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.
Well, I’ll be dipped, I actually have another theatre tale for you.
As you may remember, I finally got my theatre mojo back after it being in abeyance for quite a while. Of course, in true comedic fashion, the universe decided to answer my renewed mojo by either not having plays with suitable roles for me or the double whammy of having the rear end of my car redesigned by a truck and the conflict of my annual Christmas B & B review interfering with shows that did.
Then fate finally tossed me a bone.
Last year, BlueBarn Theatre began a new series called Musing which is a storytelling series where people (not necessarily actors) tell a true story based on the theme of the night. The series has been wildly successful with routine full houses. Now I’ve lived a story or two, but I knew this one would be dynamite for the show once the proper theme night was available.
In August, Musing announced that two sessions would be held during the 2022-2023 season and the theme for both would be Storyteller’s Choice.
I contacted Seth Fox, Musing’s curator, and sent him the link to Devastation for a pitch. In less than an hour, I had a reply from him saying that he loved the story and that he had a spot open in the October session and offered it to me. I accepted without batting an eye.
While not a role, it was my first performance in a very long time and I was glad that I’d be sharing the tale of my audition for The Elephant Man. For starters, we had just passed the 20th anniversary of that audition so it seemed a bit of poetic justice to commemorate it in some way. But more importantly, it was the most honest and dramatic work I could present.
I’ve had a pretty good body of work, but, in my regular acting days, I got typed/perceived/what have you as a light-hearted actor. Don’t get me wrong. I love doing comedy and bits and I enjoy watching them. But my first love in theatre has always been dramas and my dramatic moments on the stage have been few and far between.
So if Musing was going to begin a regular return to the stage, it was important to me to be able to present myself in a new light so that those who knew me would see me differently and to introduce myself to those who only know me as the writer in the boldest way possible.
So I went about cutting my story down to the 10-12 minutes I would need for Musing and began to polish it up. I started performing it simply so I could get a feel for the words. Then I started preparing it the way I knew best: as an actor. I added the emotion and interpretation and began shaping it into a performance piece.
Now the preparation for Musing was closer to reader’s theatre. Seth and I met twice virtually to work on my story and then we had 2 full group rehearsals before the performance.
Our first group meeting was at Sozo’s Coffeehouse where Seth had rented a study room and we presented our stories publicly (more or less) for the first time.
Other storytellers were Ralph Kellogg who had a moving and brutally honest story of how he dealt with a most unwelcome houseguest; Teresa Conway had the funniest story of the group with how she took an advanced ballet class with a group of kids; local beat poet, Fernando Antonio Montejano, kept eyes pinned to him with his well spokentale about returning to his hometown for the funeral of his sister, Bianca; and Sara Strattan closed things with the sweet, but sad, tale about her relationship with her husband who had died from cancer.
All of them did a wonderful job with only minor changes needed. I just loved their honesty and their sincerity and it just reached out and grabbed you.
Then there was me.
No, no, I’m not about to beat myself up. But I presented the story through the lens of an actor. And, as a performance piece, it wasn’t too shabby. But it was the wrong take.
I remember my late friend, Kay McGuigan, once saying my acting style reminded her of Val Kilmer due to its intensity. I never really understood that until after I did this piece, but I finally got it. I do put serious oomph into my performances which makes for good acting. But acting was not what was needed here.
Seth told me to take Kevin’s advice of not being so earnest and to tell the story as if I were telling it to friends over coffee. With those words and the vision of the works of the others flashing through my mind, my path lit up clear as day.
There was no need to enhance the emotion of the story. It was there, naturally. I didn’t need to perform the story, I just simply needed to tell it.
I literally got into my car and did the story again, but removed the theatre from it. And I knew I had something magical. I chuckled at the way life seemed to be repeating itself. Back in 2002, Kay had helped me get Merrick on the correct course. Now with Seth’s mentoring, a story about Merrick was now set on the proper course.
Each time I practiced my piece from thenceforth, I could feel the momentum building and I was ready for the dress rehearsal on Monday.
On Monday, it was a completely different ballgame. I felt the power of the simple delivery and when I wrapped up, I knew I had struck pay dirt with the entranced looks and thumbs up coming from my fellow readers. Seth’s compliment of, “That was some great fine tuning” left me with a profound feeling of satisfaction.
