Sometimes a story will sound made up no matter how it’s told. The audition call came about a week after I submitted for the movie under two categories: clown and stilt walker. Basically, they are seeking featured background, and are paying SAG rates. They need all sorts of specialty performers. Jugglers, magicians, fire eaters, unicyclists, the works. Just the sort of gig I always look for, hoping to put my experience as a party entertainer to good use.
It’s for a casting company I have not worked with before. The guy who called scheduled me for a meeting with the director on Thursday of the following week. Details would follow. Then another guy called and said disregard what the first fellow said, the meeting will be on Friday, and here is a number to call for details the day before, between certain hours. There was no mention of what would be expected at this meeting with the director. It was just background work, so I did not think about it at all. They already had my professional clown photos, and if they were calling me in for stilts (which they did not specify) I could always finish the ones I was building. My unicycle is in NY, along with the stilts I use while working there. If I were to book this gig, I could figure out how to get them here, or look for something inexpensive online.
Thursday came and when I called, there was an outgoing message saying to call back within a later time frame. Which I did, and was told the same again. Then two more times. Each outgoing message was by a rather frantic girl who was not either of the guys who first called. This frantic girl was referring to the meeting with the director as an audition. Really? For a day of background work? An audition? With the director of the picture? That doesn’t sound right.
Curious, I look up the movie on IMDB. Turns out the entire plot is set in the circus. The main character runs away to join the circus and falls in love with one of the performers, who is the wife of the circus owner. So, this director is really seeking regular background players who will be the circus company throughout the entire picture!
Okay, that’s a different story entirely. Added to this new information was the fact that the two main players are big Hollywood names. Now it makes sense why the director would involve himself in choosing the background. It also means a lot more money, as it will be far more than just one day of union work.
Finally, the outgoing message on the information line says to call back in an hour and all the details will be revealed. The frantic girl is speaking in a state of near hysteria. She apologizes every six sentences and seems to be of the belief that she is emotionally incapable of handling the top secret information she promises soon to deliver. Which perhaps she is. While giving the details, she speaks very quickly, and never for a moment drops the high-octane emotional urgency. She yells at us not to be late. She repeats this several times during the course of the message. She yells at us about where we should park. She yells at us to be prepared to show the director everything we have. We must bring all our props and show up in costume and we will have very little time in front of the director. She speaks, this frantic girl, like those people who write email in giant capital letters, punctuating each sentence with rows of exclamation marks.
In order to get the address, which she rattles off as if it is all one word, I have to replay this outgoing message three times, and each time feel as if I am being assaulted.
This meeting with the director has turned into an audition during which I must perform on stilts and unicycle and do a brief clown routine. In costume. The movie is set in the depression era, and none of my clown costumes are from that period. It is after 8:30 at night by the time this becomes clear, and I somehow have to materialize a pair of stilts and a unicycle, and put together a new costume. By the next day.
If either of the two guys who called a week earlier had told me this, it would be no problem. Even if the frantic girl had said this on the first outgoing message, I still would have had an entire afternoon to come up with something. Now, everything was closed, and I had very little money anyway. How was I to get all this done by tomorrow?
It’s what an actor does to find work. Whatever it takes. I make a few phone calls to people who might have wooden stilts to lend. No luck. There were none for sale on craigslist or ebay. My only option was to get up early and try to build the stilts I have been designing for months. The materials were in the garage, and the concept was there, it was just a question of the doing. Then the experimenting, and the revising, and the trying again…
A unicycle was easier to find, surprisingly. There was a company on ebay which had three versions of one model for only $37, which is a fantastic deal. The cycle is most likely not a professional grade one, but for that price it’s hard to argue. The shipping was another $15, but I didn’t need shipping. I needed to pick it up myself. When I ran a zip code search, it turns out the vendor is in LA. That was a bit of luck.
In my note to the seller, I asked if I could simply stop by in the morning and buy one in person. The reply came from what appeared to be China, judging from the email address. The wholesaler is in fact in LA and yes I could pick it up. Great news. The pick-up price is $43.
