by Michael Bowen & r & You're making chitchat with the artistic director as you walk toward the platform, but your mind is on what comes next. In a moment, with all eyes lasering in, evaluating your every gesture and facial expression, you'll have five minutes (or less) to put on two miniature one-person shows.
You'd better have all your lines and movements memorized, because there's a job on the line here. Knock 'em dead, kid, because this is your only chance to earn one of the roles remaining in the 2005-06 season at Actor's Repertory Theatre of the Inland Northwest or at Spokane Interplayers Ensemble.
At the time of ARt's local auditions in early July, Artistic Director Michael Weaver had cast only about half of the roles in his theater's five-play season.
Weaver had recently returned from seeing 290 actors in just two days at the "unified general auditions" at Theater Puget Sound in Seattle, at which representatives of 30 Northwest theaters -- everything from Seattle Rep to Missoula Children's Theatre to several independent directors -- watched auditions crammed into five-minute intervals.
For ARt's Spokane auditions on a Saturday afternoon at SFCC's Spartan Theatre, Weaver has scheduled 23 actors in more leisurely 10-minute segments. (At Interplayers, Artistic Director Nike Imoru adhered to a strict three-minute time limit for both of an actor's monologues.) Each ARt candidate was to perform one contemporary and one classical (i.e., not in 20th-century speech) monologue. Half of the group chose to do Shakespeare; other monologues ranged from Sam Shepard to Neil Simon to August Strindberg.
Auditioning requires lots of preparation, memorization and fidgeting -- all for a job that pays $275 a week. Altogether, ARt pays its actors $1,650 for six weeks' work -- about 20 rehearsals and 15 performances. (Both ARt and Interplayers provide housing for out-of-town actors; Interplayers' contract, also at $275 a week, provides for a seventh week of work.)
Weaver laments the difficulty of securing an Equity actor, noting that while ARt pays only slightly less than the Equity minimum, the additional pension and health care benefits that the actors' union requires add up to an additional $1,400 -- nearly doubling the cost to the theater of that one additional performer. At those prices, says Weaver, "Clearly, you have to start asking yourself, 'Would we be getting $1,400 more of a show?'" In effect, the Equity actor is at a disadvantage (a financial one, anyway).
At ARt, five of the appointments turn out to be unexplained no-shows. "They dogged us," says Weaver, marking the names. Of the remaining 18, six were painfully amateurish. Two of them hadn't memorized their monologues; a third simply hunkered down and read a speech he'd written himself.
Another six of the 18 were somewhere in the middle -- competent actors who moved about onstage without sufficient purpose and who proclaimed their lines without evidently feeling them. Too many of them remained motionless, or else shuffled about aimlessly -- as Weaver says, "Their movements don't support the words."
But half a dozen of the ARt auditioners were clearly capable of shining on a professional stage -- the kind of actors you'd be eager to see in a fully staged production.
As Weaver looks on at auditions and scribbles in a private code on the backs of the actors' glossy 8-by-10-inch head shots, what's he looking for at a general audition prior to an entire season of shows?
"I look for whether it's clear what goal they're trying to achieve," he says. "I look for terrific choices. And you can tell if they're non-charismatic, or if their two monologues are not differentiated."
But anyone would be nervous when going up in front of strangers like this to be judged. During a 10-minute audition, doesn't he make some allowances for anxiety?
The best actors, says Weaver, "are able to focus their nervous energy. I've been at auditions, and the actor is really exceptional and they pick up a glass and you notice that their hand is shaking. And I think, 'Oh, they're nervous.' But they can focus because they can go into a character -- they have the comfort of hiding in the character."
Two weeks later, during her first round of auditions at Interplayers -- she hasn't yet cast any of the roles for her six-play season -- Artistic Director Nike Imoru uses a different approach to auditioning: She likes to get up onstage with the actors after their monologues and explore how well they take direction.
With Sally Eames-Harlan, who recently earned an MFA in acting from the University of Idaho, Imoru redirected the opening chorus from Shakespeare's Henry V: "Take the physicality out -- no arms -- and put the power all in the voice," she asked. And then a third time: "Now offer it to the audience as if it was the most extraordinary mystery."
For Eames-Harlan's rendition of a manic woman's attraction/repulsion toward sex, Imoru requested, "Now do it as if she's in a state of discomfort from the start" -- and Eames-Harlan responded with writhing contortions that conveyed in stark visual terms just how twisted and conflicted her character was.
