1 Mile to Anonymity or 15 minutes to Nobody

1 Mile to Anonymity or 15 minutes to Nobody

It was fall 2003 and I had recently auditioned for Mamma Mia Las Vegas. It was a big deal because Vegas had never embraced a full 2-hour book musical with an intermission. Vegas casinos like 90-minute shows that are fast paced to get people drinking and back into the casino to gamble. Brief background - I had dedicated my life to the theatre but in 2000 had walked away. So, when I got the call from Tara Rubin the casting director that they “wanted to see me” and “could I get to Las Vegas in two days to audition for the director and producers,” I was hesitant.

I worked a lot in the theater - close to 15 solid years. I was one of the few, the blessed to have a long lasting consistent job in theater. I had done 3 Broadway shows, a couple of tours and a lot of shows around the country. In fact, I knew the casting director very well and said to her, “they always thought I was too young to play this part in Mamma Mia.” She replied, “they are going a little younger for Vegas." Nice to be considered “younger.” This is how it works. Whether good or bad, the initial meeting is usually wrapped around your age or how you look. You get used to the superficial. It is a way of life in theatre.

I purchased my flight. Crashed with an old friend at the Luxor Hotel and went in for the audition. I hadn’t sung in over 3 years and knew nothing about Abba music. I bought a CD - yes in the good old days of CDs -  and for hours listened over and over to the 2 songs they wanted me to sing. I warned the casting director that they should probably know I hadn’t sung in a long while and if I was able to get through the music I probably only had one pass in me of each song. She assured me that would be ok. So, I auditioned. It felt good. I did my best and a day later I was hired. Weeks later I found myself in a U-Hall truck with my dad driving from San Francisco to Las Vegas to begin rehearsals. I was back in the theatre.

6 weeks of rehearsals went by and the creative team and producers from London were extremely anxious. They were charting new ground in Vegas and if this didn’t work, it was going to be a PR nightmare. But if it did work, they could claim to be the first and would possibly open new opportunities for lots of shows and for local performers. The union (Actor’s Equity) were frothing at the mouth because they saw an entirely new opportunity for fees and revenue. That is a story for another time.

Needless to say, the producers of Mamma Mia Las Vegas recouped their initial investment, if memory serves, within 7 months. It was a HUGE hit. 

Within a month, all of us "leads" were Vegas stars. I had secret fans sending me flowers and notes backstage. I got into any club I desired. My meals were almost always paid for by either another guest or the restaurant themselves. All the high-end tough reservations were no problem. I called the GM, told them who we were, and the red carpet was laid out. I dated whomever I had my eye on at the time. Remember, this was way before Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube etc. It was all word of mouth.

It really sank in when shortly after opening, I was walking with some of my family in the Venetian mall and I was stopped over and over and over to have my photo taken with visitors from all over the world. Now understand, on Broadway, most of the time even if you were a Broadway star, very few people stayed at the stage door for an autograph. Yes, when there were pop stars, TV or film stars but not usually for a Broadway star. So, this was incredible. I was a star.

I was a star. I was a star. I was a star. Vegas had opened for me and oh how sweet it was…

If you Google “dimensions of the Vegas strip” what comes up is the following:

The Strip is approximately 4.2 miles (6.8 km) in length, located immediately south of the Las Vegas city limits in the unincorporated towns of Paradise and Winchester. However, the Strip is often referred to as being in Las Vegas.

WHAT?? 4.2 miles???? But it doesn’t feel that small when I am sitting in the VIP section of the Mandalay Bay Foundation Room. It doesn’t feel that small when I have VIP seats to Cirque du Sole. I am a star. I can date anyone. Eat anywhere and see anything.

Isn’t life cruel but beautiful? Just when you think you have attained something, it tends to balance out. Yes, for those 4.2 miles I was known. But when I went home every night to my apartment off the strip which was approximately 1 mile from the Mandalay bay or a 15-minute drive without traffic, I was just anonymous Nick.

Fame, Access, Adoration are interesting things. I wanted it. It made going to work every night and doing a really tough show in 6% humidity and 110 degrees Fahrenheit manageable. It fueled all my desires. It made my ego large and my options larger.

But what happens when it is all gone? And one way or another it would be. I am not going to wax poetic about how it meant nothing in the end or it is all meaningless. It wasn’t. It was really good. It was invigorating.

However, when my identity became my job, it fell short. There were never enough flowers being sent backstage. There were never enough women to date. The applause was never loud enough.

The more I had, the less it meant. The less I had, the more I needed.

I never went to bed thinking, “this is all so empty. I feel hopeless and alone.” The opposite was true – I woke everyday feeling like I could conquer anyone or anything as long as I was on that 4.2 miles of the Vegas Strip. I loved going back to the theatre 8 shows a week so I could see if I got more applause than the person after me.  I put my all into my girlfriend. But she wasn’t enough. I put my all into my business. But suddenly that wasn’t enough. I was fine or seemed fine when I “had it all.” I only saw my true self when it was “all gone.” The transition was excruciating and, in my mind, humiliating.

You ever take time to sit back and think on all the things that take over your mind on any given day? Try it. Take 5 minutes a day as a starting place. Take a little inventory. No judgements to start. No opinions. Just some inventory. When a store closes its doors once a year to take inventory, in that moment there is no judgement, no opinion. There are simple facts, numbers and sometimes statistics. However, once all the numbers and statistics are calculated, then judgement and opinion are necessary to get a real picture - Keep things the way they are or make some shifts or changes to become more efficient. Try it. I was surprised at how much I thought others were thinking of me or caring about how I looked or my circumstances had changed. I was self-involved to a level where it affected my emotions and anxiety levels. But once I was able to get a clear picture, I realized that it was me who was affecting me. What I did, had become who I was, and no one in my circle of trusted friends and family could care less.

I am not an expert on recovery, but I had to recover. I had to find a community of people who liked me for me and not for who I was or wasn’t.

Now, almost 15 years later, life has been cruel at times and beautiful at others. I have had to learn that circumstances don’t dictate happiness, joy, calmness, or peace. I used to think that my circumstance dictated my happiness. How could people be living in poverty in West Africa or the Middle East live happy, joyful lives? It had nothing to do with where or how they lived. It had all to do with who they lived for.

I am sure there are lots of people living great lives from all backgrounds, education, access and finances. But one thing science is proving out, none of these bring the right balance of self-worth, love and community.

Whether I have much or have little, how do I live?

I have become obsessed with how focusing on someone other than myself a few minutes a day could actually help with my anxieties or my self-worth. It is miraculous. Our brains are so pliable. Over time, I am learning the more I focus on others and serve others with no strings attached, the less stress and anxiety I experience in my personal life.

I never pretend to have all the answers but if science is proving we live our happiest selves when we live with and for others, then I need to take inventory.

1 mile or 15 minutes? The choice is mine.


 Nick Cokas