Nearly twelve years after my first opportunity at the role, I received a second, and final, chance at playing Billy Bibbit from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on Sunday night.
For those of you new to my blog, I had originally auditioned for this role back in 2003 when the Circle Theatre was going to try to mount it. Unfortunately, the whole show got canceled when the theatre was unable to cast the key role of Chief Bromden. Even more unfortunate was the fact that I later learned I would have played Bibbit had the show been produced.
When I learned that the Chanticleer Theatre in Council Bluffs, Iowa was going to mount the show this season, I hoped I would have one last crack at the role. I knew that the Bibbit of the novel by Ken Kesey was a man in his mid-thirties so terribly repressed that he comes off as much younger. But, for whatever reason, he is usually cast as a man in his twenties, so I was concerned that, at the age of 37 with rapidly silvering hair, I might not be seriously considered for the part. Not that the lead role of Randall McMurphy was a bad one to get, but I really wanted to play Billy. I breathed a massive sigh of relief when the Chanticleer released character descriptions and it appeared that they were looking for someone closer to the novel’s depiction of the character.
So it was on Sunday that I found myself at the Chanticleer ready to give the performance of my life. I was a bit surprised, but more than pleased to find my good friend, David Sindelar, at the auditions. I had been twisting his arm a bit to get him to go as I knew there were a couple of great roles for him.
From the moment I first got onstage, I knew it was going to be a magical night. I was fully in the auditioning frame of mind and I was hungry for a role. I ended up being the second reader of the night in the role of McMurphy and was pleased with what I did. But the real magic began about an hour into the night.
Director, Ron Hines, asked anybody if there was a role they wanted to read for before we moved on and I said I’d like to take a crack at Billy. The second I opened my mouth, I was off to the races. I can’t remember the last time I had been that supremely confident. I had zero self-consciousness. I was making bold choices. I was animated and it was probably some of the very best acting between the lines I had ever done for an audition. In all honesty, I felt I had finally given an audition that matched the quality of my read as John Merrick back in 2002.
For the rest of the night, all I did was alternate between reading for Bibbit and McMurphy. There was another young man there (I believe his name was Sean Kelley) and we would pretty much trade the roles in the same scenes. I thought he was a terrific McMurphy and had a good look for him. He had a blocky build suitable for a brawler and, whether intentional or unintentional, wore a stocking cap just like McMurphy. My only concern is that he might have been too young for the role. My build was more suited to Billy, but there was that concern that I might be a touch too old.
The producers and the director gushed over my reads. Producer, Terry Debenedictus, said she loved my reads while Ron Hines said he had written, “I like this guy!” at the top of my audition sheet to remember me. I was actually getting a little embarrassed from the notices.
Intellectually speaking, I knew this praise in no way guaranteed my getting cast. On an emotional level, my head was somewhere in the clouds. I knew I was rock solid and hoped beyond hope that this was leading to something great. I was asked to stay at the end of the night for physical analysis and a final 2 reads.
After the audition, Dave and I had a post-audition analysis meal at Burger King. Dave didn’t get to read a whole lot, but he gave a pitch perfect reading as Cheswick at the end of the night. That read plus his physical appropriateness for the role gave me a good feeling for him. (With good reason, for he won that particular role.)
While on a conference call at work, I received a call from Jerry Abels, the stage manager of the show. Needless to say, I was beyond excited. Like most theatres, the Chanticleer sends out a form letter if you’re not cast in the show. So I took it for granted that I was cast as somebody.
As soon as my meeting ended, I called Jerry on the phone and he told me that they had a great turnout for the show with about 46 people auditioning and that leads to the good problem of having too much choice which means that some good people don’t get in. In my mind I thought, “Yeah, that is a tough thing. So who am I playing?” And then Jerry said, “With that being said, unfortunately you were one of the people who didn’t make it in.”
I was stunned to silence. I actually dropped the pen I was holding because I was so taken aback. “If I wasn’t cast, why are you calling?” I thought to myself. Jerry answered my unspoken question as he continued. “We wanted you to know that it had absolutely nothing to do with your talent. Please, and we really mean this, please, please, please, please, please, please, please, please come back to read for us again. This theatre can always, ALWAYS, use a talent like yours.”
The words were kind, but I won’t lie to you, they hurt. A lot. For those of you who have read my theatre tales, you know I’ve often said the acting part counts for precious little in the casting process and this is a classic example of that lesson. But it stings nonetheless. I realized that, short of a miracle, this was the last time I could conceivably play Billy as next time, if there is one, I will simply be too old for the role.
On a sort of upside, not getting cast in this show did solve my problem of how to audition for another show as its audition dates were going to take place during tech week. But now I bid a final good-bye to the role of Billy Bibbit and move my eyes to the future.
POSTSCRIPT: In one of the biggest shocks of my life, I received a phone call from the Chanticleer on January 27. At first, I thought I simply hadn’t deleted my old voice mail which led to my being told about my rejection. I thought, “Well at most I’ll just look like a dope if I call and make certain it wasn’t a new message.” I called Jerry Abels and cautiously asked if he had left me a message. He said that he had. It turns out one of the actors had dropped out of the show and now they wanted to offer me the role of Aide Warren. I mulled it over for a little bit, but taking this role would have meant losing out on the opportunity to audition for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, so I declined the opportunity, but told Jerry I very much appreciated the phone call. So defeat becomes a victory, after all.