Cowan Palace: I’m Not In San Francisco Anymore, Toto

Somewhere over the rainbow in Connecticut, Ashley shares her first audition back.

Well, it’s been about six weeks since I moved to Connecticut and it’s been theatrical to say the least. But, in the middle of battling new-apartment woes resulting in a lack of hot water, electricity, and a working door, I decided to throw myself into the local audition scene. Because in times of rainbowed chaos, why not throw another color into the mix, right?

I was auditioning for the role of Sylvia the dog in A.R. Gurney’s play of the same name. I unpacked some makeup and found my Goodwill purple dress covered in patterned dogs to wear. Unfortunately, I was unable to find an iron to take out some of the wrinkles but that didn’t stop me!

The theater company was only a town over but in order to get to their space, I’d have to take a twenty-minute trek on the highway. Now, I get that this mundane task sounds easy to many of you. But for someone who hasn’t been driving in eleven years, it was a big deal to me. To add more fun, on the evening of my audition, we experienced a massive thunderstorm and I found myself having to do the commute in pouring rain and ill-timed foggy conditions. I also turned on the Into the Woods soundtrack a bit too loud to try and pump myself up and I managed to miss the audible directions provided by my phone so my journey took even longer and resulted in having to take a dreaded left-hand exit. YIKES BIKES, a moment in the woods, indeed.

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But I made it! I walked in, filled out my audition form, tried to find the most comfortable chair, and read over the sides. It then started to hit me that I wasn’t in San Francisco anymore. Back in the Bay Area, I would have known at least five people in the waiting room and would have been trying to inappropriately gossip with all of them; I would have been familiar with the space in some capacity, either as an audience member or from working there before; I would have known more about the company, the production team, and their history than what I was able to quickly learn online. But here I was, the new girl in town, wearing a purple-patterned dog dress, quietly waiting her turn.

Don’t look at me like that, Dorothy. You would have worn the dog dress, too.

Don’t look at me like that, Dorothy. You would have worn the dog dress, too.

When they called me in, I had a moment to introduce myself as they found someone to read with me. Immediately, in my heightened nervous state, I did what I always do: ask as many questions as will fit in my mouth. I asked what show was currently in the space, if they were working on anything other than this, how long they had been doing theater with this company, and how auditions were going, in a record ten seconds. ZING! WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD, COWAN! Luckily for them, my scene partner soon walked in and we took a go at things.

After completing the first side, I was asked to do some physical improv exercises to show off my dog sensibilities. These are always fun but I never know how far to push the limit and if I should cut myself off at any particular moment. While I’m glad that I really committed to whatever action I was doing at the time, at one point, I chose to run up on a ramp, lie on it, and then slide down it as the audition panel asked each other, “is she allowed to use the set like that?” Whoops. Lesson learned, you probably don’t want to distract the people who may be interested in casting you by putting the stage in danger.

Once that was over, my small talk returned! Upon mentioning all I had learned from my own dog, I proceeded to say that I had adopted her the day after Obama had been elected President because I was young, new to San Francisco, and feeling extra hopeful and inspired about life. I cut myself off after I had a moment of, “you’re not in San Francisco anymore, Cowan” wondering if I should try to keep any political opinions, along with my dangerous physical ways, outside the casting room considering I was trying to make a good first impression based upon my acting abilities.

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After reading one more scene, I sincerely thanked everyone for their time and went to find my car. When I got home, I literally high-fived myself because, sure, I was proud of myself for trying but honestly, I was so excited I had completed the journey by car alone. The next day, I was asked to come in for a callback and I felt like a fearless pro as I navigated the streets to the theater. I read a few of the sides from the evening before and found myself with the same question I always have at callbacks regardless of location: do I do the scene with what seemed to “work” last night and attempt to recreate some of those beats or do I try something totally new and fresh with the same sides to show them something different?

I ended up trying to do a little of both and I’m not totally sure it worked. Moving forward, gang, I would love to know what you think is the best way to handle a callback so that I can hopefully keep improving my ways. I didn’t end up getting the part but I did receive a truly kind and greatly-welcomed phone message letting me know and encouraging me to audition again. Which, yes, I absolutely will, if even simply to be able to write about the experience. Though I may need a new audition dress…

Well, until next time, friends! You’re always in my thoughts and heart. I hope the view over your San Francisco rainbow has been full of theatre beauty!

In For A Penny: Oh yeah, THAT thing

Charles Lewis III, getting his audition on. 

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“Don’t worry about the future… or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum.”
– Baz Luhrmann & Lee Perry, “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)”

It always sneaks up on you. Between jotting down ideas for personal projects, prepping for this year’s Olympians, doing numerous on-camera jobs, jumping from one job interview to the next, and waiting for rehearsal schedules on a few major projects later in the year, it came as a bit of a surprise to remember I have an audition this Saturday.

