When Sam was 3 years old, and we noticed his love of puppets, we took him to his first live puppet show at the Arizona Puppet Theatre. After he was hooked on those shows, we decided to take him to see live theatre. He saw shows all over the Valley and was addicted. When he was 4, he decided he wanted to audition for a show and be a part of the magic he saw onstage. We took him to Desert Stages Theatre in Scottsdale because they allowed children ages 3 and up to audition.
Arriving at the audition on a Sunday evening, there was a line of about 200 kids wrapped around the building waiting to audition. We were told by a very vivacious woman in charge that there would be a 2 hour wait, unless you were a “Friend” of Desert Stages. “Friends” could make audition appointments and didn’t have to wait in line at open calls. Sam was getting ancy, and I asked her how much it cost. $100, she said, and I gave her my credit card right there. After a 2 hour dancing and singing audition, I saw Sam emerge from his very first audition with a beaming smile that has yet to go away. Looks like he enjoyed it, said the woman. That woman’s name, I later learned, was Audrey Johnson.
Audrey was the Desert Stages parent coordinator, which was a position she created that she did on a volunteer basis. She helped the parents understand auditions, callbacks, and rehearsal schedules. But what she really was, was the ultimate cheerleader. She motivated the kids to do their best and she helped the parents deal with every range of emotion in the theatre world: from disappointment to anger to excitement to joy. She encouraged volunteerism in the theatre with her creation of “Community Day”. She would get the family members of each cast to come help build the sets, help with costumes, and get the theatre ready for the next show to open. She pumped up the audience before each and every show with her energetic audience pep talk. She also sold show posters, candy and raffle baskets in the lobby before, during and after each show.
Sam and Lauren did shows there for several years (and Aidan was conceived during a weekend where both kids were busy with shows!) and Audrey became a very treasured friend of our family. She was a shoulder to lean on, my fellow “theatre mom” (her pride and joy was her daughter Haley, who had done about 50 productions there), and one who understood my world. She loved theatre in Arizona, and was always up for seeing any show, anywhere. She loved to see “her kids” in productions all over the Valley. Her husband worked nights and weekends, so she was always up for a girls night to see a show. The kids in Arizona always knew when Miss Audrey was in the audience, because she had a very distinctive hoot and hollar that let everyone know she was there. She believed in the magic of theatre and what it brought out in children. She was also one of the first people to tell me that Sam had something very special when he got on stage. She absolutely loved him and saw him in every single production he was ever in.
Last November, she lost her voice. First diagnosed as a virus, her worst nightmare was realized when it was revealed she had inoperable lung cancer. Throughout her 1 year fight, through chemo and radiation, and cancer that eventually spread to her brain, she continued to see live theatre. Every single weekend. She wanted to hoot and hollar for every show she could, even with the little voice she had left. It took every last bit of energy, but she continued to call up friends and ask them to take her to shows. She spent the last week of her life seeing shows all over the Valley, including taking a 4 hour trip to Tucson to see her “kids” in a college production.
The night she passed away, theatres all over the Valley dimmed their lights in honor of our ultimate audience member. Sitting on this plane right now to Rochester, NY to see Sam open up a National Touring production, all I keep thinking is that I can’t believe she’s not here to see this.
So, what I have come up with is a challenge to all theatres around the country: What about dedicating 4 seats per run of each of your shows to children who would otherwise not be able to afford to see a show? The one thing Audrey hated were empty seats at a show, and, unfortunately, sometimes the economy does not allow kids and their families to enjoy the magic of live theatre. You could call them the “Audrey Seats” and perhaps have some sort of a contest to decide which child or children will get to see your show for free. Maybe have them all submit an essay explaining why they should be the one to see that particular show. They could submit their essays in writing or online, and your season ticket holders could vote. Anything to encourage the love of theatre in the next generation of kids and to honor to one woman who loved it more than anything. It would only be 4 seats per run (not show) and it wouldn’t cost you much. Hey, it may even be good publicity for all of you and help boost your show sales.
“Thank you, Miss Audrey, for encouraging me. I would not be here today without you always cheering me on.” Sam Primack, in a note that he wrote to Audrey shortly before she died.