Have It All, Lose It All Part VIII
Updated: Mar 8
Click for Part I.
Click for Part II.
Click for Part III.
Click for Part IV.
Click for Part V.
Click for Part VI.
Click for Part VII.
"Jessika, might we request your presence in the dressing room?" D'anton's South African accent danced over the phone line, and I let out a sigh of relief that it wasn't Caroline interrupting my packing.
"Sure...do I need to bring anything?" I asked.
"No, just your fabulous self," he answered. "We'd like to get these costumes pinned so the tailor can have them ready for you after vacation."
Up I climbed to the dressing room, where over 40 costumes hung and 20 wigs sat on creepy heads. All the Artistic Associates were in attendance with D'anton, of course including Caroline.
I was instructed to strip down to my birthday suit plus a G-string, and stood there shivering, in early spring off the coast of Hong Kong, while they decided which costumes they wanted to improve.
Stiff crinoline with beads and metal ribbing was pulled over my head. Sequins scratched my armpits as they were pulled off and replaced with new sparkly garments. Spandex tugged on my thighs as the Mama Mia costume was donned, then hastily removed. My toes grew pale from the chilly dressing room and the cool fabrics, as circulation left my extremities.
The straps on my Stevie Wonder dress were too long, and were pinned so they didn't fall off my shoulders. The empire waist seam was ripped out and marked where it should be resown on my longer torso, with the vertical seams pinned to fit my extreme hourglass, cartoonish proportions. Then it was pulled gingerly over my head so as not to tug on any pins.
The three Artistic Associates stood in a semi-circle, looking at me, pondering whether they'd addressed every costume they remembered being problematic. I stood there, bare-breasted and goosebumped, while my superiors eyed me up and down. I felt embarrassed, being scrutinized while mostly naked, in front of three retired dancers who had spent the prime of their lives demanding run-way ready, physical perfection of their bodies. Years ago I'd reconciled myself to being athletic and curvy, and had given up on being lithe and sinuous, and I'd found happiness in my stature. The only scrap of fabric on my body now was a thong, which I'd never wear of my own volition, because the elastic across my hips creates an extra roll, and the lack of cloth on my buttocks shows off the cottage cheese that stubbornly persists in cushioning my seat. This was not how to show off my figure to its advantage, especially not to these critical dancers who perceived my physical imperfection to be laziness, and reminded me of it often. Since land rehearsals I'd periodically hear, "Why don't you go to the gym with the rest of the cast?" or "How about trying yoga?" or "Stretches like these will get rid of your muscular bulk." But how was I supposed to work out when I was already spending four hours or more each day dancing? I was already more tone than I was when I'd been hired -- I'm not sure how much more quickly they could've expected me to make healthy progress.
I hung my head in shame and crossed my arms in front of my chest as the air turned on and pricked up my areolae.
"You know, my mother told me when I was young, 'You seen one pair of tits, you seen 'em all,'" chuckled D'anton, who was openly gay and fabulous for it.
Everyone giggled nervously.
"You don't have to worry about showing them to me," he laughed.
"Sorry, I'm cold," I replied sheepishly, not sure why I was the one apologizing.
They pondered again, during another pregnant pause.
"I guess we've got them all..." muttered Amy. "Are we done here?"
"I suppose so," answered Caroline analytically.
"Alright, put your clothes back on," commanded D'anton.
"Bryce," I timidly addressed the VP of Entertainment after a run through of our Broadway show. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but it sounds like the fixes we made on my mic channel have been changed again."
He barely fluttered an eyelid in my direction as he hurried past me. All he responded with was a grunted, "Huh."
Maybe he's busy, I thought. I know they've been having trouble with the new light sled. But I have to leave to do stage makeup for the show soon...
"Bryce, I'm sorry," I pressed. "It sounds like I'm not in the monitor again. Is there anything we can do before tonight?"
The shoreside technical director was listening from the sound board. I saw his eyebrows rise into a smirk.
Bryce turned on his heels.
"Listen Jess," he inhaled deeply. "The levels are set. We can hear you in the house -- when you're singing. You just gotta buckle down and sing out. Just have confidence and do it."
"But I am singing..." I countered.
He smirked at me as if to say, "You expect me to fall for that again?"
"Just sing out," he concluded, and walked off.
