Devastation

A grand Saturday to you all.

For all of my adventures in theatre, this one has always been the hardest to share.  So you might want to go ahead and grab a hanky. . .Seriously.  I’ll wait.

Doo de doo de doo doo doo de doo.

Ready?

In “Chasing the Dream”, you learned how I got interested in theatre and pursued the dream for 4 long years before I finally managed to get cast in back to back shows.  A change came over me during the run of The Mask of Moriarty.  I had trouble getting out of bed in the morning.  I was sad a lot and life just didn’t seem as rosy as it once did.  I didn’t recognize it at the time, but I was experiencing the early symptoms of situational depression.

I had been considering going back to school for a master’s degree, but as the depression gained a greater hold, I had to put that plan on hold which only worsened my depression because I felt like a quitter and as my previous trilogy hopefully showed, “quit” is not a word in my vocabulary.  I had hoped that theatre could be the key to shaking my blues, but I was wrong.

Oh, I was so, so wrong.

Due to the depression, I had lost all confidence in myself.  And the small gains I had made in theatre crumbled to dust.  I began to perceive myself as having a lot of shortcomings as a performer.  And I began to overcompensate for these perceived shortcomings and rattled off a series of auditions so terrible, it probably made some people blush.

I hit rock bottom, acting-wise, with an audition for a show called Inspecting Carol at the Omaha Playhouse.  This was, without question, the single, worst audition I ever had. In my early days, I would often attend both nights of the audition and would get called up to read at least once or twice a night, each night for the most part.  This time around, I gave an audition that was so hideously awful that I only got to read once.  I came back the second night and was neither asked to read nor did I volunteer to read because I saw the writing on the wall and realized I could not undo the damage of that wretched first read.

Eventually I had decided that my plan for a master’s degree was in the wrong field.  I realized that my previous credits at Creighton had me not too far from a certification in HR, so I enrolled there instead.  My confidence was still virtually non-existent, but I had always been an excellent scholar, so as I fell into my studies and realized that I could still do that, my depression started to lift a bit.

I even took a gamble and decided to audition at Creighton again.  My first audition back was for a one act play called The Zoo Story by Edward Albee.  This play is about a quiet man named Peter who goes to the park to read.  While there he meets a man called Jerry who tells Peter the story about why he came to the zoo.  As Jerry’s story continues, Peter learns that Jerry is a very dangerous lunatic.  Jerry provokes a fight with Peter and gets stabbed in the struggle and all to prove his point that people are just like animals.

I really wanted to play Jerry, but ended up having an astounding read for Peter.  This was the longest flash I had in an audition because I managed to get a grip on it and ride it through to the end of the audition.  A friend of mine named Paul Thelen looked at me after my first read as Peter and said, “You have a real naturalness for that role”.

I ended up getting to the final grouping of people and ended up narrowly being edged out for the role of Peter.  There was a direction that I didn’t take far enough and Paul thought if I had done so, I would have landed the part and I think he was right.

Still it was a tremendous boost in confidence.  So much so that I auditioned for A View From the Bridge later that year at Creighton.  I had a fairly solid showing, but had a memorable moment towards the end of the audition.  Bill Hutson wanted to improvise a scene where immigration agents came to collect a couple of illegal immigrants (an important plot point in the play).  I opted to go for a very no nonsense agent and when I came to collect the character, he jerked away from to hug his cousin good-bye.  I pried him loose and snarled, “You can send her a letter.”

Immediately, I thought I had erred and that this comment was too comedic for the scene.  But I was delighted to hear the opposite reaction from the other actors.  They erupted into oohs and one person commented, “Wow!  What cruelty.”  A few days later I learned I had got into the play and I credit that moment for sealing the deal.  And it was nice that I could end my time at Creighton with a sense of peace with the theatre department.

It was a good show and I met some good people and my depression lifted a little bit more.  Then I went to the Playhouse to see a show in March of 2002 and I met a friend of mine who worked for the Playhouse’s professional touring wing, the Nebraska Theatre Caravan.  I asked him if he knew any shows that would be produced next year and he mentioned several which I mentally filed and then my brain ground to a halt when he said, The Elephant Man.