When I did recall, it was almost as if I’d been handed someone else’s schedule and I wanted to find them to let them know they have an important appointment coming up. But, sure enough, it’s my appointment and a subtle reminder that I’m not yet high enough on the proverbial ladder to skip over this circus act. If you hit the “audition” tag at the bottom of this article, you’ll find countless examples of we ‘Pub folk lamenting the necessary evil of the whole process.

Yet the most surprising thing to me wasn’t that this audition reminder seemed to pop up out of nowhere, it was how I wasn’t the least bit worried about it.

I knew I’d need new copies of my headshot and resume, but I’ve been printing those on my home printer for years. (I should spring for a new set of headshots soon, but that’s for another day.)

I knew I’d have to memorize a monologue in a few days, but I’ve done that in a couple of hours. Besides, as I’ve written about before, I’m fortunate enough to be acquainted with a number of fantastic writers whose words I often use in auditions. This gives their work more exposure and lets me say a piece I know the auditors haven’t heard a million times that day. (Someday I’ll send Megan Cohen a gift basket as thanks for the number of roles her monologues have won me.)

I knew I’d have to get up pretty damn early in the morning to make this audition on time. Not only because it’s one of those early bird auditions that seem to happen often in the East Bay (as will another audition I have two weeks later), but also because several BART tracks are scheduled for repairs, which will make my commute even longer. The longer it takes me to travel to an audition, the more I tend to fret over trivial details that I’m sure will lose me the role.

So why am I not worried now? If I had to guess, I’d say it’s because I’ve been through all of this before. I’ve been through so many auditions over the years that I think it’s finally clicked that worrying won’t bring me any closer to the role. I could spend an entire week dedicated to tearing my hair out trying to find the right shirt to wear (then another four days angry about how it doesn’t work with the clumps of hair I’ve just torn out), but I know that it’s a moot point. The director’s idea for the character is so solidly locked into his or her brain that it’s ridiculous to that you five-minute reading of sides will lead them to restructure the whole production just for you. I mean… it’s possible, but not very probable.

Not that I’m suggesting one should audition unprepared, far from it. Memorize your monologue and sides, if you’ve gotten them beforehand; if your character’s the more upscale sort, then maybe a collared shirt would help; it’s good that you (think you can) do accents, but don’t try them unless explicitly asked to do so. Preparation will always help you.

What I’m saying is to not worry. I used to get really pissed at fellow actors who attended the same auditions I did and they eventually got cast with the company. It especially pissed me off that they all had the same excuse as to why: “I just stopped caring at auditions.” Whether they meant it or not, that statement always felt like a slap in the face, a humble brag that they were able to pull off the magic trick we’d both been working on for the same amount of time.

Knowing these folks for a long time, it finally started to hit me that they weren’t (consciously) trying to be dickish, they were just trying to illustrate that they’d found their own comfort levels. They’d each found a way to walk into an audition and tell themselves “I might get this role, I might not – it’s not the end of the world.”

As I write this, I have newly-printed copies of my resume next to me and I’m skimming through short monologues (written by folks I know, naturally) that would each be perfect for me. After the audition, I’ll probably have brunch before meeting up with another Olympians writer, and then, hopefully, attending this week’s Elvis-inspired Saturday Write Fever. By then the audition will be done and the world will still be here. Hopefully.

Charles Lewis III says that if you’d like to rant about auditions with him, meet him for drinks at SWF or one of the upcoming performances of the Pint Sized Plays, which start Monday at PianoFight.

Cowan Palace: Everywhere You Look And Why I Can’t Watch Fuller House

Shoo-bit-a-ba-ba-bow, Ashley’s pretty sure the Full House theme song was written just for her.

It’s no secret I’m a Full House fan.

I mean, one of my Cowan Palace blogs used Full House catchphrases to talk about Theatre Bay Area reference the Tanner family constantly, and my husband and fellow blogger, Will Leschber, and I even themed our pregnancy announcement around the show.

Do I think it’s the best show in the history of television? No, of course not. It’s cheesier than the pizza of Kevin McCallister’s dreams. The canned laugher, the studio applause, the less than desirable acting choices, the questionable writing, the production quality? Yeah, yeah, I know all about it, have mercy. I still love Full House.

For me, it’s not about the crappy stuff mentioned above. As crazy as it sounds, this silly sitcom somehow managed to turn itself into a guidepost for me and a soundtrack to my dreams of being an actor.

When Full House started, I watched every episode longing to be on the show. As an actor. I would copy the reactions the characters would display, I would try to make myself cry during all the sappy scenes with sad music, and I would practice whatever I saw in an attempt to prove that I was just as good as those Tanner gals! By the time the show went into syndication, I had acted my way through the series.

After I studied theatre in college, I moved to Brooklyn with three of my closest friends from our program. Because with four years of dominating our small black box stage in Rhode Island we were clearly ready for Broadway! While we grew hungry beginning our new roles as starving artists, we each took side jobs with random hours. As fate would have it, for about a year, we often worked in the afternoons and evenings leaving us with this sweet time spot to devote to Full House reruns. The show would play for an hour at noon every day and in between trying to memorize lines to audition sides or stapling my headshot and resume to send out to another place I’d never hear back from, the Tanner family’s lives would neatly unfold for us in a beautiful, comforting loop. It was always there in the background as we chased our theatrical dreams.

