Updated: Jan 22, 2022
" You should play Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray - You'd be great ! "
That was a sentiment bestowed upon me throughout most of my teenage years and 20's. A suggestion of sorts, intended to be harmless by well-meaning people in passing conversation (who never even heard me sing). Possibly a podium for empowerment from a self proclaimed body-positive advocate, or slightly threatening remark from a quick-tongued talent agent - using a tone that implied how slim my options were. ^ Never did I ever absorb the delivery of that above line without a crook in my smile, the suspicion of slight, the concern for being misinterpreted, the fear of being pigeonheld, the knowing of the unfortunate connotations and assumptions that come with being a 'stock character' archetype in everyday life. But it was a goal, right? Something I was told I should aspire to! I feel like it wasn't until around 27/28 years old, and already a career left behind later that I learned how to aspire... well... to myself. And still at 30, I am learning that courage is not synonymous with self assurance, and neither contentment with satisfaction.
When you are a young actor looking to work in the musical theatre world - with a naive understanding for the subtleties of back handed compliments - you will do just about anything to feel successfully validated as a performer. You will endure the never ending parade of opinions masked as educational pedagogy, and you will ultimately give in to the noise and assist in the creation of your own personal career 'box'. That's where you limit yourself with what you are 'allowed' to accomplish even before the designated 'hierarchy' tells you who you are, and what you can be. The subtext of my own artistic 'discipline' so much comes from the idea of being in an industry that required 'obedience', and alignment with certain ideals to then be portrayed through sometimes unauthentic storytelling. These Ideals (often denied by the people in this 'ever inclusive' industry) I have grown to truly detest. But ultimately like a sort of trauma stain - I still see traces of these weird conditioned 'rules' seeping through in certain aspects of my 30 year old life.
As time would have it, many years have past since the days of obnoxiously screaming show tunes in public with theatre friends, from happy-go-lucky musicals such as Les Miserables, Parade, or Spring Awakening. Eventually I was able to disengage from my earlier insecure hang-ups of "never singing pop or rock music". Because for some reason, I had it in my head that I just didn't, couldn't, or shouldn't do that. That no one wanted to see me do that - unless it was done a certain way, which was a projection in itself. It was totally conceived and contrived by a fear of not living up to a general expectation; a sabotaging road block I had set for myself.
After college, I found myself gravitating to local live music venues and bars. I was enamored with the informal, kinda unstructured vibe of an open mic situation. I would attend open mics to listen to classic rock hits, blues, 90's jams, the random top 40's song, and pretty much just to people watch. Aside from the musical theatre tunes I loved, I was very drawn to rock music from past decades that none of my 'theatre' friends were listening to. It felt so authentic. The songs I was listening to felt so true to my own feelings and form of self expression. And although I came from a world of rehearsing music 10 times over before a 'performance', singing on stage with a band felt tangible for me. There were no characters to play, or story arcs to focus on. I just needed to showcase raw musical passion and a comfortable stage presence. I thought, well sure I can do that! Slowly, and with a rather timid approach to start, I began joining bands and getting up the courage to sing at a few open mics. It was freeing for me, in a way I had been missing up until that point. Fronting a band offered me that 'leading lady' power and dignity I often felt robbed of, living in a world where the only characters I was allowed to played had weight centered themes. How mundane.
Life has brought a culmination of role changes, successes, milestones, so much love, loss of love, seasons for self-discovery and self-improvement, and of course - plenty of pain. Who would we be without it? (Said the cancerian girl, whose hobbies involve long existential talks about the universe, debating what is 'god', and if we really are tiny particles floating in a snow globe somewhere). On my 30th birthday I spent the night rocking out with my band; my friends. Oddly enough, we were hired to play for a clients backyard 30th birthday/summer party. 'Working' on my birthday has always felt like paying homage to myself, and my dreams. Where I am now, and all the versions of 'me' it took to get here. At 30, I am my favorite version of myself, thus far. But even with the acknowledgment of gratitude for so much of what I have, and the humbled pride for what I have experienced so far... there has been some kind of disconnect for me. And it's usually always pertaining to my career, work, or my place in this 'industry'. I'm still asking myself where I fit.
As for...everyone.. the 'P' word (also referred to as 'pandemy' for those of us occasionally compensating with humor to mask our depression) has completely altered life and work as we know it. When my anticipated projects and exciting opportunities got put on hold in March 2020, I dove deep into the event singing world like never before. And Like a dangling carrot in front of my face - on the days I got to sing for a buck I was happy. I could work and make money with something I loved, but couldn't shake the sense of darkness and dread from the collective suffering energy of everyone around me - and the lack of creative fulfillment causing me to feel less-then ( I still can't). Endlessly I pushed to keep working and hustling. Wherever I could safely throw a band together to play a gig at a restaurant (when restrictions lifted), an outdoor parking lot, funerals... you name it. I got burned by a lot of musicians and venues/clients. `It was exhausting. I'm beyond mentally exhausted now, as I sit here in 2022, still contemplating my next moves. Stuck in a pattern of fight or flight mode. Wondering who I want to be, and how can I be whatever 'that' is in this new world order.