For the first time in a long time, I saw a light at the end of the tunnel.  The Elephant Man is my favorite film and play.  I saw the play on TV when I was 9 and I was so struck by the strength of spirit of Joseph (John) Merrick that I learned all that I could about him and became an expert.  For those who don’t know, Joseph Merrick (misnamed John by Dr. Frederick Treves who shared his story) suffered from an ultrarare genetic condition called Proteus Syndrome which not only caused tumors to grow all over and in his body, but savagely disfigured him as well.  He made his living as a sideshow freak until Dr. Treves discovered him at a freak show and thought he would make a good subject for a paper.  Treves discovered the man trapped within the hideous body and ended up giving him a better life.  Despite the tragic life he had led, Merrick maintained a strong faith in God and was a witty, intelligent, artistic man who built a model of St John’s Church with his one good arm and almost entirely from his imagination.  The church remains at a museum in London to this day.

I had long felt that I was born to play this part and knew if I could have the chance that I could really show how good of an actor I could be with this role.  I rapidly completed my studies at Creighton and began to prepare for what I felt would be a momentous audition.  My knowledge of the character already gave me some decided advantages as I knew Merrick’s story intimately and was well acquainted with his physicality from photographs I had studied in the past.  Now I just needed to prepare the audition.

I even got an extra bit of good news when I learned that Kevin Lawler (of The Empty Plough audition) would be directing the show.  I remember the good showing I had given him at the previous audition and admired his philosophy of him having enough faith in his directorial prowess to get the actor out of people.  I believed I would head into this audition on absolutely equal footing with the other performers.

As I worked on my audition, I realized something wasn’t quite right so I asked my old friend, Kay McGuigan, if she would help me with my audition.  She was more than happy to and with her help I discovered the big flaw.  I made Merrick too angry.  I let the injustice I felt at his treatment influence my performance and it was wrong.  With Kay’s help, we spent 2 hours reworking and fixing my interpretation and when we were done I was ready to fly.

Then came the audition night.  Never had I been so nervous for an audition.  I brought a cane with me to help me feel more like Merrick and I wanted to be the first reader so I could set the bar to impossible heights.  After I signed in, I noticed there were only monologues available so I knew it to be a one on one audition.  However, the monologues were only for Dr. Treves and Ross, Merrick’s “owner”.  Even though, he is the title character, Merrick has no lengthy monologues due to the difficulty he had talking because of his affliction.  The first thought that sprung to mind was that all of my work had just gone up in smoke.  But I took a deep breath and told myself that I could just ask Kevin if I could read for Merrick.

I spent a few minutes studying the monologue and was called over by the stage manager.  Kevin was waiting and he took a look at me and said, “I think I remember this guy” before shaking my hand.  Another shot of confidence because it meant he had remembered my audition from The Empty Plough from four years past.  We went into the theatre and he complimented me on my cane and I explained why I had brought it and told him I was hoping I could show him my Merrick as well.  He said that might be a possibility, but let’s see how I handled the monologue first.

I was reading a monologue of Treves where he confesses to Bishop Howe that he feels he has made Merrick a freak again, albeit a high class one.  I attacked the monologue with a very earnest read, almost a sense of desperation.  I saw Treves as trying to explain how he felt, but not quite knowing how to say it, and hoping that his earnestness would explain the situation.  As I got about halfway through the monologue, Kevin stopped me and said, “I want you to try something.  Grab a chair and have a seat.  I want you to pretend that you’ve been in a bar drinking and are sharing this story.  Don’t be so earnest, but more like, ‘This is bullshit and that’s bullshit and my life is a lie’.  And I don’t want to see any anger.”

“HA!” I thought to myself.  “Here’s where I make up for The Empty Plough.”

I redid the monologue with Kevin’s suggestions and it worked very well.  The monologue was directed more towards myself and carried a lot more gravitas as a result.  When I finished, Kevin said, “That was much better.  Good changes.”  Then he allowed me to read Merrick.

He helped me read a scene where Merrick has a final meeting with his former “owner” and declares his humanity.  Immediately I fell into the role, transforming my body into Merrick, and proceeded to have what I still consider the absolute best read I have ever given.  As I finished up a little paragraph from Merrick, I waited for Kevin to feed me the next line and heard nothing.  I looked up at him and saw him staring at me, eyes shining.  To this day I still wonder what he was thinking at that moment.

“Kevin?” I stated.