The dream and its pursuit eventually sent me to California. And behold, the chance to actually live in THE San Francisco seemed perfect. Though I had never been to the city, I had probably seen each episode of Full House like 5-10 times by that point so what else was there to know? When Comet goes missing, you check Fisherman’s Wharf. When Uncle Jesse’s graduating high school, take the underground transportation system.

Also, I’d be lying if I said my inner child wasn’t completely ecstatic to live in this place I had only seen through TV.

And so San Francisco became my home. It’s been my place or residence for over eight years now. I’ve seen it change as I changed, sometimes molding into each other, sometimes moving away from each other. I continued watching old reruns of Full House as a comfort blanket during cold, foggy times and I kept hold of the dream that had brought me here in the first place.

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When Fuller House came out, everyone knew I’d be all over it. Especially considering, this time, I live in the same city as the Tanners! We’re neighbors! I got texts from friends asking me what kind of themed snack I planned to have ready when it finally premiered. But when it launched, I found myself unable to watch it.

I know the reviews are scathing. I know it can’t possibly hold up all the expectations fans have for it. I know it’s going to be even cheesier than before and now that we’re older that cheese will probably feel stale and moldy and unappetizing.

And I hear the theme song playing over in my brain, “What ever happened to predictability? The milk man, the paper boy, the evening TV? How did I get delivered here? Somebody tell me please. This old world’s confusing me.” It makes me nostalgic and emotional! I let the pre-chorus continue, “Clouds as mean as you’ve ever seen, ain’t a bird who knows your tune, then a little voice inside you whispers, “Kid, don’t sell your dreams so soon!””

I think about my dreams. The ones since childhood and the ones that continue to mature and develop. I think about how I got here and why I love San Francisco but how lately what was once unwavering commitment to stay here and live out my dream has started to waver. I think about how many feelings I have and get overwhelmed.

Thinking about Full House and Fuller House suddenly brings out all these questions and emotions in me during a time in my life when I’m already feeling questionable and emotional. I’m not sure I’m ready to see how the Tanner gals grew up and what happened to their dreams because I’m having a hard time processing that I’m grown up now too. For me, watching DJ get through first kisses has a different weight now than watching her manage the difficulties of raising kids in the city. I’m still trying to navigate my own dreams.

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Obviously, I’m gonna watch it. If I could, I’d watch it with my family back in our Connecticut living room, in my 70’s wallpapered Brooklyn apartment with my college friends and my headshots all over the floor, and here in San Francisco with Will and my daughter, Scarlett all at once.

But I still need a little more time to work my way up to it. Which is so ridiculous, I know.

Until then, I let the theme song finish playing in my mind, “Everywhere you look, everywhere you go, there’s a heart (there’s a heart), a hand to hold onto, Everywhere you look, everywhere you go, there’s a face of somebody who needs you, everywhere you look. When you’re lost out there and you’re all alone, a light is waiting to carry you home. Everywhere you look, Everywhere you look. Shoo-bit-a-ba-ba-bow”.

And just like that, I’m comforted again.

Cowan Palace: Embracing The Mirror, Part One: Ashley, Plain and Tall

In part one of this two-part blog (featuring Marissa and Ashley’s tall tales) Ashley considers the height hype.

“You’re like that book. Sarah, Plain and Tall? But, like, it’s you. Ashley, Plain and Tall!”

I let his words linger in the air like they were bubbles about to pop. I forced the look on my face to go from “shocked and hurt” to “playfully shocked and hurt.” This was not exactly the sentiment I was looking for from the guy I kind of had a crush on after a performance.

I had just finished playing my first “romantic lead.” Sure. It was a ten minute play directed by my classmates for a student run production. But it was the first time I got to do a stage kiss! And wear something that didn’t resemble a bag! Plus, I didn’t have to cover my face in old age makeup (fun fact: old age makeup is still pretty much the only makeup style I feel like I can “do” well) or cover my hair with baby powder and gray hairspray. Ah, college. The actor I was paired with was slightly shorter than I was so I had been costumed in a modest heel but since I barely noticed, I didn’t think anyone in the audience would care.

And, duh, I knew I was tall. By that point (at age 18), I had already been told that I couldn’t convincingly play a high school student and that I was really more of a Nurse and/or Mrs. Capulet than a Juliet. At 5’9’’ I also knew I was ineligible to ever become a Disney princess (as they do not allow their ladies to be over 5’8’’) so my dreams of playing Belle fell short (ohhh, punny, huh?).

But let’s get back to my crush! Why was “tall” now synonymous with “plain”?! That hardly seemed fair. I went home and listened to a Coldplay mix CD trying to make sense of it all.

