Drought, Part 1

It did seem like I was heading down an unwelcoming road.  After all of my struggles to get into theatre and be taken seriously as a performer, it appeared that my candle was slowly being snuffed out.  

I started off the new theatre season with an audition for A Thousand Clowns at the Omaha Playhouse and directed by Amy Lane.  And it was a very strong audition.  I only read for one character the entire night and that was the lead role and I was spitting out hot, good interpretations each time I got up to read.  The next day I was asked to come back for a second reading.  So I now had two callbacks in a row and I was beginning to hope that the slow period I had been experiencing was now coming to an end.

The callback was unique.  I would have to mark it as the oddest experience I have had in theatre.  I got to the theatre and, of course, I was hoping that the callback meant I was being strongly considered for the lead role as he was the only one I had read.  However, Mister Roberts had taught me that directors sometimes see qualities for characters other than the ones actors are reading so my positivity was tempered with a bit of caution.

My first read was for the de facto villain of the piece.  It was a moderate read.  I definitely know I could have done a better job than I did.  Amy said she’d have something more to read for me in a little bit so I went outside and began to converse with some of the other actors.  About 25 minutes later, the stage manager came out and said we could all go home.  “What about my second read?” I thought.

I went home feeling rather befuddled and a rejection slip followed shortly thereafter.  To this day, I still do not know what to make of the experience.

My next audition was the one I really had been looking forward to for the year and that was Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol over at the Blue Barn Theatre.  This play tells the story of Jacob Marley’s redemption and it was one of the funniest scripts I had read in a long time.  I was particularly drawn to the role of the Bogle:  a mischievous little sprite who serves as Marley’s spiritual guide/pain in the butt.  Once more, Kevin Lawler would be directing.

Auditioning for Kevin is like walking a tightrope as it is always a high stakes affair.  The shows he directs tend to have small casts and the smaller the cast, the stronger the actors have to be.  This is why I usually get put through the paces at his auditions.  This show would be no exception.

First I tried reading the Bogle my way.  I envisioned him as an extremely high energy character so I gave a read that can best be described as Bugs Bunny on an acid trip.  Kevin asked me if I could do a Cockney accent, so I started reading again, but with the Cockney lilt and pronunciation.  He stopped me about a paragraph or so in and said, “That was actually pretty good.”

Kevin then asked if I had heard of the actor, Alan Cummings.  I had not.  He explained that his characters tend to be very sarcastic and sardonic and he asked me if I could infuse that into the Bogle.  So I read again, this time giving the dialogue a bit more lip and attitude.

Kevin then threw another change at me.  He told me the Bogle was very nimble with his words and asked me if I could mix a bit of that in there.  I thought for a moment and then went with a stream of consciousness approach.  The Bogle says a lot of complicated things, but it’s all from the top of his head, so I read without stopping for thought or breath.

By the end of the fourth read, I was feeling pretty drained.  I had been giving it my all and this had been the longest audition I had had with Kevin at nearly 20 minutes.  After the last read, Kevin thought for a bit and then said, “I don’t need to see anymore, Chris.  Good changes.  Nice work with all of my directions.”

I went home and felt pretty good about things.  After that grueling audition, I felt I might have a pretty good shot at the Bogle as Kevin had never run me through the wringer like that.  A few days later, I was out of contention with the arrival of a rejection slip from the Blue Barn.  I later found out that an actor came in right after me who was deemed “perfect” for the Bogle from the moment he stepped through the door. 

When I learned that, the blow was a bit harder than I expected.  It was simply difficult to accept that all of that hard work had been ground to dust in a matter of moments.  Sadly, sometimes that’s just the way things happen in this business.

Then it was time for me to go to school.

I entered Doug Blackburn’s one on one boot camp to improve my acting.  Doug is a masterful performer who holds 2 Master’s Degrees in theatre.  He is classically trained according to the Stanislavsky method and is almost method when it comes to acting.

The first thing he had me do was the first exercise he did when he was studying Stanislavsky in Russia.  He wanted me to take a few minutes and then tell him the story of the best thing that ever happened to me and then he wanted me to tell him the story of the worst thing that ever happened to me.  After I had recovered from sharing these tales, Doug told me that whether I had known it or not, I had just done the best acting of my life.

“I wasn’t acting,” I replied.

“Thank you,” he said, grinning at my understanding.  “That’s the point we’re going to get you to.”

Doug explained that we all have wells of emotion to draw from and part of good acting was to dip into those wells and apply them to the scenes I was in.  For instance, if I were doing a scene where the character has his heart broken, then pull the emotion from my own memory of having my heart broken.

He also taught me about the importance of beats, or the tactile change in direction of dialogue, and how to find them.  He showed me that whenever I prepare a character, I should take some paper and split it into 3 columns:  what I say about myself, what I say about others, and what others say about me.  Then he said I should find dialogue that fell into each column and from those bits of dialogue, I would form my character.

Doug gave me imagery exercises so I would know how to envision my character.  He also taught me the importance of eye contact.  I had long had a bad habit of not looking people in the eye, both onstage and in reality.  I was too much in my head because I constantly think and I usually thought about 10 steps ahead of the conversation so my eyes were actually looking a person in the jaw or neck area.  Thanks to Doug, I was able to eliminate this habit in my real life and my theatrical life.

As I trained, I felt new life flowing into my acting blood and I would be ready to fly by the time auditions for The Odd Couple rolled around.  My final test was to attend the final of Doug’s acting class at the local community college and I would be reading with his students.  What he wanted me to do was control the stage and force the other actors to play to my speed.  I passed with flying colors.

I was ready to go, but then I got an ominous piece of news.  The audition requirements were released for The Odd Couple and they were looking for 40-50 year olds.  I was 33 years old and looked younger still.  But I had come too far to stop and plunged ahead.  Time and again, I had seen actors change a director’s perception of what they were looking for with a top flight audition.  There was no reason I couldn’t do the same.

Judith Hart directed The Odd Couple which gave me a bit of needed hope as she had always liked my auditions.  I got up on stage and felt like magic.  First, I read a poker scene as one of the friends of Oscar and Felix and did really well.  Then Judith asked if anybody wanted to read a Felix and Oscar scene and my hand shot up.  I launched into it and I. . .was. . .on.  It was the best read I had given in a long time and I kept my eyes riveted to the eyes of the actor playing Oscar.  One auditioner, Scott Kroeker, later told Doug it was the smoothest he had ever seen me.

Judith dismissed me after that and I was brimming with confidence that I would get a callback.  About midnight, I awoke with a terrible feeling of anxiety.  I didn’t know why.  That morning, I got up and checked my e-mail and found Judith had written me a message about midnight.  It thanked me for my audition, but told me I was no longer being considered for the show.

My spirits were low.  All of that training and I had just had the carpet jerked out from under my feet.  But that was just the beginning.  Soon I was going to be rolled up in the carpet and pitched into the river.

To be continued. . .

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