That Wascally Wabbit

It's a bit worn, but this is the real deal!

It's a bit worn, but this is the real deal!

HERE WE GO!

SMELL THAT? 

GET YOUR ACTORS EQUITY CARD HERE

New York City 1978

Like many young dancers wanting to become working professionals, I got my Actors Equity Card on the road. Most nights I climbed inside a giant rabbit suit. Yes, my early claim to professional fame was as Bugs Bunny in the Bugs Bunny Follies. Sounds fun, right? Yet, what no one shares is just how difficult those small bus and trucks were. Ours was more like a van and a truck. I even earned extra money by repairing all of those heavy wet with sweat costumes by hand. Yep with a needle and thread.

There we were for our final shows in Caracas, Venezuela … a “tropical” location sold to us as a “reward” for our year-long slog of playing mining towns on plank stages slapped over ice rinks throughout the mid-west and Canada .. and I crack my nose. At least the stomach bug we all got from the “filtered water” in our hotel had been abated weeks before. The cure for that 24-hour stabbing pain in the gut? Liquid Opium. Opium? What’s up, Doc? We were only allowed 2 doses of that stuff. Believe me, when it’s leaving on both ends and you’re zipped head to toe inside a giant rug in a steamy over-packed stadium with questionable air-conditioning (translation: fans blowing humidity) in South America, you don’t care.

Now Bugs was the star of the show, so of course, he had to dress up for every number. You know, costumes on top of the costume ... top hat and tails, gloves, a slippery giant carrot hand prop, spats for the feet - - the feet were sneakers covered with heavy foam resembling giant chunky swim fins. The first weeks in those lovelies had my shins screaming! Besides hauling them around for all of the dance choreography, most of the bunny’s signature standing and ending poses were with feet flexed! And if wearing the costume wasn’t already difficult enough, Bugs’ head, built on a football helmet, was too big. I’d turn mine inside and it wouldn’t budge. My solution? Wedging the lower part of Bugs’ mouth under the fixed front teeth and holding it there by jutting out my lower jaw. What? 

Honestly, I can’t recall how many numbers Bugs was actually in, but he was onstage for most of everything. And we played arenas, so think about how exaggerated the simplest of movements had to be so that you could be seen! Some of the choreography called for scaling a stool in those giant feet and then leaping off of it. And there was a fiesta number in heels and skirt and a cowboy/cowgirl number with turns and lifts where I had to get out of Bugs and become a human. My hair was always wet to the skull before I even started that routine, then I had to get back INTO Bugs for the rest of the show. Yee-haw!

Bugs Bunny Follies Cowboy/Cowgirl Routine

Bugs Bunny Follies Cowboy/Cowgirl Routine

Bugs Bunny Follies                                                                          That's Me in the Blue Skirt

Bugs Bunny Follies                                                                          That's Me in the Blue Skirt

Because the show was so physically challenging, we had 2 Bugses - if that’s the plural of Bugs - 2 girls by the way - sharing the title role every other week. And if someone were injured or sick during this time, we’d climb inside his or her costume to fill in. That’s how I cracked my nose – becoming the Road Runner for a night. Noteworthy: Frankie, the other Bugs and I were both cast as Jet Girls in our first Broadway show the following year.

Remember the bit about the over-sized heavy feet? Imagine the long claw-prongs on the Road Runner, where your legs were its legs, but your arms were strapped inside the body, hands controlling the long neck with a solid wooden head extending at the end of it in front of you, your face covered in mesh up in the tail. Remember how that crazy bird ran in the cartoon? Like a 2-footed split jump on every footfall? Well, the choreographer built that very step into the matrix of this character. Oh joy! Bleep-Bleep! 

If you’ve ever studied dance, you might agree there’s a natural progression of movement that precedes a leap or jump. So when I took my first step to push off for that leap, unfamiliar with the inherent issues of someone’s else’s costume, my arms strapped out in front of me naturally moved up and so did that solid block of wood posing as the bird’s head --- right up and into my own head. BAM! Nose cracked and dazed, I couldn’t even see the exit and hit that set piece against my face, too.  Great. 