I continued college scoring great roles meant for older actresses and when I graduated, I moved to New York and began auditioning. I’ll never forget getting a callback for a role in a short play and being the tallest person in the room. The scene I was reading for was for the role of “daughter” and the actors playing my mother, father, and brother were all several inches smaller than I was. I was the only actor that managed to get a laugh out of the audition panel but sadly, I never heard from them again.

After that, I packed flats to every audition. And tried to practice hairstyles that could maybe make me appear a little shorter (yuck, I hate admitting that). When I reached out to my tall theatre friends, I loved hearing the stories they encountered in their theatrical pursuits because it meant I was not alone. Colleen Egan told me, “I had to wear flats once while my male counterpart was put in lifts because the director was so distracted by our height difference.” Which I find so fascinating! Why are we so uncomfortable with a woman being taller than the guy she’s with?

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Luckily for me, when I found myself in San Francisco with a role in “Tony ‘n Tina’s Wedding”, my perception of height and my relation to it completely changed. Suddenly, I was in a show surrounded by beautiful Amazons. I was no longer the tallest one in the play! Yes, for the most part, our male counterparts were shorter. Sometimes, much shorter. But we learned to embrace it and play it up. We wore ridiculously tall high heels and made our hair as big as possible. When we had to kiss our fictional boyfriends, we thought it was hilarious and usually, the audience did, too.

I reached out to some of my past castmates in TNT regarding being tall in the theatre and they had these gems to share:

Mariah Castle (who was our original Tina) said, “I do remember being worried that audiences wouldn’t believe the casting when I was paired with a Tony who was significantly shorter than me. But it always seemed to turn out fine. I actually loved being paired with one short Tony in particular because he was such a strong performer. He owned his role and the room, so I felt proud to perform opposite him and pretend to be his “wife” for a night.”

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Sarah Rose Kistner added, “There were also some pretty ridiculous pairings (in terms of height) in TNT that I definitely worried about looking legit. I would have to tell myself little stories like “Okay, maybe Dom is just seriously into tall chicks!” or “Maybe Dom is just seriously into chicks… any chicks.” In the end, I don’t know if any of those relationships appeared authentic, but they at least appeared funny. I will say that my height probably helped me get cast as Amazon Hippolyta in Impact’s 80’s version of Midsummer Night’s Dream, where I was paired with a tragically, tiny Theseus. I think the dramatic height difference added a certain amount of inherent physical comedy. I did always have a sense that, if I were to continue with my acting career, I’d probably have an easier time being tall on film than on stage.”

Lastly, the lovely Stephanie Renee Wozniak left us with this wonderful wisdom:

“Okay, Tall Girl Theatre problems:

1. ALWAYS being in the back row in musical theatre productions. No matter how well you know the steps, you’re gonna have to be in the back because you’re a giant. And forget about partner dancing! If it’s a show where there’s a bunch of partner work, well, then congratulations! You’ll be playing a dude!
2. Playing dudes! I’ve literally played more male roles than female roles. Which it totally cool because some of the best roles out there are for men. I mean I got to play Hamlet so what am I complaining about?
3. NEVER playing the ingenue because the leading men are too short. Which is okay because the sassy best friend has all the best lines anyway.
4. Playing ALL of the adult roles from the time you’re 12. I played M’Lynne in Steel Mags when I was 23. My roommate was Shelby. And we rocked it.

Yes, there are challenges with being an Amazon actress, but on the other had, these long legs have been solely responsible for getting me cast in several productions. Incidentally, come see me in Sweet Charity this Spring at Hillbarn!”

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Obviously, I’m quite proud to have shared a stage with those women. Being around other tall actresses and performing the show for years made my height feel “normal”, sometimes humorous, and something I should absolutely stop apologizing for.

Now when I get to an audition, I still pack flats if I’m wearing heels and I still consider my hair (I have no problem cutting bangs into my look hours before if I think it’ll help get a part) but I’ve stopped thinking so much about being taller than many of the actors around me – I’ve convinced myself that I just have more height to store talent.

Things never went anywhere with that college crush. But I did get cast in a romantic lead with my now husband who is also taller than me! So things worked out okay there! No Coldplay mixes were needed. And lastly, “tall” is not synonymous with “plain” so I’d greatly appreciate it if you could all call me, “Ashley, Tall and Excited By Froyo” from here on out. Until tomorrow, my friends! I look forward to continuing this discussion with Marissa!

Working Title: The Ruhl’s of Kissing

This week Will Leschber closes his eyes and gets ready for a Stage Kiss!

My first stage kiss was with Jessica Middleton. Do you remember yours? Ah yes… First semester of college was starting off with a bang! My guess is that I got the part in that readers’ theater original play of Mother Jones because I was good at making bashful googley eyes at attractive actresses and know how to positively lose all brain function when making said googley eyes. Ask my wife, she knows!

