Moving to New York, starting my career, and being bad at relationships. 1997-Spring 2003
Chasing the Dina: Chapter 2, Fall 1997 - April 2003 | V5
One morning, about 2 AM, I was sitting on a bench outside the front of my college dorm in late November. The dry below-freezing temperature had me layered with a shirt, flannel shirt, sweat shirt, heavy coat, hat and gloves. However, I was still shivering since my legs were only protected by a pair of jeans. I never did take to wearing long underwear. I was unable to tell the difference between the smoke from my cigarette and my breath vapor as I exhaled.
I stopped shivering long enough to notice a grand elk walking down the road about 50 feet away. He stopped and looked around, seeming to regard me for a moment. The light from the dorm windows behind me allowed me illuminated the thick, dark fur around his neck and chest and showed how it gradually got lighter and finer toward the middle of his body. He continued down the street, his hooves lightly clicking on the road. I began to shiver again and hurried to finish my cigarette.
During the day the University of Montana campus in Missoula Montana, nestled in the northwestern mountains, pulsed with its share of every kind of college student. Perhaps more than its fair share of granola, "free Tibet" chanting snowboarders, but mostly it was populated with kids like me trying to figure out what was next while pretending we already knew.
A few weeks into my first semester, I started dating Louie. 28 to my 19, Louie was a bigger guy, taller than me at a good six foot, with a round face and black hair which came to a sharp widow's peak. A veteran of Desert Storm, his time in the army left him without any cartilage in his knees. He had also successfully quit smoking a couple years back. This led him to be heavier, wearing his weight unhappily on his large frame.
I liked Henry a lot. I enjoyed making him laugh and he never seemed to mind my boundless amount of energy. He was affectionate and caring, both with me and anyone he considered a friend. He was a passionate activist, someone that gays, young and old, would come to for counseling.
He was also a gamer. Video games were something my parents only slightly indulged growing up. Henry had a gaming computer that he built himself which he would let me play. There were a number of evenings where I would spend the night and not come to bed till after midnight because I was up playing his Star Wars X-wing game or any number of his fantasy role playing games.
I was as invested into our relationship as any gay 19-year-old still fresh out of the closet could be. I never considered where the relationship was going, if I was in it for the long haul, or if I was just having a good go with a friend-with-benefits. All I knew was that I enjoyed being with Louie and he enjoyed being with me and I wasn't planning on going anywhere for the next four or five years.
Then life started to pull me away from Montana.
I never questioned what I was going to do next after high school. I went to college because that's what you did. And I was going to go in-state because it was cheaper. And since the University of Montana was the only in-state college to offer an Acting degree, where I was going was pretty much decided.
"I think it's gonna be too easy for you here John." Sarah, a sophomore, and I had done a lot of theater growing up in Billings. She looked like a young Bebe Neuwirth with her dancer body, porcelain skin, only her black hair was straight. A wonderful dancer, she, like many others in college, was trying to decide what direction her life was leading. She though, like many others, seemed to see where my life was heading. "You're going to get roles too easily. There's not going to be any competition for you." I made a deal with her. If I did indeed find it easy, I would find someplace more challenging to go. "You don't want to spend the next four or five years where it's easy."
In the fall semester, I played the supporting lead of the flamboyant and jealous boyfriend, Bob, in Christopher Durang's Beyond Therapy in the Drama Department's main stage production. In the spring semester, I sang the tenor role of Fernando in the Music Department opera, Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutti. I wasn't even finished with my first year of college and I already had two of three performing credits required to graduate.
Now I'm not saying I was knocking them dead like some performing wonder. For Beyond Therapy, a local reviewer said, "Cormier is fine when he forget to play gay." And a 19-year-old voice really has no business singing a full opera. I crashed and burned on more than one of Mozart's insane vocal runs, and to my horror the audience laughed.
But Sarah was right, it was too easy. I was already one of the big fishes in this collegiate pond.
"If you think you're ready, if you think you have what it takes to make it in the business right now, then by all means go." My freshman year acting teacher, with his cue ball head and salt and pepper goatee made it clear, "No one's holding you here. You may be right. You may be wrong, but you may be right."
It was becoming more and more clear that I needed to make a change, but New York City?
"If you're going to move to New York," my adviser said, sensing I already had one foot out the door, "then my best advice is find a school or program to attend in New York City first. I can't tell you how many people I've known, good people, wonderful actors, who just could not handle New York without having lived there first."
