girding to Act

Updated: Apr 30

My life was changed when I met the absolute light beam that is Sheri Sanders (they/she) of Rock the Audition fame, when I was 22 years old and attending the Southeastern Theatre Conference - my first unified audition experience.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with unified auditions, they are conventions at which regional theatres from across the country gather to hold mass auditions to find talent for their upcoming seasons.

Photo credit: 1SHOT STUDIOS, SETC Facebook

Churning out one by one like drops of icing, each performer has only 90 seconds to perform whatever they’d like. The timing is sharp and you will be cut off if you go one second over. By the time you audition, you’ve likely taken weeks to ensure that your 90 second package is tight, rehearsed, and ready to go, no matter what state you’re in. It is one of the most thrilling and stressful experiences I’ve ever had.

One interesting aspect of the Southeastern Theatre Conference (commonly known as SETC) was that we went in to audition in groups of 40 people so that every single person in the group heard every single other person’s audition.

As if this wasn’t enough to psych my young self out, when I got my number assignment, I was doubly horrified - I was singing 39th in my group of 40.

On the morning of my audition, I lazed into a Starbucks before I had to get ready. After getting a coffee and a cheese danish, I plopped into an oversized armchair and looked up to see a beaming being with a waving hand that I motioned over to come join me.

It was Sheri Sanders, whose class I had taken the day prior on the nuanced art of auditioning for pop and rock musicals (an untapped niche at the time that Sheri pioneered).

Sheri bounded over, leaving behind a rainbow trail of infectious joy among the patrons that they passed to get to me. I was honored that a teacher would not only remember me but want to spend their free time chatting with me. This was before I knew that Sheri was as special as she was.

“How’re ya doin?” Sheri asked.

“Nervous,” I answered.

I proceeded to tell them about my positioning in the audition group, how frantic I knew it would make me to hear all of these amazing singers preceding my turn.

“But I have a plan,” I explained.

Sheri perked up to listen.

“I’ve decided to just review my music the whole time,

not listen to anyone else,

and stay in the zone until it’s my turn to go!”

As if they’d been shot, Sheri sat back, aghast.

“Oh God, honey, no!” they exclaimed. “You’ll miss so much if you do that!”

Skeptical that my earmuffs plan wouldn’t work but eager to hear what she would suggest, I asked just that.

“I think,” Sheri said earnestly, “that you should listen to every single audition and enjoy. Notice what you love about them, let yourself be taken on the ride of each person’s performance. That way, you’ll go up to audition full of life rather than shut down from not having paid any attention to the gifts you could have been receiving.”

I paused and noticed a stark difference between how Sheri’s idea made me feel versus my own.

I decided to trust this cheerful, wise sage and tried their advice out in my audition.

Not without nerves, I sat in the back of two rows of auditioners in a hotel conference room a couple of hours later, tentatively opening myself up to the 38 people before me.

Singing their hearts out and giving their all, each performer gave me life like a sip of air with each passing package. I loved their voices, I felt seen by their humanness, and by the time I auditioned 90 seconds x 38 people later, I was so full that I gave one of the most successful auditions of my life.

This gift that Sheri gave me has remained with me throughout the years resonated more strongly the more fascination and love I find for the Meisner technique.

I feel that Meisner is allowing our artistry to be two things -

simple and specific.

Meisner stressed the importance of the simplicity of what he taught. Even in the often-overwrought act of preparing to go onstage, he declared,

“All I’m saying is – don’t complicate it – don’t come in empty.

To expand on this, renowned Meisner teacher William Esper tells us that, when preparing,

“You have to be like a feather in the breeze…or like a cork floating on the ocean…Don’t come to the door girding yourself to act. Come to the door having opened yourself to receive.”

God bless our dear singer selves -

so many years of girding,

so many tools to pull ourselves together,

so many techniques to produce, produce, produce -

with little means to then receive.

How do we find this air of, as Esper suggests, a feather in the wind, a cork in the ocean as we perform? How do we come in full rather than empty as Meisner urges us to?

As Sheri advised, we open ourselves up to receive.

To me, this feels like the opposite of honing in and drilling to focus.

It feels like letting my brain flit like a butterfly from flower to flower - “What do I notice now? And now?”

It feels like cradling my mind like a kitten, letting her be whatever she is - wild, distracted, purring, whatever mood little cats feel like being in moment to moment.

It feels like opening myself up to what’s going on around me - the smell of the holding room, my heart rate increasing as I hear the person singing in the audition before me, the text I just got before singing.

That pre-singing “focus” is feather-like, cork-like.

To me, what Sheri suggested all those years ago was the art of getting full from the life that surrounds us

rather than burrowing inside, making ourselves solely responsible for not going in empty.

In my experience, that drilled, self-involved focus that I intended to have at SETC is the stuff that enforces the dreaded “girding to act.”

When we allow ourselves to be present, even in what may seem like less-than-ideal circumstances like going 39th out of 40, we’re practicing opening ourselves to receive before we even begin to sing.

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