For Her Part, Actress Plays Audition Odds
Sunday, July 3, 2005
I arrived at 4:50 a.m. That made me first in line, which was lucky because the day before, some guy had stayed all night. Soon, others were queuing up behind me outside the Round House Theatre in Bethesda in what resembled an employment line.
In a scruffy, faint-hope sense, it was. This was a line for a shot at an opportunity for an appointment to try out for a chance to apply to compete for a job of unknown nature at an uncertain time in a location yet to be determined, for negligible pay or none at all. If you are a young actor in Washington, this is as good as it gets. I was pumped.
For the last quarter century, for five days every summer, the League of Washington Theatres has held an open audition -- a cattle call for local actors. Eight hundred or so people get to shovel their head shots, résumés and 90-second monologues into the faces of auditors from a couple of casting agencies and 54 local theaters (more precisely, 53 local theaters and, for some reason, the Actors Theatre of Louisville). Your odds aren't great, but sometimes people get discovered and cast in meaty roles.
This was my first time. Like all of us in line, I was a standby, having seriously underestimated the resolve of others: I'd missed the first audition call by naively arriving at the advertised time instead of four hours early. By 5:30 on this day last month a few others had shown up. My two friends and I had brought lawn chairs, which became objects of envy. There wasn't much to talk about. We offered opinions about the modern sculpture in front of the Starbucks across the street. (Our best guess: A woman unchastely straddling the moon.)
Eventually, the Starbucks blinked awake, opening its doors and, happily, its bathroom. The birds began to sing. Sunlight found previously unknown facets of the modern artwork: The moon had strings. It was a harp. The woman's virtue was restored. The traffic lights came to life, abandoning their flashing-red sleep phase. Once that happens, it might as well be any time of day, and those of us in line started to feel like slightly normal people.
I grew up in Vienna, and first performed at the age of 9, overacting my way through the Ophelia-goes-mad scene at a kids' Shakespeare workshop. I would reprise this role with enormously greater maturity three years later, in sixth grade.
For some reason, madness has stalked my acting career. As a sophomore at the College of William and Mary last year, I played a Satan-worshiping inmate of a lunatic asylum in "Marat/Sade." While rehearsing that role on the streets of Colonial Williamsburg, I was nearly arrested as a drug-addled vagrant because I refused to break character to explain myself; the police officer finally, reluctantly, released me into the custody of friends after extracting a promise that they would bring me to the "campus infirmary."
My professional credits are singular. Literally. I have one. I played Cathleen, the Tyrone family's Irish maid, in a regional theater production of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night." Cathleen wasn't insane, but she did drink a little.
Still early morning. A sweet old lady stopped to ask us why we were there. "Wonderful!" she said. "I thought you might be protesters, that there was something wrong with the government." She walked away relieved.
The men in line stayed pretty quiet -- intense and focused. The women adjusted their eyeliner and fluffed each other's hair, and talked about stupid, asinine gigs we'd give our eyeteeth to get: impersonating a star of "Sex and the City" at a private party, reenacting Civil War dramas for the entertainment of geeks, etc. We all eyed the door. At 9, it opened.
Auditions, everyone acknowledges, are a ludicrously inadequate way of measuring the alchemy of talent, intelligence and resourcefulness that make an actor right for a part. Acting is all about response to stimulus, but an audition monologue is without stimulus. No props. No prompts. You're begging for your life when no one is holding the gun to your head. You confess your love for your platonic friend, who is not there to back away in repulsion.
Add this: Acting itself runs counter to human instinct. If we are full of anxiety -- if we are exposed completely, standing in bright light with no place to hide, if we cannot see those who sit in darkness and judgment, if we aren't entirely sure there isn't a tiger stalking us from the darkness -- our thoughts ordinarily give us the best self-preservation options: fight or flee. At no point did evolution shape us to surrender ourselves to the danger. Try telling your self-preservation instincts to let the tiger have at you, that the only way to get the job is to let yourself be mauled.