Not exactly a theatre tale, but the link below will take you to the Musing show I performed in on Oct 26. I’m number three, but every story is a great one.
It’s been a long time since I’ve pumped out one of these. But the pandemic ground my auditioning to a standstill so I haven’t had material with which to work. But I did have one doozy of a tale at the height of the pandemic. A story of rejuvenation.
This year marks an anniversary for me. Mid-July will mark the twentieth anniversary of my audition for The Elephant Man. For those of you unfamiliar with that saga, click here.
At the end of that tale, I had mentioned my belief that God used the play to pull me out of the depression from which I’d been suffering. Little did I know He’d use it again to galvanize me.
One of the last theatre tales I wrote was to address the question of when would I be on stage again. I answered honestly, but I had real time to further analyze that question during the pandemic with the sudden plethora of time I had on my hands.
When I did Leaving Iowa, I finally believed fully in my acting prowess. Even better, I was now able to audition with a greater sense of freedom since I could enjoy being in the moment instead of worrying about whether or not I’d get cast.
Though I was now enjoying the freedom of the audition, the reality was that my fortunes didn’t change all that much. Granted, I was auditioning much less, but I was back to giving great auditions, but unable to land parts. In fact, I’ve only performed twice in the last 9 years and the gap separating those two performances was 5 ½ years.
I no longer doubted my ability to act, but I did start to doubt my ability to get cast. An x factor over which no performer has control.
I was starting to wonder, in my heart of hearts, whether or not my storytelling days were done and if my future involvement would solely be dedicated to writing. I didn’t have any sadness as I could look back on my body of work with a sense of satisfaction, but I did have a sense of melancholy as I felt I had sped through the five stages of acting.
1. Who’s Chris Elston?
2. Get me Chris Elston.
3. Get me a young Chris Elston.
4. Get me a Chris Elston type.
5. Who’s Chris Elston?
In my case, I felt I had skipped steps two and three. And, yet, I also couldn’t say people were asking “Who’s Chris Elston?” The Corner made me an ever present name in theatre. It’s just that I was now far better known for my writing than I ever was for my acting.
But in recent times I began to hear that question more and more. “When are we going to see you on stage again?”
One night I was pondering that question when I was suddenly struck by a powerful desire to break out my copy of The Elephant Man which I hadn’t looked at since the night of the audition back in 2002.
I scooted my coffee table out of the way. Then, purely for my own enjoyment, I began acting out scenes from the play. When I finished, I sank into my couch with a deep sense of satisfaction.
My time as a storyteller was not quite finished yet. Maybe it was just getting started or restarted as the case may be.
This feeling has only continued to grow as theatre has begun to regain some sense of normalcy. I can feel my creativity surging through my veins again. I genuinely want to be back on stage again.
So I don’t know when I’m going to be back on stage again, but I firmly believe it will be soon because I know this much.
I am ready.
What is the purpose of an audition?
“To get the role,” I hear you say. But, no. That’s the hope of an audition.
The purpose of an audition is simply to be memorable. For if you are memorable, directors will want to see you again and, sooner or later, will want to work with you.
So how is one memorable? It begins from the moment you enter the audition locale.
- Always be polite.
–Politeness pays. From the moment you walk in the door you are always under observation. Believe me, if you’re rude or obnoxious or a bad sport, that word will get to the ears of the casting agents/directors and you will be dead before you start. Be sure to thank your accompanist and the casting agents/directors. Be gracious to the other auditioners. Little things go a long way.
I earned my second role through politeness. I knew from the beginning that it certainly wasn’t because of my chops as the audition was lousy. But the director told me that my genuine interest in the show combined with my friendliness is what made him decide to give me a bit part.
- Always keep in mind that this is a showcase, not a competition.
–I can’t stress this one enough as it was the lesson that took me the longest to learn. For years I treated auditions as a competition. For me, it was simple. If I were the best reader for a part, logically I should get that part.
Boy, was I wrong about that.