What? Why are they charging me to go pick it up myself? If the price is listed as $37, and there is no shipping, then that is what I should pay. Isn’t it? Besides, I only had $42 in my bank account. I could probably come up with another two or three dollars in change, but that wouldn’t cover the tax. I wrote back and forth with the person from China, arguing the price. Each response was about an hour in coming, so it was now after one in the morning. In between volleys, I was doing research on clown costumes from the 1930s, but did not come across anything I could put together overnight.
In the morning I continued the negotiations with China, but decided to focus on the stilts, as there really would not be enough time for me to build those and also drive to pick up the unicycle. Besides, I would need to practice on both the new unicycle and the experimental homemade stilts, and to go through my costumes to see which might best suggest the time period. All this for an audition. Not for work. Just for the chance of work.
By the time I was supposed to be out the door, the stilts were built and I had given them a hasty test run, but had not yet gone through the closets nor my clown props. After a crazy half hour in what I call my jack rabbit mode, I was in the car and driving to what I thought was a nearby location.
Naturally, that was wrong. It was not so close as imagined, and at the height of rush hour. Every back road was jammed with people trying to avoid traffic. The call times given were 4:00 and 4:30. The first for clowns, the second for stilt walkers. In my head, all I could hear was the frantic emotional girl yelling at me not to be late. So, believing I had missed the first call, I changed out of my clown gear while driving (a habit I picked up while racing from one gig to another back in NY) and into the stilt costume, hoping to make it for the second call. It might work out fine that way, since there were sure to be lots of clowns, but only a few stilt walkers.
The parking lot charged a fee, which I absolutely refused to pay. Instead, I drove down a neighborhood street, found a space, and sprinted back carrying the stilts.
The auditions were held in an office building. One of a complex of buildings separated by a maze of narrow paths, and it took me a few wrong turns before I stumbled upon the cattle call of circus performers. Everything was running way behind schedule. They had not gotten to the clowns yet. I could have stayed as I was. Not only that, but it seems they called in about ten people in each category. Which means there were only ten clowns, much fewer than I had thought. There were also ten stilt walkers, much more than I had expected. My chances of being hired now seemed far greater as a clown, and that part of my act was left in the car.
(By the way, there were only two guys with unicycles! If only I had a little more time and a few more dollars…)
The guy signing people in was not friendly. Drunk with the power his list of names provided, he said everything in a mumble and with the annoyed attitude of someone being pestered by constant requests that he repeat whatever it was he just mumbled. Waiting in line, I found myself having to fend off the sort of lame jokes every clown hears from every drunken partygoer at every gig he does.
A mime is a terrible thing to waste. Ha ha. Yes, that was funny. How clever of you to think of it. No one has ever made that joke before.
What was strange about having to fend off lame jokes from drunken partygoers at this audition was that they were coming from other clowns! People who should know better. I did my best to be polite, all the while wondering why my I’m-from-New-York-leave-me-alone vibe was not functioning properly.
There was nothing to be done about the clown audition. I would just have to put on my stilts and use the time to become familiar with them.
Getting on them proved problematic. I had built the foot holds at four feet, which is higher than the ones I’ve worked on in the past. It is also too high to get up on from a sitting position on a table or counter top. Looking up and down the narrow maze of paths between the office buildings, I could see no option. Low cement benches surrounded by shrubs. The trees were not next to anything horizontal. The entrances had wheel chair accessible ramps. The surfaces were either pebbled concrete or slippery brick tile.
After walking along one of the mazes, I found a pony wall and put on the stilts, then crawled through a door and used the staircase to get up on my feet. To say I was not confident in these too-high homemade stilts which I built only hours before would be an understatement.
Now, I have always been the type of performer with a wide range of skills, but none of them at an expert level. It seems I adopted the philosophy early on that the more things I can do, the better the chance of being hired. So, I have filled my bag of tricks with a little of this and a little of that. Learning what I can from the talented performers I meet. Benefitting from their more solid training, or more expansive background, or more legitimate credentials.
It works most of the time. When I throw a back handspring while dressed as Spiderman at Timmy’s birthday party, people are impressed. However, when I am in a room full of professional acrobats, they can tell at a glance that I am not one of them. Just some actor who picked up a few tricks along the way.
