Vegas. It would have to be in Vegas. My big audition for that big theatre company, the one that makes everyone oooh and aaah. The one that opens all sorts of doors for a performer, just at the mention of the name. Oooh aaah. In Vegas, of all places. Vegas, the attraction of which I have never understood. What could possibly compel any sane person to actually choose to visit that Disneyland for the addiction afflicted on the surface of Mars?
There is nothing there I find even remotely interesting. I do not gamble. Spending money has never provided me with any thrill. I am far from consumer obsessed, do not enjoy forking over obscene amounts of money for the latest electronic gadget or status symbol, nor do I feel the need to compensate for whatever is missing in my life by rushing out and, by spending what I don’t have to begin with, ensure that the thing most missing is cash. Maybe I am cheap, or frugal, or merely accustomed to poverty, but I have not found losing money to be a pleasurable experience. Losing it on a purchase is bad enough. Losing it on nothing whatsoever is intolerable.
You place your bet. You lose. They take your money. This is fun, how?
Aside from that, or rather in addition to that, Vegas is one hundred and twenty-five degrees in the shade. Year round. Or, it would be. If there were any shade. Which there isn’t. Humans are not designed for such temperatures. Snakes and lizards are. In order for people to live in a desert, everyplace has to have air conditioning. Most people love air conditioning. I do not. It makes my eyes teary while I am in the supermarket. People look at me concerned that I am crying over whatever is playing on the muzak. It makes me feel as if I can’t breathe at night. I want to rush to the windows and fling them open for some fresh air. I don’t, though, because I know it would be cooler and more refreshing to stand in a furnace and light a blowtorch.
Vegas has one other thing I would prefer to avoid. Crowds. Drunken crowds. Drunken crowds of revelers who have flown in from somewhere else and don’t care if they trash the place before they leave. When I lived just outside of NYC, the three nights of the year when I would stay safely locked indoors were Halloween, St. Patrick’s Day, and New Year’s Eve. On those three nights, the city would be invaded by hordes of party people whose sole goal was to reach the point of drunkenness where they would either vomit or pass out. On the street, in either case. According to the slogan dreamed up by the board of tourism for Vegas, these same hordes are routinely flying there in order to leave what happens where it did.
So, into this wasteland of vapid commercialism, sweltering heat, and Alcoholic’s Hieronymus I am to drive. Four hours across a rather unattractive stretch of highway. For an audition.
They called me in once before. The oooh aaah theatre company. Years ago, while I was playing the Court Jester at the NY Renaissance Faire. I sent them a photo and they invited me to audition. I was thrilled. It was exciting to consider the possibility of working for them. The exposure would be great. So would the money. At the time, however, the contract was for a two year commitment. In Vegas. I was living in New York, doing Shakespeare, and was very happy to be. The last place I would ever wish to be banished into exile was Vegas. So, I passed on the big audition for the big oooh aaah theatre company.
This time around, things are different. I’m living in Los Angeles. There is no mention of a two year commitment, and the big oooh aaah theatre company is now even more impressive than it was before. Now, they have multiple shows touring the globe. Some of which are in Vegas, but there seemed a good chance that, if they liked me, they might offer me work in one of the shows that isn’t. The audition, however, is. In Vegas.
I’ve only ever been there once, to see my favorite singer in an extremely rare concert appearance on New Year’s Eve 2000. I’d dreamed my whole life of seeing her perform live, and was willing to spend whatever it cost for the tickets, and to travel to wherever she was singing. Of course, I was wishing it could have been New York, but instead, it was Vegas. At one of those monstrous casinos lit by a sickly green neon glow. In which the faces of the sickly green inebriated throngs might have been painted by Toulouse, in another time.
After the concert, I had to spend the rest of the night in the lobby of that horrible place while waiting for the first flight out in the morning. I did not lose a cent gambling. I may have been the only person in the entire casino who was not drinking. The city was submerged in a discordant, unsettling energy, and I have rarely felt more like a Puritan. Truly, prohibition did not sound like such a bad idea, after all. Tell me again why it was repealed?
The oooh aaah theatre company has strict rules about its secret audition process. There is an agreement performers have to sign, forbidding them from revealing the goings on to future auditionees. I have a few friends who have survived this process. One who was recently accepted after his third try. Another who gave me a hint about what not to do. Apparently, the producers do not want to see a performer being funny. What they want is for the performers to be themselves.
