A Season of Change, Part IV: Is There a Woolf at the Door?

“The wonderful joy at being able to say ‘yes’ to a talented artist is often undercut by the horrible responsibility of having to say ‘no’ so many more times to equally talented artists.”—Unknown

I don’t envy the lot of directors when it comes to casting.  As difficult as things are on the acting side, there is also a tremendous amount of difficulty on the casting side.  Getting just the right blend of performers to tell the best possible story is truly an art form and I believe the above quotation best reflects the plight of directors.

Having to break a lot of hearts is not fun.  I’m also certain the criticism for doing so is even less enjoyable.

“It’s not fair.”

“He/she hates me.”

“It’s all politics and favoritism.”

I’m certain directors have heard variations of the above remarks and then some on numerous occasions.  Sometimes the criticism may be well founded and true.  But, by and large, I believe a director’s choices are impersonal and rejection simply comes from the fact that you did not suit the director’s vision.  This is something I’ve grown to understand and appreciate more over the last year and a half since I became an independent theatre critic.  I’ve grown to appreciate it so much that I’m thinking about trying my hand at direction one day, so if any of my director friends are reading this and are interested in letting me shadow them for a show next season, drop me a line.

I once read an article by a director who said, “I hate that experienced, talented actors can see whether or not they get cast as a measure of their intrinsic worth as actors”.  Truer words were never spoken.  This is the only business I know where you can be a failure and a success all at the same time.  But I’d also like to take a moment to try to respond to that statement.

The reason actors see the casting as the yardstick of their worth as performers is that it is the only validation we have of our skills.  Sometimes a rejection can be done in such a way that it almost completely salves the disappointment of not getting the job.  But the bottom line is if we’re not the ones on stage or in front of the camera telling the story, we instinctively feel as if we failed even if we intellectually know that the work we did in the audition was good.  After all, everyone likes to taste the fruit of their labors.

Now I’ve told you all that to set the stage for my latest theatre tale.

After the victorious defeat of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I began preparing for a return to the Playhouse with an audition for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  For me, it would be my first audition under the new Playhouse artistic director, Hilary Adams.

I knew the odds would be long going into this show.  The show is only a 4 person cast and there is only one role for a younger man.  Knowing that up front actually took a considerable amount of pressure from my shoulders.  I headed into the audition solely with the intention of making a good showing and leaving with my head held high.  Anything else would simply be icing on the cake.

The turnout was smaller than I expected, but still more than enough to be able to cast the show from our night alone.  As I glanced around the room, I knew the role of Nick (the one I was eligible for) could be cast three times over at a minimum as I noticed both Nick Zadina and Sean, who read so well for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in attendance along with myself.

Under Hilary’s leadership, auditions have changed at the Playhouse and I would say for the better.  Now pictures of the actors are taken to go along with their audition information sheets.  Hilary also prefers to bring the performers in as small groups.  I think this brings a double edged advantage to the actors as they not only know that they have the director’s full attention, but I think it unleashes their creativity to the Nth degree.  They do not have to worry that their interpretation is similar to another performer’s.  Every actor can be secure in the knowledge that everything done in the audition will be perceived as completely original.

I ended up being in the second group called in to audition.  It was an older gent named Lance and myself who would be reading the roles of George and Nick.

This first read presented one of the interesting challenges of the audition process as actors of varying levels of talent are often paired together.  My partner was very inexperienced and it showed.  When experienced/naturally talented performers work together, the energy of the performance is like a ball that’s tossed around in a game of hot potato.  Toss in an inexperienced/less talented person and it’s like throwing a ball against a wall and watching it drop.

Before we began reading, Hilary made the interesting request for us not to block anything.  Another hurdle removed as some performers are so intent on the words that movement sometimes gets lost in the shuffle.

The pressure was really on George in this side as he has the bulk of the dialogue and gets the ball rolling.  Lance read and it sounded like reading as well.  For my own part, I was pleased with my work.  I fired the ball with energy, made some decisive choices about Nick, and presented a character I liked.  I did find it humorous that in the back of my head I kept thinking, “Oh, this feels like a movement line.  That feels like another.  There’s a third.”

About a half hour later, I was called in again.  This time I read with two people.  A man named Jeremy would read as George and Sydney Readman would read as Nick’s wife, Honey.  This time I felt that ball being tossed around.  Jeremy had some nice chops and instincts and had a really rich speaking voice.

Again I was pleased with my work and really enjoyed the byplay between the three of us in the scene.  After we had read it once, Hilary asked us to read it again, but gave some direction to Sydney and me.  For Nick, she wanted me to make him “more beta and less alpha”.  She explained that at this early stage, Nick wouldn’t be standing up to George quite so much.  This was a business meeting and Nick is trying to make a good impression.  She also asked me to be a bit more loving towards Honey.  I processed these changes and gave a more beta interpretation.  Though in hindsight, I think I should have kissed Sydney’s hand to seem more loving.  The words had the right intention and I did tenderly clasp her arm, but my gut says a stronger action should have been used.

