Biloxi Blues still ranks as one of the greatest experiences of my theatrical life. Just like my very first show, I had an incredible cast that all liked each other and all egos were checked at the door. Susan had the most amazing directing style I had ever seen. It’s so subtle that you don’t always know that you’re being directed, but then. . .BOOM! You’re right where she needed you to be.
I looked forward to rehearsal each and every night and when opening night rolled around, all of us were just white hot and ready to tear it up. We were so skilled, that we could have swapped roles around amongst our group and our show would have been just as strong, I kid you not.
Biloxi Blues was considered one of the top shows of the season and the reviews were glowing. One paper called our cast “the next vanguard of theatre”. I garnered a tremendous amount of praise both in the papers and within the theatre community and I was riding Cloud 9. Thanks to Susan’s direction, my game had been advanced to a whole new level and I was finally able to win over the 2 artistic heads of the Playhouse (Carl Beck & Susie Baer-Collins). Susie gave me a big hug after she saw the show and told me I had been absolutely wonderful. That show accomplished for me with those two what might have taken 20 auditions apiece ordinarily.
At the Playhouse Awards that year, Biloxi Blues won every actor award on the non-musical side of things. The show would go on to garner a Best Show nomination at that year’s Theatre Arts Guild Awards as well as another in the inaugural Omaha Entertainment Arts Awards Show. And then Hamlet got nominated for Best Show in the OEAs as well. So I had been in two highly regarded shows in the same season and I had helped them gain that acclaim. All of my trials, perseverance, work, and hope were finally paying dividends and, man, did it feel good.
During the run of Biloxi Blues, I even found time to gain a feeling of redemption from The Elephant Man. Kevin Lawler was returning to town to guest direct a one man show for SNAP Productions called I Am My Own Wife. This appealed to me on several levels. Not only would a one man show really allow me a chance to test my ever increasing abilities, but it felt like a way I could close the book on The Elephant Man.
Despite the crushing blow I received from that audition, I never bore a grudge or any anger towards Kevin. I understood that he did what he felt was right for the show based on what he saw and thought at the time and I respected that. By just showing up for this audition, it felt like I would be saying, “Everything is fine between us.”
I ended up using a monologue from a one man musical called Cotton Patch Gospel and. . .What’s that? You’ve never heard of Cotton Patch Gospel?
Well, I can’t say that I’m surprised. The show was a big hit when it was released in 1982, but has fallen into obscurity over time. It’s the story of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew told southern style. It’s one of my favorite plays and I often use it when I need to perform a monologue as most directors will not be aware of the show.
Due to having to perform in Biloxi Blues that afternoon, I signed up to be the first person to audition. And I was quite nervous. Kevin came out of the performing area, said hello, and we shook hands. And I thought everything would be cool after that.
I walked into the theatre and did a double take at the set which was decked out like a Catholic Church for their production of Defending Marriage. Kevin asked me about my acting work since the last time we met and I had told him I had done 11 more shows and was currently working on Biloxi Blues. He asked me what I thought about working with Susan and I sang her praises.
Then he asked me to do my monologue and I nailed it exactly the way that I wanted to hit it. When I finished, Kevin said, “That was really good, Chris. I can really see the growth you’ve made, even from The Elephant Man which I think was the last time you auditioned for me. It’s obvious you’ve been doing a lot more of this. That was such an interesting piece. Where the hell did you find it?”
And I told him the story of how the show had been produced when I was in high school and it had always stayed with me and I found a copy of the original production and bought it.
Kevin then asked me if I could do the monologue again, but do it as if I were really bored. I thought for a moment, then did a sleepy take on the passage. Kevin stopped me and said I was doing it, but on a scale of 1-10, I was at a 4 and he needed me at an 8. I tried again and really slathered on the boredom. I’m not sure if I was at an 8, but I think a 6.5 might be accurate.
Then he asked me to do it again as a fire and brimstone preacher. I thought back to televangelists I had seen and did my best to emulate them, feeling I had done a respectable job. Partway through the read, Kevin stopped me and asked me to try my strongest Southern accent. Fortunately, I’ve got a pretty good ear for accents and had a fairly decent Southern preacher going. When I finished, Kevin thanked me for my time and said I would hear something either way.
It took five weeks, but I was finally called and informed that another actor had won the role. But I had gained peace of mind. And I must have made it down to the final cut if it took that long to finally be rejected.
But even that wasn’t the end of the saga of The Elephant Man. The true end actually came two years later when I bumped into Kevin at the inaugural Mid-Plains Theatre Conference. We chatted a bit and then he floored me when he said:
“You know you had a really wonderful audition for The Elephant Man. It was amazing to see an actor come in with that type of heart and passion. I’m really sorry I couldn’t cast you.”
That’s when I closed the book because I knew that the audition had meant something if he still remembered it so vividly after six years. And that is why I suspect I really might have been the runner-up for the role.
Still riding high from my banner year in theatre, I started off the 2006-07 season with an audition for The Talented Mr. Ripley for Susie Baer-Collins at the Playhouse. My string of really good auditions stayed intact as I had another solid showing. I managed to differentiate my Ripley from other actors by emphasizing his ability to think on his feet and not backpedaling whenever caught in a lie. I would just cover the lie with another lie.
When the audition ended, Susie told me I had given an excellent audition and I earned another callback. That was exciting enough, but when Susie told me she was considering me for the role of Tom Ripley, my jaw hit the floor. The title role. That’s when I knew I had come a really long way.
Eight of us were called back for the show and seven of us could have easily played any of the roles. I ended up coming up on the short end of the stick, but got a novella of a rejection from Susie who praised my audition to the heavens.
Change was definitely in the air.