Sounds like they are looking for something that I’ve studied while working with a Commedia troupe. Neutral. Basically, it’s the practice of being still onstage. Not doing or seeking, but rather taking in the surroundings. Being open to what is happening in a small and subtle way. Reacting naturally. Nothing forced or gimmicky. No effort to get a laugh or to entertain. It’s something I enjoy doing as an exercise, and when I perform as a mime, it is something I have the chance to do in front of an audience. If that is what they want, no problem. I can do it.
They sent me few details. We were to show up prepared to spend all day in a sort of workshop. Although there was no mention of how many of us there would be, I figured it would be a large group. This theatre company must be inundated with thousands of applications from performers hoping one day to be cast in one of their shows. We were told to prepare a two minute movement piece, with the understanding that there might not be time for everyone to show theirs.
I don’t think I’ve revealed anything particular to this theater company so far. I’ve had to do similar one or two minute movement pieces for others. Once, I acted out the life and death of a man for Richmond Shepard, a well known mime in NYC. More recently, I did a clown routine built around learning a handstand. That was for Center Theatre Group, a large company in Los Angeles.
For the oooh aaah theatre company in Vegas, I chose to go with a clown bit I had written but had never performed. It relied heavily on simplicity, which I thought might fit well into a neutral approach. If that is what they were seeking.
When I got there, I was surprised to find there were only twenty of us. All day for just twenty people? It must be a rigorous and intense process, and I was looking forward to jumping in and having fun. We began with some basic acting warm up exercises. The sort of thing every actor learns in every beginning acting class. Quite honestly, I was a bit confused. I had expected something more advanced. At Center Theatre Group, the director was using a technique I had never heard of, and it was thrilling to be exposed to something new. Something which required the performers to pay attention to one another on many levels, and to stay sharply focused from moment to moment. I loved learning that technique, and was anticipating something even more challenging from the oooh aaah theatre company.
Instead, we were next told to line up and to take the stage one at a time in another beginner acting exercise. It was something like walking into an elevator, reacting to the other people there, and then leaving when the time felt right. It was not this, exactly, but not far from it, either. Without breaking any confidence, it gives an idea of the type of exercise used.
My preference is usually to go last, so I can see what the others are doing, and watch the reactions of the people holding the audition. What we were told to do was demonstrate our physical vocabulary. Based on what I was hearing from the director, it did not seem like they were looking for Neutral, after all. Rather, they wanted to see a variety of movement styles. So, putting aside what my friend told me about simplicity, I took the stage at my turn and tried to show them several different types of movement. I wanted them to see that my training is fairly wide, and if they asked me to show them something specific, I would do my best.
The problem was, they did not ask for something specific. The director had an unnervingly vague way of speaking. He did not ask anyone to make any adjustments to what they had done. He did not give any feedback. I had the distinct impression that I was on a game show. It was a guessing game. If the performer guessed right, and chose to show a facet or skill which the director sought, then that lucky contestant went on to the bonus round. If the performer guessed wrong, then a loud buzzer sounded. Sorry. Game over. You lose.
When the next exercise was announced, I determined to learn from what I was seeing, and also to show something no one else was doing. To stand out a bit from the others. The details of the exercise are not important, but I will say that what we were asked to do gave me the chance to perform a little story. With a beginning, a middle, and an end. To create a character and give him a journey in under a minute. It was just the sort of thing I love to do. Deliver a finished performance with absolutely no preparation.
It only took me a few seconds to come up with a scenario. I had a clever idea, or at least I thought so. Now all I had to do was hope no one else had the same idea! Not to worry, even though I was last, most of the people went in a different direction. I was curious to see which performers got the biggest laughs from the two guys holding the audition. One muscular actor chose to play gay. Over the top flamboyantly gay. How is that funny? Why is gay still being used as a punch line? It seems like that joke should be over by now. If being gay is the set up for something clever or witty, that’s one thing. If being gay is the punch line in itself, why are people laughing?
Laughing, they were. Even harder when the fat woman began humping everything on stage. Really. That had them in stitches. Rolling off their chairs. Clutching their sides. What was it my friend had said about just being yourself?
My turn came and went, and I think I was way too broad. Bugs Bunny. Groucho Marx. Hang simplicity, more is more. I crammed everything I could think of into that minute. Was it too much? Three people came over to me afterward and whispered how they liked what I had done. One guy said he wished he had thought of it first. Okay, so maybe it was good?
