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  • Writer's pictureJessika Brust

Have It All, Lose It All, Part III

Updated: Mar 8, 2020

Click for Part I.

Click for Part II.

David and I were trying to bond, to feel less like we were singing opposite a stranger. We wanted to get comfortable together and strike up a friendship, but with Caroline (my supervising Artistic Associate) hovering around, controlling any time spent that was relevant to rehearsing, it was impossible. She insisted on running the show and argued with any suggestion David offered as to how things had been simplified for a smoother performance, so we more or less got in the habit of buttoning up to let her get it over with, so we could be dismissed.

Today we were blessed with downtime between rehearsal and a show, and I'd asked him if he would direct me to the sun deck, the one crew were permitted to use. He decided to join me.

"Things were insane when I first started with the company," he was saying. "You think Caroline's bad? She learned it from the original two producers. I had been rehearsed and started my performance contract, all in the normal timeframe, when they boarded the ship to create some new shows. They did fantastic work, but were pushy, always changing their minds, had no patience for errors, even when it was after they'd altered something and failed to explain it clearly. Everyone in the cast was in tears every day, and for me -- it was entirely too much to handle. I was still getting used to the regular shows, and I'm not a dancer by any means, and I was having family problems back home that were difficult to be away from -- combined with those rehearsals that were several hours long where they degraded you constantly -- I had an all-out meltdown, where I broke out in hives so badly that my skin, all over my body, peeled off in sheets."

"What?! As in...literally...?"

"Yes, peeled off in a bloody mess. I was medically disembarked."

"Oh my God, for how long?"

"A few months, it took a while for my skin to grow back."

We got lost in our own thoughts, dozing off in the Vietnamese sun. I was certainly living the same type of pain he'd felt, but my coping mechanisms were different. If I let my emotions get the better of me, I become intellectually paralyzed, and cannot function. I have to remain calm to keep learning. If I'm feeling confident I can still joke around and have a good time, but when in overdrive, I put on a poker face and power through it, and get more and more withdrawn. Theatre people tend to expect a more emotional response to stress, and I've seen my internalization of thought make my colleagues and superiors suspicious of me before. This contract was no exception -- they mistook my objectiveness for apathy, and would search my face for some kind of indication that I was upset for having made a mistake, or was emotionally invested in perfection. Their assumption that I didn't care couldn't have been further from the truth, but if I had given the emotional response they were seeking, it would be Game Over for me.

Yet, I'd just learned that this company kept David, even after he'd stressed himself to the point that his skin peeled off; one would think they'd prefer employees who weren't quite so susceptible to stress. When they hired me, they told me up front how intense it was going to be in the beginning, and I was handling it objectively, per my style. Surely I would survive with my job in tact, since I was handling it better than he had -- and the company had kept him on for the past 14 years!

My stress was manifesting itself physically in other ways, however: I got a bad ear infection, and my mattress was so terrible my neck threw itself out. But these were manageable problems that I'd dealt with before. With the help of the ship's medical facilities and some plusher mattress padding, I was able to continue working without missing a day.

I even tried to utilize a bit of humor in hopes of relaxing my castmates around me. I knew I could appear intense when I shut down into high-pressure learning mode, so I made a few attempts at being more approachable. A handful of castmates seemed to get me (mostly the guys), but many did not (mostly the girls). During a run through of our Broadway show, I was using the opportunity to practice some challenging costume transitions. I had to draw on cat whiskers for 'Grizabella' and practice washing them off before going on stage for Mama Mia -- wouldn't a French mustache achieve the same practice, but be a bit more fun during the monotony of a run-through? I certainly thought so.

I squeezed the 'Grizabella' head piece over her long draping coat, and made my entrance with the finest curled mustache the world ever did see. My blocking walked me through the other 'cats' on stage, making eye contact and being rejected by each one.

I first locked eyes with Seth, a sexy young Aussie who got on well with me. He let out a "ha HA!" as the first person to notice my face. Other dancers turned to look, and instead of reacting with a laugh, they seemed to take it as a rebuff, then turned to scold Seth with scornful glares for having found it amusing.

What's wrong with these people? I thought. My last company would've been in stitches.

For the rest of Cats, no one looked at me. Even when they were blocked to do so, their gaze was averted. My attempt at lightening the mood had backfired.

There was something I found extremely uncomfortable that my colleagues did find entertaining, however: I was required to wear thongs for the shows. I'd gone out and bought two nude G-strings specifically for this job, but wanted to avoid wearing them whenever possible. Not only were they uncomfortable on my lady goods and let in different drafts up skirts, but the string across my hips gave me a muffin top where I otherwise wouldn't have one. I'd rather wear bikini cut panties and have a barely noticeable seam over my butt cheeks, than a blatantly obvious roll of fat above my pelvis. I was already heavy on stage compared with my bean-pole thin castmates -- I didn't need undergarments creating extra flub to reinforce to the audience that I'm the 'fat one'.

