Yes, thanks to Alan Klem’s kind words, I found the strength to try my hand at theatre for a little bit longer. I had promised myself one final year auditioning for community theatre productions and if I failed to get cast after that time, then I would call it quits.
In truth, I had discovered community theatre in February of my senior year. The Omaha Community Playhouse announced that they would be holding auditions for Dracula and I wanted to play the role of the insane Renfield. . .and I also wanted to show Creighton’s theatre department they had made a big mistake in never casting me. The years of rejection had caused me to develop a bit of a chip on my shoulder, so I went into this audition with my focus not entirely on the proceeds.
I look back on my read for Renfield and I laugh because my audition was so laughable. I knew Renfield was crazy, but my audition was just weird and not in a good way. I didn’t get cast, but I did meet Carl Beck, the Playhouse’s artistic director, who would go on to play an important role as I walked this road.
A couple of months later, I auditioned for the Playhouse production of Moon Over Buffalo and I gave a better showing of myself than I had in Dracula, but still not enough to get called back or cast.
Not long after that audition, Alan paid me the compliment recounted in Part 2 which gave me the fortitude to try for one more year. The first audition of my potential final year was Tons of Money directed by M Michele Phillips. Michele has the most relaxed audition style I have ever encountered. Instead of getting up in front of people and performing, Michele simply had us sit in a circle and read the play. It took a load of pressure off of me and I had a solid audition. And, truthfully, I was not expecting much. After all of the rejections, I simply assumed my defeat as a matter of course. After 2 weeks of not hearing anything, I thought I had been proven right.
And then I got the call.
Michele called me at work and apologized for the delay. She said she had been agonizing about casting the play and then offered me the role of Giles, the gardener. I wanted to do backflips down the hall. FINALLY!! After all of the trials, tribulations, and frustrations, I had finally had my perseverance rewarded. I immediately accepted the offer and looked forward to this grand adventure.
Of course, now that I had landed a role I had only 2 fears about acting: that I would hate it or suck at it. I’m grateful to say that neither would be the case. I wish every performer could have the type of cast I had for his or her first show. All egos were checked at the door and everybody liked everybody. We went out all the time and that sense of fun and community really showed forth in our performances. To this day I still maintain strong friendships with Michele and Kay McGuigan, another member of the cast.
For a guy with little experience, Giles was a fine first role. The difficulty in playing him was that he didn’t talk a lot or emote a lot. And to be that stonefaced while all of this comedic insanity was erupting around me was quite a challenge. At points, I had to bite the inside of my cheeks to make certain I didn’t break out in a smile during rehearsal or a performance. I even garnered a good review in a local alternative newspaper, The Reader. Of my performance the critic said, “Chris Elston could not have a less arduous role with which to make his acting debut. Imagine a role where you rarely speak, but you get to chase everyone around with a pitchfork and give the old auntie a cucumber. These were some of things Chris did as Giles: a character so stonefaced, he makes Buster Keaton seem vivacious by comparison. Even Olivier had to start somewhere.”
I felt a real sense of triumph at finally succeeding in theatre, but there was still a final test to be made. Could I do it again or was it a one time fluke?
The answer came that January as I auditioned for the dramedy, The Mask of Moriarty.
I am a Sherlock Holmes nut. I own the entire Granada series with Jeremy Brett, all of the official stories, plus a slew of pastiches. I’ve also taken part in a couple of mystery weekends with the famed sleuth. Boy, did I want to be in this show. Carl Beck helmed this one and, unfortunately, I gave a pretty weak audition. But I ended up having a saving grace. I had asked Carl how he saw a character named Bunny St John Manders in a certain scene and he advised me that the character was so drunk, he was weaving in and out of reality. I tried to utilize Carl’s direction and managed to do it to a slight extent. But because it was clear I was interested in the plot and because, as Carl later stated, “I seemed friendly,” he gave me a shot in 2 supernumerary (bit) roles.
I played deathtrap designer, Sheamus O’Shaughnessy, who could do nothing except cough and a nameless sailor who gets into a bar brawl with a hunchback and tries to trap Holmes. I only had a couple of lines, but I sacrificed them for a terrific bit. There was a scene where a vengeful tavern owner tries to send Holmes plunging down a trap door, but didn’t know the door was actually under his feet. The gentleman playing the tavern owner (Dennis Collins) had recently had his ankle fused and didn’t want to risk it doing the bit, so they gave me the bit and my lines went to another actor. Ironically, the trap had been designed by my other character, so in a sense I killed myself.
And that’s how I finally got involved in the acting game, but little did I know what further adventures this business would have for me.
But, again, that’s a story for another time.
NEXT TIME: Our hero gets an opportunity at his dream role, but will a battle with depression derail his hopes once and for all?