But back to the story… so the audition called for an actor and an actress to sit, hold hands, look into each others eyes and have a conversation using only the letters of the alphabet, the ABC’s. I say A?. She says B. I say C! And so on. So I get to around P and…damn…her eyes…they are such a radiant deep shade of cedar brown…it’s like a circular forest folding in on itself and then peering into me…and oh shit…what letter is next…oh my god…did I forget the next letter in the alphabet! Why did I skip kindergarten?!

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I look over at the director…no help. I look back at the Jessica just to check how much I’m ruining her audition,,, and she kindly smiles and says, “Q?”. Man, did I look like an idiot! But, apparently, I looked like an idiot who liked a girl enough to forget the alphabet when looking into her eyes. And wouldn’t you know it, we both got cast. Hooray for being young and dumb, huh!

A first kiss, a first stage kiss, they are hard to forget. We forge them into our stories and use them as touchstones pointing toward who we are and who we were. What do you remember about your first kiss? Was it gentle and sweet? Did you clunk teeth? Was it somehow not a total disaster?! Was it the best ever?

I had the pleasure of speaking to Millie DeBenedet about some of her own Stage Kiss…ing. Millie is a Bay Area actress/director/cocker-spaniel enthusiast and currently plays Laurie/Millicent in Stage Kiss, at SF Playhouse, this holiday season. And of course, while asking after perfect stage kisses, I had to ask for her thoughts on an equally romantic cinematic kiss that would couple well in that vein. She had this to say…

She (Carrie Paff*) and Millicent (Millie DeBenedet) rehearse a scene from ‘The Last Kiss’.

She (Carrie Paff*) and Millicent (Millie DeBenedet) rehearse a scene from ‘The Last Kiss’.

Stage Kiss is Sarah Ruhl’s love poem to actors. The play is utterly romantic. It reveals the twisted dynamics actors find themselves in when they wind up in a showmance. I think it’s easy for actors to confuse lust vs. love. The work of Theatre (like the game of love) requires so much risk-taking. Having a crush on one of your coworkers is inevitable. How you deal with those feelings, well…

She (Carrie Paff*) kisses understudy Kevin (Allen Darby) as Director (Mark Anderson Phillips*) looks on during auditions.

She (Carrie Paff*) kisses understudy Kevin (Allen Darby) as Director (Mark Anderson Phillips*) looks on during auditions.

DeBenedet continues…

To accompany your taste buds the following films are great pairings for Stage Kiss:

1. The Lady Eve (1941) – Because it embodies the dicey and passionate relationship between He & She. However, He is more like Barbara Stanwyck’s character and She is more like Henry Fonda.

2. Let’s Make Love (1960) – The tone is similar to Stage Kiss. However, I think Carrie Paff is a much stronger female lead than Marilyn Monroe. Another similarity is you understand the play-within-a-play idea.

3. Love, Actually (2003) – This is my unsophisticated answer. At one point in Stage Kiss, there are a couple of different love stories you could follow, similarly to Love Actually. Also because it’s a funny holiday rom-com.

Love doesn’t have to be sophisticated. It just has to make you, well… feeling something! These are all excellent choices, but my, my, if I go one holiday season without watching the glory that is Love, Actually, my heart withers a little. Good choice, I say! Now, my first stage kiss my have not lead anywhere besides a decent role my first semester at university, however, my last stage kiss was shared with my wife…so don’t shut down those showmance feelings too early. You never know where a showmance can sweep you off to. As Millie said, how you deal with those feelings, well…well that is a key part in how you continually mold who you are, and where your emotional future may go. It’s a gift.

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Stage Kiss runs at the SF Playhouse until January 9. Tuesday – Thursday at 7pm, Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3pm & 8pm, Select Sundays at 2pm

If you are searching for classic fare, The Lady Eve can be found for rent on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu and other e-rental depots; Let’s Make Love may be a little harder to find, but I trust your savvy searching ways. And way too many copies of Love, Actually can be found in my DVD cabinet (what’s a DVD cabinet, you say?) or Netflix.

Sources:

Palopoli, Jessica. “She (Carrie Paff*) kisses understudy Kevin (Allen Darby) as Director (Mark Anderson Phillips*) looks on during auditions.” 2016. Photograph. http://sfplayhouse.org/

Palopoli, Jessica. “She (Carrie Paff*) and Millicent (Millie DeBenedet) rehearse a scene from ‘The Last Kiss.’” 2016. Photograph. http://sfplayhouse.org/

Cowan Palace: Spooky Tales of Audition Costumes

Ashley’s teamed up with some Bay Area artists to chat about auditions and dressing for the part.

Halloween is just three days away and I’m sure you’ve been keeping busy thinking about costumes and perfecting your sexy Kim Davis outfit, ensuring your wig looks as intolerant as possible. But as October comes to a close so does our month’s design focus theme.

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So I started to think about memorable costumes I’ve had the opportunity to wear in the past and my own attempts to “costume” myself for certain auditions. I gave myself bangs to look younger, I wore fingerless gloves to look edgy, and canceled an audition that sent me a follow up an hour before my time slot asking me to be ready to read my scene topless. Ah, so many stories so little time!