I PAID MY DUES – NOTHING CAN STOP ME NOW

Reading this, it seems this experience was far from ideal, doesn’t it? Recalling what I put myself through, I feel some anger, mostly at how I allowed myself to put up with all of that for a year, all just to get my union card. But wasn’t this how it’d always been with dance? How can I forget the pointe shoes, bloody blisters, torn toenails, and chronic overuse injuries that made no difference to anyone, because that was a part of ballet? I bought the idea that I had to stick out this tour, because that’s what I understood pros did, although some cast members broke their contracts simply leaving after fulfilling the 6-month minimum employment requirement to join Actors Equity. Perhaps I was already a pro? Because I also felt accomplishment. I’d seen this through. And when I returned to New York, I was in Olympic-ready shape and on my game. And that was the ultimate reward.

Nothing builds confidence for an auditioning dancer more than being in shape, strong, and stamina-ready. I carried a protective zone of personal superiority with me, where self-judgment was not present and nothing threw me. What a wonderful feeling of freedom. I wanted it to stay with me all the time.

Every dance-heavy show I’ve ever done has been marked with levels of stamina-building, musicals, in particular, demanding additional effort due to their vocal and acting elements. In rehearsals, I’d learn the choreography and build a stamina base. Then, if I was lucky to be able to, I’d add the shoes, the hat, props, some simulation of my costume or part of it I’d be wearing in the show. These little things affected my overall execution, as they were typically heavy or cumbersome, or required some special manipulation - - hopefully no more jaw-jutting or teeth wedging! As rehearsals moved to the stage or readied for the road, adapting to a change of environment added another level of required stamina. Perhaps anticipation and nervousness would also stimulate a run on energy reserves, but it was the routine of the actual performance that eventually established my stamina's benchmark.

It usually took about two months for me to find that sweet rhythm of performance - learning when to work and when to rest in the choreography. Sure the physical demands of some numbers never abated no matter how many times they were repeated, but the day when I knew I was on top of it all and felt strong like I did at the end of that Bugs Bunny Follies bus and truck was always magical. I was free again – free to express the choreography, to feel, to interpret, to embody the character, to explore different levels, tempering my energy for a more nuanced performance. 

THE GRAVITY OF PROFESSIONALISM AND THE STAMINA OF AGING

Like all athletes, the maintenance of a physical craft requires constant attention. We had an understanding among us that for every day a class was missed, two days were lost in our training. For every two days of missed classes, four days were lost. True or not, the premise made sense. If you didn’t keep up the routine, you felt your control and strength giving way to the easy seduction of gravity - the grounding measure of our earthly existence. Use it or lose it, right?

Today, nearly 40 years later, the numbers of hours spent doing physical activity adjusted by life, I continue with my ballet classes and exercise as more “normal” people do by jogging, riding my bike, walking, going to the gym. I earn my living seated at a computer, welcoming performing opportunities, because are a pleasant change of my current routine where my stamina base has become more cerebral and reliant on how much my eyes can tolerate before they fatigue.

Yes, I have created and teach dance-exercise fitness formats, but let’s share the truth. These efforts represent my dream of being able to make a great living sharing them! In the meantime, I’m thankful for my steady job that allows me to continue toward that dream, to continue to audition and perform, and to continue to grow into aging.

As my body has changes, my personal expression of dance movement also changes. Ah, emotion. That catalyst of effort and desire as a dancer I obeyed so strongly, pushing it through the ends of my fingers and my toes and beyond – into bunny suits, costumes, and pointe shoes. But as time passes, emotion grounds itself and the motivation to move must be generated from other resources.

Dance is a familiar discipline and I return to it like homemade soup on the stove. It’s nourishment for me to be sure, but the stamina, the emotion, the effort --- all of those things are approached within the measurement of time and the well-learned disciplined desire to take it all as it comes to me now.

I am after all, a professional ... living inside my own head.



~itsmeheatherlea

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