This week I’m pulling out an excerpt of my award-winning memoir, Fire in the Hole: A Year in the Life of the World’s Sorriest Stuntwoman. (Yes, I was too lazy to write something new.)
I wrote this under the pseudonym of Colleen Kelli, but it is definitely written by yours truly (Aging Gal). I hope you enjoy this story of my audition at a small western theme park after I moved from Los Angeles, where I had acted on several television programs, to Albuquerque. It is certainly a fish-out-of-water tale. For those wanting to read the entire book, you may order it on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. If you would like an autographed copy, please email me at HeatherMcPhaul@aol.com. Enjoy!
Possessing the naiveté of one who’s been isolated in the theatre, I arrive expecting the auditions to be held inside on a proscenium stage with maybe some coffee served on the side. But Gunsmoke Gulch is aptly named. It’s a makeshift Western town made up of retail stores and restaurants and of course the stunt show set, all of which surrounds an actual dusty trail. And it is in the dirt of the stunt show set where the auditions are held this blindingly bright desert morning. The gesture of free coffee would be nice, but impossible to drink as the heat is 100-plus degrees and climbing, a typical Fahrenheit in New Mexico summers.
I arrive early and am greeted by Marshal Dillon. He is a jolly fellow, and he and I chat easily about life at Gunsmoke Gulch and at its sole competitor in town, Old Albuquerque Studios. Dillon worked at Old Albuquerque for many years as, he points out, did many of the employees of Gunsmoke Gulch.
My fellow auditioners meander in slowly, sporadically interrupting Dillon’s tales of the New Old West in Albuquerque. Among the others auditioning is a man I call Elvis because he sports not only the King’s pompadour from the 1950’s, but also his gut from the 70’s. Then there’s Tae Bo Girl and Soccer Girl. Both girls acknowledge being “into” their relative sports. They are barely out of high school with the rock hard bodies to prove it. I am less than fond of them. And, finally, there’s Jungle Boy. Jungle Boy moves like a chimpanzee and looks as if he’s been raised by wolves. He is so frenetic to perform stunts that bits of foam ooze from the corners of his mouth. I don’t get too close to Jungle Boy in case he’s not up to date on his rabies shot.
It is forty-five minutes past our call time when our potential future boss, Stunt Coordinator Doyle, hurries onto the dusty trail waving the reason for his delay: our freshly Xeroxed job applications.
We each take an application to fill out. One of the questions asks us to “Write a little story about yourself and why you want to work here.” The word “optional” follows in parentheses. I take the option and write, “Once upon a time there was a girl who worked in Hollywood. She was happy there until the big, bad Hollywood bosses clasped the chains on her ankles and said, ‘Give us your life, your liberty, your first born; in other words, we own you 24/7 forever and ever, amen.’ That’s when she decided to make a move to Albuquerque, where the air is particulate-free. She saw an ad in the Weekly for paid acting work. It was a dream come true and, hopefully, she will live happily ever after.”
I finish writing and realize everyone is staring at me; I am the last one done. I hand in my application, and we are all given monologues from which to do a cold reading. Mine is Sally Bowles, a character most folks know from the movie musical Cabaret, only my monologue is from the non-musical stage play, I Am a Camera. Sally Bowles? Shouldn’t I be reading Miss Kitty from Gunsmoke? Barbara Stanwyck from Big Valley? What does Nazi-era Sally Bowles have to do with a Western town? To top it off, Sally Bowles is described in the preface to the monologue as “girlish.” I am thirty-six years old and trying not to trip in the dunes of these dusty trails.
I perform the monologue, recalling my words to Doyle, “Just so you know my background, I am an actress, not a stuntwoman, and I recently moved here from L.A.” That’s Los Angeles to you, little man, Hollywood, the big time. Yuck. How arrogant. Sometimes I make myself want to puke. Right now, for one. Because as I perform my monologue, I cannot finesse the movements of my body in this sand trap. I over-exaggerate; I am quite bad by Hollywood standards. No, that’s too kind. I stink. I haven’t been this embarrassed about an audition since I was asked to sing a show tune for the casting directors of a variety show in New York. I didn’t have a show tune in my repertoire. I didn’t even sing. And no one had mentioned singing a show tune until I arrived on the stage. So I thought on my feet. And belted out:
Let me tell you a little story ‘bout a man named Jed…
I sang the entire theme from The Beverly Hillbillies for this small theatre full of strangers—casting people, directors, producers, god knows who. When I finished, I looked out to gauge my audience. Not one person cracked a smile. No giggle, no nothing. Silence. A sterile “Thank you” to dismiss me and my hillbilly silliness. Excuse me, I felt like saying, it wasn’t like I was auditioning for the Metropolitan Opera, it was just some stupid street fair. But underneath it all, I was mortified I had so misjudged the situation. Much like now.
