Here is faith: a casting call for a TV series. It draws all kinds. The young and the gray, the polished and the homely. A Babel of voices, reading lines like new prayers not yet memorized. To meet the multitudes -- among them the shy, the dry, the inflectionless -- is to wonder whether the quest for fame is a rite, an American kind of journey to Mecca.
Witness this fellow here, a 46-year-old retired cop who's been trying to break into acting. "Something's been nagging me to do it, so before I get much older I want to give it a shot," he says.
Two seats down is a retired firefighter. He's never acted before either, and never even wanted to. The difference is, he thinks Jesus may want him to audition.
"If the character I was able to portray would be able to lead someone to Christ, that's worth it," he says.
In the last two days of a national casting call for a Christian television drama inspired by the best-selling book series "Left Behind," secular ambition meets missionary zeal. More than 140 people come on Friday. They have traveled from Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Columbus and Boston. Because this is an open casting call, there are professionals who've never heard of "Left Behind," and amateurs who've read almost every book in the series, now numbering 10. Among the auditioners: a nondenominational born-again Christian, an "empowered evangelical," a Baptist. One person was saved at age 9, another at age 4.
"You can tell the people who it's a calling because they say, 'God bless you,' " says Betsy Royall, who heads the casting company holding the auditions yesterday and today. Royall saw raw talent yesterday morning -- a man with no acting experience, who wouldn't even look up from his script, but fairly glowed because he felt such passion for what he was saying. Naturally, he was a religious man. "He had it inside," she says.
On the other hand . . .
"It's a chance for me to get work," says part-time D.C. actor John Tweel, 33. "When you're starting out and you're hungry, you're willing to do just about anything."
But perhaps the thespians and the Christians are more alike than they are different. You can't miss that fervent quality that actors have, that hope, that insistent sense that this could be it. It's a principle of human nature: The more something costs, the more valuable it seems. Anyone who sacrifices a lot for a goal tends to elevate it into, well, into a religion, almost.
"I would say performing is my calling, is my passion," says Stephanie Sanbower, 22, a student and intern with Royall's company, who's also trying out.
"Yeah, I'm poor, I'm fighting with unemployment," says Dawn Douglas, 34, an actor and model from Baltimore who already tried out for this show once but wanted to give it another shot. "If you don't believe in yourself and believe that you can do it, then who is going to believe in you?"
We are all believers, in our own fashion.
Down the row is the retired firefighter, Bill Hall, who lives in Sykesville, was saved in 1975 and has read nine of the "Left Behind" books. Strangest thing. He just left his job of 30 years Jan. 1.
"The day before, I prayed to God to show me something I could possibly do, preferably something in the ministry," says Hall, 54. "And then the next day I heard about this on the radio. I don't know if it's something He's calling me to do or if it's folly . . . He'll reveal that later, I guess." He came without even telling his family.
The "Left Behind" books, by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, are based on the Book of Revelation in the Bible. According to the series, believers will be taken directly into Heaven in the Rapture, and others stick around on Earth for the chaos and destruction that is Tribulation. The Antichrist is the head of the U.N., who is doing nefarious things with all his power. The TV version -- which will be broadcast on a Christian station in Canada and sold on DVD and VHS tapes in the United States -- will focus on the inner workings of the Antichrist's administration.
Jessica Parker, a publicist for Ontario-based Cloud Ten Pictures, the company that is creating the series and has already made two movies based on the books, describes it like this: "It's almost like, let's put Satan in the 'West Wing.' "
Hall believes it will not be long before the events portrayed in the "Left Behind" books will come to pass.
"I really feel that we are in the last days," he says. "All the prophecies in the Bible have been fulfilled, up to the Rapture." Israel is a nation again, and he has heard that the Dome of the Rock is falling to make room for the Temple of Solomon. And the state of the world has been so degraded -- consider the profanity and sexual innuendo on television. All signs and portents.
Hall gets back to his script. Unlike the more experienced here, who have been looking at the script for weeks, he's seeing it for the first time today. He is very, very nervous. "I know I probably don't have a snowball's chance," he says.
By the door to the studio where the private auditions are being held, a line of people wait, numbers in their hands, reading lines to each other from the script.
"He thinks Nicolai is Satan, he's not gonna help him," Dawn Douglas reads aloud.
A nerve-wracked first-timer named Shirley Thomas goes into her audition, comes out, rolls her eyes and says, "Oh Jesus, have mercy!"
Douglas goes in, comes out and says, "I know I did well."
On her way out of the building, Douglas explains her love of acting like this: It is a learning experience, not only for the actor, who gets to know a character inside and out, but for the audience, who -- if the actor is good -- can empathize with someone who may be quite different from themselves. Consider "Schindler's List," Douglas says. Through that movie, people were able to understand those who went through the Holocaust.
"When you get drawn into a story, you live it," she says.
It is a way of understanding something you've never seen. Which is, not coincidentally, what faith is all about.
Auditions continue today. Details at www.cloudtenpictures.com.