My advisor was an acting teacher for the junior and seniors. His closet-sized office was crammed with papers, scripts, and books from every acting guru known to man. Shorter with wire rim glasses, he had a receding hairline that exploded into a half crazy, half combed light brown hair. He always looked ready to play the sarcastic British butler in any farce ever written. I'm sure I would have learned lot from him, but I did indeed have one foot out the door.
"Find a program," he said, "experience the city from the comfort of a safe environment. You will have a much larger chance of success if you do."
A rental car secured by Louie (as I wasn't old enough to rent one yet), a couple packs of cigarettes and Alanis Morissette's album Jagged Little Pill in the CD player on repeat, an audition in a hotel conference room in Seattle with a monologue from Angels in America and the song Ballad of Booth from Assassins, and before Spring fully gave way to Summer, I had been accepted into the American Music and Dramatic Academy. I was going to trade my traditional college experience with its boring required classes in math and science for tap classes, musical theater classes, and living in New York City.
I told one of the grad student directors about my news in the back yard of that week's party house. It was the cast party for her production of The Children's Hour, and the young cropped-haired lesbian director was strutting proudly.
"What are you going to be studying there that you can't here?"
"Musical Theater, which is what I really want to do." I sipped my PBR, still not really liking the taste of beer.
"But don't you want to do real theater?"
Not really good with the comebacks, I said, "yes," and continued to awkwardly sip my beer as she started talking to someone else.
"I think we should break up." It wasn't an angry statement. No one had done anything wrong. Louie had also felt, like Sarah, that something was pulling me away from Montana, even while helping me rent a car. Now that I had all but made my decision to head to New York, he was making the most practical suggestion on the table. "I don't think either of us wants to do a long distance thing, especially with how far apart we'll be."
"Well," one foot out the door, "I don't want to break up. But I think your right."
For me, it was painful, but a practical decision. A business decision. One that was hard but not difficult to make. For Henry, it was a break up, the end of a relationship of two people who very much enjoyed each other's company.
I grew up with a swimming pool in our backyard. The pool wasn't heated so, except in the height of summer, it was always really cold. Whenever I invited my friends over to swim they would always jump right in. I, on the other hand, would spend a good 20 minutes slowly inching in, afraid of the cold, voice squeaking with every new inch of skin submerged.
There was no inching into New York City. It was jump in and let the shock of it hit you. The endless canyons of massive buildings that practically push you into the street full of honking cars and speeding taxis. People walking with purpose, point A to B, and me, trying to stay out of their way. There was no Big Sky here. Hell, there was nearly no sky at all. What sky you could see was flooded with the lights of Times Square. Goodbye stars, hello ten-story Coke sign.
On a cool October evening in 1998, I stood outside the hotel were my mother I were staying. She was napping, recovering from the thrilling Super Shuttle ride from the airport. We raced through Manhattan streets, making hard turns, coming unbelievably close to cars on either side of us. I loved it, but my mother was gripping her seatbelt so tight I thought she was going to draw blood. As I smoked on the sidewalk, jumping out of the way of New Yorkers barreling past, I stared at the lights of Times Square only a few blocks below. Phantom of the Opera and Rent, shows I knew by heart and had sung along with countless times, were playing live right that very moment only a short walk away. I stood smiling, excited to get on this rollercoaster, but completely unsure what to expect from the ride.
I always thought I adjusted pretty quickly. The truth was I was numb from the culture shock of having jumped into New York City head first. On top of that, It would turn out that AMDA would have a culture shock of its own.
By the time I graduated high school, everyone pretty much knew I was gay. If I was trying to hide it at all, I wasn't doing a very good job. During my year at college, I was one of four out gay people in the entire theater department. I was unique, an individual simply for being openly gay.
Now I was attending a Musical Theater conservatory in New York City. I was no longer novel; I was one of a large many. At AMDA, it was "Gay by May." If you had an inkling, were curious, or didn't have a clue but others did, odds were by May you were a rainbow flag waving homosexual. "I'm here, I'm queer, who knew?!"
I knew. I had known and had been ok with it for a good four years now. But that was Montana gay, rural gay, where even the flamboyant had a sense of practicality and connection to the ground.
Being gay in New York City, especially in the micro-universe of a musical theater school, was a whole different beast. There were hair products and clothes and "fierce" and clubs and rules.
I didn't know these rules. I didn't like these rules. I liked the way it was, the way I was. I liked being a unique individual simply because I was gay. Now, I was lost in a sea of lavender.