Twenty minutes after the read, Jeannine Robertson, the Playhouse’s Artistic Administrative Assistant, told me that Hilary had seen all she needed from me and that I could go home.  I had been there for 2 ½ hours, read three times, and took some direction.  All in all, the signs of a very positive audition.  Callbacks would be on Saturday so I knew if I didn’t get notification by the end of Friday, I could officially consider myself out of the running.  I had nothing to be ashamed of as I accomplished my main task.  I had a good showing and, hopefully, gave Hilary something to remember for future auditions.

Regrettably, I did not receive that callback.  Fortunately, I was braced for it, but it’s still a mild disappointment.  But I did the best I could with the material I had.  The only regret, as it were, was that I would have liked to have read a meatier side for Nick.  Then I would have known that I had truly given it all that I had.

With such a small cast, other good actors also, unfortunately, heard the word, ‘no’ for this one, too.  And, believe me, there was some heavyweight talent that did not make it in.  Let me see if these numbers put it in perspective.  Four people heard the word ‘yes’.  At least twenty others heard the word ‘no’.  Chew on that for a bit.

While there’s no Woolf at the door for me, I do remain content that there will be something for me in the future.  A friend once told me that becoming a stronger actor doesn’t mean the number of roles you obtain goes up.  It just means that the quality of your rejections goes up.  With some of my adventures over the past couple of years, I think there’s quite a bit of truth to that statement.  But, if I may add to his statement, I think the quality of the rewards goes up, too, and that’s something all actors should keep in mind.

Until the next time.

It No Longer Matters

I’ve just come home from my first audition in nearly a year and I can safely say that a new era in theatre has begun for it no longer matters.

Mind you, that’s not a negative statement.  This has actually been the moment I’ve been fighting to reach for years.  The moment where I could enjoy theatre in its fullest.  The moment where getting cast was no longer a dire necessity.  The moment where winning and losing no longer matter.

Don’t get me wrong.  I still hope to do as much theatre as I can handle, but I’m no longer going to be devastated if I don’t get cast.  The Miracle Show aka Leaving Iowa has forever transformed my outlook on theatre.

I auditioned for the Omaha Playhouse’s production of Boeing, Boeing under the direction of Carl Beck in his final solo directing project.  (He’ll co-direct Young Frankenstein:  The Musical with Susie Baer-Collins as their swan song as both are retiring at the end of the season).  The thrust of the play focuses on Bernard, an American architect living in Paris and his old friend, Robert.  Bernard is engaged to 3 airline hostesses who all fly different airlines and routes which is how he’s able to juggle the three relationships.  Robert’s arrival to visit Bernard coincides with the airlines beginning to use the much faster Boeing airplane which now means that all of Bernard’s fiancées are going to be at his home at the same time and hilarity ensues.

It was a fairly good crowd with 17 people showing up to audition.  It was certainly a fine “Welcome Back” to the theatre world as I found myself facing some very heavy hitters on the community theatre circuit.  Among them were:

Nick Zadina, a versatile performer who can handle comedy and drama with equal aplomb

Anthony Clark-Kaczmarek, a top notch comedic actor who is highly experienced in farce

Monty Eich, a talented funnyman and a founding member of the Weisenheimers, an Omaha improv troupe

I was honored to be able to test myself against these guys and I’m proud to say that I was more than up to the task of holding my own with them.  It became quite clear early on, that the 4 of us were the frontrunners along with another young man whom I’d never seen before.  He was a little slow getting out of the gate, but once he got going, he gave a pretty impressive audition and I hope to see him continue in theatre.

The five of us were the only people who were called up to read multiple times and none of us were able to really gain an advantage on the others.  At one point or another we all shined, so it’s really going to boil down to who comes to the second round tomorrow and the uncontrollable factors that Carl needs for these characters.  Although, he hasn’t done it the last few times I’ve auditioned for him, there is a possibility that callbacks may be needed.  I really wish there was more flexibility in the casting because all of us would fill the roles nicely.

I was particularly pleased with my two takes as I made Bernard slightly prickish and I made Robert a timid, Nervous Nelly.  I felt good, relaxed, and at peace and I believe those qualities communicated themselves.  More importantly, I didn’t treat the audition like a competition.  I was able to sit back and really appreciate the work the other performers were doing. 

Honestly, I felt a bit like a director myself, as I started piecing together who might work well where and with whom.  It was interesting seeing the whole for the first time and trying to put the puzzle pieces together to come up with the ideal cast.  It truly is a difficult process.

For the first time in years, I’m going to sleep peacefully without concerns of whether I get cast or not.  If I do, great, I look forward to the adventure.  If not, it isn’t the end of the world.  There will always be another show.  I now know who I am as an actor and the peace of mind that comes with that is a far greater prize than all the future roles I’ll earn.  And that is why. . .