When a director casts a show, he or she is piecing together a puzzle and attempting to build something that suits her or his vision of the story. Your acting is the one and only thing you get to control and that amounts to about 1% in the casting process. As such, you can be the worst performer in the room as I certainly was in the previous example and somehow get a part. Or you can be on the opposite side and lap the others several times and still somehow not get cast.
But, if you’re good, you’ll be remembered. And if you’re remembered, you’ll get cast eventually.
- Trust your instincts.
–Everybody is going to see a character differently. The actors, the director, the stage manager, the costume designer, everyone is going to have a different idea about a character. So just go full steam ahead with your take on the role. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t ask questions about the character if you need some clarity. But don’t be worried about trying to match your character to the director’s vision. When the whole begins to come together, that vision is likely to change many times over before the final result.
The final show I auditioned for in college before I graduated was called Death of a Blind, Old Man, a modernized take on Oedipus at Colonus. At the audition, I noted that everyone reading for Oedipus played him strongly as if he were still the mighty warrior before his life was blasted. My instinct ran completely the other direction and I broke him in two. I read him as a frightened, beaten old man. Without question, it was one of the two best reads I ever had in college and while I didn’t make the cut, I was darn proud of the read. And that’s the feeling you want to have when you finish a read.
- Be bold.
–This goes hand in hand with trusting your instincts. Time and again I’ve seen actors (not to mention myself) hold back because they’re afraid of making a mistake. That’s the surest way to destroy your creativity.
This is an audition. There’s no such thing as a mistake. I’ll repeat that. This is an audition. There’s no such thing as a mistake.
Your view of the character may be completely off the wall and off the mark, but if you’re bold and brave about that choice, the director may very well step in and give you some direction and if you then make that change based off the direction, you will look brilliant. What the director is more concerned about is your ability to make a strong choice, not necessarily the “correct” choice.
Years ago, I auditioned for The Elephant Man and I was reading a monologue for the character of Dr. Treves. At this point in the show, he was feeling incredibly guilty and despondent about making the title character a freak again, albeit a high class one. He’s trying to explain to the bishop his feelings, but doesn’t quite know how to spit it out.
Now I saw the character as heading towards a breakdown and I attacked the read as such. I mean I read the monologue with an impassioned desperation.
Was it the right trek? No. But I was so bold about the choice that the director stepped in and had me make a massive adjustment. So I went from nearly cracking up to quietly shaming myself. He loved the changes and I looked like a million bucks.
No, I didn’t get in the show, but the director has never forgotten me.
- Keep perspective.
By this I mean, don’t fall apart at the seams if you thought your audition sucked or if you thought it was brilliant and didn’t get in. . .at least not publicly. Take your moment to be sad privately. Punch out a pillow. Scream to the fields. Do whatever you need to get the feeling out and then let it go. But remain professional until you can get to that private place.
There’s a lot of rejection in this field and, as clichéd as it sounds, there truly is always another show. I openly admit that in my early days, rejection gnawed on me like a hungry dog enjoying a tasty bone. Auditions were almost life and death and it always felt like a shotgun blast to my stomach when I wasn’t cast.
Even when I got good at the acting side of things, auditions continued to haunt me. But when I finally realized how little control I had over the casting process, I was finally able to let that burden go. Then I got to enjoy myself and became more memorable.
So when you audition, keep your head held high. Be brave. Be bold. BE YOU!! Then you’ll be memorable. You may not get cast every time, but you will get cast sometimes.
Take a good, long look at the above photo. Imagine being caged in a body like that. Hideously ugly. Virtually crippled. But inside that tragic figure your heart beats with the sensibilities of an artist, the innocence of a child, and the charming wit of a gentleman. This was Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, who defied his pitiable circumstances to become the toast of London society. His life story is the focus of The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance which is currently playing at the Barn Players Community Theatre.