So I rebelled in my own way. I let my hair grow till it was past my shoulders, not knowing you shouldn't wash it every day and that brushing it out had a purpose. Loose, my hair was a wavy, frizzy mess, so most of the time I kept it back in a ponytail. I stopped shaving, which would have been fine if I had a full beard, but all I can get is a brillo-pad-like goatee. Sideburns will always be a pipe dream for me. For clothes I wore jeans, jeans and more jeans. My oversized University of Montana sweatshirt was a favorite, as was three rotating flannel shirts layered over thermals of varying muted colors, layered over white undershirts. My favorite piece was a body length, black, western duster, like a trenchcoat made of canvas, the kind worn riding horseback on ranches during winter. What I was going for was gruff western guy, something akin to the Marlboro Man. Had I been taller, a good 50 pounds meatier and been blessed with a full beard it might have worked. But at 5'8", 140 pounds and a scruffy, patchy face, I looked like a skinny, grungy westerner who needed to be told it wasn't 1993. The only similarity between me and any Marlboro Man were the cigarettes I smoked.
But it worked. I was definitely different.
I arrived at the Shubert Theater very early one November morning. Bebe Neuwirth was back playing Velma in the musical Chicago. It would be the ninth time I would see Chicago but the first time seeing the original Velma. "Yes," I said, claiming my place as first in the rush ticket line, $20 front row tickets sold day of. The box office didn't open for a couple of hours, and I probably wouldn't see the second person in line for another 30 or 40 minutes. So I sat down against the frame of the locked box office door, well layered under my duster. Though the morning sun blared down 44th street bouncing off the dark Broadway marquees and the awning for Sardis, the morning was freezing.
Around the corner from the box office door, lined with posters of currently running Broadway shows, is Shubert Ally. Suddenly, only about four feet from me, two men coming from different directions met between the posters for The Sound of Music and Beauty Queen of Leenane, a black guy with puffy black jacket and a Yankees cap and a white guy in suit with no jacket, unbuttoned vest, and loose tie.
"Here," the white guy said, anxious, because of the cold or perhaps for some other reason. He gave something to the black guy, the black guy gave something in return, and just as quickly the white guy was off, hopefully to find a coat. The black guy stood there a minute, only then noticing me sitting there holding a copy of An Actor Prepares in my thickly gloved hands. I sat there, trying to wear the New Yorker cloak of indifference which didn't really fit me that well yet.
"Morning," I said politely.
"Morning," he said, unsure. Nodding toward the theater, "Good show, huh?"
"All right." He exhaled as if he decided I wasn't a threat. "Have a good morning," and off he went.
Chicago had been my very first Broadway show, and with that cherry freshly popped, it became my second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, and soon to be ninth. I couldn't get enough of this show, of the onstage orchestra on rising tiers behind company of seductive, sexy, subtle Fosse dancers. The women - with their fierce and beautiful faces, sitting into one hip - had legs all the way to the floor and they damn will knew it.
And the men! There was the black Adonis with a shaved head buffed to a high sheen, impossibly tall, with arms that could lift two women at once. There was the Italian god with his dark eyes a broad chest shaded with a thin layer of fur that followed its way down his six-pack stomach and beyond. At one point, when I had scored front row center seats, I realized he was looking right at me with a slight smile as if to say, "That's right, I can see you." I tried to return the look, but ended up looking away, blushing and smiling.
But there was another guy who I could not stop watching whenever he was on the stage. Though he wasn't as stunningly good looking as the some of the other guys, though definitely attractive, he was the most hypnotic dancer on that stage. His white skin was made even whiter by the black skin-tight shirt and pants. His loose black hair would whip with every sharp look, hitting every movement with a pop. He would cross the stage doing nothing but rolling his hand and I would watch only him without blinking. This guy looked like he loved his life and was giving all of that love to the stage.
The only time I have ever waited at the stage door for anyone was to meet this guy. I had to, I couldn't help myself. When he came out, I stopped him.
"I really liked you in the show," I said awkwardly, having absolutely nothing else to say.
"Thank you," he said, flattered by the compliment.
To my delight he stood and talked with me for a minute. "Yeah, I'm a student. Just moved here. Going to AMDA," all the while feeling like a giggly teenage girl. A very hairy teenage girl. He thanked me and went on his way.
The next time I saw the show I waited by the staged door again. I worried I might be pushing it, that he would think me some kind of long-coated stalker.
He came out the staged door and saw me, "Hey," he said with a smile, "how are you?"
Holy crap, he recognized me! I said fine, that I liked the show again, and we chatted again for another couple minutes.
Though I saw the show several more times, I didn't wait by the stage door any more. I was crushing on this guy hard, and I didn't like it. It seemed insane to have borderline obsessive feelings about someone I didn't even know. It was like something in my gut was reaching out of me trying desperately to find something, anything, to hold onto, an anchor, a buoy.
