07 February 2009

Bus Rides and Show Business


The Very Nearly Perfect Comedy of Romeo & Juliet has its official opening tonight, after three successful preview performances. There's an awful lot I have to write about that process and its outcome, and I will, but for the moment I'll be a bit coy about it in order to clear up another mystery. I've been writing here ever-so-occasionally, and both of my past two entries hinted at some audition process in which I was ensnared, one about which I didn't want to write too much for fear of jinxing it. Well, yesterday I had my callback for the thing, and my impression is that all that's left is for a decision to be made by the powers that be, which frees me to reflect on the work a bit and draw what conclusions I will.

There is a show opening at Manhattan Theatre Club called Humor Abuse -- a one-man show about and starring Lorenzo Pisoni, a performer who grew up in The Pickle Family Circus. It concerns his relationship with his father, predominantly, and incorporates all sorts of interesting performance sources, such as clowning, commedia dell'arte, acrobatics and even martial arts. They have had, as you might imagine, had some small difficulties in finding an appropriate understudy for Mr. Pisoni, whose star is very much on the rise and will likely miss a performance or two for other obligations.

So a couple of weeks ago (when R&J was yet an embryo of a show) I received an email from a casting director inquiring as to my interest in auditioning. I replied immediately, grateful that I got to check my email that day. MTC is one of my favorite theatre groups and it would be huge to even be seen by them, not to mention I felt I was well-equipped to the demands of the show . . . as I then understood them. Forces seemed to be aligning to my favor, too. A circus friend also got contacted by the casting director, looking for men who fit the bill, and she thought first of me. An old director had some small connections with both Lorenzo and the director, Erica Schmidt. At first I thought I had to learn a new, difficult acrobatic move for the show -- a "108" -- only to discover it was a common pratfall that I already did as part of one of my clown routines, one of the first I ever learned. So, on January 29, I rented a car and drove to New York for my audition.

I was nervous enough, but it was one of the best auditions I've had in a long while. It was just me and three other people, casting directors and representatives of MTC. They had me prepare a side from the show, which I over-built with quasi-clown elements, imagining that the style would be used in such a show. They gave me an adjustment that amounted to, "Um, yeah: Stop that. Just tell us the story." Which I did, no problem. Then they had me perform a bit of my clowning, and I did a segment of trying to "escape" my hat, which I had previously utilized both for Friend Melissa's Blueprints and my solo (theatrical) clown debut. It went beautifully; so much so, in fact, that it helped crystallize what I was trying to do as a clown Romeo. I felt great about the audition, but also came to realize I didn't have about half the skills under my belt that they were looking for. I am not a juggler, per se, and have not mastered face-balancing nor a standing back-tuck. I managed not to cut myself off at the knees in interview, but let them know these short-comings, as well as the fact that my final R&J performances conflicting with the first four days of the contract. They assured me I'd hear something soon from them. I drove back to Scranton, just a half-hour late for that evening's rehearsal.

After about five days or so, I had persuaded myself to give up hope for it. All actors do this, I'm sure. It's like waiting to hear from someone you've given your number to. It's a grieving process, really, though a bit preemptive. I was on my way to a rehearsal when I got the call from the casting director -- could I make a callback for Lorenzo and the director on Friday, the 6th, at 4:00? I told her it would be almost impossible to get back to Scranton in time for the 8:00 show, and asked if it could be even a half-hour earlier, and she said she'd check with them and call me back. I gave my phone to the company manager as I began an Italian run of the show. At a break, when we'd hit our intermission, I checked in with the company manager, who told me she had called back and they could go no earlier. I conferred with my director, and we convinced ourselves that it could be worked out, so I called back and confirmed, reminding her that I would have to be in and out.

And so, yesterday, I caught the 7:20 bus to New York. The theory was that a bus would be able to circumnavigate rush-hour better than I. If I could catch the 4:30, I was supposed to pull into Scranton close to 7:00. I'd miss fight call, but be there in plenty of time to prepare for curtain. The next bus was for 5:05, getting in at 7:45, which was too close for my tastes and tempted worse the gods of rush hour. I pulled into New York at 10:00, and walked to MTC to plan my best route of escape. I found a parking lot that cut through the block between 43rd and 42nd, and mapped out the twists and turns to get me to gate 25 in Port Authority. Thus prepared, all that remained was to re-read the play, which I did over coffee in a cafe in NYU-land before meeting Wife Megan for lunch at Two-Boots. Thence it was to Knickerbocker to catch up with Friend Geoff and Sister Virginia for a couple of hours. Then, to MTC's studios.

I signed in and started my warm-up. The casting director came out and told me she was about gathering folks to get me started on time. Another actor from the day I auditioned was there, as well as a fellow who I took to have auditioned that day that they were asking to stay for the callback session. In their lobby I stretched and balanced. I was terrified, of course, stressed for the time and convinced they would see my juggling and cut me immediately. I tried to psyche myself up and out, reminding myself over and over that I knew what I knew and couldn't magically be someone else. The important thing was to be loose and inviting, at joy in my work. I looked at my watch, which I normally remove for auditions. 4:05. %$#*!

