So now I had a goal and my first attempt at reaching that goal was to audition for the One Act Festival during my freshman year at Creighton University.
I auditioned for a show called The Actor’s Nightmare which was a comedy about an ordinary man who suddenly finds himself going through a series of clichéd performance pieces and he is completely out of place. Secretly, I hoped that I was a natural and that I would blow away the director with my audition and nab the leading part. I got up on stage, took a deep breath, and made an amazing discovery. . .
I was NOT a natural.
Don’t get me wrong. My audition wasn’t terrible. It just wasn’t that great either. For a first audition, it was OK. Later that week, I was walking around campus with a friend who had also auditioned for the festival when our theatre instructor, Michael McCandless, approached from the opposite direction and gave my friend the great news that he had just cast him as the lead in the other play at the festival, Riders to the Sea. Naturally, in all the excitement, I thought that Michael was going to tell me that I, too, had been cast in the festival. My excitement evaporated in the blink of an eye when I saw Michael look at me with a glint of pity in his eyes.
“Chris, I’m sorry, but you didn’t make it in this time,” he said.
So went my first audition and my first taste of rejection, which would become an all too common taste over the next few years.
Due to my heavy class schedule, I was not able to audition again until my sophomore year. Carrying another heavy class schedule, I only managed one audition and it followed the same path as the first. An OK audition, but I was clearly outclassed. During the summer break, I vowed to go into future auditions with a much higher level of preparation to overcome my inexperience and to get out to more auditions.
Enter my junior year of college. I was able to audition immediately for The Importance of Being Ernest. I knew the play well and attempted to perfect each and every male role in the show which was a colossal error in judgment because no character got any special attention and all were underdeveloped as a result.
Adding to my error was the fact that I got a bit overlooked at the audition. Everyone got to read multiple times before I ever got to read. A few people actually got up there 5 times before I got to read once. Even then, I was never actually called up to read. The director finally asked if there was anyone who had not had an opportunity to read and I sheepishly raised my hand. With my confidence dead in the water, I proceeded to get up and gave an absolutely wretched audition. I vowed to return the next night and give a better showing.
And that didn’t happen. When I returned the second night, I was not asked to read again. I did ask if I could read a couple roles at the end of the night and was granted the opportunity, but it was a failure and I knew it. To make my defeat total, when I left for the night, the director, Bill Hutson, said, “Thanks, Mike.” Ouch.
For the first time, I would audition a second time during the school year. An original play called The Empty Plough was going to be guest directed by its writer, Kevin Lawler, one of the founders of the famed Blue Barn Theatre in Omaha. This time around, focusing on characters was easy as it was a small cast and there were only 2 male roles. I was especially attracted to the character of Vern.
This play takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where 3 characters (Vern, Fern, and Fran) barely survive. Vern is an angry, bitter man, though he has deep love for Fern and Fran which is hidden behind his bluster. The three meet Lillian, an angel figure sent by the godlike Joseph, who tells them to build a plough which will bring them to a better place. Near the end of the play, Fern gets sick and dies and is taken to Heaven by Lillian. Vern finally drops his façade and pleads with Fern to come back and his monologue crescendos to him having a heart attack which ultimately kills him. Such a powerful piece of writing.
I got to the audition and Kevin discussed the show and told us he would be bringing us in one at a time to read a monologue. I was handed Vern’s monologue from the end and I got really excited because I had a lot of ideas as to what to do with this reading. My confidence received a further boost when Kevin said, “I don’t care whether you think you’re an actor or not because I have enough faith in my abilities to bring the actor out of you.” It just made me feel like I had a real chance.
Out into the hallway I went and read and waited. I ended up being the final reader of the night. I went into that theatre, shook Kevin’s hand, and he got to know me a little. Then he asked me how many shows I had done. Timidly, I replied that I had not done any. Kevin quickly assured me that was all right and he just wanted me to take the monologue and have some fun with it.
This reading was the first flash of what I could really do as a performer. Even today, the read still stands out as a great one as I portrayed Vern as a broken, haunted individual who would give anything not to lose a member of his “family”. When I finished, Kevin was really excited and said, “Excellent! I loved the vulnerability you showed with the character. Now let’s see you do it angry.”
What happened next can only be described as if I had gone to a rifle range, carefully lined the target up in my sight, then turned the gun around and went, “BANG!!!” The flash I had with the first reading vanished. I knew Vern was angry, but didn’t think he needed to be angry here, so I wasn’t prepared to make the transition. My second reading was very awkward and I sounded mocking and mean instead of angry. When I finished, Kevin told me that the cast would be called by Sunday night.
I left and still felt pretty good because of the strength of the first read. My head was so high in the clouds, I was starting all of my prayers with, “Lord, as long as I’m in the neighborhood. . .” I was jumping on the phone every time it rang, especially Sunday.
Sunday ended and I did not receive a call.
And I was devastated.
And I wept. . .
To be continued