It ended up latching onto a picture of Louie and I laying together on a large brown cloth beanbag, his arms around me, both of us smiling for the camera.
I called him up, "Hey, so, I know that neither of us wanted to do the long distance thing but, what if...what if we did?"
For the next year and a half Louie and I did the long distance thing. While he completed his Bachelor's degree in computer programming, I continued with my second and final year at AMDA. As the time to start auditioning -and a need to marketed myself and my look - grew closer, I finally embraced a shave and haircut. "I'm a pretty girl mama."
In my fourth semester, my classes moved to nights and I began auditioning. My first audition was for a national tour of Godspell. Late in the day, after about 400 people, I was finally lined up outside the audition room waiting to sing my 16 bars. I thought I had the upper hand as the four people in front of me were passing back the Godspell vocal selections. Sure that the people in the room were tired of hearing songs from the show, I was confident going in with a pop/rock song Edwin McCain's I'll Be, one of my karaoke signatures.
I entered the room with a big, "Hello!" In my excitement, I threw my music down on the piano in front of the accompanist (I may or may not have given him a tempo). I quickly took my place at in the center of the room and nodded for the accompanist to start. To my horror, the music that started coming out of the piano could not have sounded less like the song I knew. I started singing where I thought I was supposed to come in, but was a good two or three steps off key, spending a good 13 or 14 long bars trying to find it again. One of the gentlemen behind the table stared down at his half-eaten lunch and only looked up again as I mumbled a weak, "Thank you," as I left the room.
I didn't get a callback.
After that rocky first go, I seemed to get feel for auditioning. I felt I knew when it went well and when it didn't. I got used to rejection as part of the job. I also got better at being friendly and communicating well with the accompanist.
Spring of 2000 rolled around and Louie made the move out to New York. After a multiday train ride, he arrived at my - now our - fifth-floor apartment cursing the five flights of stairs. I may or may not have told him that the apartment building was a walk-up.
He put down his two large army duffle backs and I gave his sweating face a welcome home kiss.
The phone rang. I answered, "Hello."
"My I please speak to John?"
"This is John."
"Hi John. This is Steven Wallace, artistic director of (a dinner theater in Ohio). I'm calling to see if you would be interested in the role of Reuben and being the Joseph understudy for our production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat."
With my graduation from AMDA still two weeks away, I had received my first professional job offer: a two and a half month contract for the coming fall. I was going to be a professional actor, a paid musical theater performer. My choice to leave college for a faster track had paid off.
After saying, "Yes" and an enthusiastic, "Thank you very much," I hung up the phone and looked at Louie, who was sitting on the living room futon still out of breath from his climb up the stairs.
Over the next couple weeks I booked two consecutive summer productions of Mame, the first with Carol Lawrence, the original Maria in West Side Story, and the other with Loretta Swit from TV's MASH. During that production, I booked a national tour of Crazy for You which would run four months into the summer of the next year. Louie had moved out to New York to be with me, and now I was going to be gone for nine months in the coming year.
I was aware irony of the situation but didn't really feel bad about it. I was a professional working actor. This meant, until Broadway called, my work was going to be away from the city and on the road most of the time. It was part of the deal as far as I was concerned. In a way I held the same position about my career as I did about my smoking, "I was a smoker when you met me."
So Louie and I, more or less, continued our long distance relationship. Up to that point we had an open relationship, being fine if the other had a little fun with another guy, and we decided to keep that going. Louie was of the opinion that the 22 year old me would going to find it nearly impossible to be so far away and resist the temptation of a tryst, and I was of the opinion that he was right.
Louie found a full time programming job pretty quickly. Since my first two gigs weren't well paying, he paid our half the rent and bills with the expectation that I would eventually join in and pay my share.
After Crazy for You, the same company offered me a track in their national tour of Funny Girl, then after that a national tour of The Scarlet Pimpernel. For all of 2001 and 2002, my life held the pattern of a few months on the road, a few months at home, a few months on the road, a few months at home.
On the road, I would ride the bus and zigzag across the country visiting all the non-city city's, first as a tap dancing cowboy in Dead Rock Nevada, then as a stage manager for Fanny Brice, then as the brother of the French heroine Marguerite.
Back in New York, I would stay home and play Final Fantasy on PS2 or Everquest, a online multiplayer game like Dungeons and Dragons, trying to level my level 38 human mage while Louie sat at his desk in the other room playing his level 53 half-elf druid.