Finally, shortly after watching Lorenzo and Erica enter the studio, I was invited in. My audience was comprised of them, the casting director and the MTC rep. I dropped my hat and backpack on the floor and twirled the cane I brought as I asked them what they'd like first -- my thought being that I could save time by demonstrating skills in between other demonstrations. They asked for the side first, which I provided in the more subdued style, though choosing to make eye contact -- a choice usually inadvisable in auditions (one generally speaks to a point somewhere above the auditioner's heads to avoid making them self-conscious), but given the material I thought it best to be open and engaging in that way. That done, they asked for my clown excerpt, which I performed much as before. It did not go over nearly as well, sadly. It's tempting to blame your audience for this, but the fact is probably that I rushed it, and put too much emphasis on tricks and not enough on connection. It was over quickly enough, however, and I had shown them my "108" on a linoleum-and-concrete floor, so there could be little doubt as to my ability to perform acrobatics safely.

After that, they interviewed me a bit, and asked about my schedule conflicts and the skills. They seemed pleasantly surprised when I replied that I felt confident that I could train up to doing a standing back-tuck. They asked about staff work, and I twirled the cane again and cited my stage combat and (limited) martial arts experience. Then: juggling. I told them honestly that the longer I was asked to do it, the worse it got, and referred to a line from the show about how you either juggle, or you drop, and don't. Lorenzo responded to that, which was gratifying, as he was mostly quiet through the process. They didn't make me juggle, and I owe some sacrifice to some clown god. Then the conversation turned to my need to depart in a hurry, and I commented that it was odd how this audition came up when I was working on a show that involved so many related aspects. They asked about it, and seemed quite interested in our regional R&J and its concept. I glance at my watch discretely: just time enough at a jog. They asked who I was playing, and told them, and Erica Schmidt -- Erica Schmidt -- asked me if I could do the balcony monologue for them.

Ah. Well, yes. Of course. Of course. (In my head: TIME! TIME! TIME!) I gathered myself to one corner of the room, put on my nose, then realized I hadn't decided where Juliet was. I stepped out and said, "Sorry; need to find my window." The wall behind them was all window, and as I chose a corner to address, I went back to my corner and thought, "What in the hell am I going to do?" The moment in the play is staged around various set elements, and prepped by twenty previous minutes of madcap hilarity, in comparison to which the balcony scene is quiet and innocently tender. What in the hell could I get across here, in clown style, without seeming to mug, nor to seem neutered by my lack of environment? I dove in, and mimed sneaking in to the garden. I addressed the audience of four directly, and made eye contact, as clowns must. They were neutral. I kept on. I tried out a silent joke that I had only discovered the night before, gesturing for Juliet to come out before actually saying, "Arise, fair sun..." and got a laugh. I don't know how the rest went. For some reason I interrupted myself before another sure laugh, "See how she leans her cheek upon her hand! O that I were a glove on that hand, that I might touch that cheek!" They thanked me, and I thanked them, and I was off.

Running! Running across 43rd street, through the parking lot, across 42nd, into that entrance of the Port Authority, down the stairs, down the underground hall connecting the two wings, down more stairs, up to gate 25, where there was no one left standing but the driver. I hand my ticket, get on the crowded bus and find a seat. Almost immediately, I doze off. Twenty minutes later, I awake to find us in gridlock, and that I have pulled something in my upper back. Hard to say when exactly I did that. When we finally get to the Delaware Water Gap, I call my stage manager and let her know. The bus has very little traffic thereafter, but it's taking local roads, and time is slipping. It pulled into Scranton at 7:45, the company manager drove me to the theatre, and I had just enough time to do my presets and get into costume and make-up. It was our best show yet: Tight, funny and well-paced.

Well, I don't know how I fared. I'm grateful for all of it. You can analyze this sort of thing all to pieces. They did ask about my schedule. But they weren't willing to adjust times for my audition. They seemed to like the idea of the work I am doing in concept, but they didn't have an overwhelming response to what I showed them. What it all boils down to, as friend Geoff and I discussed in the hours leading up to the callback, is that it was worthwhile simply to be seen in that context, and by those people. I met admirable artists, they met me, and I have a good story to tell. It's wonderful, really, whatever the results may be. I love running for these dreams, and I love working to these purposes. Thank you, clown gods.
Now I just have to go through a few days of convincing myself I'm better off without the job . . .

2 comments:

Patrick said...

Gach, my heart is still in my throat from the thought of pulling into town fifteen minutes before curtain. But it doesn't surprise me the show went well. In situations like that it either is spectacular or it crashes in a holocaust of flames. SO glad it was the former.
I'm so glad you were willing to gamble on the schedule like that, and went. Yes, who knows what will come of this, but think of it... you got the audition because people had seen your work, or worked with you... now two/five more people who do this sort of thing have seen your work.
You're my hero.

It took me a second to think what you meant when you said "Italian run" of the show. In this context there were a couple of possible interpretations. Speaking of which, my word verification is 'brativa'. Sounds like something one does in commedia, no?

Jeff Wills said...

All things being equal, I guess I'm grateful that the audition was less-than-spectacular, but the show good, rather than the reverse. (Which may go a'ways toward explaining my career to date!) Thanks for the support, Patrick, both virtual and actual!