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Role-ing With the Punches

Rachel Manteuffel is an actor and writer living in Tysons Corner.
Rachel Manteuffel is an actor and writer living in Tysons Corner.
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By Rachel Manteuffel
Sunday, November 23, 2008

I am an unemployed actor. Here is a scene from my life.

The audition was for a play by a movement-based theater company. Its online ad said: "This piece addresses sexual contradiction in the media and political sphere. Seeking: Women of all ages, body types and ethnicities. Prepare 1-minute dramatic or dramatically comedic silent pantomime."

A woman with an age, a body type and an ethnicity! Perfect for me!

Okay, the "movement" thing is problematic. I am no dancer, though I performed as "the tall kid in the back" in a number of school musicals. I always had a solo, too, by virtue of being a step behind everyone else in the chorus. But my point is, this part was perfect for me, because it was a play and I am an actor and I wanted it.

I've been acting professionally in Washington for two years, and I have had what passes for raging success: nine gigs, five of which were paid, averaging, let's see, $77.20 per month. Now all I had to do was convince this company that they needed me in their show about politics and sexual contradiction.

So, what's interesting about me? I am tall for a woman and strong. I am rather ... hyperbolically curved: muscly enough to be menacing, delicate enough in the face and hands to be menaced. I have been cast as a pirate and a pixie. I am a sexual contradiction. True, I have no skills that will impress a panel of professional dancers. Physically, I am ... insecure. Any actor can tell you the solution to this: Use your insecurity. Milk it. Make it your text. It's a gift. It makes you real. I could let them see a part of myself I hate, and they will love me for it. (I'd done something like this before, in a college acting class. The assignment was to play myself in a private, revealing moment, so I got onstage and binge-ate a whole box of cookies and a quart of pudding in front of my new classmates. It took 10 minutes. They laughed. Uncomfortably, but they laughed. I could be that naked again!)

To show off all my gorgeous insecurity, I decided the audition routine would be about a woman too insecure to feel sexy. She will come out in tight exercise clothes and wiggle around like a belly dancer. Then she'll glance down, horrified at the sight of her jiggling belly fat (I, uh, have a little. Belly. Fat. It's a gift.) She'll drop to the floor and commence a frenzy of sit-ups until she regains her confidence.

Next, she will do a Charo-style, hootchy-kootchy butt-wiggle dance. I recently learned to do this from an authentic Puerto Rican. German hips look ridiculous attempting a Caribbean shimmy, so that's what I will do next, rotating in a circle so my auditors can see, as plainly as possible, the inevitable butt wobble. Eventually, looking backward, I will catch a glimpse of this and be so mortified that I'll drop to the floor again and do a series of double-time squat thrusts until exhausted. Then I will glance down again at my still-jiggly stomach and be filled with despair.

This is the key moment. I will need to make a discovery that changes the story. My finale, I decided, will be Mr. Rollo. Mr. Rollo is (deep breath) a face I make from my belly fat. I sort of moosh it together, making eyes with my fingers and a mouth from my navel, and he talks. Only one other person has ever met Mr. Rollo, and that was under extremely special circumstances. I bet the auditors have never seen anyone like him. Mr. Rollo is important because he will, in the moment, make me laugh. He turns despair to joy! Hooray for Mr. Rollo's stage debut! We will leave the audition triumphant. And it is a story, a narrative, a haunting disquisition about body image and sexuality and culture, pretty deep for 90 seconds. See, auditors? I humiliate myself for your amusement. Good luck finding someone with more pathos and less dignity. This show needs me. My routine thus choreographed, I called to schedule my audition appointment.

"What show?" the lady asked. I read her the ad. "Um, that was last year. Somebody must've forgotten to take the notice off the Web site."

WHAT?

It was true. The show had been cast, rehearsed, opened, reviewed and closed.

Well. No harm done, really, beyond the purely private savagery of my self-esteem.

You know, I bet I can use this desperation for another audition. Hey, here's one, for a play adapted from the film "Night of the Living Dead":

"Seven people trapped in an isolated farmhouse, held hostage by ravenous ghouls, begin to turn on each other as the dead encroach." It's perfect.

E-mail: XXFiles@washpost.com.


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