On the road I would make lifelong friends. Dexter, a handsom, blue-eyed, goateed leading man full of smarm. Roger, a baby-faced, charming frat boy, who would belly up to the bar and order a shot of tequila and a Bud. And Jason, my roommate on both Funny Girl and Pimpernel, both Irish and Scottish, with full head and beard of brown-red hair, a big character guy with always a hint of the Lion from The Wizard of Oz.
On the road I would spend my money never giving a thought to the idea of savings.
In New York, while I was on the road and while I was home, Louie continued to pay both our shares of the rent and bills. Our conversations became shorter and more terse.
"Jason just called and asked if we want to try and rush a show with him? Do you wanna..."
"I'm not climbing those stairs again. I've been at work all day. I'm tired and I just want to relax," continuing to play his druid, sitting at his computer after a day of sitting at a computer. I would call Jason and let him know we wouldn't be joining.
Or, "Your show doesn't start for a couple months. I don't understand why you can't get a regular job until then."
"I'm not going to get a job only to quit weeks later. That doesn't even make sense," continuing to manipulate my PS2 controller, battling an endless stream of anime monsters on the TV. He would continue to pay the bills and most of our evenings were spent in separate rooms at our separate computers talking more though Everquest then to each other.
In mid-2001 our roommate Lee moved out and back to Canada. A busty vixen and fellow AMDA grad, she had been the one to find the apartment we now called home. She was soon replaced by Danny.
Danny was a blond-haired blue-eye brazen hussy dripping with sex. He had an enticing power with his cherub face and sensuous, young 20's body reminding me of rich flavored veal. He could be surprisingly adorable going down on his dinner. He could look bored in a sexy way while doing the dishes. He knew how to play the game, acting the part of the complete submissive while silently retaining control of his dominator.
While the rest of the apartment held the occasional dollar store picture frames holding pictures we hardly ever looked at on cracked, aging plaster walls covered with several layers of uneven landlord-white, the walls of Danny's room, floor to ceiling, became a fantastic extension of himself. An endless gay collage, every inch was covered with pictures and clippings, from sexy to fabulous, raunchy to artistic, funny to thought provoking. My favorite piece, nuzzled between an outrageous drag queen and a leather bound muscle bear, was a quote, "You need to realize you're never going to be a butch, hairy top."
I was enamored with Danny's energy, like the pulse of hypnotic club music. He lusted for life in its most fabulous form. I envied him but was not savvy enough to be jealous of him. I didn't know where his energy came from and I didn't care. I still lived believe in Santa Claus. Though his looks within looks knew differently, with me he kindly played along.
My stalled relationship with Louie seemed even more stark with the colorful friendship I had with Danny. Many a night we would watch Absolutely Fabulous, drinking our 22 ounce Budweisers, sweetie-darling each other in horrible British accents. He was the Patsy to My Edina. In Danny I found fun, an abundance of life and a want, a need, to live it. I was intrigued with his grand, over the top, artistic ideas that never came to fruition. I was captivated by the stories of his sexcapades. I adored his presence, his deliciously fragile way of living, only and ever in the moment, not caring for tomorrow till it came.
By the beginning of 2003, my career hit a full plateau. After Pimpernel, I auditioned for all of one show, 42nd Street, directed and chorographed by a pair of teachers I had at AMDA, and I booked it. Once again, I had a couple months in the city before I would head off again.
My relationship with Louie was borderline terminal but refused to die. Our sex life was nonexistent. We barely talked.
We also never fought. We never yelled. We never let anger just take over. I avoided conflict and arguments at all costs imagining they would lead to some inevitable catastrophic end. Instead, I played the ostrich, my head in my computer, sure that if I pretend there were no problems, they would go away.
It was Louie who took on the role of the adult. Someone had to.
"We have to talk," he would say.
We would talk, but we wouldn't listen. Together in the same room (for once) I would sit like a teenager being lectured on our unmade bed with a cheap comforter of black, teal and pink pushed aside. He would sit in his rolling computer chair only this time with his back to his computer while the overly bright CFL bulb blared overhead showing all the walls flaws and the tilting door frames of a still settling building.
All I could hear him say was, "None of our problems are my fault."
All I could seem to say was, "Our problems are not all my fault."
No yelling. No shouting. Just many uncreative variations on these themes.
"What would you do," he asked, frustrated with our stalemate, "if I just called it quits? If I just picked up and moved back to Montana? What would you do? How would you stay here? How would you support yourself?"
"I'm not leaving New York," I said matter-of-factly. "If you called it quits, I would do what I had to do to stay here, come hell or high water." I did love a clich
Louie didn't believe me. He also didn't call it quits.