Then came the real deal.
The one downside to the whole process was how little bonding time I had with these people. Still we did have a sense of camaraderie as we all shared the same vision of blowing the socks off the audience with our tales. We did enjoy a little fun time as Sara and Teresa battled Ralph and myself in the game, I Should Have Known That. (We lost).
Then it was time to go to work. Seth had changed the lineup. Originally, I was to be the fourth reader, but ended up swapping places with Fernando to become the third reader and the flow made perfect sense. Most of our stories were heart tuggers, but there was definitely a different energy and feel to each. Ralph’s tale was a hard hitting intro that segued into Teresa’s lighthearted fare. I became the bridge from Teresa to Fernando as my piece was certainly sad, but ends on a positive note. From there Fernando broke the hearts of the audience while Sara certainly had the audience sobbing, but its sweetness helped to buoy them.
For my own work, I was extremely pleased. I don’t normally take much stock in my own voice, but this time it was like a part of me disengaged and I heard myself telling the story as I was telling the story and I thought, “Dang, this is gripping.” It was the storytelling equivalent of forgetting I was acting which is the peak that an actor can hit. I had forgotten I was telling the story. I was that lost in it.
All too soon, it seemed like the show had come to an end. We took our final bows in front of a standing ovation, mingled with the audience, took a group photo, and went our separate ways.
My only regret of the night is that we couldn’t do it a few more times, but I was glad for the brief time and truly enjoyed my return to the stage.
The good news for those you reading this who now wish they could have seen it, you will get your wish. The show was recorded and I shall be posting the link to the Corner once the show is posted.
Until the next time.
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.
Friday, July 29: the day the road took me to my most poignant place.
On this sunny day I began a journey nearly 14 years in the making. For it was on this day that I headed to Bonner Springs, KS to be a guest at Back in Thyme Bed and Breakfast and to review The Elephant Man for The Barn Players of Mission, KS.
If you’re a first time visitor to this website, The Elephant Man is my favorite play and it played a rather profound moment in my life. For the full details of that story, click here. I had long made my peace with the events of that day which is why I was so excited to finally have an opportunity to see the show and come fullish circle. The timing couldn’t be more appropriate as this article will be posted on the 14th anniversary that I heard the results of that audition.
Bonner Springs is a suburb of Kansas City so it provides a unique blend of small town living with the perks of a nearby major metropolitan area for things to do. Back in Thyme, owned and operated by Judy Vickers, is a beautiful “new-old” Queen Anne house nestled on a secluded acreage near Nettleton Avenue.
Given the size of the house I was surprised that it only boasted 3 bedrooms for rental. On the other hand, the limited number of rooms does make it ideal for peace and quiet. As I climbed the porch steps, I met Brantley and Ashley, fellow guests who were in the area to see a Rascal Flatts concert. As I reached the top step, I was greeted by Judy, a very hospitable host and a fount of knowledge on fun things to do in the area.
Judy led me to the Bay Laurel Room which would serve as my base of operations. It’s one of the most comfortable rooms in which I’ve stayed with its soft armchairs, burgundy walls, feather pillows, and a queen bed with a firm mattress. The room also boasts a fireplace and I mildly wished it were colder so I could get a crackling blaze going.
I unwound in my room for a while before sprucing up for the show and enjoying a 6pm appetizer with Judy and a couple of her friends. I ended up in a great conversation with Fred, a rather intelligent man who is currently writing three books. I enjoyed a pleasant hour conversing with Fred as we nibbled on cheese, olives, crackers, and baba ganoush.
When Fred noticed traffic starting to back up on the highway, I decided to head over to the Barn Players. Once more, Mapquest tried to put one over on me by telling me to make a right turn on a street when it should have been a left. Shades of Richardson, TX flashed through my brain as I got my bearings and got back on the right track. Luckily, I made it to the theatre with about 7 minutes to spare.
The Barn Players is a bit of an institution in Mission and has quite an impressive reputation. Many of its alumni have gone on to professional acting careers, most notably Chris Cooper. The show was almost everything that I hoped it would be. A few flaws kept it out of the excellent region, but it was still very good and thoroughly enjoyable. You can read my review for the show here.
