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Perseverance of a singer

Lifestyle/Technology | Uncertainties of a career on stage lead New York actress to "calm down and rely on God-a lot"

Issue: "Is Christianity in the U.S. doomed?," June 20, 2009

Rachel Black stands six feet tall. She's got a big voice, which she planned to use as an opera singer. That's why she majored in voice performance at Vanderbilt and went on to get her masters from the University of Kentucky. But a strange thing happened when she was waiting to audition for a Ph.D. program in opera. A diva was singing, and Rachel blurted to her mother who was waiting with her, "I wish she would shut up. I just hate opera."

Rachel followed the outburst with "a lot of prayer and soul searching." She realized she wanted to sing, but not that kind of music: "So on a whim I up and moved to New York, knowing nothing about musical theater." That was in October 2004. She was 25.

Rachel says the move to New York was an easy one: "The right doors just opened up." She received guidance from Vanderbilt friends who were already living in the city. She ended up sharing an apartment with one and learning from others "where to go to dance, where to take voice lessons. . . They had all been here to make the dumb, stupid mistakes."

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Rachel quickly learned that a tall, large woman would not be playing ingénues, even though at age 25 she was young enough to be one. She had to prepare to play funny, loud, memorable, middle-aged characters. So she took dancing lessons and hired a voice teacher to help her change her singing technique, a monologue coach who taught her to speak lines (something you don't do in opera), and a voice coach to help her prepare for auditions.

At those auditions a singer gets 16 bars-a mere 30 to 60 seconds of singing-to sell herself to a casting director. A voice coach knows the kind of roles that are suitable to a singer's type and voice. He knows the right songs, and the right cuts from those songs, to best display a singer's talents.

Actors typically work "pay-the-bill" jobs while they go to auditions and take classes. Rachel has temped, nannied, and worked in retail, while always leaving mornings open for auditions. Auditions usually start at 10:00 a.m., but actors arrive at 6 or 7 a.m. to get on the list-and may still be assigned number 150 or 200. Black tries to audition before noon so she can get to work in the afternoon. "You line up, 20 at a time. . . . When I'm standing outside the door, my prayer is. 'God, let me do the best I can do with my ability, in this moment, and place me where you can use me."

Rachel's philosophy is to "audition your face off, just go, go, go, and let the chips fall where they may. . . . If the answer is no, you just never hear that you didn't get the job. . . . It could be that you're too tall or they have a costume already and it doesn't fit you, or it could be a type of acting that you aren't getting. You just don't know."

Getting a role often means leaving friends, church, and apartment for months at a time. Last year Rachel had a seven-month contract with a theater in Indiana. This summer she has a six-week contract at a theater in upstate New York, where she'll play the drama coach in High School Musical. When she takes a job, "my biggest prayer request is to find another Christian. So far that's never been a problem. There's always been at least one other person to go to church with. And that makes such a difference."

Rachel has auditioned about 300 times over five years. (She left New York for 1½ years to care for her sick mom.) From those 300 auditions she garnered 13 roles, a batting average of .043, and Rachel is considered among her friends in theater a person who works consistently. She says it's hard for her to understand how actors cope with rejection and uncertainty if they don't have faith in God: "This is such a hard industry. If you didn't have faith to lean on and if you didn't have some belief that God had a plan for your life, I think this would be a very hard industry in which to work. . . .

"When I come back in September, I won't have a job, even a pay-the-bills job because the family I nanny for is moving away. . . . I will come back, needing to pay rent on September 1 and not having a theater job or a pay-the-bills job. The whole thing is a giant leap of faith all the time. You don't find a ton of Christians in the industry, which I cannot understand, because I cannot imagine doing this without faith. What do you lean on?

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