But I reached out to a few pals to see if they had any audition tales and they kindly were willing to share a few gems. It’s nice to know we’re all in this together, right?

Melinda Marks:
I showed up to callbacks for Doubt, and there were only three other women there. They were all wearing habits and rosary beads. Like, chatting merrily. In habits. At first I was mortified because I thought SURELY if these women were in HABITS I must have missed, like, a really important memo from the design team. I later found out they were ALL IN A SHOW TOGETHER and had just done it for funsies. I got that part, by the way.

Jan Gilbert: Right before I moved here, I played Yitzhak in a production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, so I was ecstatic to see an audition notice for the production here in the city. In the process of booking an audition, the casting folk used the sentence: ‘If you would like to come dressed in any sort of character appropriate Drag, you are certainly welcome to.’ And yes, the word ‘Drag’ was capitalized.

Now, being an avid ‘always play dress up for auditions’ type of actor, I had already been taken aback by how casual auditions here seemed to be. Before moving here, I would never have DREAMED of wearing jeans to an audition. Or not wearing my hair down. Ever. But, seeing as they were inviting you to dress in character appropriate ‘Drag’…and seeing as I happened to still have the camo cargo pants I wore in the recent production in which I dressed like a man for most of the show, I took a leap, after much back and forth, pulled back my hair, threw on the pants, wrapped up with a trusty ace bandage and went for it.

When I got into the audition room, the director looked at me, held up my headshot and asked ‘this is you?’ It didn’t feel like the best way to start an audition, but oh well.

So I went to an audition in ‘Drag,’ and it was a boundary-pushing experience for me. I did get a callback. They asked me to ‘please wear a dress’ to see my take on the character post-transition. When I showed up dressed in my normal audition gear, they again didn’t recognize me. It was quite an interesting feeling.

While I didn’t end up getting cast (I ended up on their ‘possible cast for extension’ list), I was glad in the end that I just went for it. I guess it’s like they say: ‘dress for the part you want’…or something like that.

Colin Johnson: I was holding auditions and a guy came in looking very Zoolander. Tight black pants, V cut black tee, and leather jacket. He was so bad that I was convinced he was doing a guerilla comedy thing/prank. His ineptitude was so over the top. I ultimately couldn’t stifle my laughter. Turns out he was a model trying to act and taking it very seriously. Luckily he didn’t catch on to me laughing in his face and walked away very self-satisfied. The show was The Oresteia and needless to say, he wasn’t cast.

Xanadu Bruggers: I was auditioning for a commercial and it was to recreate the famous World War II kiss in Times Square. I bought a costume and got my hair done, makeup, etc. Just to walk into a room and be dipped. It turned out everyone had the same idea and there were about 100 people dressed like sailors and nurses in this tiny room. I felt ridiculous. But I still wear the heels I bought.

Tonya Narvaez: Once I was auditioning for a play in which the most interesting character to me was in her late 30s. I was early 20s. So I tried subtle old age makeup but it looked ridiculous so I took that off. I put some really subtle dark circles under my eyes thinking somehow that may help me look less young. It didn’t. But I went with it anyway. Then I got there and all the women auditioning for that part were actually the proper age range. And I felt incredibly ridiculous. My little high pitched, naive voice alongside theirs. Oy. Didn’t book it.

Dave Sikula: I mentally rolled my eyes and rushed into the theatre to warn the producer and the directors, “There’s a guy in a toga in the bathroom.” They visibly rolled their eyes, and I went out to usher this actor into the lion’s den. The producer said, “Ah, I see you’re doing something modern.” The actor muttered some humorous reply, climbed the stairs to the stage, and launched into a very bad version of “Franz, romance, countrymans” (sounding, in memory. like a bad Schwarzenegger impression). He finished and the producer went up on stage, put a friendly arm around his shoulder, and explained to him why his choices may not have been the best. (For more on this story and others check out Dave’s blog: http://heartyhandclasp.blogspot.com/2014/03/audition-horror-stories.html)

So there you go! As we’ve learned, sometimes dressing for the part can yield positive results but for the most part, it may be just to put your actor hat on and act the part you want. Until next time gang, here’s wishing you a fun Halloween!

Theater Around The Bay: The Audition and Casting Process (Emilio Rodriguez, Janet Bentley)

Part Two of Peter Hsieh’s interview with some of his favorite directors.

Last Time I interviewed Lana Russell and Stuart Bousel about the casting and audition process in regards to new works; here is part two with Emilio Rodriguez and Janet Bentley. I met Emilio while we were at the University of California, Irvine and the pleasure of working with him a year ago when he directed my play Interstate at the Detroit Fringe Festival. I met Janet when she directed the New York premiere of Interstate at T. Schreiber Studio theater. I had a great time working with both these theatre makers and they continue to be at the helm of new works in their respective art communities.

My play Interstate as directed by Janet Bentley.