Time for a little full disclosure. This is my favorite play. I know it backwards and forwards and am a cornucopia of knowledge in the history of the real Joseph (misnamed John) Merrick. As you can imagine, I’ve got some pretty high standards for this show. I’m very pleased to say that The Barn Players met my standards and even exceeded them at some points in a very powerful and poignant piece of storytelling.
Pomerance’s script is an interesting blend of historical fact (though some events are embellished for dramatic effect) and compelling themes such as strength of spirit, egoism, love, friendship, and what really makes us human. Despite being the title character, Merrick’s presence is more of a force that touches the lives of everyone he meets in some form or another. Some realize their own humanity while others lose theirs. Interestingly, many of the other characters project their own qualities onto Merrick and only two actually see Merrick for the beautiful soul that he is.
These ideals make for storytelling at its finest and the cast and crew do a very good job on the whole in telling that story.
Mark Hamilton should be especially proud of his direction. His staging is excellent and he has coached performances ranging from very good to superior from his actors. I did note a couple of beats that could be mined for greater dramatic impact, but those moments can still bloom during this show’s run.
I consider the role of Merrick to be one of the most difficult and grueling an actor can undertake. Not only does the actor playing the role need to be unbelievably versatile to handle the complexities of the character, he must also adopt an awkward and demanding body language to communicate the infirmities of Merrick. With that being said, Coleman Crenshaw does extreme honor to the role.
Crenshaw certainly did his homework as he understands Merrick right down to the ground. His physicality was tremendous, though he needs to keep that body language in mind at all times. He made some movements that would either have been impossible for the real Merrick or done only with excruciating difficulty. That quibble aside, his interpretation of the dialogue blew me away.
Crenshaw’s delivery is so nuanced it almost staggers the imagination. With incredible ease, he captures Merrick’s innocence, wit, genius, fears, awkwardness, and goodness. And he does it with a clogged and slobbering speech that still retains flawless diction. His evolving of Merrick from frightened creature to bold man over the course of the show is a tour de force and I foresee Crenshaw being in the running for many local acting awards.
David Innis does a fairly good job as Dr. Frederick Treves, the doctor who found Merrick and gave him a home at the London Hospital. Innis presents Treves as a full of himself young doctor who originally gets involved with Merrick solely because he is a good subject for study. His inherent decency appears when he brings Merrick to live at the London Hospital after he is abandoned by his manager.
From there, Innis does a marvelous job showing Treves’ awakening to his own humanity and ugliness as he comes to know Merrick’s internal beauty. Treves grows to hate himself as he believes he has turned Merrick into a freak, albeit a high class one, as he introduces him to London society and bitterly regrets seeing him as a mere research subject.
One thing Innis must master during this run is to project. He was so quiet that, had I not known the dialogue so well, I would not have understood large portions of his speeches.
Stefanie Stevens brings depth and intelligence to the role of Mrs. Kendal, the actress who befriends Merrick. Originally brought in to visit Merrick because she is trained to hide her true emotions, Mrs. Kendal instantly recognizes the man within the monstrous body and forms a kinship with him. Ms Stevens plays the role with an elegant sincerity and is especially impressive in the moment when she decides to grant Merrick’s fond desire of seeing a real woman in all of her naturalness.
Special notice also goes out to Jeph Scanlon and Sean Leistico who play the roles of Carr-Gomm and Ross. As Carr-Gomm, the administrator of the London Hospital, Scanlon manages to be kindly if a little stiff and serious. And I never thought I would make a critique like this, but he actually needs to enunciate a little less. He was hitting his syllables so hard that it made his dialogue a little staccato. Softening his syllables will let his speech have a more natural flow.
Leistico adds a third dimension to Ross with sheer force of acting ability. The role could be treated as a throwaway, but Leistico is pathetically oily as the manager who robs Merrick of his life savings and is just pathetic when he comes crawling back, sick and dying, in the hopes that Merrick will throw away the life he’s created to be a high class freak.