I’m an actress from Hollywood, dear boy. Which is why I’m auditioning at a theme park in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
I do my best to save face. I jog off after my monologue, appearing to be full of youthful energy, hoping they don’t notice the gulps of air I have to take to keep from passing out before arriving at what better not be just a mirage of a water fountain sitting beyond the set.
I guzzle a couple of gallons, then seek shelter in the shade. I steer clear of Elvis and Jungle Boy, and gawk at Tae Bo and Soccer who are practicing kick-boxing and yoga in the beating sun. Soccer contorts her body into a pretzel and I visibly wince.
“How’d your monologue go?”
I jump, startled by the hulking fellow with long hair and a goatee who stops me.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you,” he says.
“No, it’s okay,” I say. “My monologue went well, I think. Fine. No, not great. Not really my best work. I stunk actually.”
“It’s been forever since I’ve acted,” he says.
“What have you done?” I ask.
“Oh, I got my master’s in theatre a few years ago,” he says. “But I’ve been teaching since then.”
“English. Math. Science. Tutoring, actually.”
“What about you?” he asks me.
“I just moved here from L.A.,” I say.
“Well, then, you should have a good shot at this,” he says.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I say. I pretend to be modest, but the truth is I suck up his compliment like it’s a scoop of Baskin-Robbins.
“My name’s Ed Spivey,” he says.
Ed looks like a cross between ZZ Top—long hair, beard, and moustache, and Captain Kangaroo—big and jovial with kind, smiling eyes.
After everyone has finished his or her monologue, Doyle calls us all together. Me, Ed, Elvis, Jungle Boy, Ed, Soccer and Tae Bo. And the latest addition to our little group of Old West wannabes—the Broadway star. Broadway shows up an hour and a half into the audition with her infant child, her “old man” (an elderly gent, but I don’t know if she means he is her father or her husband), and a continually lit cigarette. Broadway is not much older than me with a touch of trailer trash about her. I hear her claims of dancing in numerous Broadway shows, yet I am skeptical.
“It’s time for stunts,” Doyle announces. “Does anyone need knee pads?”
I raise my hand. I am the only one to raise my hand. Although I have full range of movement, my knee injury is still less than a month old and the scar fire engine red. I pick out the cleanest pair of knee pads which are still filthier than anything I have ever considered putting on my body, including the time after high school P.E. that the seniors forced us freshman to wear their sweat-soaked bras as superhero masks. The knee pads are, in fact, so yellowed and sour that I have to remind myself I cannot catch a venereal disease from wearing sporting equipment.
Then Doyle says he’s adding a stunt to today’s audition. He wants everyone to climb the unsteady obstacle course of boxes up to the roof of the Old West hotel, hurdle the balcony railing first on one side then on the other, and scurry down the wall blindly feeling for the 2×4 footholds that are made for the leg reach of an NBA player. Jungle Boy soars through this stunt, a blur flying up and over the building. Tae Bo and Soccer perform like Olympians. Even Elvis swiftly climbs his way across the course. But Broadway and I…we are the last to drag ourselves through this hellacious trapeze. Broadway is too busy smoking her cigarette to notice how much slower we are than everyone else including Ed and his Captain Kangaroo body.
“You’ve done Broadway?” I ask, dodging her second-hand smoke.
“Yeah, you name it,” she says, exhaling smoke in my face. “Cats, Chorus Line, Cinderella.” She stomps her cig out on the balcony, and two steps later, lights up again.
I watch from above as Broadway strains to straddle the railing then blindly flails her tippy-toe to feel for the first foothold, her cigarette dangling from her lips. Marshal Dillon is down below to provide support, both physical and mental. For his efforts, he is showered with Broadway’s cigarette ashes.
“Hold on there, pardner,” he calls out to my counterpart in couch potato-ality. “Give me yer hand ‘n I’ll hep ya down. Easy now.”
I watch Broadway’s tentativeness and think, you were a dancer on Broadway? You can’t even get your fat ass off this roof.
Then it’s my turn.
I strain to straddle the railing and blindly flail my tippy-toe to feel for the first foothold.
“I got ya, pardner. Give me yer hand,” Marshal Dillon hollers. The worst thing is—worse than being no more agile than Broadway—is that Tae Bo is now breathing down my collar. Doyle has instructed everybody to go a second round on Break-Your-Neck Balcony Bingo.
