it has been awhile, but a newborn will do that to you- in fact, I often find that lack of sleep helps my auditions.. so, here’s hoping 🙂
Amanda and I went to the Big Shoulders Festival at ATC recently. a play I wrote was being produced as part of the fest. As we sat in the audience, waiting for the lights to come up, it made me a wee bit nostalgic. Not for being on stage, but for the first few times I saw professional theater after college. It always seemed so foreign and magical and alive to me.
I moved to Chicago right out of school, from the tiny tiny town of Buckhannon, Wv. I packed up my Saturn with as much crap as I could possibly fit and drove. I had never seen 6 lane highways, or driven on 8 and 10 lane highways. It was truly a crazy adventure for me.
And one of the first things I did when I landed in Chicago was go out one night to see “Sexual Perversity in Chicago” by Mamet. I don’t know why I picked the show. I want to say because it had “Chicago” in the title, but I’m pretty sure it was because it had the word “sex”.
This small small small company was doing the show in the beer garden of a local bar, right under the El tracks. The actors had to keep pausing in the middle of a scene to let the train go by. It was truly barebones and I absolutely loved it. I was fascinated with the process of it all. Geting money together, getting a venue, doing the marketing, rehearsing. It all seemed so foreign from what I did in college- you know, audition, get cast, sleep with co-star, sleep, learn lines eventually, show up when I was supposed to.
This was a whole different level. People had to be extremely motivated. They had to work their asses off and spend nights after work rehearsing. They had to beg newspapers to review them.
Soon after this, I saved up my money and bought a ticket to see Sideman at Steppenwolf. To me, being in college and seeing a grainy videotape of John Malkovich and Gary Sinise doing this show was all I needed to know that acting was going to be it for me. So this was a watershed moment of sorts.
I walked into the theater and it was just enormous. canaverous. huge. and somehow, slightly antiseptic. In a way, I think I preferred the setting at the beer garden. But then I saw the actors get on stage and create this world. Holy balls was it amazing. Rick Snyder had the lead and I remember thinking about how much I could learn by just watching this guy do his thing. HE was this character. He was living in each moment. Scenes where he would sit in the background, you could always tell he was right there, creating, being. wowee. It was amazing.
I left the theater absolutely invigorated. But I left thinking there was no possible way I could ever do anything like this for a living. It still seemed so foreign, so beyond my comprehension. I was used to creating theatre with friends in a very safe setting. I could not imagine auditioning for strangers. Putting it all out there, hoping to get cast.
Soon after that, my company moved me to Boston and I walked about 6 miles one night on a really nice summer evening to the BCA to see a version of Henry V re-done as Tarantino would have done it.
It was in the black box space, a space where really tall actors had to bend down or risk racking their skulls on the lighting instruments. and again, fascinated. How did they create ths world? After the show, I stuck around and, as one of the actors was leaving, I told him “Great show”
“Thanks!” he said, really enthusiastically. Which got me to the place I could then say, “So, I’m an actor. Just moved here from chicago”
He looked at me really hard. Exhaled smoke, and said “Why?”
He then walked off. I dont know if he was asking me why in the world I would move from chicago to boston, or why in the world I would want to ever be an actor. Either way, I wasn’t really sure what my answer would be. To either question.
I happened to, one day, luck of the draw, see an audition announcement for a theatre company located near where I was living- Essayons Theatre. I debated with myself for days about whether to apply. I had a few headshots that had been taken on a two day trip to la, but no real resume. No real experience. I remember showing up at the space and thinking I may have to leave, immediately. I wasn’t sure I belonged there. I wasn;t sure what to expect.
I took the elevator down to this dark hallway, and saw a little sign made with construction paper that said “Actors, sign in here”
Ok, this was it. If I signed my name, I really had to be an actor I guess. I’m not really good with lying. I couldn;t sign it and not be an actor. I had to go through with it.
THere was one other guy waiting downstairs with me, and I asked him if he had heard of this theater company before. “Oh yeah” he said.
“Great. cool. I just moved here from Chicago”
He looked at me hard. “why?”
ANd then the director came out, shook my hand and said “Hey, thanks for coming, I really appreciate it”
Future directors take note. He was glad I was there. He appreciated me coming. I knew there was no pay, long nights, little glory ahead, and so did he. But he came out into the hall, shook my hand, and said “Let’s go in and read”
And so I did. And I think I gave one of the worst auditions of my life. This was not auditioning for my girlfriend in a play directed by her for a role I knew I could do in a sleep. This was standing in a small room in front of two strangers reading a brand new play and trying like mad to create some semblance of truth.
And I got it. Somehow, he saw beyond my nervousness and gave me a shot, and over the next 6 weeks, I finally had the curtain of “Professional theatre” pulled back for me to see.
there was no wizard. there was no mystery. There was only a group of people working their asses off for no pay, staying up until after midnight, working and re-working scenes, and trying to create something meaningful on stage.
I did a bunch of shows with Essayons, and feel like I grew tremendously as an actor if for no other reason, than that I felt safe with them. I felt like I could play, I could risk, I could fall on my face. Companies like Essayons and devanaughn (another theater were I felt like I did some of my best work) do what few companies manage to do successfully- lead by example, work like mad, inspire performers to explore and play, and make you grateful for pulling 12 hour nights for no pay.
And now, here I am, three years into doing this thing full time, actually making a living as an actor, sitting in a dark theatre at ATC, waiting to see another show I wrote being produced, and I can still be enraptured by it all.
Don;t get me wrong, every other day I question if I really want to keep doing this. I question if I really want to go audition for another tv show where the director won’t even look up from his iphone. I question how many deodorant and ky commercials I can really audition for. I question standing on the stage in mostly empty theaters pouring my heart on to a stage while reviewers are too busy going to New York and reviewing shows there to actually give young theaters a decent amount of press, and I question if any of it actually really and truly matters, in the grand scheme of things.
And then I have a summer like two years ago, when I spent 10 weeks at the school at Steppenwolf and was transformed, or when I actually get to be directed by Rick Snyder, the performer I sat in the dark and admired 8 years ago on the Steppenwolf Stage. When I actually get to work with him, and get to know him, or when I do shows that matter, and parts that inspire, and stand there every night as the lights start to dim and want them to come back up, only for a few more hours, so I can keep going-
or when I write a script and people read it and want to o it, want to bring it to life, and I get so see a different side of Oz, a different angle of the wizard.
almost 10 years after I graduated college, I feel like I’ve learned so much more about the business of acting, yes. But more importantly, about the art of acting, about the group that you work with, the community you create, and, ultimately, the artistic home you make for yourself. And whenever I get discouraged or go in for an audition where I am told to stand there and “look pretty” and I want to scream and throw things and jump out a window and tell ad guys in charge of deciding whether I get to put on deodorant and feed my family, I know I’m only one night at the theater away from erasing all those doubts again, feeling inspired again, feeling home.