What, and give up show business?!
I had this audition today; it was an Equity general. I’m non-Eq, but a lifetime ago I got my EMC status by understudying at the Rep in the worst play I’ve ever had the misfortune of reading -- much less having to sit and listen to the piece of demon crap through the monitors every single show, 8 times a week. I had nightmares about this freakin’ play. Top of the show, I would start out doing a crossword puzzle in the green room, humming to myself (loudly), having frantic desperate conversations with anyone … anything to shut out this Chinese water torture of a play. Nope. Didn’t even make through Act 1 before I punctured my eardrums with my pencil, gouged my eyes out with the eraser, and ran naked and battered through Seattle Center begging people to tie me to the fountain and let me freeze there. Of course, that’s the only gorgeous, warm spring I can remember EVER in this weather-freakhouse of a city.
But GOD BLESS IT! This was my first “real” job; a professional gig at a theatre where you didn’t have to go to the outhouse to do your make-up. It was the land of milk and plumbing … there were bathrooms everywhere. It was so beautiful. It was also lucky, considering that the play being performed made me want to puke. No, really – I swear to you – it was that bad. “Please god, please don’t let all of professional acting be like this, please. I’ll do anything, just please don’t let me die here.”
When I first got the gig ($200/wk for a non-Eq understudy), I was like — ohhhhh, yeah. Mmm-hmmmm; sweet piece of cheese. Whoo! I also got a walk-on part for an extra $50/wk, thank you very much, and I had one line to say. At the Bagley Wright Theatre. HELL YES! I actually felt sorry for one of the other understudies who, unlike the rest of us, didn’t get that crucial career-making break as a TV sound crew technician and who was released at intermission. I literally weep to think of what a FOOL I was. Act 2 comes (my big entrance), and “that poor other understudy” is waving goodbye and waltzing off home to have sex with her husband, and I’m chewing off my foot to escape. Every line was a bamboo shoot shoved under a different fingernail, and now I had to listen to it on stage and “in character” (umm, no small parts … I'd decided that my TV crew person’s name was “Joan” and she wanted to be a producer as well as breed malamutes as a hobby). The worst part (aside from the slow yet steady frostbite of the soul) was the audience … 900 white faux-liberal Seattleites, who thought that this show was the cat’s meow; oh, and soooooo hilarious dahhhling, and next week it’s the BALLET! AAARRRGH! I loathe you, you SUV-driving, LL Bean-wearing, I-only-recycle-because-it’s-easy-and-I-support-the arts-but-why-don’t-those-homeless-people-just-get-jobs FREAKBALLS! (No, but seriously, I totally thank you for supporting the arts.)
I won’t tell you what the show was, and not just because I’m a coward and don’t want anyone to hate me. I won’t tell you because it doesn’t matter. Because unfortunately I could be describing a multitude of plays that are produced in this city – any city; every city. I can think of a handful of them from the recent past without even straining. At least fringe theatres have an excuse if they produce bad plays or good plays badly (low budgets and even less money, the spirit of experimentation, fostering new and underdeveloped artists, too many Cornish grads). But what possible justification can any of the large houses have for producing trite, easy crap? And not that the big houses always produce crap; not by a long shot. When they get a winner, it’s freakin’ phenomenal and everything live theatre should be. But truly, they do enough crap to really make you wonder what the hell is going on. They distract you with modern, controversial themes and gorgeous sets and NY actors, and don’t get me wrong … they do crap really REALLY well. It’s what kills me actually; why waste that legion of talent on poop? I know, I know … they have a lot of people to please at those big houses, and money is drying up everywhere, and they need every last cent, and they need to shoot for accessible rather than daring. But, god! As well as they do crap, when they choose quality plays (ranging anywhere from good to transcendent) and present them with honesty, the angels sing, and the earth goddess as well as god in heaven shines upon them and us.
What if I were I to get cast in one of these shows I am so high and mighty about, hmmm? Well, ummmm … let’s see. Tough one. Uh, yeah – I would take it in a second. Yep, I would, and I don’t have any apologies for it on either side. I always had the dream to be a working self-supporting actor, and that dream hasn’t dried, although it looks different to me now. Later in life you get to look back and judge the choices you made for better or worse, but in every crystal moment you simply choose the path that looks the sweetest to you. And right now, I would choose to be in a mediocre play over working a regular day job. Of course, I would choose to be in a good play over a mediocre play; and a great one over a good one. But even merely adequate theatre is better than none at all.