Why this new treatment from him? What had I done to deserve this complete 180 of his behavior? What was being said about me among my superiors?
Finally. It was the last show of my contract. One more day after that and I had to pack what I wanted to bring home, and figure out where I wanted to store the items I used only for ship life.
I'd spent hours, between packing spurts, writing thank you notes. Yes, this contract had been stressful as hell, but there was never supposed to be another contract like it again. Deep down, I was still thankful for this job. Just a month before my first vacation started, I had paid off the last penny of all my debt: my medical bills, my credit card, my student loans, my car payment. This musician millennial was DEBT FREE, and earning a better salary than a school teacher with a master's, with six months of paid vacation annually instead of three. I was starting to brainstorm about buying property -- after I paid for the tonsillectomy I'd been needing for a few years, of course (read about that here). But above all, I was finally in a situation where I could give my romance with my concert pianist in Sydney a real try (read about him here). I had a gig, and time, and money for the first time in my life. Maybe we'd be able to give it a real go, maybe we could make it work! I'd already booked my trip to visit him for three weeks during this vacation, determined to find out.
None of that would've been possible without this job. I wrote thank you notes to my line captains, the cruise director, the shoreside production team, the VP of Entertainment, and of course -- Caroline. It took me no less than two hours to write her letter, and it ended up being more than two pages long. It rambled, but it was all I could come up with. I was so angry with her, so what could be said that didn't cause upset, yet sound genuine? She'd been like an adopted mother during land rehearsals -- steadfast, patient, nurturing, and strong. We were so close and I'd loved her to death. I strained to think back to that version of Caroline, before she sunk into insanity on the ship, but I knew I couldn't pretend her ship craziness never happened. Finishing that meandering letter was gut wrenchingly difficult, but I was determined.
I hustled about the ship to deliver each note to each person's cabin before I was called to begin my last show of the contract.
"Route 66" began like it always did. The cast and tech crew had a clean-up rehearsal earlier, and much to my delighted surprise, Sam -- the sound man who'd been on board when I first embarked, who seemed to have no problem EQ-ing my voice and making it audible for me in the monitors -- had returned from vacation! He was already behind the board fixing levels, and just like that! My voice was back in the sound system. How interesting no one could manage that in his absence. Could they have been gaslighting me?
I thanked him as rehearsal ended, and he gave me a comforting hug as he said, "I'm sorry this contract was so rough. Don't think that's how things normally go around here."
Well, tonight's show was already guaranteed to go better!
I left to do stage face and hair, then after delivering thank you's, returned to the dressing room.
I hung my costumes in chronological order, and placed the corresponding pair of shoes under each one. Then I ordered the wig heads and arranged the accessories on my dressing table. Marilyn, my spunky and wonderful Filipina dresser, reviewed where everything was so we could fly through the quick changes like they were nothing.
Downbeat. Dancers fluttered in and out of hippie costumes while I waited for the opener to end. I made my first entrance as the whitest Billie Holiday ever, and all went well. Then, while playing an angry waitress belting Aretha Franklin, my front zipper didn't break (read about all that here). I enjoyed strutting around in my red leather cowboy boots during the country segment for the last time. The show was going so well for me! Then, sitting backstage during a rare moment of stillness between a costume change and my next entrance, the dressing room phone rang.
Who would phone the dressing room in the middle of a show? I wondered. Don't people know you can hear that on stage?
Everyone in the dressing room exchanged confused glances. Marilyn decided to answer it.
I could hear a muffled woman's voice urgently barking instructions over the receiver.
"De costume?" Marilyn's eyes grew wide as she looked over the garments I had laid out for the rest of the show. We all watched her intently.
"De other one?" she wailed in confusion. Marilyn put her free hand in her mouth and began biting anxiously at her nails.
"I think?" the mumbling voice got louder with exigency.
I recognized it to be Caroline. Oh, dear God.
"I don't know?" Marilyn tugged at the phone chord. "But I'll look, ma'am."
What in hell does she want... I fumed silently.
"Yes ma'am...ok ma'am," Marilyn hung up, and bounced up and down on her knees, not really knowing where to start.
"Stevie Wonder," she gasped, her gaze darting about. "De other dress..."
"Marilyn, what did she want?" I spoke low with suppressed rage.
