All of Me
Last week my musical theater teacher directed me to create the role of "Susan the temptress, Susan the seductress" as I worked on my torch song. As noted, I have pledged to do everything she says, no matter how anxious or ridiculous it makes me feel. So, in addition to compulsively rehearsing the song, writing out the answers to the six questions, etc., I looked at obstacles to feeling like a temptress, and tried to find ways to address them.
Basically, I am a skinny, gray-haired 59-year-old klutz who tends to dress like a fifties-era kindergarten teacher.
I asked myself, WWRHD?
Rita Hayworth, I decided, would tackle one issue at a time. So: Skinny we could reframe as "stylishly slender," right? My age we could do nothing about, but look at how sexy Elizabeth Taylor, Simone Signoret, Barbara Cook, and so on, were well into their sixties, often beyond. Okay. And by some alchemical miracle I don't begin to understand, "klutzy" tends to translate into "hilarious" onstage.
So we were left with the hair and the clothes, and the attitude.
Rita guided me toward a tag sale in my neighborhood, where a much younger woman was unloading a black dress that, as my mother would say, left nothing to the imagination. For $5.00, it was mine.
Now the hair. I decided, partly as a tribute to Rita, partly to help me get into character, and, okay, partly as a joke, because if people were laughing with me, they wouldn't be laughing at me so much, to temporarily color my hair red.
This is where Rita deserted me. In the drugstore, I found a "glaze" that promised to wash out in a single shampoo. On Sunday afternoon, I did a trial glaze, in preparation for the real thing on Monday.
It turned my hair bright pink, the color of cotton candy. And it wouldn't wash out.
I started frantically IMing friends, most of whom were, unfortunately, too busy having hysterics over my predicament to be of much help. One of them did suggest a henna rinse. "It will cover the pink, and they fade quickly," she said. So I ran out with my troll hair to the health food store.
It did cover the pink--with bright orange. Another friend suggested a "corrective" rinse that then turned it a luscious shade of swamp green.
My son was posting instant updates on Facebook: "My mom's hair is green now! How badass is that?" I drank a lot of wine with dinner and went to bed early.
I awoke hoping it had all been a nightmare, or at least that I had overreacted, but when I looked in the mirror, it was definitely still green. I washed it about six times, then applied a hot oil treatment, recommended by another friend, that was "guaranteed" to remove the color. After that it was both green and greasy.
I had to decide whether to keep washing and miss class, or to just go green. I thought about what Lorraine, my teacher, had said the previous week: "You need to come up here convinced of your character, your situation, and your objective--and fuck everything else." I had committed to listen to her. I got on the train, green hair, skimpy dress, and all.
Onstage, I reminded myself of Lorraine's instructions. I reviewed my character's history: the hot, steamy affair with my classmate Peter's character; the burning need to get him back. "Just take your time," Lorraine coached me. John, the accompanist, would vamp until I was ready. "Get in touch with the emotion, and sing from that place." I embraced, him, caressed him, and teased him--and when I opened my mouth, a big, sexy voice came out.
At the end, the class cheered and hooted. Lorraine rushed up, grabbed my
hands, and cried, "You did it!"
Later, I played the Billie Holiday version for my son. "You know," he said, "you actually sound better than her."
I stared at him.
"No, really. You have a better voice, and you're always on pitch. She went off. But she sang better than you because you can tell that for her whole life people were always telling her how fabulous she was. That's in the way she sings; it makes you pay attention. You never had that."
I don't think I sound better than Billie Holiday, even at her lowest points (and this recording was not one of those). I think the same mechanism was operating that has me convinced that my son is a better guitarist than Jimi Hendrix. But I hear the truth of what he was saying about confidence and conviction.
What I'm discovering, though, is that I can make that happen for myself, by creating a character who has the attributes I need for a particular song, and then inhabiting the character with full commitment--with all of me.
Susan O'Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A fiction writer herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers and other creative artists. She is the author of Getting Unstuck without Coming Unglued: A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity (Seal, 2007). Her Career Coach column appears every Monday on Inside Higher Ed's Mama, Ph.D. blog, and she is a regular guest panelist on Litopia After Dark. Send your questions to her at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.