I realized recently that Aida and I are sisters in spirit. There is something in her that I already had in me when I auditioned for the role. But I had no idea until days before our first performance how closely tethered together our souls really are. How could I conclude such a thing about a fictional woman? A woman who only exists on pages and stages across the world, and in the imaginations of those who have watched her life play out in front of them? Aida, also referred to as Elton John and Tim Rice’s Aida, is a Tony-award winning musical (a Tony is equivalent to the Oscars or Grammys for the theatre industry) that came to Broadway from a rough start in Atlanta. It catapulted its leading lady, Heather Headley, to theater-fame and earned her the Tony for Best Actress in 2000, when the musical first got to Broadway. In the duration of its run, it saw superstars like Toni Braxton and Michelle Williams succeed Heather in playing the title role. Written by Elton John and Tim Rice, the music stole my heart immediately.
I was a ball of nervous energy at the audition. I had a history of bombing music auditions, going all the way back to my grade school drama club productions. I was constantly letting my insecurities about my technical knowledge of music and the subsequent nerves sabotage my performance in the audition room. But I was so determined not to let my self doubts get the best of me. In a couple of hours, I learned parts of “The Past Is Another Land,” “How I Know You,” and my favorite, “Easy As Life,” which played right through me when I first heard it. It made my heartbeat quicken, gave me butterflies. It made me need to play Aida.
I am a belter. Even when I spoke growing up, I was always getting shushed and told I was speaking too loud for no reason. And it’s true, I often do speak too loud for no reason. And perhaps because this loudness is so second-nature to me, I’ve always chosen big, belt-y songs to work on when training my voice. I always go for the Beyonce or Whitney Houston songs. Consequently, I had to learn how to use the other parts of my voice, the soft, the high, the low–all of it. Aida gave that to me by demanding I satisfy that requirement. In a musical, every choice the composer makes when writing the music is imperative to the storytelling. All of the songs that the actress playing Aida must sing require so many dynamics to the voice, which is why they are so pleasurable for the audience member. They take you on a journey. And they took my voice on a similar journey.
That is the genesis of this sisterhood between me and this imaginary Nubian Princess named Aida. Her words, her thoughts and her heart made sense to me. Aida, a young noblewoman stolen and brought to Egypt as a slave, she must decide whether she will step up to the plate- as the Princess of her people -and figure out how she can do justice to her captive brothers and sisters, or succumb to her self-doubt. All of this happens as she falls in love with the Egyptian captain who is responsible for her captivity. In the course of the story, she chooses the courage and strength instilled in her by her Nubian upbringing. And somehow, love still prevails, in the midst of painful sacrifices and losses suffered by Aida and her Nubian people.
The day of my audition, I knew my preparation could not fail me; that I would be able to give everything I had in me. With the sheet music quivering from the nerves in my hands, I pushed out all memories from my awkward musical audition chronicles and sang with as much conviction and emotion as I could muster up. I walked out feeling happy with the way I had performed, content whether I had landed the role or not. But by the end of that night, I received an email offering me the part of Aida. I was ecstatic, but more nervous. Now, the real work would begin; memorizing lines, using my instincts, making interesting character choices and delivering truthful, and energetic performances in rehearsals each day. I had to live up to the standard I had set for myself in the audition room that day. I didn’t realize that I had nothing to worry about; that my sheer love for acting, my desire to practice an art form I’ve loved my whole life, would propel me to work hard. And although it took me about a week and a half to stop being a ball of nerves on my way to rehearsal every afternoon, it didn’t feel quite like “work.” This kind of work is different from the everyday type of work we typically must do despite our disdain for it. It was an effortless devotion that poured out of me. In our month-long rehearsal process, our rehearsals were daily, excluding Sundays. I carried my script everywhere, listened to the soundtrack on the bus, the train, on my walk across town. On the rare occasion that I had time between work and rehearsal, I went straight to vocal lessons for even twenty minutes of vocal exercises before I’d have to sing for a few hours straight. I ate, slept, and breathed Aida. And I loved every minute of it; even the parts that I hated.
Like taking the bus from Port Authority to Englewood, New Jersey each day. It was not only killing my bank account, but also my sanity. Some days I’d have to sweat running to the train, and from the train to the terminal, and up three levels within the terminal to the right gate. Or I’d sit in traffic on the west side highway in the car with my mom trying to distract myself from the anxiety of being late piling up in my stomach.
But still, on those same days that I had to sprint down 8th avenue to get to my bus on time, I could never let go of the little pocket of gratefulness in my gut. I may have been running to catch my bus, but I was an actress running to catch my bus to rehearsal, and I wouldn’t have traded that for anything.
Our rehearsals generally went from sometime in the afternoon, as early as 3 o’ clock, until 10pm. In the beginning part of the month, my rehearsals were mostly for music. I’d get to be locked with our musical director and pianist, (sometimes with another one or two of the leads, sometimes not) into the “Steinway Room” in our rehearsal spaces, which contained the most beautiful, perfect-sounding baby grand Steinway piano. Compared to the keyboard, or the strange, slightly out of tune upright piano in the larger rehearsal room, singing with it was like flying.
I learned so much in those rehearsals; working out the exact sounds we needed was fascinating. Our music director, Ilene, was so good at locating specific parts of our voices and helping us understand what worked and what didn’t. It’s so tempting to try to sound like the singers Original Broadway Soundtrack -but Ilene guided us in honoring what was written, what the composer wanted, and the unique sounds of our own voices, all at once. Each time I do a show, but especially during rehearsals for Aida, I realized that what we know to be theatre magic is really mostly tedious, bit-by-bit work done over a period of time with the help of the amazing eyes, ears and minds of people like musical directors, directors, stage managers and technicians.
Aida taught me so much about myself; about my voice, and about who I am as an actor. Acting makes you place yourself next to a character and find all the similarities and differences between you. You use the similarities, and then find a way to bridge the gap between the differences. Aida and I are both stubborn, bold blabbermouths. Holding my tongue is difficult when I am sure of what I want to say- which is most of the time. Her entire situation is jumpstarted by her refusal to be silenced, her refusal to go down without a fight. Like a true Nubian, she is a warrior. And a travel junky; we both have a constant, relentlessly burning desire to refresh our eyes with new sights. That, too, is a large part of how her story begins; she is found wandering around a part of the Nile river she had never seen before. A part her father specifically instructed her not to go to, but she felt compelled to go to anyway. That ever-glowing wanderlust was the first thing I was able to latch onto. But, beneath her strong, unyielding exterior, though, is a woman who would like to love and be loved, which is a basic human desire, no matter how often we try to deny that fact. It adds to her strength just as much as it compromises it, because it is her ability to love that makes her desire for it possible. And it is the uncompromising strength of her love for her Nubian heritage- and for herself -that shows us the vigor of the very passion and courage that allows her to act bravely for the sake of her people.
Working on Aida has taught me so many things, and although the most important of them all is perhaps the knowledge that I have so much more to learn, I’ve walked away from the experience with countless other gems in my pocket. Aida has helped me me see, first-hand, the importance of the discomfort in our struggles; that pushing past the self-doubt and standing up, strong and tall, despite feeling shaky and nervous inside will eventually lead you to a place where you actually do stand tall, unwavering. It is the initial self-doubt that helps carry us to a place of feeling free from that nervousness, rooted in the surety of all the hard work we’ve put in, and all the doubt we’ve pushed past.