Back when I was a young, wide-eyed music student in my home state of North Carolina, I was looking for a music-related summer gig after my sophomore year. Somehow, I caught wind of an audition in Chapel Hill where all of these outdoor drama companies from across the country were auditioning singers and dancers for the summer. Each audition was for like, twenty companies at once.
So I auditioned and got offered a chorus part at the biggest outdoor drama in the U.S. called, “TEXAS” in Amarillo. I thought, if it’s the biggest show, it’s most likely the best. I got other offers, but this one paid the most and I thought it would be the best opportunity for me.
I packed up my car and drove to Amarillo. It was the first time I left the state by myself. I was 20 years old. I found a crappy apartment in Amarillo for the summer and was super stoked to begin rehearsals.
A lot of adversities were thrown my way as I started to settle in at Amarillo: the apartment was unfurnished, so I had to buy all of this furniture for myself ($$) and I was almost arrested at the complex’s pool for mistakenly being part of a massive pool party.
The first day of rehearsals finally arrived, and we mostly just did acting exercises. Word got out that day that the singer who was performing the lead role of the show, Calvin Armstrong, wasn’t going to be returning to sing the part after singing there for many years. The company needed a new lead. They decided to audition people from the chorus for the part. This was my big chance. At the end of the next day, I got the offer! Here I was, Calvin Armstrong, the lead! I couldn’t be any happier.
Calvin Armstrong’s dialogues, monologues, and songs are about two-thirds of the show, so I had a lot of music and lines to learn in just a few weeks. Those were some gruesome rehearsal because as I was still memorizing the show, the director would grill me on my acting chops. He would stop the entire rehearsal for even the smallest mistakes. For instance, if I began to cross the stage with my downstage foot, he would be up in arms. He was absolutely right to do so, and I learned so much about being on stage by getting thrown into the deep end. It was hard-core because I had never had any acting training prior to this experience.
Just before the last week of rehearsals, I was asked to go to the general director’s office. He spoke quickly and said, “Lucas, there’s no easy way to tell you this. We have to let you go.” I was shocked. I asked, “What?! Why? Did I do something wrong?” He replied with, “The original Calvin Armstrong would like to come back, and we just think he will be better.” He wouldn’t even allow me to stay and sing in the chorus. I just said okay, and left.
I found a pay phone and with a lump in my throat, I called my father who was always there for me. He couldn’t believe it. He reminded me that I had a contract. My naïve self had totally forgotten about that. He told me to look closely at the contract for any firing stipulations, and to also ask for a severance package. None of these things had occurred to me—I had no clue! He said that since I had spent so much money just to get to the gig, it was only fair to receive a severance package.
I went back to the general director and asked about the contract stipulations for firing an employee. He didn’t even hesitate, and pointed to the exact sentence in the contract: “With or without cause we can release you from this contract.”
I felt so defeated. I asked about a severance package (fancy word for me at the time) and for the first time, this guy looked at me like I was a real human. He offered a ridiculously low amount but being a young singer, I was terrible at negotiating. I just showed him some emotion—confusion, and sadness. I talked to him about the money I had spent on gas, food, my rental apartment, plus all the extra furniture. To my surprise, he offered me a little more money, and I left his office.
It was a beautiful day outside, but I just felt so fuzzy-headed and foggy. I couldn’t believe what had happened. I thought I was doing such a good job and I had JUST finished memorizing the role. My first instinct was to throw myself into something fun—I had been working to the bone for the past 2 weeks, 10-12 hours a day. So I went to an amusement park nearby.
I took a ride on a roller coaster—the oldest working roller coaster in the U.S. It was made out of wood. I got to the top of the drop and I just started balling my eyes out thinking, “My career is over! Word is going to get out from Amarillo to other opera companies and I’ll never work again! No one will ever hire me.”
I went home with my tail between my legs. My best friend, John Woodall, was there for me. He told our mutual friend, Brian Franklin, who was working at Horn in the West, another outdoor drama theater, in Boone, NC. The director at Horn in the West heard about my story and remembered me from the audition back in Chapel Hill. He immediately offered me a position in the chorus. I felt like I was lifted out of the muck. Somebody out there still wanted to hear me sing, and was willing to hire me!
I was paid $11 per rehearsal day and $22 per performance. My buddy let me sleep on an air mattress for $50/month.
Today, I laugh so hard when I remember this story. At the time, I was so devastated because I couldn’t see the larger picture and look past it. But this experience helped me become the singer I am today. It taught me that no matter how far down I sink, it will never be too far to come back from.
It’s never over until you say it’s over.
You might get fired, you might not be good enough, you might get rejected, but it’s no one’s place to tell you to quit your dreams.
And just because you have one setback, your entire career isn’t in the can. All is never lost. The right place for you will always appear. Oh… and read your contracts!
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