We took a break and were sent into the hall while the producers discussed what they had seen so far. Immediately, a girl whose work I admired rushed over to me, gushing with praise. She loved what I was doing. I was so much fun to watch. Was I a professional clown? Where had I performed? Had I worked with this company before? Her flattery was, well, flattering. It made me feel as if I had chosen right. I hoped the judges were just as impressed.
Sometimes, you can tell when you are doing well. Sometimes, not. A couple of years ago, I had an audition for a pilot on the Travel channel. It was a show that sounded perfect for me. They were looking for a Bill Nye the Science Guy type. A goofy grown-up to be comic relief on a teen travel show. They asked us to prepare three improvisational scenes. They provided the set up and wanted to see what we would do. The girl I auditioned with, who was already cast, looked and sounded like my niece, Katie. We hit it off right away. After the first scene, which was being filmed, the casting director asked us to do the second scene. Then the third. I was having so much fun with this teenage girl. We were cracking each other up, and the casting director, too. In fact, she wrote to me the next day, saying they were sending my tape on to producers.
Since I knew when the callbacks were scheduled, I got a bit worried as the day approached and still I had not heard from them. I was certain I would at least be given a callback. It just felt so right. I sent a note to the casting director, thanking her for considering me and expressing my desire to be part of the project at some point in the future. Three days later came the enthusiastic reply. It appeared that no callback was necessary! The director had viewed my tape, and everyone absolutely loved me! Nothing was definite yet, but she felt confident enough to intimate that I would be hearing from them very soon!
I never did.
We were given numbers, in Vegas. Not the kind you bet. The oooh aaah theatre company had assigned us each a number to wear. So they could better keep track of the thousands of hopeful applicants. Also, the better to cut the ones who would not be continuing on in the secretive audition process. They just called your number and you went home. Sorry. Game over. You lose.
When we returned to the room, they called the numbers of the people whose two minute pieces they wanted to see. They called mine. I felt bad for the talented girl whose work I admired, as her number was not called. I was under the impression that they were interested in seeing the performances from the people they liked. I was wrong. As it turns out, those of us whose numbers were called were now auditioning for the chance to stay in the game.
As I watched the ones who went before me, I was again confused. Most of them were doing acting monologues. Not movement pieces. For this great big oooh aaah theatre company? Why do a standard audition piece? Didn’t they understand what was being asked? When my turn came, I did my heavily simple clown sketch, as planned. More whispers from those around me when I returned to my seat. I was clearly going to be hired. So sure.
Then they called more numbers. This time, it was for the ones who were to stay. Everyone else, please leave quietly. The last number they called was mine. Thank goodness, for a moment there, I thought I had guessed wrong and showed big when I should have chosen simple. The vague speaking director began to explain the next exercise to the remaining contestants. Oh, wait. He looked at me.
“You shouldn’t be here.”
“I’ve already seen you.”
“But you called my number…”
Confusion over at the table. Papers being shuffled, headshots scattered.
“Oh, we’re sorry. You were not supposed to stay.”
It seems they called my number by mistake, and the rather large black girl standing over by the desk of ruffled papers and shuffling headshots should have stayed instead. An understandable error. We look so much alike.
Not even an hour and a half since driving across the ugly stretch of highway into this godforsaken desert Gomorrah and that’s it? You’ve gotta be kidding. No matter what the other performers thought of my work. What did they know? They were being sent home, too. We were all excited to audition at long last for the great big oooh aaah theatre company. Now that’s over and we guessed wrong and we are left scratching our heads, wondering what just happened. A couple of beginner acting exercises and spin the wheel see if you can guess what we’re after? Huh?
I didn’t even make the first cut! I guess I tried too hard and put aside the advice I was given in advance and went for the laughs instead of approaching the simple beginner’s exercises simply. I don’t know. Could be. Then again, perhaps they just didn’t like me. Not everyone will. I’ve put off writing about this experience for a few months, not wanting to sound negative. After all, my friend who got in after three tries must have found a way to view it as a positive adventure. I should be able to do the same.
There are two things I have learned from the ordeal. The first is to trust a friend with inside information. Never mind how the vague director was misleading the contestants into betting on door number three. Neutral is what they wanted. I think. Maybe.
The second is this: Any man foolish enough to go to Vegas deserves what happens to him there. Of that, I am sure.