"Let me hasten to say we will not allow you to finish, no way," said a small man from the front on the room, one Phil Padgett, a talent scout for Opryland U.S.A. "But we're not stopping you because we hate what you're doing. It's just that we've heard enough."
Opportunity was about to knock - but for less than two minutes - for about 120 aspiring singers and dancers and musicians assembled yesterday in a rehearsal room at the Kennedy Center, auditioning for the summer season at Opryland U.S.A. an entertainment park near Nashville owned by the same company as the Grand Ole Opry.
Most of those in the room were in their teens and early 20s but there was also a red-haired woman dressed in black who played piano and sang. "I've waited 20 years to audition for the Grand Ole Opry," she said, and this seemed close enough to suit her.
Some of Washington's hopefuls looked nervours. A couple of them were wringing their hands. One young man and woman hung onto each other, overcome either by love or fright. It was also hard to tell if some of the faces were flushed from anxiety or the oppressive heat in the room.
Five names were called at a time: a high-school banjo picker: a young woman to sing "Send in the Clowns" a dancer; a trumpet player; a soprano Padgett, seated at a table and flanked by other Opryland scouts, will see about 7,000 applicants during the company's two-month audition tour; 350 entertainers and technicians will be selected.
Maybe once a year, Padgett says, he sees a performer who truly impresses him.
"Last year there was this little girl in New York. She had personality, pizazzz. Two years ago, a girl from Pennsylvania came in the tapped herself silly. For most people, it's the first time they've auditioned, and they're not ready to be used. You don't want to destroy them. You know a germ may be there, it might grow to something very nice. It's just that their voice is not mature enough, the confidence isn't there.
"After about 16 bars, we know if we are going to use them or not."
Most of the time Padgett sat impassively, flanked by equally impassive looking colleagues, as if he had seen it all. He said he has, just about.
"Your rarely if ever see anything new. Very rarely are you scared to death by something, shocked. It's mentally fatiguing. You just pray for somebody to come in. If we get two people from a city it's been worthwhile coming."
Occasionally, Padgett will smile, sing along, call someone over, tell the person to come back later in the afternoon - the sought-after "call back" - or to step into the hallway for an interview. Others simply pick up their belongings and leave.
"I couldn't have done too much more because of the nervousness," said a banjo player. "I was shaky."
"I had a cold and sore throat," said a young woman singer. "This is how not to audition. At least I can say I was at the Kennedy Center."
"I'm going home and burn my music," said a man, whose difficult time was concluded with sympathetic applause.
Cindy Strike ("As in farmers," she says), who works in Utah Sen. Jake Garn's office, is one of about a dozen to get called back. She signs "Nothing," "Tomorrow" and "Far From the Home I Love," with a pencil on her ear, looking confident. She's done auditions at Wolf Trap, but "I feel more sure of myself doing this than Verdi's 'Rigoletto'" She came to Washington to attend graduate school but quit, realizing international relations wasn't her interest. "The whole time it's just been music," she said.
Tom Martin, 27, who had flown in from Boston because he missed the audition there, played piano and sang. He wore a three-piece suit and offered good credentials: part-time instructor at Berklee College of Music and four summers of work in New Hampshire. He wanted to be an orchestra leader.
But when he finished playing - "I choked," he said modestly. "I couldn't play the music I've been practicing - and walked from the room, presumably bound for Boston, Padgett exchanged glances with an associate, Lloyd Wells, the musical director, a tall man dressed in jeans and a jean vest and boots and looking very much a part of Nashville. And there was this moment of hesitation, drama. Would they chase after Martin?
Wells did. With long strides, he caught Martin at the elevator. They talked. Bob Whitaker, the entertainement director, talked with Martin. Somebody else talked with him. At the water fountain, Martin said, "I looked at this trip like this - a gamble. Like going to Vegas, and we won't find out if it comes up all cherries till March 14," when the selections will be made. "At least we're still talking."