I knew when I accepted this job that I'd have very little control over my time or my body, but I thought I'd at least have control over whether or not I had a band of elastic stretched over my anus. How wrong I was. My reasoning for wearing different underwear when a thong wasn't necessary fell on deaf ears, and I complied with the requirements, defiantly strutting around my new muffin top. The ladies snickered amongst each other and looked as if they'd never heard such absurd complaints in their lives. They would glance at me askance and giggle, as if to say, Who ever heard of a woman who doesn't like to wear sexy lingerie, putting her ass cheeks on display?

Well, I'd defiantly think back. My man's so crazy about me, he rips it all off without even looking to see what I've got on.

Even though I did as was demanded of me, the line captains got in the habit of checking my rear end to see if I'd snuck on a pair of normal undies. So when I showed up with a sun burn line sticking out of a leotard costume, after tanning on the top deck with David, my line captain felt the need to ask the Artistic Associates for an intervention.

"So Jessika," Amy started, giving notes after I rehearsed in the leotard for A Chorus Line. "You really need to wear a thong, your underwear is sticking out the sides of your costume."

"I am wearing a thong!" I replied. "This is my tan line, from my sun burn..."

"Oh!" she tossed her head back and laughed. The costume was so old and stretched out, and the one I had on was the only one in stock that even came close to fitting my height. As a result, the holes through which I stuck my legs were pulled a bit higher, up above the edge of my hips. My bathing suit, which actually did fit me, provided much more coverage, and the resulting tan lines served to remind the production team that many of their old costumes needed to be retired and replaced. "Then please cover it with makeup for the show."

"Absolutely, I will." And I faithfully did just that before every performance done in a leotard.

One such costume was worn in the Moulin Rouge scene, and had a feather boa bustle sewn to the backside. The rhinestones on the leotard caught on my fishnets and ensnared the gaudy bracelets that had to be worn with it. Along with the makeup on my crotch and the costume pieces snagging on torn stockings, I had a tremendous lift in that number's choreography. Two gentlemen hoisted me onto their shoulders -- my left butt cheek on Orynko's right shoulder, and my right cheek on Petro's left -- and they pivoted me around in place, with their hands gripping my inner thighs, just below the makeup.

The problems with that move were many: First off, I'm a tall woman, taller than my female vocalist predecessors, and the ceiling on that stage wasn't particularly high. Once I was lifted, my head was among the light cans. If lifted from the wrong mark, I could sustain a serious injury. Second, I've been told my whole life that I'm too heavy to be lifted, so prior to this contract, I'd never been off the ground, and lighting fixtures aside, it was terrifying. Third, there was a tremendous height difference between the two men lifting me -- as in, about eight inches. My left butt cheek was more than half a foot higher than the right, as I attempted to balance myself on the bench made by their deltoids, which were no more than five inches wide -- on top of my feather boa bustle. Now try doing all that on a rolling ship. Was it worth risking my life for this?

Thankfully, the shoreside production staff decided that since this particular show was getting cut in the next two weeks (it was being replaced by the new show they were creating, inspired by Dancing With the Stars), it wasn't worth it. So what should we do for choreography during those measures in place of the lift? Caroline, the Artistic Associate sent to help me transition at breakneck speed into my performance contract, called an extra rehearsal.

I reported for duty to learn what my new fate would be. Caroline and I met in the ladies' dressing room, where I anticipated having to quickly memorize a 16 bar dance break.

"Alright, so let's figure this thing out..." she started.

You mean to tell me that you called me here without having choreographed anything? She didn't bring her laptop, or any other means of playing the performance track, either.

"So I guess you could go like this..." she surmised. She struck a pose while singing the lyrics.

Dance all night -- and she struck another pose, looking feminine, ditsy, and shallow.

Dance all night, I believe you are expecting me -- and another pose, completely lacking intelligence or depth. Cuteness for the sake of cuteness.

I was thoroughly irritated. Not only was she wasting my time choreographing in front of me, but she was being completely untrue to the film, and the character I was playing. Moulin Rouge was secretly (more or less) my favorite film of all time, and I knew it by heart. I'd always dreamed of playing 'Satine'. Well here was my chance, and I found the Moulin segment of this show was sloppily put together -- and now Caroline was making it even dumber. How could you bear to put up a scene from this movie and not do it justice?

The tension was building inside me, and when I reached my boiling point, I defied the ship's hierarchy of command and said, "Caroline, I know the movie by heart, and since this is a salsa arrangement and I'm an experienced salsa dancer, would you mind if I put something together?"

"Oh. I suppose," she pondered, a bit shocked. "But I'll have to know what it is. And it'll have to be set."

"I'd like to pull a move from the actual film, that she does with the tail feathers. And then I can fill the rest with salsa shines. Perhaps like this--"

And just like that, I whipped out a routine. It was organic, sassy, playful, and powerful, something more like what the most coveted courtesan would actually do to seduce the Duke.

Caroline didn't believe I'd set it, and made me repeat it half a dozen times before she was convinced I could do it with consistency. At last she was satisfied.

