Last night I had a flashback. You know those moments when for a split second you forget where you are? The moon was full, the highway was bare, and the same song was playing on the radio. Was I headed home from rehearsal or on my way to the cornfields of New Jersey?
I have had a lot of odd jobs. I have worked as a bartender at a country club, a parking attendant, a Blockbuster Video rewinder (remember video stores?), as catering staff, as a ticket seller, a hostess, a mime, and as an ESL trainer to 30 East German ship builders. But the weirdest job of all was working the Haunted Hayride circuit.
As a native of Northern Virginia I had never heard of haunted hayrides, but these ghoulish tractor adventures were the favorite past time of my new Philadelphia neighbors. I was between jobs and desperate for work. "It's a good gig Jenn," my friend swore to me, "Plus everyone involved are Equity actors." I signed up to audition. How bad could it be?
At my audition I screamed and ran around non-stop for over an hour. I guess I passed the test because at the end a large man in overalls and a straw hat shook my hand and welcomed me to the team. My role? Pirate wench.
Now this was back in the day before Johnny Depp made pirates cool. Pirates are not scary. Best case scenario I would have a hook for a hand - not exactly blood curdling stuff. My friend was cast in the role as Hellraiser. Now that was scary! That was the stuff of nightmares. But a pirate?!?
My first day on the job I walked to my post - a 12' tall wooden pirate ship complete with cannon. At least I got a cannon. My lines were as follows:
"Ahoy there mateys! (then to the cannon guy) Fire!"
The cannon guy would fall over and I would say
"Looks like we've got another cannon boy down. Could any of you do the job?"
Then I would walk menacingly down the plank
I had played Lady Macbeth on the stage of the Globe Theater in London. My next role was as Titania in Midsummer Night's Dream. But for the month of October I was a pirate wench.
The thing about working a haunted hayride is you're outside. And the thing about being outside for 6 hours a night in a cornfield in New Jersey in October? It's cold. Really, really cold. Particularly if you're only wearing a skimpy pirate girl costume.
The other nugget of information I quickly realized is that we had a lot of repeat customers. For $20 a head "our audiences" could ride the hayride as much as they like. On a slow night we had 200 tractors. On a busy night, close to 400. That's 400 times of jumping up and shouting "Ahoy there mateys."
And since they were repeat customers they knew the course. Just after the line of spooky scarecrows the chanting would softly start, "the pirate people suck," then as they passed Beetlejuice's station the chant would grow, "The Pirate People Suck," then louder as I stood up to shout "Ahoy - "
"THE PIRATE PEOPLE SUCK!"
Then inevitably one lone voice would cry: "Except for pirate girl. She's kinda hot."
That October I did make a fair amount of money. I also developed pneumonia and an aversion to tractors. As I drove home after my final night performing as a pirate wench I discovered something about myself. "Ahoy there mateys?" I could write better dialogue than that. Maybe the time had come to trade greasepaint for pen. I got home, chucked my pirate costume in the trash, and cracked open my laptop. Settled in with a hot cup of tea, my fingers flying across the keyboard I felt instantly better - and finally warm.