My play Interstate as directed by Janet Bentley.

Tell us about your experience with new works. What do you enjoy about them? Why is it important to support that avenue of theatre?

Rodriguez: My love of new works didn’t really happen until I started writing. This is why I agree with Paula Vogel, that we need to encourage more people to write; because it changes the way one goes to the theatre and their investment in it.
Now, I not only write and direct new plays but I also curate several new play festivals. I am always excited when I open a new script. There is a spectrum of reactions I can have based on the writing. My favorite is finding something that makes me feel like the wind got knocked out of me. That moment where time stops for a second as you absorb the ending line or stage direction. The beauty of reading new works is that I do not have a cap on how many times I’ll feel that in my lifetime because there will always be more plays to read.

To me, new plays are just as exciting as new music. It’s counterintuitive to me that people will break the internet to buy Beyonce’s newest CD and stand outside in the pouring rain to wait for Best Buy to release Taylor Swift’s newest CD, but when a new play is produced, there is this skepticism; it’s as if everyone is waiting for the new work to have approval of the Pulitzer or a Tony. We need new work. We need new voices. Society is constantly evolving, so our stories need to change with us, just as our music does.

Emilio Rodriguez. Doesn’t want to hear Viola’s Ring monologue anymore.

Emilio Rodriguez. Doesn’t want to hear Viola’s Ring monologue anymore.

Bentley: I started my work in theatre, like most people, in acting. I was raised by an acting teacher who taught me everything I needed to know about The Method and I remember desperately loving text analysis for the actor when I was in my undergrad. Writing character biographies felt like a collaboration with my deepest self and the playwright and that always excited me. When I was accepted into the Iowa Playwright’s Workshop, I was introduced to the exciting process of working alongside living writers of various backgrounds and I was even more charged by the process because I could work together with these writers using active empathy in action – a most satisfying step beyond the silent investigation of works codified by a published final draft and/or the long since deceased and absent writer whose voice had been interpreted many times.

While many theatres often select the “tried and true” classic and/or contemporary well-known play or musical because they are financially looking for a “safe bet”, I am dedicated to the pursuit of new voices, new stories, and new perspectives to support and fulfill into new works because I feel that this is the only way to progress as a species.

What are some of the challenges of casting new works, especially for a festival or evening of multiple plays?

Bentley: Since festivals of new works are often bravely put up by organizations that may or may not have funding to pay the actors, the first challenge is to casting good actors willing to work for free/practically nothing. Of course, I have been working on building a network of smart, collaborative actors who are willing to donate their time to the promotion of new work. I often look for new play development-specific entries on actors’ resumes when casting because this does help me with my decisions. (On that note, I always advocate for some kind of stipend for actors whenever possible because everyone’s work should receive some kind of gesture of thanks).

Janet Bentley. Don’t ‘Sharon Stone’ her at auditions.

Janet Bentley. Don’t ‘Sharon Stone’ her at auditions.

Rodriguez: I try to do auditions for most of the festivals I manage, but this inevitably leads to a few stand out actors who all of the directors want to cast. Because of time constraints, our actors can only commit to so many shows which means that directors often have to compromise on casting. This changes the chemistry between the actors and sometimes the ideal actor that a director fought for doesn’t give the same performance when cast opposite another actor. This is why I sometimes think it’s better to not do auditions for festivals. If all of the directors are comfortable casting on their own, as was the case with the Detroit Fringe festival this year, then I skip the audition process.

There are a lot of people for and against pre-casting. There are a lot of practical reasons it is done (i.e. Writer/ Director had a specific actor in mind), but a lot of people bring up the arguments against it as well. What are your thoughts on pre-casting, and as producer/directors what would you say to Directors and actors in regards to this?

Rodriguez: When I was primarily an actor, I was adamantly against pre-casting. I felt it was unfair to never be given a shot. I just wanted to be seen and have an unbiased opportunity to share my craft. Now that I work more as a playwright and director, I have changed my mind. To me the most important thing is that the best person is cast, whether I find them or they find me. I think it is important that people have the chance to be seen, but also, in order to best honor the playwright, I believe that seeking out talent in advance is sometimes necessary. I try not to precast but I do need to make sure I can cast properly. I usually hold an audition, but I also ask actors who I’m strongly considering for the parts to audition so that I have options if I don’t find the appropriate new talent at the audition. I hope that’s a fair compromise because I do see the validity in both sides of the argument.

Bentley: I think that having people in mind is a natural, inevitable part of the process, but officially pre-casting is a “safe-guard” that can seriously stifle my favorite part of directing: being surprised and inspired by actors. There have been two instances when pre-casting proved to be unwise: once I had someone in mind for the role of Baal, I precast him, and then he moved to Chicago before the show so I held auditions. I saw an actor that I never thought would work and he surprised me – the role brought something out of him that was dying to get out and I was relieved that the other actor had actually left town. The other time, an actress was precast in a short play by the artistic director and though she delivered a decent performance in the end, I was haunted by the audition of another actress who just nailed it. (Yes, they actually made me hold auditions for the role in order to “keep up appearances” – something I would implore other artistic directors never to enforce on their directors).

