Step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch…
At the beginning of the musical A Chorus Line, a chorus line sings “God, I hope I get it. I hope I get it. How many people does he need?”
Ashley Arnett can relate. To land her role as Bebe Benzenheimer in the Stratford Festival’s 2016 production of the sixth longest running Broadway hit of all time, Arnett had to audition six times.
“It’s insane how much art imitates life,” she said. “That’s what we go through all the time, all these auditions and wanting to get this part so bad still, you never know what they’re looking for.”
It was gruelling, especially because at the time she was still performing in the Drayton Entertainment production of Snow White in Toronto, a two-hour drive from Stratford.
“We went to the open call, which is a cattle call, basically,” she said. “I think there might have been 200 girls there and we danced all day. I wasn’t expecting anything from it, other than a free dance class, but somehow, I got to dance for them and they kept me around to sing. It was exactly like A Chorus Line. It was surreal.”
Bebe Benzenheimer is a dancer from Brooklyn, New York, who struggles with self-esteem, but puts on a quirky facade to compensate. Arnett is comfortable with the part.
“Every girl can relate to that in some way,” Arnett explained. “She uses humour as a defence mechanism and I tend to do the same. And she’s insecure, but she’s strong at the same time. Of course, I can relate, who hasn’t felt like an ugly duckling in their life? She’s definitely easy to tap into for me.”
Arnett was one of those people who was born for the limelight.
“It’s so funny, every performer says this, but we’ve been performing since we were kids, whether it’s at a family function where I would just make people laugh, I guess I just liked that kind of attention,” she said. “So, I’ve known this is what I’ve wanted to do for a very long time.”
A natural affinity toward an audience, some native talent and raw desire do not a professional make, however.
When Arnett came to Yorkton in Grade 12, she was a long way from that goal. She joined the cheerleading squad at Yorkton Regional and was cast as a dancing tree in the high school’s The Wizard of Oz
Arnett credits Yorkton Dance Innovations director Tammy Kostersky with taking her to the next level.
“She is exactly what you want in a dance teacher,” Arnett said. “She’s strict, she’s knowledgable and she pushes you to be your best. She definitely pushed me to my potential. I was a lazy dancer when I came to Yorkton and she definitely pushed me into [being] a diligent dancer.”
After high school, Arnett hit the road with the touring musical revue Saskatchewan Express where she fell in love with musical theatre. Eventually she decided to go to school settling on the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts in Toronto where she won the Triple Threat Award. In theatre parlance ‘triple threat’ is a performer who can act, sing and dance. The school honours a student who demonstrates talent, as well as, growth, work ethic, and potential for industry success.
Since graduating, industry success has followed for Arnett. She has appeared off-Broadway in a show called Somewhere With You, toured with the Classical Theatre Project’s production of Hair and, most recently, worked for Drayton Entertainment doing a number of shows including Aladdin, Pirates of Penzance and Snow White.
Stratford is the pinnacle so far, however, and it is not an easy gig. Following the intense audition process, rehearsals for A Chorus Line started February 15 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week, a workload Ashley called “insane,” especially for a dancer.
“You definitely have to be careful,” she said. “They set you up with a physiotherapist, but there’s a lot of epson salt baths and icing in the beginning. But they definitely take care of us.”
The rehearsal schedule for A Chorus Line has eased off a bit down to Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, but Stratford also puts its recruits to work in other shows. Ashley is also appearing in the Shakespeare comedy As You Like It, which rehearses Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
By the time the 2016 season is said and done, there will have been 95 performances of A Chorus Line and 49 of As You Like It.
But while the work may not be for the faint of heart, the benefits of appearing at Stratford can be huge, as attested by the list of stage and screen stars who have graced stages there, a veritable who’s who of the Canadian performing arts community.
And it pays a living wage, something a minority of performing artists can claim to be earning.
Ultimately, she is keeping her ambition modest. Of course, she would be more than happy to go on to fame and fortune on Broadway or in Hollywood, she admitted, but acknowledges that is a long shot.
“To continue working is my dream,” she said. “Broadway? Yeah, I would love for Broadway to happen, but I wouldn’t say that’s my goal. My goal is to keep working in Canada. Stratford treats us like gold and just to keep working is my dream. That’s difficult enough to do.”
And, she realizes she didn’t get there alone.
“I’m very, very blessed and very lucky that I had such amazing people to get me this far, whether it be Dance Innovations or Saskatchewan Express or Randolph Academy. Everyone just kept believing in me. And my parents [Doug and Melody], they knew me better than I knew myself and they gave me the nudge to follow my dreams, which is incredible, and that’s what got me where I am now and hopefully I can continue on this path and keep working.”
Step, kick, kick, leap, kick, touch…