Do you know who Leonid is? He’s so famous and beloved here, I don’t even remember his last name – you know, that brilliant Russian director that comes to Seattle and does a master class culminating in a final performance? Well, he’s supposedly amazing and it’s a dream to work with him, etc. etc., and I am not being sassy, I actually believe all that to be true. But the system in Russia is a lot different than here, and the rules of the road don’t necessarily translate. So he says a lot of things that sound like beautiful music in theory (like “You shouldn’t ever be in a bad play; there’s no excuse for it.”), and everyone nods and hums encouragingly, understandingly. He’s preaching to the choir. And jeez … I’m with him, too. “That’s it! I’m just not going to do bad plays anymore; it’s inspired!” But a friend of a friend holds up her hand and asks, “Leonid, it’s different here, and this is unrealistic for us. Sometimes we have to choose between working in a bad play or not working at all. What do you suggest we do in that case?” And god bless that man’s soul, he had no platitudes. He nodded, wisely and a bit sadly, and said, “I understand that this is true in this country. If you cannot be in a good play, then read a good play.”
In the fringe community, I have had the great luck and kismet to work on some of the best plays with the best and most talented groups of people in this town. A couple of years ago, I had 4 roles in one year and a half period that are by far the best 4 roles I have ever had the pleasure and luck of playing. And I was (still am) a member of one of the most prolific and successful sketch comedy groups in town. But I was still dissatisfied and feeling like I was never going to break into the “big time”. I was feeling it more acutely because my then-sweetheart and most of our friends were working Equity actors and I wasn’t. I had a 40-hr./wk.office day job, and they were all sleeping in and going to rehearsal at 10am and acting, acting, acting all day long. I was doing shows still, but it was the typical fringe schedule … wake up at 6:30am to be at work by 8am; work ‘til 5pm; grab dinner (maybe) to be at rehearsal at 7pm; rehearse ‘til 11pm; grab a drink or two with your cast for bonding, your other friends to keep in touch, and/or your sweetheart for love, etc.; bed by 1am (if you’re lucky); then up at 6:30am. It’s tough on a 30-something soul. Chucking all that and getting to do just a single run at any paying acting gig seemed like mana from heaven. During a flash where I was feeling particularly sorry for myself, I was sitting with someone I didn’t know that well at the time (one of the consistently working Eq actors). She’d seen me in one of my fringe shows and was complimenting me, and I was deflecting the praise, making a half-joke of it, “Yeah, but it’d be nice to get paid!” And she deflected it right back in my face in the nicest way when she leaned in intently and seriously: “You know, you are so lucky that you get to do kick-ass roles in good plays. Yes, I get paid, and I’m not complaining, but it’s not that often that I get a role I can sink my teeth into. You get to do that a lot.”
Unlike most revelations, which unfold slowly with hindsight, this one slapped me across the face. It was the best refresher lesson I’ve had about how I view the work I do. It reminded me of something I’d momentarily forgotten in a haze of self-pity, which is that money is only one reason to do a show. The main reason I worked for so many years to find and cultivate a flexible day job that I actually like is because it gives me the freedom to choose my creative projects based on a whole gamut of reasons, not just because I need the work. But still, without even half-joking, it would be nice to get paid.
Which brings me back to the beginning — I was at an Equity general audition today, and as always, in between fits ranging from slight anxiety to extreme panic, I indulged in the shadows of sweet fantasy. This is the one where they’re finally gonna notice … get ready, Red; pack your bags, you’re moving up to the big time. (I don’t know why, but even though it’s an in-town theatre, for some reason in my fantasy I’m always packing my bags.) This is the audition I’m going to nail so hard that the room stops breathing, and the clock suspends its ticking. I finish, smile and say thank you modestly, and begin to exit professionally. But they stop me … Red? Just one moment, please. I’d like to offer you every part in every show. It’s a new vision, a brand new concept that you, Red, you just now inspired me to create … a one-woman season. BRILLIANT! You, my dear, are brilliant. And also beautiful. And we’ll pay you a lot of money.
Well, at the very least, I’ll make sure I read a good play.