Iarrived 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, resumes 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.
You can be sure of only two things at your audition: the head shot and resume. These you can prepare well in advance, although you will not notice the typos until the moment you're handing them over.
Audition advice books are full of resume and head-shot hints that you have not followed. The more pre-audition time you spend with your photo and resume, the more you begin to hate them and everything they say about you. The big issue for beginning actors like me is the unbearable whiteness of the resume. Thankfully, there is the "special skills" section, for facets of your talent such as an ability to imitate a pelican very well (this is, for real, on my resume) and to burp on command (this should be). Your head shot cost as little as possible, and is from three hair colors ago. As for the name printed in large bold type -- why don't you have a stage name? Your name is long and weird and, from a historical standpoint, is associated most prominently with one of Hitler's generals.
Hitler. Maybe that'll make them remember you.
By 10 a.m., three of us had wormed into the 11:30 time slot. So, as the audition manager recommended, we went off to discover Bethesda.
At a nearby park, we found three gazebos with good acoustics and commandeered them, one apiece. Mothers positioned themselves between us and their strollers, watching uncertainly as we did unnerving things. My warm-up consists of releasing my belly and neck, increasing head resonance, reciting my monologue, doing tongue twisters and doing spine rolls. I expanded my circle of awareness. I made this noise: huh-hummmmmmmmmmaaaaaaah. On the way back to the theater, we earned more respect from the citizenry: We were the ones barreling down the sidewalk, chanting "aluminum linoleum."
A man whose name tag said "Mama Duck" led us underground to the area labeled "Actor Holding." We loved Mama Duck, because he told us what to do in clear, idiot-proof detail. Apparently, he is accustomed to dealing with extremely nervous people. He spent two minutes describing the process of getting from the wings to the stage, a matter of 10 feet and four steps. "It's easier than it sounds," he assured us. No one, he said comfortingly, has yet "tested the gravitational constant."
There were fat people waiting to perform, and skinny people, and attractive people, and hideous-looking people, and people in their teens, and people in their seventies. There were first-timers, like me, and people who've probably been doing this since the league auditions began, during the Carter administration.
Actors are overly dramatic people (we might, for example, compare perfectly ordinary, safe events to being mauled by a tiger) who are trained to believe that their every emotion is useful. Yes, panic can plant its foot in our faces. But we can also use the panic, the exhaustion, the self-consciousness. We can let these things coalesce into a weary sense of calm and logic. We can observe, as our time to audition draws near, that it is unfair to explain what we do in terms of a tiger and death.
When it's your turn, you are clear-eyed enough to know you will not be mauled. At the very, very worst, you will be humiliated to a degree that will haunt your dreams for the remainder of your days on Earth, extinguishing all creative impulse, consigning you to a prosaic life of unfulfilled dreams culminating in a death that will come as a mercy. But you won't be physically torn apart.
The league auditors were extraordinarily polite. The house lights were on, so I could see them (there were about 50). They were not eating, or talking on cell phones, or sleeping, or chatting, or obviously bored. Come to think of it, they have more at stake. I would take pretty much any job any of them might offer, but they are looking for the one most right person for each part. If and when I fail to get a part, I can stop thinking about it, and I have a bevy of explanations besides lack of talent that I can choose to believe is the reason. But a caster who fails is stuck with his choice.
Acting is all about making choices. My choices to get up obscenely early, to memorize a wretched monologue, to act under my birth name, all placed me in the position to walk the treacherous, carefully explained distance from the wings to the stage and smile as I told them who I am and who I will pretend to be. I looked at my feet for strength, and shifted my weight, and began. Two sentences in, an auditor tittered, and the self-analysis part of my brain shut up.
The monologue I chose is from Tom Stoppard's "The Real Thing." Annie is explaining to her older husband why she had an affair with a callow young man. Much as her husband might want her to, Annie will not dismiss it as a meaningless fling: "You weren't replaced, or even replaceable. But I liked it, being older for once, in charge, my pupil. . . . I'm sorry I hurt you. But I meant it."
The role is wrong for me. A stupid mistake. Annie is 35, and British -- I can't pull that off. I'm cheating. But so is she. By God, we are as one, Annie and I.
There are plenty of audition advice books, and none is as useful as auditioning itself, over and over, until the whole process, like a monologue, is clutched in your subconscious. But nothing can really prevent you from doing stupid things with your hands. The stupid things I always want to do with my hands are grabbing fistfuls of my clothing ("the toddler") and the repetitive whipping about of my lower arms, for emphasis ("the sea lion"). Auditors and audiences dislike these maneuvers. I strongly advise against using monologues of toddler and sea lion characters, no matter what pathos you are able to infuse.
I have no idea if I managed to avoid these pitfalls. Inhabiting an audition makes it incredibly difficult to be aware of your own vocal resonance, the crispness of your consonants, whether or not you upwardly inflect your penultimate phrase the way you decided, in the gazebo, would be so much more poignant, or what your hands are doing. When you finish and say "Thank you," you are not yet in control enough to project the poise of Rachel rather than the defiant bewilderment of Annie. You are certain you said "Thank you" with defiant bewilderment, whatever that is. But maybe that's good.
Afterward, my two audition buddies and I ripped ourselves apart. We had messed up the words -- we were pretty sure we had seen the realization that we messed up the words ripple through the audience like a shock wave. We were too sedate. Oh, God, you guys, what if I mumbled? Oh, God.
As we exited the theater and hit the sunny streets of Bethesda wearing too much eye makeup, we couldn't believe we'd worked so hard at the not-so-important parts, and let ourselves completely blow -- yes, we had now decided, we completely blew -- the important part. I was bemoaning the utter lack of feedback I felt when I suddenly recalled the aftermath of the bewildered seconds at the very end. Right after I said "Thank you," there was a murmur. A distinct murmur from the auditors.
Well, what could the murmur mean?
"She is clearly completely bewildered and lacks the poise and grace to smile at us."
Or it could mean nothing. Merely, "Another audition over."
Or, "Another resume for the woodchipper."
Or it could have been "That's the one."
Or it could have a phantom sound, entirely in my own head, the rush of anxiety returning.
Or it could have been "That's the one."
Rachel Manteuffel is a senior at the College William and Mary. She's still waiting for callbacks.