"I don't know...I think..." she wrung her hands. "She says wear another costume for Stevie Wonder? But I don't know what she said--"
Marilyn darted to the spare costumes, hanging behind the costumes laid out for this performance, and began tearing through them, nervously considering each one.
"--not clear what she means..."
How dare Caroline, my blood boiled. She should know to never call any backstage phone during a performance, first of all, unless there's a fire or some life threatening situation. But then to bark orders at my dresser, who struggles with English since Tagalog is her native language, and completely freak her out...
"Marilyn," I spoke too loudly for backstage, but her panic needed to be stopped. "We are going to use the costumes I laid out. I don't care what she says."
"You won't get in trouble for it, I promise," I assured her. "I'll take the blame."
"But she said to wear--"
"No," I cut her off firmly. "She's out of her mind, and neither of us knows which other dress she's talking about. I'm not quick-changing into something I've never tried on -- not during a live show! I'll be wearing the costumes I laid out."
News of Caroline's latest crazy spread like wildfire before the show even ended. Her whimsical demand broke many theatre taboos that exist for the reasons of sanity, safety, and avoiding a strip show the audience wasn't paying for. And that she expected me to complicitly go along without any regards to my sanity or public decency, was an insult. Was it Caroline's first gig in the theatre? Had she never worked in the performing arts before? HOW COULD SHE NOT KNOW BETTER? I was beyond furious.
During the scene change before "I Wish", I put on my usual gold sequinned mini-dress, careful not to displace or tug at any safety pins meant for the tailor. The dance number, and the mini dress, were just fine. And the rest of the show ended in a blur.
I hustled out of the backstage area. The cast and crew understood I needed a wide berth from the drama that was surely about to go down, and they parted to make an escape route, while pretending not to see where I went. We all knew Caroline would be coming backstage. She did after every. Single. Show. We were sick of her being in the way of lining up sets, props, special effects, and costumes.
I made it to my cabin without seeing her. The phone was ringing. I refused to answer as I put my performance stuff away. But it kept ringing.
Nope, I've had enough, I thought, and decided to seek refuge in the Officers' Mess.
A handful of cast members stopped in the mess for a midnight snack before bed. I sat with them to cool down.
"I overheard Amy yelling at Caroline in the back of the theater," said our line captain Marynia. "Apparently David told her what happened."
"Good, at least someone with authority agrees this behavior is outrageous," I mumbled glumly.
A good 45 minutes passed, and the mess phone rang. I didn't wait for anyone to answer and see who it might be.
"I'm not here!" I said, closing the door behind me.
I thought by now it might be safe to go to my cabin and have a meltdown without watchful eyes keeping tabs on me. I opened the door, and "RING!!!" went my phone.
"Nope!" I turned on my heel and decided to hide in the crew bar, where even if the phone rang, people couldn't hear it.
Seriously Caroline, drop it!! I begged the universe. It's past midnight.
I was bone tired and heart weary. I hid in the bar for close to an hour, and gingerly returned to my cabin to sleep. I was thankful to find my phone was at last silent.
The next morning saw me back in the cruise director's office, to finish my last bit of paperwork before debark.
Marynia said, "We're glad you're on the team, and we're sorry for your stress," in my final eval. "Take a dance class while you're home and you'll be fine."
"No problem!" I said. All I want to do when I'm on land is dance, I thought.
Mike, the CD, helped coordinate my return flight to the ship, and I managed to arrange a flight to Iceland a few days early to allow time to recover from jet lag. I was then handed the official paperwork that I was recommended for rehire.
Mike mentioned the incident during last night's show, and -- right on cue -- in burst Caroline uninvited.
"Jessika!" she gasped. "Here you are!! I've been trying to get ahold of you all night!"
All eyes turned to her wearily.
"I'm so sorry about last night, so sorry," she began. "It's just that -- the costume had pins in it. I didn't want them to stick you--"
"Caroline. I was wearing the costume when you pinned it. I knew it had pins!"
"Well I was just trying to prevent a problem. But I just didn't think of it until the show had already started."
As if that would justify her actions.
"My dresser about had a heart attack. She was afraid she'd get in trouble or lose her position for not doing what you said, but she didn't completely understand what you meant!"
"Oh, I'm just so sorry," she repeated.
"Jessika," Mike intervened to save me. "Thank you for your time. And also, thank you for the note on my door, that was so sweet. I very much look forward to having you back after vacation. I know you have some packing to finish, to get to crew luggage inspection on time."