I returned to Back in Thyme where I wrote my review and curled up in my bed for a good night’s rest.
After a comfy night’s sleep, I awoke ravenous. I headed downstairs and enjoyed chit-chat with Brantley and Ashley as we dined on Judy’s wonderful scrambled eggs cooked in thyme butter, crispy bacon, French toast, and fried apples.
Having restored the inner man, I went upstairs to do a little work on the computer before deciding to take advantage of the pleasant day and walk along some trails I found behind the house. Normally I like communing with nature, but I got a faceful of nature in the most literal sense as I stumbled through myriad spider webs as I wandered through the woods. I escaped from the woods yanking webbing off of my face and hair.
Judy had suggested several areas of interest, some of which I will save for a future visit to the K.C. area, but I did take time to visit Bonner Springs’ famed Moon Marble Company.
As the name implies, the store is famed for its marbles and even gives demonstrations into a making of marbles, but the store is so much more than that. The store also specializes in board games, puzzles, and classic toys. I was amazed at all of the hard to find toys and games located in the shop. Duncan Yo-yos, rare board games, Jacob’s ladders, Fisher-Price toys that I remembered from my childhood. If you like vintage toys and games, take some time to visit Moon Marble Company if you find yourselves in Bonner Springs.
After I drove around the downtown area, I returned to the inn where I killed a few hours watching a mystery series before cleaning up for church and dinner.
I attended services at Good Shepherd Catholic Community in Shawnee, KS where I enjoyed a wonderful service preached by Fr. Oswaldo. When services were done, I headed over to Hereford House for dinner.
Hereford House is a Kansas City institution and this was one of the tastiest meals I have ever eaten. I indulged in a small salad with creamy Italian dressing before supping on the main course of a 12 oz ribeye blackened with garlic butter and a side of Cheddar Ranch potatoes and a bit of bread. Most of my dinner came back with me where it currently rests in the inn’s guest fridge for a future meal.
I spent the remainder of the evening working on this article before turning in for the night.
I awoke to a rather gloomy day and am expecting some rain on the drive home. I spent a bit of time editing this article and then went downstairs for another rousing breakfast.
At the table, I met Courtney and Ashley from Olathe, KS who had just come in from having coffee on the porch and we chatted while Judy served us a sumptuous meal of sausage, green chile egg casserole with salsa (now one of my favorite dishes), zucchini muffins, and cantaloupe. The pleasant meal and talk was over much too quickly and I began to pack up for the drive home.
So if you find yourself in the Kansas City area, spend an evening at Back in Thyme in Bonner Springs. You’ll find some good (and healthy) home cooking on a peaceful estate with plenty to do nearby.
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.
Biloxi Blues still ranks as one of the greatest experiences of my theatrical life. Just like my very first show, I had an incredible cast that all liked each other and all egos were checked at the door. Susan had the most amazing directing style I had ever seen. It’s so subtle that you don’t always know that you’re being directed, but then. . .BOOM! You’re right where she needed you to be.
I looked forward to rehearsal each and every night and when opening night rolled around, all of us were just white hot and ready to tear it up. We were so skilled, that we could have swapped roles around amongst our group and our show would have been just as strong, I kid you not.
Biloxi Blues was considered one of the top shows of the season and the reviews were glowing. One paper called our cast “the next vanguard of theatre”. I garnered a tremendous amount of praise both in the papers and within the theatre community and I was riding Cloud 9. Thanks to Susan’s direction, my game had been advanced to a whole new level and I was finally able to win over the 2 artistic heads of the Playhouse (Carl Beck & Susie Baer-Collins). Susie gave me a big hug after she saw the show and told me I had been absolutely wonderful. That show accomplished for me with those two what might have taken 20 auditions apiece ordinarily.
At the Playhouse Awards that year, Biloxi Blues won every actor award on the non-musical side of things. The show would go on to garner a Best Show nomination at that year’s Theatre Arts Guild Awards as well as another in the inaugural Omaha Entertainment Arts Awards Show. And then Hamlet got nominated for Best Show in the OEAs as well. So I had been in two highly regarded shows in the same season and I had helped them gain that acclaim. All of my trials, perseverance, work, and hope were finally paying dividends and, man, did it feel good.