It no longer matters.

 

 

Chasing the Dream, Part 3

Yes, thanks to Alan Klem’s kind words, I found the strength to try my hand at theatre for a little bit longer.  I had promised myself one final year auditioning for community theatre productions and if I failed to get cast after that time, then I would call it quits.

In truth, I had discovered community theatre in February of my senior year.  The Omaha Community Playhouse announced that they would be holding auditions for Dracula and I wanted to play the role of the insane Renfield. . .and I also wanted to show Creighton’s theatre department they had made a big mistake in never casting me.  The years of rejection had caused me to develop a bit of a chip on my shoulder, so I went into this audition with my focus not entirely on the proceeds.

I look back on my read for Renfield and I laugh because my audition was so laughable.  I knew Renfield was crazy, but my audition was just weird and not in a good way.  I didn’t get cast, but I did meet Carl Beck, the Playhouse’s artistic director, who would go on to play an important role as I walked this road.

A couple of months later, I auditioned for the Playhouse production of Moon Over Buffalo and I gave a better showing of myself than I had in Dracula, but still not enough to get called back or cast.

Not long after that audition, Alan paid me the compliment recounted in Part 2 which gave me the fortitude to try for one more year.  The first audition of my potential final year was Tons of Money directed by M Michele Phillips.  Michele has the most relaxed audition style I have ever encountered.  Instead of getting up in front of people and performing, Michele simply had us sit in a circle and read the play.  It took a load of pressure off of me and I had a solid audition.  And, truthfully, I was not expecting much.  After all of the rejections, I simply assumed my defeat as a matter of course.  After 2 weeks of not hearing anything, I thought I had been proven right.

And then I got the call.

Michele called me at work and apologized for the delay.  She said she had been agonizing about casting the play and then offered me the role of Giles, the gardener.  I wanted to do backflips down the hall.  FINALLY!!  After all of the trials, tribulations, and frustrations, I had finally had my perseverance rewarded.  I immediately accepted the offer and looked forward to this grand adventure.

Of course, now that I had landed a role I had only 2 fears about acting:  that I would hate it or suck at it.  I’m grateful to say that neither would be the case.  I wish every performer could have the type of cast I had for his or her first show.  All egos were checked at the door and everybody liked everybody.  We went out all the time and that sense of fun and community really showed forth in our performances.  To this day I still maintain strong friendships with Michele and Kay McGuigan, another member of the cast.

For a guy with little experience, Giles was a fine first role.  The difficulty in playing him was that he didn’t talk a lot or emote a lot.  And to be that stonefaced while all of this comedic insanity was erupting around me was quite a challenge.  At points, I had to bite the inside of my cheeks to make certain I didn’t break out in a smile during rehearsal or a performance.  I even garnered a good review in a local alternative newspaper, The Reader.  Of my performance the critic said, “Chris Elston could not have a less arduous role with which to make his acting debut.  Imagine a role where you rarely speak, but you get to chase everyone around with a pitchfork and give the old auntie a cucumber.  These were some of things Chris did as Giles:  a character so stonefaced, he makes Buster Keaton seem vivacious by comparison.  Even Olivier had to start somewhere.”

I felt a real sense of triumph at finally succeeding in theatre, but there was still a final test to be made.  Could I do it again or was it a one time fluke?

The answer came that January as I auditioned for the dramedy, The Mask of Moriarty.

I am a Sherlock Holmes nut.  I own the entire Granada series with Jeremy Brett, all of the official stories, plus a slew of pastiches.  I’ve also taken part in a couple of mystery weekends with the famed sleuth.  Boy, did I want to be in this show.  Carl Beck helmed this one and, unfortunately, I gave a pretty weak audition.  But I ended up having a saving grace.  I had asked Carl how he saw a character named Bunny St John Manders in a certain scene and he advised me that the character was so drunk, he was weaving in and out of reality.  I tried to utilize Carl’s direction and managed to do it to a slight extent.  But because it was clear I was interested in the plot and because, as Carl later stated, “I seemed friendly,” he gave me a shot in 2 supernumerary (bit) roles.

I played deathtrap designer, Sheamus O’Shaughnessy, who could do nothing except cough and a nameless sailor who gets into a bar brawl with a hunchback and tries to trap Holmes.  I only had a couple of lines, but I sacrificed them for a terrific bit.  There was a scene where a vengeful tavern owner tries to send Holmes plunging down a trap door, but didn’t know the door was actually under his feet.  The gentleman playing the tavern owner (Dennis Collins) had recently had his ankle fused and didn’t want to risk it doing the bit, so they gave me the bit and my lines went to another actor.  Ironically, the trap had been designed by my other character, so in a sense I killed myself.

And that’s how I finally got involved in the acting game, but little did I know what further adventures this business would have for me.

But, again, that’s a story for another time.

NEXT TIME:  Our hero gets an opportunity at his dream role, but will a battle with depression derail his hopes once and for all?