Shea Coughlin

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January 3rd, 2020

January - the beginning of audition season; this was not just any audition season, it was the final audition season of my college career. Any job I might book would mark the beginning of my career as a professional actress and dancer. 

I dragged myself out of bed at 6am that morning, by far the earliest I had been awake since the beginning of the holiday season. I had certainly gained a couple of pounds from the Christmas cookies, wine, and lack of exercise. Nonetheless I stuffed myself into the most flattering leotard I could find and headed to the theater to audition for a new musical called Nickle Mines. 

The job was only four weeks long, and I would have to miss some school for this show, but I knew I was perfect for it. I had worked at this theater on 3 different shows in the costume department and I wanted nothing more than to break out of the costume shop and make it onto that stage. The show called for strong female dancers who could pass as high school aged and I fit the bill perfectly. This show was also incredibly compelling. It was a beautiful, brand new musical that was making its professional premier. I knew I had to give this audition everything I had.

As I walked in the theater, I experienced a mix of confidence and nerves. I had worked on a professional show the previous summer. However, I booked that show through a dance teacher who knew and loved me. I was simply not sure my talents would be enough to convince a team of people who did not know me to hire me.

I got a callback that day, tomorrow, I would be at Ripley Grier Studios in New York City.    

January 4th, 2020

Not my first time at Ripley Grier but I certainly was not comfortable there yet.  

When I was called in to sing, my chest tightened. For all my years of dance training, I felt lightyears behind most of my peers when it came to vocal performance. Even after working tirelessly during my college career to improve my voice, I was still not recognized as a proficient singer.

When I entered the room, I decided that I was going to have fun no matter what happened. After singing three different selections, the director asked about two of my closest mentors who were listed on my resume, he had worked with them both on Broadway. That was a big win for me. In this business, talent is a small fraction of getting hired. Having good connections and a good reputation is far more important. I walked out of the audition room feeling confident. Even if I didn’t book the job, I could rest easy knowing I put forward my best work.

January 9th, 2020

I had just about given up on receiving an offer. I was trying to focus on my upcoming auditions instead. But at around 2 in the afternoon, I opened my inbox and saw an email offer with a contract attached. No one was home but the celebration dance performed that day was still exuberant.  This was going to be my first acting job that I had booked without any help from my professors or mentors. This gave me some much-needed confidence that maybe I had what it takes to make performance into a career. All those years of training, hard work, and rejection were finally beginning to blossom into an artistic pursuit that could pay for my groceries too.

 

March 2nd, 2020

 

First day of rehearsals on Nickel Mines. I walked into the theater with some apprehension. I was so used to being on the backstage end of productions that I had a hard time mingling with the cast and found myself gravitating toward the backstage personal that I knew much better. As I slowly introduced myself to the cast, I realized how young I was. I was, as I would later learn, by far the youngest cast member. All I could think to myself was “What were they thinking!? There’s no way I’m qualified to dance next to these people who have all had real careers.” I knew I had something to prove and I was determined to rise to the occasion. 

 

March 4th, 2020

“Fuck. I’m late.” I wasn’t actually late. I was on time, but there’s a saying in the business that early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable. Lateness is a genetic trait that I inherited from my mother which I have been fighting my whole life. I ran through several layers of parking lot to the rehearsal space and slowed my breath and entered the studio as quietly as possible. I was terrified that this would solidify my reputation as someone who is late with the creative team. As a performer, you spend every second in the rehearsal room trying to be the perfect coworker. If you want to get rehired, you have to have the work ethic of a robot and the charisma of JFK. I was given a very challenging scene that was set to music. I went home that evening and drilled it over and over until I knew I could come into rehearsal the next day with the scene perfectly memorized.

 

March 5th, 2020

 I came back to rehearsal the next day with the scene memorized and I was at least 20 minutes early for every subsequent rehearsal. 