Holly Daniel’s costumes are gorgeous and a perfect fit for Victorian era London. Laura Burkhart has developed a wonderful “less is more” set that easily shifts from Merrick’s room to the hospital to Belgium. I would also be remiss if I did not mention the music of Daniel Yung. He provides all of the sounds and music of the show with a superior piece of cello playing that he suits to each and every moment of the play.
What ultimately makes the show so compelling is Merrick’s humanity and that teaches a valuable lesson to us all. Life dealt him the worst possible hand and he did not become embittered by it. He rose above it and taught us all what it means to be human.
The Elephant Man plays at the Barn Players Community Theatre through August 14. Showtimes are Fri-Sat at 7:30pm and Sundays at 2pm. There will be an industry night performance on Monday, August 8. Tickets cost $18 for adults, $15 for seniors, and $12 for students (w/ID) and groups of 10 or more. Industry night tickets are $12 at the door. To order tickets, visit the Barn Players website at www.thebarnplayers.org or call 913-432-9100. Parental discretion is advised due to a scene of partial nudity. The Barn Players Community Theatre is located at 6219 Martway in Mission, KS.
The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance opens on July 29th! Get your tickets today at www.thebarnplayers.org/tickets
Directed by Mark Hamilton
Stage Managed by Diane Bulan
Set Design by Laura Burkhart & Mark Hamilton
Lighting Design by Phil Leonard
Costume Coordination by Ashley Christopher
Choreography & Movement Coaching by Meghann Deveroux
Assistant Stage Management by Amanda Rhodes
Sound Design by Sean Leistico
Production Intern: Alicia Miro
July 29th – August 14th
Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm
Sunday at 2:00pm
(Industry Night: Monday, August 8th)
Coleman Crenshaw, David Innis & Stefanie Stevens
Eli Biesemeyer, Richard J. Burt, Meghann Deveroux, Dee Dee Diemer, Sean Leistico, Lindsay Lovejoy, Alicia Miro, Jeph Scanlon, Scott Turner & Daniel Yung
The Elephant Man is based on the life of John Merrick, who lived in London during the latter part of the nineteenth century. A horribly deformed young man, victim of rare skin and bone diseases, he has become the star freak attraction in traveling side shows. Found abandoned and helpless, he is admitted to London’s prestigious Whitechapel Hospital. Under the care of celebrated young physician Frederick Treves, Merrick is introduced to London society and slowly evolves from an object of pity to an urbane and witty favorite of the aristocracy and literati only to be denied his ultimate dream, to become a man like any other.
All performances are at:
The Barn Players Theatre, 6219 Martway, Mission, KS.
REGULAR – $18.00
SENIORS – $ 15.00
GROUPS (10 OR MORE) – $12.00
STUDENTS (WITH A VALID STUDENT ID) – $12.00
WE ACCEPT CREDIT CARDS!
VISA, MASTERCARD & DISCOVER!
The box office opens one hour before curtain time.
For reservations, please call or call 1-800-838-3006
or visit our website at www.thebarnplayers.org
Production support provided by…
The Mainstreet Credit Union
Northeast Johnson County Chamber of Commerce
St. Pius School
Media partner support provided by…
710 AM / 103.7 KCMO Talk Radio
The Barn Players embraces diversity in all aspects of our organization. Non-traditional and equal-opportunity casting is encouraged.
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.
A grand Saturday to you all.
For all of my adventures in theatre, this one has always been the hardest to share. So you might want to go ahead and grab a hanky. . .Seriously. I’ll wait.
Doo de doo de doo doo doo de doo.
In “Chasing the Dream”, you learned how I got interested in theatre and pursued the dream for 4 long years before I finally managed to get cast in back to back shows. A change came over me during the run of The Mask of Moriarty. I had trouble getting out of bed in the morning. I was sad a lot and life just didn’t seem as rosy as it once did. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but I was experiencing the early symptoms of situational depression.
I had been considering going back to school for a master’s degree, but as the depression gained a greater hold, I had to put that plan on hold which only worsened my depression because I felt like a quitter and as my previous trilogy hopefully showed, “quit” is not a word in my vocabulary. I had hoped that theatre could be the key to shaking my blues, but I was wrong.