In effect, director and actor had clicked on the spot, engaging in rehearsal-like behavior even during a brief audition.
Eames-Harlan also proved to be a tough self-critic, complaining that "my breathing in the Shakespeare was terrible" and that she had dropped a line (unnoticeably) in her ranting contemporary monologue.
Brooke Kiener -- who teaches as an adjunct professor of theater at Whitworth College and who also waits on tables at the Sawtooth Grill to pay the bills -- chose two frustrated females for her audition pieces: Woman from Christopher Durang's Laughing Wild and Portia from Julius Caesar. Imoru listened intently, then had a variety of questions and commands: "Think of the opening line as the appetizer, and the rest of the speech as the entree." "Bite off the hard consonants -- make your physical presence softer for the soft consonants." "Do you do a Southern accent?" "This next time [with the Durang], you're not mad, you're trying to process it. It's as if you're telling yourself this for the 12th time today."
Kiener (whose stage name is Brooke Bailey) read in callbacks for Othello at Interplayers last year without getting a part, and this time her experience helped, as she obviously felt comfortable with changing her interpretations from one reading to the next.
Michael Weaver acknowledges the pressure that actors are under. "In an audition, it's just you!" he emphasizes. "In those two minutes, you have to be better than you really are," he says, apparently not noticing the irony. "You have to get people's attention. You don't have to sing and dance, exactly, but...." His voice trails off.
Out of all the actors he saw at TPS, only a few appeared better than they really were: "Seven or 8 percent are spectacular," he says. "About 20 to 25 percent are usable."
At the ARt auditions, the actors' determination became evident in touching ways. "I have a job where I can do three different shifts," said one. Another had driven in pouring rain all the way from Chewelah. A third wondered about the work schedule: "You rehearse from 10 to 6? My kids are dying to go to day care."
Yet after all the preparation and nervousness, getting a role may come down to happenstance. For a variety of reasons, one particular role in the season's second show will need to be filled by an actor who's at least 5-foot-9. Similarly, referring to the crooked business magnate in next April's production of Born Yesterday, Weaver says that "Harry Brock has to be the biggest person onstage." Fortunately for other actors, Weaver, who's 6-foot-1, has cast himself in the role.
Tessa Gregory -- who went to West Valley High and is a graduate of the theater program at UW in Seattle -- was buried midway through the long list of actors Weaver was auditioning.
"Auditioning is great fun," she would comment later, "but scary as hell. It's fun because it's scary as hell."
For her audition pieces, Gregory performed Zora from Tony Kushner's A Bright Room Called Day (quirky and ironic about bourgeois values) and Tamora from Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (commanding and bloodthirsty).
As soon as it had started, seemingly, it was over -- and now the waiting would begin. But Gregory has a very healthy attitude about the audition process, saying that her non-theatrical friends "don't understand rejection. They expect me to be really upset about it. But every actor who has ever lived has been rejected. Eventually, after cursing them for not understanding the greatness that is you," she laughs, "you sit down and ask, 'What can I do next time?'"
On his side, Weaver still has several roles to cast and the first two shows of the season to prepare for as director. (After the first Friday night opening, ARt's second show starts rehearsals on Monday morning.) There will be innumerable decisions about housing out-of-town actors, selecting costume fabrics, enduring the tedium of tech rehearsals, fretting over how many people will buy tickets on opening night and whether they'll like what they see.
At least there's one decision he's made. Right after Gregory had finished, Weaver muttered, "Sometimes you find one" -- and a week later, he called Gregory to offer her one of the roles in ARt's season-opening production of A.R. Gurney's The Golden Age: Virginia, the frumpy, alcoholic granddaughter of the play's manipulative grand dame.
Was she surprised?
"Well, you're always surprised. You can't build yourself up to expect it -- that's kind of like shooting yourself in the foot," says Gregory. "But I was very excited -- in fact, I was completely ecstatic! I was calling everyone."
Meanwhile, other actors are peering at their phones, willing them to ring, hoping for recognition ("we want you at rehearsals Monday") but fearing disappointment ("I won't be able to use you this time").
But then rejection, as Gregory and tens of thousands of other actors know, is just part of the gig. There'll always be another job interview -- all five minutes of it -- somewhere. Better start memorizing another monologue.