“Jest set yer foot down rit there,” Dillon tells me. I can’t see a thing, including where “rit there” is. My right foot lands on the top foothold. Only seven more feet to go. I swing my left foot over the railing, and my fingernails drain of blood as they struggle to grip nothing. It’s like an Old West rock-climbing wall. My left foot waves wildly, tentatively testing the air for a place to perch.
“It’s rit here,” Dillon says, evading the kicks of my Nike until he can nab my extremity and land it on the 2×4. From there, I leap into Dillon’s arms, grateful to be on steady ground and appalled that I must feed myself right back into this torture chamber. Before I can even release myself from Dillon’s grasp, Tae Bo has jogged past me, nary a sweat bead on her body.
After we have all completed the second round, Doyle says, “Now I’d like everybody to show me their shoulder rolls.” Unless that’s a cousin to the pizza roll, I have no idea what he’s talking about.
“I want everyone to roll in the pit, leading with their shoulder and landing on their feet. Like this.” And Doyle demonstrates what looks like a fast somersault that catapults him to his feet.
Aha, a somersault. Something for us civilians.
When it comes my turn, I lacquer on my actress smile and throw myself into a fast somersault, hurling my body head over feet into what we are promised is the soft dug-up dirt of the pit. I don’t land on my feet. I don’t even land on my butt. I land on my neck and lay flat-out in the dirt of the pit. I realize I have been lied to. The pit is not soft unless compared to, oh, say, a bed of nails. For a nanosecond, animated Disney birdies circle my head. Then I remember I am an actor! I am a performer! I drag myself to my feet and jog to the back of the line where this time we get the privilege of “gathering air.” In layman’s terms that means launching our bodies into the air before landing on what I later learn is really only sand-covered asphalt. Doyle was right. These are no somersaults.
“I wanna see each of you take a reaction to a punch,” Doyle says, eliciting the aid of one of his stunt elves. “Like this,” he continues, and the elf decks him. Doyle’s head spins 180 degrees and he flops to the ground with all the animation of Wile E. Coyote. “Now it’s your turn.”
Doyle and the stunt elf don’t actually hit me, or Elvis, or Broadway (although I’d want to hit her), they just slap one hand to the other in front of my face. When I hear the slap, I am to drop to the ground with exaggerated effect. I attempt the agility of Wile E. Coyote and achieve the befuddlement of Elmer Fudd.
“Again, Colleen,” Doyle coaches. “Whip your head around first and then your body follows.”
He slaps. I whip. I fall. In my mind I move so fast, I am certain I have become a cartoon character myself.
“You still need to take more of a reaction,” Doyle says. I smile, positive I have whiplash. I say a prayer he doesn’t make me do it a third time. He doesn’t.
“All right,” Doyle says. “Let me hear your best cowboy yell. Colleen, you go first.”
I panic. I don’t have a cowboy yell. Stella Adler didn’t teach me a cowboy yell.
“Le-de-o-de-le-de-o-de-lo!” Looks of confusion from Doyle, Tae Bo, and Elvis. I gulp with embarrassment. “That’s a yodel, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Doyle says. “We’ll come back to you.”
My second cowboy yell is much better, mostly because I get to listen to everyone else and imitate them. “Whhhhooooooooooooeeee!”
“Good,” Doyle says.
“Yeah,” I say. “It helps to think Marshall Dillon instead of Heidi.”
“Well, that’s it,” Doyle says to the group. “I’ll call and let you all know.”
“We have to go?” I ask as everyone, all my new friends, drift away. I hang for a bit and watch Doyle and his elf. I notice they don’t talk to Marshal Dillon. Why? I wonder. Aren’t they all stuntmen?
I look up and spot Broadway walking my way, wanting to talk. I pretend not to see her and bolt to my car.
My body is literally shaking on the drive home, it has not had such a work-out in…ever.
I amble into the house, a bow-legged cowpoke after four hours of stunt auditioning. My throat is dusty and sore; my head aches from the sun; and grains of Gunsmoke Gulch fill my ears, eyes, nose, mouth…and underwear. When I remove my panties, a fistful of granules fall to the tile floor. I sweep up the scattered particles of sand. I shower and chug two beers. I eat dinner and down a Vicodin. I fall into bed and sleep like a rock.
The next day I move like Frankenstein. My head only turns in one direction, and I’m still blowing sand out of my sinus cavities and digging dirt out from under my fingernails. Yet I have to laugh over my experience. I was a stuntwoman for a day. There’s no way in hell Doyle will hire me over Tae Bo and Soccer. And, frankly, that’s fine. Let the nubile 20-year-olds have their stupid stunt work.