Oh, I was so, so wrong.
Due to the depression, I had lost all confidence in myself. And the small gains I had made in theatre crumbled to dust. I began to perceive myself as having a lot of shortcomings as a performer. And I began to overcompensate for these perceived shortcomings and rattled off a series of auditions so terrible, it probably made some people blush.
I hit rock bottom, acting-wise, with an audition for a show called Inspecting Carol at the Omaha Playhouse. This was, without question, the single, worst audition I ever had. In my early days, I would often attend both nights of the audition and would get called up to read at least once or twice a night, each night for the most part. This time around, I gave an audition that was so hideously awful that I only got to read once. I came back the second night and was neither asked to read nor did I volunteer to read because I saw the writing on the wall and realized I could not undo the damage of that wretched first read.
Eventually I had decided that my plan for a master’s degree was in the wrong field. I realized that my previous credits at Creighton had me not too far from a certification in HR, so I enrolled there instead. My confidence was still virtually non-existent, but I had always been an excellent scholar, so as I fell into my studies and realized that I could still do that, my depression started to lift a bit.
I even took a gamble and decided to audition at Creighton again. My first audition back was for a one act play called The Zoo Story by Edward Albee. This play is about a quiet man named Peter who goes to the park to read. While there he meets a man called Jerry who tells Peter the story about why he came to the zoo. As Jerry’s story continues, Peter learns that Jerry is a very dangerous lunatic. Jerry provokes a fight with Peter and gets stabbed in the struggle and all to prove his point that people are just like animals.
I really wanted to play Jerry, but ended up having an astounding read for Peter. This was the longest flash I had in an audition because I managed to get a grip on it and ride it through to the end of the audition. A friend of mine named Paul Thelen looked at me after my first read as Peter and said, “You have a real naturalness for that role”.
I ended up getting to the final grouping of people and ended up narrowly being edged out for the role of Peter. There was a direction that I didn’t take far enough and Paul thought if I had done so, I would have landed the part and I think he was right.
Still it was a tremendous boost in confidence. So much so that I auditioned for A View From the Bridge later that year at Creighton. I had a fairly solid showing, but had a memorable moment towards the end of the audition. Bill Hutson wanted to improvise a scene where immigration agents came to collect a couple of illegal immigrants (an important plot point in the play). I opted to go for a very no nonsense agent and when I came to collect the character, he jerked away from to hug his cousin good-bye. I pried him loose and snarled, “You can send her a letter.”
Immediately, I thought I had erred and that this comment was too comedic for the scene. But I was delighted to hear the opposite reaction from the other actors. They erupted into oohs and one person commented, “Wow! What cruelty.” A few days later I learned I had got into the play and I credit that moment for sealing the deal. And it was nice that I could end my time at Creighton with a sense of peace with the theatre department.
It was a good show and I met some good people and my depression lifted a little bit more. Then I went to the Playhouse to see a show in March of 2002 and I met a friend of mine who worked for the Playhouse’s professional touring wing, the Nebraska Theatre Caravan. I asked him if he knew any shows that would be produced next year and he mentioned several which I mentally filed and then my brain ground to a halt when he said, The Elephant Man.
For the first time in a long time, I saw a light at the end of the tunnel. The Elephant Man is my favorite film and play. I saw the play on TV when I was 9 and I was so struck by the strength of spirit of Joseph (John) Merrick that I learned all that I could about him and became an expert. For those who don’t know, Joseph Merrick (misnamed John by Dr. Frederick Treves who shared his story) suffered from an ultrarare genetic condition called Proteus Syndrome which not only caused tumors to grow all over and in his body, but savagely disfigured him as well. He made his living as a sideshow freak until Dr. Treves discovered him at a freak show and thought he would make a good subject for a paper. Treves discovered the man trapped within the hideous body and ended up giving him a better life. Despite the tragic life he had led, Merrick maintained a strong faith in God and was a witty, intelligent, artistic man who built a model of St John’s Church with his one good arm and almost entirely from his imagination. The church remains at a museum in London to this day.