During the run of Biloxi Blues, I even found time to gain a feeling of redemption from The Elephant Man. Kevin Lawler was returning to town to guest direct a one man show for SNAP Productions called I Am My Own Wife. This appealed to me on several levels. Not only would a one man show really allow me a chance to test my ever increasing abilities, but it felt like a way I could close the book on The Elephant Man.
Despite the crushing blow I received from that audition, I never bore a grudge or any anger towards Kevin. I understood that he did what he felt was right for the show based on what he saw and thought at the time and I respected that. By just showing up for this audition, it felt like I would be saying, “Everything is fine between us.”
I ended up using a monologue from a one man musical called Cotton Patch Gospel and. . .What’s that? You’ve never heard of Cotton Patch Gospel?
Well, I can’t say that I’m surprised. The show was a big hit when it was released in 1982, but has fallen into obscurity over time. It’s the story of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew told southern style. It’s one of my favorite plays and I often use it when I need to perform a monologue as most directors will not be aware of the show.
Due to having to perform in Biloxi Blues that afternoon, I signed up to be the first person to audition. And I was quite nervous. Kevin came out of the performing area, said hello, and we shook hands. And I thought everything would be cool after that.
I walked into the theatre and did a double take at the set which was decked out like a Catholic Church for their production of Defending Marriage. Kevin asked me about my acting work since the last time we met and I had told him I had done 11 more shows and was currently working on Biloxi Blues. He asked me what I thought about working with Susan and I sang her praises.
Then he asked me to do my monologue and I nailed it exactly the way that I wanted to hit it. When I finished, Kevin said, “That was really good, Chris. I can really see the growth you’ve made, even from The Elephant Man which I think was the last time you auditioned for me. It’s obvious you’ve been doing a lot more of this. That was such an interesting piece. Where the hell did you find it?”
And I told him the story of how the show had been produced when I was in high school and it had always stayed with me and I found a copy of the original production and bought it.
Kevin then asked me if I could do the monologue again, but do it as if I were really bored. I thought for a moment, then did a sleepy take on the passage. Kevin stopped me and said I was doing it, but on a scale of 1-10, I was at a 4 and he needed me at an 8. I tried again and really slathered on the boredom. I’m not sure if I was at an 8, but I think a 6.5 might be accurate.
Then he asked me to do it again as a fire and brimstone preacher. I thought back to televangelists I had seen and did my best to emulate them, feeling I had done a respectable job. Partway through the read, Kevin stopped me and asked me to try my strongest Southern accent. Fortunately, I’ve got a pretty good ear for accents and had a fairly decent Southern preacher going. When I finished, Kevin thanked me for my time and said I would hear something either way.
It took five weeks, but I was finally called and informed that another actor had won the role. But I had gained peace of mind. And I must have made it down to the final cut if it took that long to finally be rejected.
But even that wasn’t the end of the saga of The Elephant Man. The true end actually came two years later when I bumped into Kevin at the inaugural Mid-Plains Theatre Conference. We chatted a bit and then he floored me when he said:
“You know you had a really wonderful audition for The Elephant Man. It was amazing to see an actor come in with that type of heart and passion. I’m really sorry I couldn’t cast you.”
That’s when I closed the book because I knew that the audition had meant something if he still remembered it so vividly after six years. And that is why I suspect I really might have been the runner-up for the role.
Still riding high from my banner year in theatre, I started off the 2006-07 season with an audition for The Talented Mr. Ripley for Susie Baer-Collins at the Playhouse. My string of really good auditions stayed intact as I had another solid showing. I managed to differentiate my Ripley from other actors by emphasizing his ability to think on his feet and not backpedaling whenever caught in a lie. I would just cover the lie with another lie.
When the audition ended, Susie told me I had given an excellent audition and I earned another callback. That was exciting enough, but when Susie told me she was considering me for the role of Tom Ripley, my jaw hit the floor. The title role. That’s when I knew I had come a really long way.
Eight of us were called back for the show and seven of us could have easily played any of the roles. I ended up coming up on the short end of the stick, but got a novella of a rejection from Susie who praised my audition to the heavens.
Change was definitely in the air.