In the late fall of 2021 I hit a bit of a wall. I needed a break, after months of intense 'gigging' and then coping with health complications caused from a bad case of covid. I was forced to slow down again... and I don't do that well. I prefer to be purposefully busy most of the time, and I easily fall into feelings of worthlessness if I am not having enough quality experiences weekly. My husband knows better than anyone that I get bored super easily, and often become frustrated if I'm not accomplishing enough of whatever on any given day.
I was prepared to have a quiet weekend as the December chill continued to set in, when I was notified with an opportunity to open for a nationally touring act, Mike DelGuidice & Big Shot (Billy Joel's band) at The Paramount of Huntington. The venue had just been awarded the honor of being ranked #4 for best club venues worldwide, and it also happened to be located in my semi-new town. I absolutely love the Paramount, and had recently seen idols such as Pat Benatar, Joan Jett, The Indigo Girls, and Melissa Etheridge grace the same stage.
When first reading the email offering the opportunity, I thought I read it wrong. I firstly assumed they were asking me to perform in one of the awesome smaller venues within the Paramount complex, of which I have performed at numerous times. Once I clarified that they were indeed asking for me to open on the big stage (in two nights time, mind you) it dawned on me that they wanted me to open by myself. As Gina. Or Gina B (whatever name I felt like going by that day). Not in a group. Not as the unnamed 'female singer' of one of my numerous wedding/event band projects, or with other musicians that have performed at the smaller venues with me before. But just me. And that was really hard for me to comprehend. Once I realized the full deal of the offer, I had to ask myself "are they sure?" "Is that really what they want?" I embarrassingly asked the universe for permission within my own head. "Can I do that/Should I do that? I'm just a cover artist. Can I pull off an acoustic opening slot, with only my average name to entice the people not to completely miss the first 30 minutes of the scheduled concert?" And I don't even play an instrument (begrudgingly; one day I will finally tackle guitar)!
And I guess in the same way I never expected to be the leading lady, I never considered that... Gina B can be enough. Is enough. That I deserved this moment. To showcase my own unique flair, and soul filled performance style, and vocal prowess. That I was damn worthy of this moment. That maybe, just maybe... I do bring something special to the table. I sadly realized, I wasn't questioning technical decisions about how to execute an acoustic opening set- but I was flat out questioning myself and how my talent/my person, whatever would be perceived.
Look man, its a tough industry. There's SO MUCH awesome talent out there. Theres also even more insane double standards and expectations for women in this field, in which I have felt the brunt of for more than half of my life. I have kept in check that my only real competition is with myself, and a quiet confidence is the most palatable. In fact, competition feels really toxic for me - I much prefer bonding with people and sharing artistic experiences. Fostering connectivity is important to me. I'm not one for small or shallow talk; a quality conversation fuels me. I struggle awkwardly to receive compliments, and find myself in the unfortunate circumstance of occasionally fixating on my flaws or mistakes, rather than what went really well after a show. I'm a person who loves privacy just as much as I love the limelight, which makes me need to sharply define my personal boundaries, and have plenty of alone time to re-charge and self-care. I don't fully blame the conditioning of the 'industry' for this lapse in self assurance. I guess I have kinda always been this way. My mom use to get frustrated with me when I wouldn't stand up and sing to a room full of people who were asking to hear my voice, or aspire to participate in a certain talent contest she'd see on TV (mom's a Leo). She didn't understand how if I loved to sing and perform, why didn't I want to do it absolutely every chance I got. I'm still like that. And I guess, those things just didn't feel authentic to me. I wouldn't even sing at my own wedding. But in hindsight - and with my current situation at hand, its like, do I not like those things because I feel I am not worthy of them? Or is it some higher vibrating symptom of my innate nature, and my own self contentment?
Of course, I accepted the offer to perform in the opening slot for December 11th. My buddy John Byrnes from the John Byrnes band joined me for the set with his awesome guitar skills and background vocals. We had one solid rehearsal (the day before the show) to decide what the heck we were going to perform. I went back and fourth with so many songs; frustrated that most of them were songs I have performed numerous times before. I feared being too predictable with freaking covers was a new level of cheesy I couldn't come back from. I always prefer unique arrangements and 'deep cuts', but when professionally living in 'event band land' you soon discover you can't often stray from what people know without causing people to lose interest (how dangerous a concept and broader metaphor for the way some people live their lives. However, event singing is a service so.. you give the people what they want). I grappled with the fact that I didn't have any original material to perform. I have been working on ONE original song, the first original song I ever seriously wrote. However that was NOT an option for this event for so many technical reasons. With Johns patience and our shared mutual love of soulful rock music, we picked a 7 song setlist that we could both feel confident to perform the very next night in front of hundreds of people. Im grateful to work with talented and motivating people like John.