"And now," she continued. "We need to work on getting you to move more confidently in your costumes."

"What do you mean?"

"You look so uncomfortable in them, so we need to figure out how the fabric moves, so you can manipulate them."

"That will come with time," I suggested. Which I haven't had, I thought.

"You need to be comfortable in them now," she insisted, as she began sliding hangers behind my dressing table, pulling the costumes that stood out in her memory as awkward.

Then, to my astonishment, SHE PUT ON MY COSTUMES. One by one, trying them on in front of the full-length mirror. She strutted back and forth between poses, dramatically swishing the trains on the gowns, feeling how the jackets opened and closed, testing the weight of the fabric as it allowed for leg kicks or dramatic arm gestures. With each new discovery she'd say, "Ooh!" then, "Mmm," then, "Oh..." and mutter thoughts to herself.

You're welcome to wear my costumes on your own time... I glowered behind a poker face. I watched her prance back and forth in my garments for no less than 20 minutes. It was an experience that revealed more about Caroline than about the mobility of my costumes.

She stared at her reflection hungrily, making sure her leg extension in her rond de jambes was just so, or that her bosoms were pushed up just right. Retiring from performance didn't come easily for her, even though she'd had the past two decades to get used to it. It was sad to watch her internal struggle, as she wrestled with the cognitive dissonance of her self-identity.

Even in rehearsals, she used any opportunity to give the dancers notes, and would spend at least 15 minutes, usually more, demonstrating the tweaked choreo, while the entire cast, production and tech crew, looked on. She'd repeat one move a dozen times, at the minimum. It was the closest Caroline got to performing nowadays, and she milked it for all it was worth -- anything to have people watch her dance. We were all lower ranked in the hierarchy than her, so no one said anything, even though her longwinded-ness cut our meal breaks in half. Her colleagues gently mentioned that perhaps she ought to limit the time it took to give notes, but that fell on deaf ears. Up until she disembarked, her behavior never changed.

There was such an anxiety about her, a competitive edge with other women stemming from insecurity. To every one else, it made no sense -- she was an elegant, graceful, beautiful woman, with gentle curves and lean, toned muscles on her petite frame. She had clear dark eyes, high cheekbones, and thick hair. And as sinewy as she was, she was ten times more sensual. She loved her body and relished what it could do for her, and how it could still turn heads even now that she was in her 60's. To all the men who've recently confessed to me that they prefer older women because they know their bodies: Caroline was the goddess for you. Except she had a boyfriend -- she was dating the head engineer who oversaw the entire fleet. She had never known a shortage of male attention in her life.

So why the insecurity? She'd had a bustling career and made a wonderful living as a dancer, and even now continued working her in field; and was matched with a man who was equally powerful in his own career. Yet she lamented to me that she was considering getting breast implants because she was tired of men checking out other women's breasts. She wanted them to check out hers for a change.

Somehow you've made it this far without them, I thought. And you're still getting laid, well into your 60's.

"Big boobs aren't as fun to have as they are for men to look at..." I'd said. "They're high maintenance: hard to style, and it's tricky to find bras that don't give you rolls on your back."

It didn't console her. The grass is always greener.

"Now you put them on," Caroline commanded, jolting me back to reality from my thoughts.

I indulged her blandly. She might think it's normal to strut around in costumes in front of someone, but that's not normal for me. This was work that no one could do for me except me; work for which there was no quick-fix, but required the passage of time to build up muscle memory. At some point a director/choreographer has to cut the umbilical chord and trust in the performer's own process. Caroline would never give me that courtesy.

I went into the terminal at 1am, when next we were docked overnight in Singapore. I had to call my bank and figure out why the money from my paycheck in OceanPay wasn't getting deposited into my checking (manipulating each company's online systems over Skype calls took up my sleep time -- I had to call them during East Coast business hours, on the other side of the world). On top of everything I was going through in the work place, there was now this. If it couldn't get reconciled, I'd have to find another job. While solving this quandary, I took a break to call my parents.

They knew I was stressed, but hadn't heard all the details. I hadn't spoken with them since we flew out of LAX. They listened in disbelief as I disclosed everything, carefully out of earshot of anyone in my department. I told of the broken costumes, the altered sound levels, the never-ending rehearsals called for abnormal reasons, my bloopers, failed attempts at friendship, and Caroline's transition from being sane and nurturing on land to slipping into madness at sea, and how it was noticeable by everyone, including the cruise director.

"Wow, honey -- she needs to get it together. Too bad you can't control her -- but at least know you're doing the right thing."

It was comforting to have an outsider's perspective, somehow validating, as it felt like some people in my workplace persistently attempted to gaslight me into thinking that I was abnormal for feeling upset and frustrated in these circumstances.

When it looked like the mystery of getting my paycheck deposited may had been resolved, I trudged back to my cabin to sleep.

You ready for more yet? Click to read Part IV. #thankyouLinManuelMiranda

Click for Part V.

Click for Part VI.

Click for Part VII.

Click for Part VIII.

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