That snapped him out of his reverie and he said, “Well you’ve certainly been studying photographs.  You’ve got a good grip on his infirmities.”  Then he asked me if I had read the play and I said that I had and told him why I found the character so fascinating.  You see, I was bullied a bit in my childhood which is why I connected so well with Merrick.  He had it worse than I ever did and never lost his faith and stayed a good man and I’m proud to say that I’ve done the same.  When I finished my explanation, Kevin said, “So you feel you have a strong connection with the character?” and I said, “Yes.  I guess I do.”

Kevin had one more task for me.  He wanted me to take a few minutes to study the monologue of Ross and then come back and read it.  If it helped, he told me that Ross was a very oily individual.  I went out, studied, came back and gave a decent accounting of myself.  Right intention.  Right attitude.  But the delivery seemed slightly off target.  Just slightly and in no way undid the other good work I had done.  Kevin seemed pleased and said, “That was just what I wanted to see.  Something completely different.”

I then asked Kevin what would happen next.  He said he needed to cast the play by August 1 and if I didn’t hear anything by then, it would, unfortunately, mean that I hadn’t been cast.  He thanked me for my time and clapped me on the back.  As he did, I got a terrific chill.  I suddenly had the odd sensation that I was not going to be cast.  I chalked it up to nerves and left, fully confident, that I had a real chance.

For the next 3 weeks, I dove at the phone every time it rang, hoping that it would be the call.  On July 31, I came home and found a letter waiting for me from the Playhouse.  All the feeling drained from my body.  I opened up the envelope, removed the card, and read the all too familiar words thanking me for my time, but I was not going to be cast in The Elephant Man.  I went to my bedroom and buried my face in my hands.

I was struck numb.  If I could have cried, I may have felt better, but I couldn’t even do that.  I just felt nothing.  “How?”  I asked myself.  And it rattled in my head like a mantra.  This had been my very best audition.  And it failed.  What did that mean about every other audition I had done or might do?

I didn’t know what to do.  There is an unwritten rule in theatre that says you never ask why you don’t get cast.  And it’s a good rule.  As I’ve stated in a previous blog, there are so many uncontrollable factors outside an actor’s control that dictate whether he or she gets cast.  And I didn’t need to know why I didn’t get cast.  I just needed to know that my audition meant something.  I struggled with the decision for a few hours, but finally sat down and wrote Kevin an e-mail where I simply asked if I had been in the running and what he thought of the audition.

A month later, I got the following response:

Dear Chris,

Yes, you were in the running.  I was moved by the preparation you had done.  I also thought you had done some good work in your preparations, but it worried me that you had done so much work on it.  I wasn’t quite sure where the breathing room would be.  It was almost as if you had worked so hard that there might be little room for change or to begin from scratch even if that’s what was called for.  What I was more concerned about seeing was how versatile an actor you were.  Where your qualities lay in the cold readings.  Having said all that, I must tell you that it was one of the most wonderful displays of heart and care that I have ever come across from an actor in an audition.  I thank you for that.

I am sorry that it didn’t work out this time, but I think you should, and will, keep auditioning if you love theatre as much as it seems you do.

Many thanks, Chris,

Kevin

What mixed feelings I had.  I was deeply touched by the letter, but that was countered by the horror that the things I did to give myself the best possible chance destroyed my chances.  Even worse was the knowledge I had that I had not worked as hard as Kevin had thought.  Remember, most of my knowledge had been acquired over the years.  And he didn’t know that I had reworked the entire audition the previous day and was quite directable.  And never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would not have been cast at all.

This audition haunted me for a long time.  And it wasn’t until a long time later that I saw the good that came out of it.

Most importantly, I believe God sent me the audition because preparing for it was what finally pulled me out of the depression I had been suffering from once and for all.

It was inspiring.  Instead of telling myself that I never could do better, I vowed to get my auditions up to that level on a regular basis.

I did get close.  Perhaps even the second choice.

Finally, Kevin made the right call.  In the sense that if I couldn’t play Merrick, it was best not to be in the show at that stage in my life.  Although I was free of the depression, my acting confidence was still incredibly low.  And Daniel Dorner, who won the role, did a magnificent job and won every major acting award for it.  Had I been cast and watched him work his magic, I would not be an actor today because I would have convinced myself that I could never have matched it and quit.

Nowadays I look back and I take great pride in what I did accomplish with that read.  And there was much to be proud of.

NEXT TIME:  The Awakening.  Our hero’s sleeping powers finally awaken.

Advertisements