I had long felt that I was born to play this part and knew if I could have the chance that I could really show how good of an actor I could be with this role. I rapidly completed my studies at Creighton and began to prepare for what I felt would be a momentous audition. My knowledge of the character already gave me some decided advantages as I knew Merrick’s story intimately and was well acquainted with his physicality from photographs I had studied in the past. Now I just needed to prepare the audition.
I even got an extra bit of good news when I learned that Kevin Lawler (of The Empty Plough audition) would be directing the show. I remember the good showing I had given him at the previous audition and admired his philosophy of him having enough faith in his directorial prowess to get the actor out of people. I believed I would head into this audition on absolutely equal footing with the other performers.
As I worked on my audition, I realized something wasn’t quite right so I asked my old friend, Kay McGuigan, if she would help me with my audition. She was more than happy to and with her help I discovered the big flaw. I made Merrick too angry. I let the injustice I felt at his treatment influence my performance and it was wrong. With Kay’s help, we spent 2 hours reworking and fixing my interpretation and when we were done I was ready to fly.
Then came the audition night. Never had I been so nervous for an audition. I brought a cane with me to help me feel more like Merrick and I wanted to be the first reader so I could set the bar to impossible heights. After I signed in, I noticed there were only monologues available so I knew it to be a one on one audition. However, the monologues were only for Dr. Treves and Ross, Merrick’s “owner”. Even though, he is the title character, Merrick has no lengthy monologues due to the difficulty he had talking because of his affliction. The first thought that sprung to mind was that all of my work had just gone up in smoke. But I took a deep breath and told myself that I could just ask Kevin if I could read for Merrick.
I spent a few minutes studying the monologue and was called over by the stage manager. Kevin was waiting and he took a look at me and said, “I think I remember this guy” before shaking my hand. Another shot of confidence because it meant he had remembered my audition from The Empty Plough from four years past. We went into the theatre and he complimented me on my cane and I explained why I had brought it and told him I was hoping I could show him my Merrick as well. He said that might be a possibility, but let’s see how I handled the monologue first.
I was reading a monologue of Treves where he confesses to Bishop Howe that he feels he has made Merrick a freak again, albeit a high class one. I attacked the monologue with a very earnest read, almost a sense of desperation. I saw Treves as trying to explain how he felt, but not quite knowing how to say it, and hoping that his earnestness would explain the situation. As I got about halfway through the monologue, Kevin stopped me and said, “I want you to try something. Grab a chair and have a seat. I want you to pretend that you’ve been in a bar drinking and are sharing this story. Don’t be so earnest, but more like, ‘This is bullshit and that’s bullshit and my life is a lie’. And I don’t want to see any anger.”
“HA!” I thought to myself. “Here’s where I make up for The Empty Plough.”
I redid the monologue with Kevin’s suggestions and it worked very well. The monologue was directed more towards myself and carried a lot more gravitas as a result. When I finished, Kevin said, “That was much better. Good changes.” Then he allowed me to read Merrick.
He helped me read a scene where Merrick has a final meeting with his former “owner” and declares his humanity. Immediately I fell into the role, transforming my body into Merrick, and proceeded to have what I still consider the absolute best read I have ever given. As I finished up a little paragraph from Merrick, I waited for Kevin to feed me the next line and heard nothing. I looked up at him and saw him staring at me, eyes shining. To this day I still wonder what he was thinking at that moment.
“Kevin?” I stated.
That snapped him out of his reverie and he said, “Well you’ve certainly been studying photographs. You’ve got a good grip on his infirmities.” Then he asked me if I had read the play and I said that I had and told him why I found the character so fascinating. You see, I was bullied a bit in my childhood which is why I connected so well with Merrick. He had it worse than I ever did and never lost his faith and stayed a good man and I’m proud to say that I’ve done the same. When I finished my explanation, Kevin said, “So you feel you have a strong connection with the character?” and I said, “Yes. I guess I do.”
