“Hey, are you auditioning for ‘Octets?’”

I got this question from all the theatre kids towards the end of last semester. During the time of department auditions, a lot of students — myself included — were curious about the “Octets” audition poster we saw hanging around campus. It was a different performance opportunity, one that was outside the theatre department production season.

“Octets” is a show written, composed and directed by Miami Students. While some students turn their nose up at the idea of a student production, I was particularly intrigued by this opportunity.

Auditions for “Octets” were coming up at the end of November, but no one really knew what it was about. There was no full script to read, no cast recording to listen to, just an audition flyer and a link to a brief description of the show, including character bios and audition information.

Why not? There’s honestly nothing to lose, was the mindset I developed as auditions approached.

So I went for it. I auditioned. I prepared the song “Too Darn Hot” from “Kiss Me Kate,” sang some scales with the pianist and did a cold reading.

Next thing I know, I got a callback. They wanted to see more of me. It was for a small role, but it was a chance to sell myself again.

I went to callbacks where we danced, sang and read for different characters. I experimented, had lots of laughs and a ton of fun in the process.

And that evening, I got the phone call.

Some people dream of originating a stage role in their career, whether in a Broadway musical or with a theatre company in Los Angeles. But here I was, only four previous musical productions under my belt, presented with the opportunity to originate the role of Dwayne in “Octets: A New Musical.”

I found this to be an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but I started to worry about what was in store having not read the full script, not knowing much about the music and not knowing how worthwhile a student production would be.

My worries and doubts were proven wrong.

Getting into the routine of rehearsals was somewhat rough. The lead character, Clay, has a line about “busting his ass with nineteen hardcore credit hours,” and I was quite literally experiencing that. Finding time to commit myself to everything I was involved in — juggling twenty credit hours, choir, an a cappella group, my school work and auditions for summer work  — on top of this musical was difficult.

And the fact that I was the first to portray the role of Dwayne scared me.

Dwayne is the average jock, a social butterfly, who always knows what to say at the right time. I am the opposite of him. This character challenged me to step out of my comfort zone as an actor, but I always worried: Am I doing this character justice? Am I embodying what the playwright had in mind when writing this character?

With this concern came a lot of character work. Establishing a middle and last name, age, job or hobbies, interests, personality type and relationships with the other characters helped me along the journey of becoming Dwayne. Creating Dwayne’s background wasn’t challenging, but not having someone explicitly telling me whether my interpretations were right or wrong left me anxious.

“Octets” itself is an ensemble heavy show, so each character, no matter how big or small, drives the plot in some fashion. So much work went into learning the music, the choreography and the blocking that the closer we got to show week, the more I just wanted to get it over with. We had our good rehearsals, but we also had our fair share of bad rehearsals.

At some points in the process, I saw the potential for a great show, but there were many times where I was so discouraged that I wanted to quit.

The Thursday rehearsal before show week, by the time we had finished learning all of the music, choreography and blocking, we were doing full runs. Right from the start of our run, I knew it wasn’t going to be our best. With a reality check form the director, we picked up our energy for the second act, but overall our performance was disappointing, causing me to doubt if we’d have a good show by opening night.

All of my doubts subsided by our opening night performance, the world premiere of “Octets: A New Musical.” All of our time, energy and efforts throughout the rehearsal process were going to finally pay off. Having the opportunity to perform an original student work in front of four sold out crowds, to originate a role in such an early stage in my theatre career, to make art with such a talented group of students is an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything.

This project made me realize the power in optimism and community. We had our highs and lows throughout the process, but we all kept going. The playwright and director, Austin Lamewona, was vulnerable enough to take his three year project idea and turn it into a reality, not knowing what the outcome would be. He saw potential in his work, in me and in the entirety of the cast. We all made sacrifices, we all faced challenges, but we collectively overcame them in the process. And most importantly, we all put on a damn good show.

And the audience feedback was overwhelmingly positive:

“It wasn’t what I was expecting, but in a good way.”

“It blew my socks off. It was vibrant and somewhat representative of today’s campus culture. I think this show could make it big someday.”

“It was refreshing to see a show about young people that wasn’t very clearly written and designed by older people. One of my favorite things was seeing my friends in a show that was so authentic in nature, and conveyed mental health and interpersonal conflict in a realistic way.”

“This production was very professional in every aspect.”

Being a part of this project made me realize my love for what I do, and I am glad to have gone through the journey with an extraordinary group of people.

smithd21@miamioh.edu

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