“Smokin’” at a Young Age

I began “Smokin’” at the young age of 16. It was the best decision of my life. I gained an amazing amount of experience and a footing of expertise that I would continue using in my life as a musician, performer, and human being. And don’t even get me started on the health benefits…

I made my first CCP stage appearance in 1993 during the Jet Theatrix production of A Brand New Beat. I was smitten with the stage–instantly bitten by the bug. From there, I gave ensemble work for professional productions a good shake—Oklahoma! and Grapes of Wrath. I loved it! I couldn’t imagine my time on stage getting any better. I was convinced that I had peaked and I was thankful enough!

Then in early 1994, just weeks before I turned 17, I was given a golden opportunity to join a cast of a not-so-well-known musical. Jim Crabtree knew I could sing, sure, but could I play an instrument?

I winced at the question, “Piano?”

He called me in to meet the guest director, Terry Sneed, and to audition. I had never formally auditioned before, so I was clueless about what I needed to do to prepare for such a request! I can’t remember what I sang for Terry and Jim, but I remember Terry’s sweet smile as I sang. And I remember the piece of music I chose to play on the piano for my audition. I had been working on it for about a week–Ricky Nelson’s “Traveling Man.” (Go ahead. Laugh.) I was even asked to sing along mid-song. I must’ve done something right—or they were desperate—because I was offered the role on the spot. At the time, I would alternate the role with another girl so that we wouldn’t miss much school. They handed me the script and gave me a date for when I would begin rehearsals.

I was on cloud nine! I was fantasizing about the role I would play and the beautifully arranged songs I would sing in this new show—a show with dancing, a leading lady, a leading man, supporting roles, and a huge ensemble cast! Then, when I got home I opened the script …

Devastated! Instead of a cast of 30, there were only six. There were no leads; we were an ensemble cast. I would not at all sing the swelling music similar to Rodgers and Hammerstein or Andrew Lloyd Webber. I was going to be singing the same music I sang in church on Sundays!

… but there was “dancing” and a certain little word that had the possibility to cause much controversy.

Still, I was grateful for the opportunity. How could I not be? Being on stage was everything I had ever dreamed of doing! Plus, while other kids my age were working part-time bagging groceries, running registers, or flipping burgers, someone (Jim Crabtree) felt that I was good enough to “play pretend” and sing as a part-time job without any real prior experience. He thought that I would somewhat add value to a cleverly crafted show among a small group of talented professionals. Never did I imagine that 21 years later Smoke on the Mountain would be one of the most loved and memorable shows to ever grace the CCP stage. It has become so much more than a show. It carries so much reverence in our community and to other CCP patrons. CCP guided me to not only hone my craft but to be exposed to diversity in art and life. In truth, the cast and stage managers I worked with until 1998 molded me, raised me. Nothing in the world can take away the experience and knowledge I gained in the time when I portrayed Denise Sanders. Here are a few memories and lessons I gained:

1. I learned what real teamwork looked like and how to execute it. It’s not a shallow chore of mechanically working together as one. It’s a deeper, more intimate move of knowing who each cast member is, who they’re bringing to life, and how they’re accomplishing that. It’s gelling together.

2. To be in a long-running show, to keep your performance consistent, is exceptional. To keep that consistency fresh is divine. (I was neither.)

3. My skin thickened with constructive criticism and useful stage notes—something that needed to happen if I planned to be an artist of some magnitude for the rest of my life.

4. I had a few hard lessons about checking my ego and mood at the door. Nobody likes working with a jerk.

5. A straight face during a semi-serious scene can often be tested by a cast member. I have yet to achieve this skill.

6. Coloring your hair is all fun and games until you’re locked in to one particular color and all because of who your current twin is. I make for a horrible dark brunette.

7. Nothing is scarier than a deer-in-the-headlights moment during a monologue you’ve done over a hundred times—a monologue you thought for sure you could do in your sleep.

8. Sinful hair is not so easily achieved. It too, requires a good hair day, time, patience, and a crap-ton of Aqua Net.

9. The saying is true: You’re only as good as the people you play with. I laid down the foundations of becoming a real musician and songwriter during those years, thanks to musicians like Rhondda Wallace and Bobby Taylor who challenged me. I was later able to add guitar, mandolin, and bass to my catalog of regularly played instruments, and I eventually received my degree in music.

10. Twins, Reverends, Burls, Stanleys, Veras, June … they all come and go. Each brings a new gift to the table when they become part of the Sanders family. Each takes a significant part of the show with them when they leave.
11. Tracy Schwab was right. Singing “Rocky Top” after the show in the lobby while in costume is obnoxious and I’m sorry. (I’m not even a UT fan.)

12. Voice lessons are important no matter how naturally gifted you are as a vocalist. And over-singing doesn’t necessarily mean better. I was faced with some serious health risks to my throat because I wasn’t being responsible with my gift. Thanks to the cast at that time, I was lead to fantastic voice instructor and was able to avoid any surgery!

And last, but certainly not least …

13. Honesty. It’s not about the laughs. It’s about the heart. Always about the heart.
As a young adult, I went on and did several big stage shows and tours through other companies as well as CCP, but none compared to the time I had with CCP’s Smoke on the Mountain. My sixteen-year-old self stood corrected, finding that Sarah Brown (Guys and Dolls) was never as fun as Denise Sanders. “On My Own” could never carry the same significance as “I’ll Never Die (I’ll Just Change My Address).” Not for me, anyway. And dancing? Well, with two left feet, I left my dancing to “I’ll Live a Million Years” and I never looked back.

Smoke on the Mountain has taken on a life of its own now, for sure—for audiences and cast members alike–and to say that I’m thankful for being a part of that Smoke legacy at CCP is, by far, an understatement.

© 2015 Melissa Ellis-Clyde
Used by Permission