So here I stand surrounded by nine other stilt walkers, and at least three are of Cirque de Soleil caliber. I am the only one on homemade stilts, and am reminded of the time I was called in to audition for a Broadway musical, standing barefoot on a Broadway stage in front of the panel of important people sitting way out in the theatre. Way over my head.
The singing did not go well. I was thinking how wonderful the acoustics were and promptly forgot the words. The dancing did not go well either, as the other guys auditioning were real dancers who knew the names of the moves the choreographer was calling out. I had to look to both sides of me and copy whatever the other guys were doing. Roller Skate Rag, anyone?
It was the gymnastics that make the story worth telling. They wanted to see a layout, which is a back flip in an iron cross position. It is a beautiful move, one I was too timid to try when I was on the team back in school. At meets, the crowd would laugh watching me walk up to do my routine, so small and skinny. No problem, I knew I would win them over (I was extremely flexible) and would be content with my modest score, which reflected the lack of difficulty. No big moves.
Confronted years later with performing a big move in front of the panel of important people, I examined the raked stage, and figured to build momentum and cheat a little height, which is exactly what happened. It was the most fantastic feeling, hitting that position and flying for a few thrilling seconds in a perfect layout.
It was no surprise that I was not called back, but I was grateful for the chance to go back in time and succeed at a big move I was once too scared to try.
Here now, on my too-high homemade stilts, I was not feeling so sure of myself. Perhaps I should have just gone in as a clown, even if my costume was not period. Instead, I made the wrong call and now will be competing for work against guys who will be throwing back flips while on their stilts.
After almost two hours, we were told the director was coming out to see the stilt walkers and then the fire eaters. Neither group would be expected to perform indoors with a low ceiling and flammable materials everywhere.
He emerged surrounded by his own panel of important people. Someone bellowed at the nearest stilt walker to begin. It is usually my preference to go last, so while that first guy was busy auditioning, I wandered away to find a spot in the parking lot where I can get myself focused to go on. As I glanced behind me, I saw the rest of the stilt walkers, the ones not performing in front of the director and the panel of important people, had followed me. They were now standing in a line, with me at the start.
Just then I heard the someone who was bellowing instructions call me to go next. Huh? What? How did that happen? I was just coming over here to prepare and nobody suggested these others should follow me. I should have taken a breath, reminding myself that if I was not ready I should say so, but instead I walked forward and began to talk.
Talk. I began to talk. Not perform. Not show them anything more than the costume I was wearing and the too-high homemade stilts upon which I was not confident. I babbled something about how I was also a clown. How my stilts and unicycle were in NY, and oh I made these this morning. Also, I’m a mime, and I walk high wire, which of course I couldn’t bring.
While I was just standing there speaking, I told myself to do something with the Poi I was holding in each hand. Poi is something I’m pretty good at, but not when I am wearing a top hat, which is what I am wearing right now. Better keep it simple. Wow the acoustics are really great in here. Just then the Poi hits the top hat, at the same moment the someone bellowing instructions has commented that my stilts look homemade. I turn toward him and lose my balance for a half a second and the bellowing someone is now yelling “Whoa!” He’s convinced I cannot even stand on these too-high homemade stilts I built just this morning and chose to audition with instead of the clown material I have been developing since I was fourteen and the smallest kid on the gymnastics team.
No, I do not fall, but it does not matter. The next guy approaches the famous Hollywood director surrounded by the panel of important people and begins to perform a dazzling series of big moves. Each more brilliant than the one before. They are impressed. They applaud. So do I. He is really good, and is followed by another, equally as good.
There we have the madness of acting. Read the book, study the accent, scour the thrift shops for a period costume, hunt down a unicycle, build a pair of stilts. All that preparation doesn’t mean a thing unless you shine on cue. Twenty four hours of crazy effort gets reduced to a few seconds in front of the panel of important people who have no way of knowing that you had a high wire in your backyard when you were a kid.
Still, there is something of value in every experience. It’s liberating to see other performers who are better than you are at a certain skill. It shows what can be done, and even if you never reach the same level, you will be further along than you would have been otherwise.
As it turns out, my stilt design is pretty good after all. Having done more research, I’ve discovered that with a few modifications, they will work just fine. So will I.