SIDEBAR: In the days following our performance, John texted a few things to me that I am learning to use going forward in my other projects. Offering his commentary about a future touring project I am working on, he suggested naming the project after myself and, "I also think you should have some ego about it...take credit, make your mark. Stop being so humble". And later followed up another part of the conversation with "I believe in you". And I guess I didn't realize how badly I needed to hear that, and then work on hearing myself say it, too. Thank you, John.
When I'm performing, and enjoying it, I'm not usually thinking too much. Not if I'm actually tuned into the moment. I'm either super spiritually connected to the music and performance, or I'm on auto pilot cruising through my one-thousandth rendition of 'Valerie' or 'Bobby McGee'. But for this specific show my spirit was completely engulfed in the music, yet I was super aware about how my presence was filling the space - the whole damn room! From the second I stepped out and sang my first few lines of 'Make You Feel My Love'; I heard my voice echo off the walls of this big venue, and I saw the expressions on the peoples faces in the first few standing rows and I... was in control of the room. In command. I felt exactly at home. I breathed into the second verse, fully accepting my moment in the hot lights. From the first song to the last, I felt like I was lit on fire burning from the inside out for 36 minutes (oops she went a little over on time). I looked down at one point and saw my beautiful husband's beaming face looking back at me from the general admission section; so proud. I felt proud, of myself. To be his rocking wife, kicking butt at my show at our favorite venue. I imagined how proud 'little Gina' would have been. She'd look around and see that despite the initial life conditioning, "F them, we did it anyway".
My energy, my passion, my moxie... the set was... great. Jeez, why is that so hard to say? And of course in the next breathe I want to leave the disclaimer saying how I KNOW not every note was perfect! Why do I feel the need to do that? To point that out? What am I so afraid of admitting? Notes may be the foundation of a song, but without emotional syntax a song becomes dry and self-removed. I like to think vocalists are vessels for the language of music; interpreters. And through this language I fully connected to my soul, and the deepest form of authentic self love I ever felt. That is a role I'd stand in line for hours to play, any day. My 'theatrical rockstar' self (Thank you for the branding, Mackenzie).
Truly, some people can go out of their way to be so kind. I was a bit overwhelmed by the compliments I was receiving after the show from audience members. And although it is really hard for me to fully take in - It felt great to be recognized in this way. It was empowering. People, especially women, seemed to feel a sense of empowerment after my set. And that fills me with immense joy, because that is so much a stand out goal for me. And like most drugs, you quickly realize you want more. The next few days after the show lit a fire under my ass to work on some other projects I had been putting off. Be on the look out for a new touring show coming out this spring...
I never played Tracy Turnblad, by the way. It never happened for me. I guess all those trips from ages 14 - 25 back and fourth to the AEA building/Ripley Grier, the anxious last minute agent submissions, the workshop class audition strategy to pretty much pay for an audition (thats where you pay to take a class designed to help with audition prep for a specific show, meanwhile you don't really care about the educational moment as much as you care about the important person running the class being forced to watch you 'fake' audition for a job you actually want), and the constant revival of the ever expressive audition cut of 'Good Morning Baltimore' with that sorta over the top put-on character voice... will remain in vein. I mean, depending on how you look at it, really. It always felt like trying to squeeze into a shirt a size too small - close, but not close enough. I should have acknowledged what needed to be my real moment of closure for that role when I was 23, auditioning for an amateur teen production of Hairspray at a local theatre company on Long Island. My friend was musical directing it, and so I ended up at the callbacks. I was pretty confident that this was going to finally happen. Although, admitedly insecure about going from Broadway/National tour callbacks for the role to this. I sang my cut well, and then witnessed three other potential 'Tracy's' perform their callback- all who were actual teenagers - completely and utterly out-sing and performing me for the role. They WERE Tracy. I was 'acting' - and holding on to self deprecating feelings of failure. After I walked out of the audition room I immediately texted my friend who was still inside and said, "Those girls were phenomenal and way better than me for the role, have a great time with the show". I held so tightly to something that didn't actually serve me, out of fear that my worth came down to this one role. It took me so long to learn to let go. And even longer to learn what to let in.
I was very excited to turn 30 this year. It felt like a rite of passage. A clear indoctrination of adulthood. Feeling comfortable enough with the mistakes of my youth, and ready to build up dreams that support my adventurous lifestyle. There is no 'end' to learning, or learning about yourself. My introspective disposition has made me a bit of a target for internalizing things I shouldn't. Also, confusing self-perception with fully understanding my life purpose. Perhaps, thats something I won't ever really know. Maybe I'm already fulfilling it; sans label, or specific title, role, etc. I'll keep working on it. I'll keep aspiring to me.
Photographed by Brian Masterson