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Performing on a Wing and a Prayer

Was her dream of being a performer totally out of reach? She needed a sign to reassure her.

By Renee Heitmann, New York, New York

As appeared in

I straightened my sequined headpiece and wings, and stepped onto the stage at Trump Marina in Atlantic City. I was “Angel,” a lead soprano in Cirque Dreams Holidaze, a national holiday production. It was a huge role, one I was grateful for.

But I couldn’t help but worry. Would this finally be my big break? Or just another dead end?

Performing had always come naturally to me. As a toddler I danced and sang around the house, putting on variety shows for my parents, older sister and younger brother. When I was five my parents took us all to see the Nutcracker at the Smith Opera House in Geneva, New York.

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I was completely enchanted by the costumes, the music, the dancing. “That’s what I want to do!” I told everyone on the drive home.

“If you can dream it, you can do it,” Mom said. “But talk to God about it too.”

As soon as I was old enough, I joined our church choir in Penn Yan, New York, and all through grade school and high school I took dance and singing lessons. I was part of every local production possible. And I prayed every night that I would grow up to be a professional singer and performer.

Upon graduating from Westminster Choir College, I moved to Philadelphia to pursue a master’s in voice from Temple University. In between studying, I auditioned all over the tristate area, believing my big break was right around the corner. It had to be.

But after two and a half long years in Philly, I had a master’s degree but not much else. I was barely scraping by, working 35 hours a week, and very little of it on a stage. I wasn’t a local star. Broadway hadn’t come calling. How could this happen?

My mom and dad heard the disappointment in my voice on our next phone call and came to visit. We were driving around the Pennsylvania countryside when Mom turned to me. “Renee, honey, why don’t you move back home with us? You can save money while you pursue this.”

“I love you,” I said. “But I’m not coming home a failure.” I slumped down in the backseat. “If the Lord wants me to move back home, he’ll have to make it crystal clear,” I said.

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“Renee, look!” Mom said.

I looked up to see a small church with a white board out front. It read, “If you’re looking for a sign, here it is.”

I couldn’t figure out why moving home was part of God’s plan, but I did it. And I continued to audition like crazy while working a full-time job. Three years went by. And my dream? It felt further away than ever.

I could think of only one last shot: Move to New York City. But how? I could never afford the rent.

About a month later there was a knock on our door. It was Jen, a friend I hadn’t seen in years, and her mom. “We were in the neighborhood,” Jen said. “How’s everything?” I told her about my impossible plan to move to the Big Apple.

“Get out!” she said. “I live there now. You can stay with me for free as long as you need.”

“I couldn’t...”

Jen insisted. I took the 72 dollars I had left to my name and went for it.

Every day I anxiously checked audition listings. Two weeks after I moved, a posting online jumped off the page: “Cirque Dreams Holidaze national tour. Video submissions only.” National tour! My heart leapt.

I submitted a reel of footage, showing my vocal range. The next day the casting director hired me. I was floored. My parents were thrilled.

Now, I stood on stage in my wings, wondering if my dream would really take off. I took a deep breath and launched into “O Holy Night.”

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An adorable little girl in the front row followed my every move. I stepped closer, looked into her eyes and sang. When I finished I took a bow, turned her way and winked.

She shyly glanced at her mom as if to say, “Did you see that?” It was like she really believed in Angel, in me. A peace enveloped me, and I knew, without a doubt, that this was God’s plan for my life. Mom was right oh-so-long ago: If you can dream it, you can do it.