After a few days, some of the cast was able to sit down in the break room when they were not rehearsing. We discussed a lot of the themes from the show, and we also discussed the Coronavirus, as though people were getting sick and dying on some other planet, but not here. 

March 7th, 2020

As we became more comfortable with each other, I became enthralled by the stories of some of the older cast members. All the crazy situations they had been through, their opinions on the regulations of Actors Equity, how saturated the business is, and how they found their own voice and artistic identity. One actor said something that day that shocked me. “Find a side gig you love, because on average, a member of Equity only works about 14 weeks per year.” I thought to myself how is that possible? These people are supposed to be supported by the actor’s union and even then, they hardly get any steady work. I have thought about those words almost every day since then. 

March 10th, 2020

Our first day in the theater. I was jumping out of my skin with excitement. I walked onto that stage that I had walked on many times before as a costumer but for the first time, I didn’t feel like I was in somebody’s way by being there. I had an important story to tell, and I was telling it through dance and song. The rehearsal that day was productive, we were even a little ahead of schedule. I had never been on a team that was this organized. I was amazed at what we had accomplished in eight days.

 

March 11th, 2020

 

During a break, the assistant stage manager and I both received an email from our university that school would be shut down for three weeks after spring break because COVID-19 had finally made its way to Connecticut. Many of the other members of the cast and crew were saying that life in NYC was starting to feel a little tense. Nonetheless we had tech and opening to prepare for. We were only one week away from performing the show in front of its first audience.  

 

March 12th, 2020

 

The day of the designer run. I was excited to hear what the designers on the show thought about it. It was already speculated that some important people were going to come see the show. An article about the show had been published on Broadwayworld.com. I felt the momentum of my career building, all this hard work was finally paying off.

Then we saw the artistic director, Dan Levine, enter the theater looking tense. I knew what he was going to say but I wanted so badly for it not to be true. He sat the cast and crew down and told us that he had wanted so badly to see this show go up. He had wanted to at least get through opening weekend and asses whether to close the show after that. Unfortunately, the entire town of Ridgefield was essentially shutting down and our theater was no exception. We were going to run the show one last time for an archive and that would be the only full run of the show we would ever do. 

I was devastated. But I quickly realized how lucky I was to still be living under my parents’ roof. As we all took to our phones before the run through, we realized we were not alone. All the theaters in the country were shutting down that day. No Broadway, no TV, no regional theater, no community theater, no nothing. Conversation quickly turned to unemployment and health insurance. Many of the cast members were waiting for other jobs to start and suddenly found themselves completely out of work. 

We set it all aside for one last run through. Truth be told it was not my best work, I was overwhelmed with emotion and spent most of the show trying to let a monsoon out through a kitchen faucet. After the show was over one of my friends who was in the theater commented how jarring it was to watch me end the show with a sweet, contented smile on my face, and burst into tears the next second. Many of the other actors had a similar experience. 

After the show, there was a general sense of abandon among the cast, we all went out for dinner, you’ve never seen a group of actors eat such calorie heavy foods. But what were they preparing for? There were no shows or auditions coming up. We knew it wasn’t going to matter if we gained a pound or two for a while. The mix of mournful and celebratory energy was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. The words of my cast mate rang in my head “Find a side gig you love…”

Since then I have been trying to heed her words. Focus on the other parts of my life that had not been nurtured due to my ridiculously busy schedule. Some dancers have said that a major injury was the best thing that ever happened to them because they were forced to find balance in their life while they were recovering. That is what this pause on my career feels like. I am lucky that I get to find balance without having to worry about rent or health insurance. So many people I know are failing to make ends meet because our entire industry is gone. But I am also trying to take this period in my life for everything it is worth. Learning how to say no to some things, learning how to take care of my mind and body a little bit better, learning how to stay engaged in an ugly world without loosing hope. It is not easy; my instinct is to continue to overload myself like I have in the past. I don’t feel the improvement yet, but I feel that the work can lead to something beautiful, something worth sharing when the time comes to share the same space again.      

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