It used to be, years ago, that you showed up to the Actors’ Equity building for an audition at four in the morning and waited on line. Outside. On the sidewalk. People brought blankets and folding chairs and cups of hot chocolate and books to read. This was before. Before cell phones, and before things changed.
The last time I went to one of those calls, I remember it was more civil. I got a time slot, came back twenty minutes beforehand, sat in the indoor waiting area. Kind of like the DMV, only cleaner, and without the tv screens announcing which window was accepting which number next.
That was some time ago, admittedly. Then the internet intervened, sometime while I was living in LA, where I had no interest in attending open auditions for theatre.
So, it is entirely understandable that I should find the audition process here in NYC unrecognizable, and more than a bit confusing. Now, it seems you go online weeks before the scheduled audition, which is months before rehearsals. You find out when the online registration begins. They give you a date and a time to log on and nab a time slot.
That last line was meant to be funny. Hysterically funny. As anyone who has ever tried to call in a radio station to win tickets to a concert can tell you, it’s not so easy. You can’t just open your laptop ten minutes before registration opens and expect to breeze onto the web page. There are hundreds of actors who have been staring at their screens for an hour before you started staring at yours. The time slots are gone in a fraction of a second, or the site crashes, or who knows what magical skills some computer geek is using to jump ahead of the queue. (Does using queue make it sound more onliney?)
Visit the union’s facebook page sometime, just for laughs. You’ll find post after post, written by frustrated actors complaining about the process.
It was in this context that I noticed a casting call for a summer theatre way out in Pennsylvania. Their season included Harvey, one of my favorite plays. I’ve directed it once, but have never been in it, and I think I’m old enough to play Elwood. In fact, I’d recently seen the movie, and studied Jimmy Stewart’s performance closely. He really was wonderful.
The notice claimed that all roles were open. Unusual, for a summer theatre company not to have one of their regular actors in mind for the lead. I decided I’d like to audition, on the off chance that they were being truthful, and the role really was open. Doing regional theatre was not in my immediate plans, but it might be a nice way to spend part of the summer. Riding my bike in the countryside. Swimming in a nearby stream. Making new friends. Plus, it was a decent contract. Why not at least audition?
Well, so much for the online registration. There were a few walk-in slots available, but I noticed there was another day of auditions scheduled at the theatre itself. In Pennsylvania. What was my best chance of being considered? Trying for one of the walk-in slots among the crowd of actors being seen in NYC, or driving a few hours to audition with a handful of locals?
Hmmmm. I checked the map, it was about a six hour drive. I do love driving, especially in the countryside, but was it really worthwhile? Putting all that mileage on my car, paying those tolls, just to read for a role that may well have already been cast?
I’ve never been good at sticking to longterm goals. I’m too easily intrigued by side steps in other directions. Would this gig help my career in any way? Nope. Not in the least. Still, it was Harvey, and I miss being onstage, and the pay was not bad, and it’s been so long since I’ve had a summer job.
When you live in Los Angeles, summer has no meaning. How nice to be back in New York and have a real winter, a real spring, and then enjoy the wonderful sense of impermanence that comes with fleeting summer. Enjoy it now, while it lasts, because soon autumn will be here and you’ll want memories to pack away when you trade your bathing suit and flip-flops for cozy sweaters and warm socks.
I dusted off my old tried and true monologues from years ago. (In Los Angeles, an actor is rarely asked to perform a monologue at an audition. Instead, there are sides from the script provided in advance.) My comic piece felt a bit off. I still knew every line, but it didn’t quite fit me any more. I’m not the same actor I was fifteen years ago. I’m not the same type. Same with my classical piece.
Still, choosing new material takes time, and although I’ve since started working on two new pieces that fit better, I figured I’d just stick with what I had ready to go and trust that I’m a decent enough actor to get a callback using the old material.
It was a long drive. No doubt about it. I told myself that I might stop and visit Falling Water, the Frank Lloyd Wright house. I’d always wanted to see that, and it wasn’t far out of the way. If there was time.
There wasn’t time. I got to the theatre just as they were breaking for lunch, so I had to wait an hour in the lobby. No problem. I slipped into the men’s room to put on my suit and tie, style my hair, and make myself presentable.
I’d imagined the auditions would be on the stage. I figured the director would be friendly, especially when he learned I had driven all the way from New York. He would probably give me a little extra time, just to make me feel that the effort was not in vain. I envisioned a pleasant chat, lighthearted laughter, and the positive feeling I normally have at an audition.
I was wrong on all counts. The auditions were being held in a tiny practice room in the music department of the college that hosted the summer theatre company. Down a narrow hallway to the right. Last door straight ahead. Room for a piano, a music stand, and not much else.
The director was surly. Curt. Borderline rude. Definitely not friendly. He scoffed when I said I had driven that morning from New York. Yes, scoffed. Did he think I was foolish? Guess so.
After my two short contrasting monologues, he looked down at the table where the sides were stacked.
“Here, why don’t you take at look at the cab driver?”
He handed me the sides.
“He comes on in the last scene, and…”
The cab driver.
This director is asking me to read for a tiny, one-scene character who comes on at the very end of the play, and has only a few lines? When he knows I have driven all the way from New York, and can see me standing in a suit and tie with my hair styled in the period, and has seen my resume, and must be able to figure out that I was hoping to read for Elwood P. Dowd.
I was speechless. More accurately, I was afraid to speak. If I tried to say anything, it might come out at full volume and would most likely include a few words begging with the letter F. Variations on the same word beginning with the letter F.
Okay, I told myself. The lead was probably already cast, months ago. That would make sense. Still, did the guy have to be such a jerk? Couldn’t he have at least pretended, and let me read? What harm could it do? It’s not as if there was a line out in the hallway. There were only two other actors waiting to be seen.
Part of me wanted to just leave. Another part of me said, “Go in there with your head held high, and smile, and give it your all. As if this was the part you wanted. Let them see what you can do.”
Crazy, I know, but we actors make a habit of telling ourselves what we need to hear in order to get through anything. Then we sort it out later on. I’ve got six hours to shout frustration in the car ride back to New York. For now, smile. Just smile.
The college girl who was assigned to read with me was surprised that I didn’t need time to go over the lines. She was sweet, but any professional actor can read cold. It’s nothing impressive.
We went back into the tiny practice room and both did our best. The surly director made no effort to appear friendly. That was all.
In the hallway, the college girl gushed, “You were really good!”
Well, I should hope I was good, reading a part I could have played in my sleep when I was her age.
“Thanks, so were you.”
After changing back into my sweats and sneakers, I thought about the advice everyone gives. To make the audition your own. To take control of the room. To clearly state what you need in order to give your best performance. Yeah, I’m not good at any of that.
Perhaps I should have spoken up and asked to read for the role I wanted? Would it have mattered? Would it have changed anything? More importantly, did I really want to come back to this place and be directed by this unfriendly man?
As is sometimes the case, we are spared an unpleasant experience by not getting the job. Six hours driving to another state, or four hours waiting outside on the sidewalk, it’s all the same. Count your blessings and go home.