Kevin had one more task for me. He wanted me to take a few minutes to study the monologue of Ross and then come back and read it. If it helped, he told me that Ross was a very oily individual. I went out, studied, came back and gave a decent accounting of myself. Right intention. Right attitude. But the delivery seemed slightly off target. Just slightly and in no way undid the other good work I had done. Kevin seemed pleased and said, “That was just what I wanted to see. Something completely different.”
I then asked Kevin what would happen next. He said he needed to cast the play by August 1 and if I didn’t hear anything by then, it would, unfortunately, mean that I hadn’t been cast. He thanked me for my time and clapped me on the back. As he did, I got a terrific chill. I suddenly had the odd sensation that I was not going to be cast. I chalked it up to nerves and left, fully confident, that I had a real chance.
For the next 3 weeks, I dove at the phone every time it rang, hoping that it would be the call. On July 31, I came home and found a letter waiting for me from the Playhouse. All the feeling drained from my body. I opened up the envelope, removed the card, and read the all too familiar words thanking me for my time, but I was not going to be cast in The Elephant Man. I went to my bedroom and buried my face in my hands.
I was struck numb. If I could have cried, I may have felt better, but I couldn’t even do that. I just felt nothing. “How?” I asked myself. And it rattled in my head like a mantra. This had been my very best audition. And it failed. What did that mean about every other audition I had done or might do?
I didn’t know what to do. There is an unwritten rule in theatre that says you never ask why you don’t get cast. And it’s a good rule. As I’ve stated in a previous blog, there are so many uncontrollable factors outside an actor’s control that dictate whether he or she gets cast. And I didn’t need to know why I didn’t get cast. I just needed to know that my audition meant something. I struggled with the decision for a few hours, but finally sat down and wrote Kevin an e-mail where I simply asked if I had been in the running and what he thought of the audition.
A month later, I got the following response:
Yes, you were in the running. I was moved by the preparation you had done. I also thought you had done some good work in your preparations, but it worried me that you had done so much work on it. I wasn’t quite sure where the breathing room would be. It was almost as if you had worked so hard that there might be little room for change or to begin from scratch even if that’s what was called for. What I was more concerned about seeing was how versatile an actor you were. Where your qualities lay in the cold readings. Having said all that, I must tell you that it was one of the most wonderful displays of heart and care that I have ever come across from an actor in an audition. I thank you for that.
I am sorry that it didn’t work out this time, but I think you should, and will, keep auditioning if you love theatre as much as it seems you do.
Many thanks, Chris,
What mixed feelings I had. I was deeply touched by the letter, but that was countered by the horror that the things I did to give myself the best possible chance destroyed my chances. Even worse was the knowledge I had that I had not worked as hard as Kevin had thought. Remember, most of my knowledge had been acquired over the years. And he didn’t know that I had reworked the entire audition the previous day and was quite directable. And never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would not have been cast at all.
This audition haunted me for a long time. And it wasn’t until a long time later that I saw the good that came out of it.
Most importantly, I believe God sent me the audition because preparing for it was what finally pulled me out of the depression I had been suffering from once and for all.
It was inspiring. Instead of telling myself that I never could do better, I vowed to get my auditions up to that level on a regular basis.
I did get close. Perhaps even the second choice.
Finally, Kevin made the right call. In the sense that if I couldn’t play Merrick, it was best not to be in the show at that stage in my life. Although I was free of the depression, my acting confidence was still incredibly low. And Daniel Dorner, who won the role, did a magnificent job and won every major acting award for it. Had I been cast and watched him work his magic, I would not be an actor today because I would have convinced myself that I could never have matched it and quit.
Nowadays I look back and I take great pride in what I did accomplish with that read. And there was much to be proud of.
NEXT TIME: The Awakening. Our hero’s sleeping powers finally awaken.