"Thank you sir," I took my leave.
I passed our male vocalist David in the hallway. He was also leaving for vacation the next day.
I gave him a hug and said, "I look forward to getting to work with you more next time. I'm sorry I haven't been...the most fun."
"Yeah," he smiled insincerely, and tensely.
"Have a good vacation, see you in July!" I wrapped it up hastily. I got a very strong vibe that he had no interest in talking to me, like he'd been intentionally avoiding me.
"Yeah," he raised his eyebrows in a skeptical smirk. "See you in July."
How weird, I thought. It's almost like he knows something I don't?
If my flight tickets hadn't already been sent to my inbox, if I weren't holding in my hands the documents that recommended me for rehire, that interaction would've spiraled me into a tizzy of anxiety.
So, I went to wash and style the last of my wigs, put costumes into storage, and stash my ship belongings in a spare suitcase. The next morning, I couldn't wait to get on the shuttle bus to the Hong Kong airport.
Not one person, save Mike, had acknowledged receipt of my thank you notes, which also left me feeling very strange.
Once home, I slept for days. I could finally breathe. It was good to be reunited with my cat, and to talk to people who treated me like I was sane.
Two weeks after arriving back in the US, and one week before leaving to visit my Aussie, I got an email:
Thank you for all of your hard work over the past few months. We know you did your best to learn all the material quickly and your professionalism is very much appreciated by all.
You sound good vocally in much of the material. However, despite the personal and diligent efforts made by the Artistic Associate and Director/Choreographer to get you to the required level, your stage presence and movement does not meet our minimum required standard. As such, I’m afraid it’s not going to be a good fit and, regrettably, we will not be able to offer you a position beyond your probationary period.
[The company] will be sending you official notice tomorrow but I wanted to contact you personally before your receipt of [the company]’s email.
Please try not to take this action personally. While you have a lot to offer professionally, our shows simply aren’t a good match with your particular skill set.
Again, thank you for all of your efforts and we wish you continued success in your performance career.
I collapsed on the floor. Gone were my plans for the future. Gone was the job that made a real relationship with my Aussie a possibility. Gone was my independence, which was replaced by a healthy bout of imposter syndrome, and my severance pay.
Unlike most of the contract, I stood up for myself this time. I crafted a reply in less than half an hour:
I have received your email, and have been giving your thoughts much consideration, and none of the critiques come as a surprise. Your decision to not rehire me did surprise me, however, as I did pass my probationary period, and during the end of contract evaluation was recommended for rehire. In that paperwork it was recommended to me to work on my dancing, and [Marynia] had a talk with me about such. She told me exactly where my skill level stood in the grand scheme of things, and made sure that I went home with the most recent videos of the shows so I could clean my performance. Since I’ve been home, I’ve been doing just that.
I would like to humbly request that yourself and the Artistic Associates reconsider your decision. I can do this job, and I do have dancing capabilities and potential to improve on them, and I am a hard worker. I like working for [your company] and am honored to have been hired, and would take serious advantage of another opportunity to make you proud. I haven’t stopped working on the shows, because I wasn’t satisfied with them either, and I have been taking advantage of this resting time to regain composure after the stresses of the last several weeks. I am confident that what I would deliver on stage in July would be head and shoulders above what you last saw in April. I have more to give you, and I can prove it.
I have been going out to work on my dancing since I’ve been home, and I have even been video recording what I’ve been doing. Now, I haven’t video taped working through the shows, as I thought it was a given that I’d be dancing through those. I’d be happy to show you and the Artistic Associates what I have and to share the notes I’ve been giving myself if it would help you reconsider. And I could tape show review, if it would be helpful.
Thank you for your time and for the opportunity. I recognize that you invested significant amounts of time, money, and energy in me and I respect that, and I assure you that it wouldn’t be wasted. I very much enjoy working with you, and I promise you that I will always continue to improve—well beyond the minimum standards for [this company]—and I will never stay on a plateau for long.
It was to no avail. I coordinated with Marynia over Facebook messenger to have my belongings still in storage on board, shipped home.
A year and a half later, through an agent who signed my solo show as a guest entertainer, I learned that Bryce and several members of his shoreside production team had been fired, shortly after they'd gotten rid of me.
#thankyoulinmanuelmiranda for the quote that made for this title.