On the flip side of this: when playwrights write something for a specific actor, this is a different sort of animal. I have a number of actors whose unique qualities are so inspiring that I am entertaining a couple of playwrights with the idea of writing something for these actors (also, I sympathize greatly with the predicament of some actors who are often passed over because they are so unique and specific a type that there are either no roles for them or no directors creative enough to embrace an unconventional interpretation of the production).

Pre-casting. This is the girl.

Pre-casting. This is the girl.

What are some things actors do that make you want to cast them, conversely what are some of the things they do that make you not want to cast them?

Rodriguez: I love working with actors who will try anything and make it work. The skeptical actors, the ones who say “I feel like my character wouldn’t do that” are the ones I tend not to work with again. That’s actually my least favorite phrase and usually a red flag for me in the rehearsal process. I think it’s great that they have a sense of their character, but when they negate choices too early it makes their characters one dimensional. In my opinion, whether it’s a new work or a published script, every character needs to do something unexpected or “out of character” at least once in the play. If an actor truly feels like my direction or my dialogue is detrimental to the performance, we can settle that after they give me a good, fully-committed stab at it.

Bentley: Things that get you cast: being prepared, making choices, being in the moment, punctuality, flexibility, helpfulness, openness, hunger for the process, and courtesy. Conversely, if the actor hasn’t worked on the material and at least googled for definitions and pronunciations, if s/he doesn’t take an adjustment, if s/he is late, or if any of these examples of disregard for the process, I am not interested in casting such an actor.

The minute you walk into the building, you’re “onstage”. If you come to a studio and there is a production SM/audition monitor receiving you and handing you paperwork, which is the beginning of your audition. If you are rude to her/him, the casting directors, etc, will know about it. If you are courteous, organized, and awesome, we will know. If you are to audition with a reader and the scene calls for touching, don’t just touch the reader. Smile, introduce yourself, and politely ask if it is okay to touch their hand or shoulder and accept their answer.

If you are performing a monologue, most audition books warn against using the casting directors and say to find an eye-line above their heads. However, if the text suggests a direct address to the audience, ask the casting directors what their preference is.
What you wear: Example: if you are auditioning for Doubt, don’t buy a nun or priest’s costume and wear it to the audition. Wear something that suggests the tone of the characters like black and white. If you do feel compelled to put on a veil, check what kind of nun you’re going out for before depicting the wrong order (Sisters of Charity wore bonnets and a certain kind of dress similar to their founder in the 19th century so do the research before making the assumption that Sister Aloysis looks like she’s about to sing “Climb Every Mountain”). If you’re going out for the perfect housewife, don’t dress like a 1970s punk. If you’re going out for a slick lawyer, don’t dress like a plumber. Why am I saying this? These things have happened! Neutral and professional is best: darker colors on the feet and pants or skirt / lighter on top. You don’t want the casting directors staring at your feet.

Oh and please do not Sharon Stone the readers and casting directors. Remember Basic Instinct? Don’t do it.

Head Shot: if you don’t look like your head shot, get new ones.
Resume: Please keep it on one page and make sure it is formatted in a professional way (Google templates for entertainment/actor resumes).

Remember Basic Instinct? Newman does.

Remember Basic Instinct? Newman does.

Monologue you’d be okay never hearing again.

Bentley: Bridal Registry from A…My Name Is Alice, The Tuna monologue from Laughing Wild, Anything from Steel Magnolias, Crimes of the Heart, and Star-Spangled Girl.

Rodriguez: Viola’s ring monologue. I hear it every time I direct a Shakespeare show. For contemporary monologues, there is one about a woman eating her ex-husband’s divorce papers and dipping them in Ketchup. It’s a great monologue, but I’ve heard it done by a phenomenal actress so now every time other people do it, I automatically remember how great the first actress was and I tune out as I reminisce.

Some higher power has made you Supreme Overlord of Theatre. Cast your favorite play with any cast you want.

Rodriguez: This is such a fun question! I really want to direct a new play called The Living Life of the Daughter Mira by Matthew Paul Olmos. My dream cast would be Tony Revolori as Lazaro, Aimee Carrero as Luna/Mira, Gina Rodriguez as Maya, Rosie Perez as Lupe, and Raul Esparza as Efren.

Bentley: A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee with John Noble (Fringe TV Show) as Tobias, Helen Mirren as Agnes, Kristine Sutherland as Edna, Anthony Stewart Head as Harry, and Parker Posey as Julia.

Kristine Sutherland and Anthony Stewart Head. Probably familiar if you watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Kristine Sutherland and Anthony Stewart Head. Probably familiar if you watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Emilio Rodriguez is a theatre artist nomad currently residing in Detroit. His most recent play “Swimming While Drowning” was part of the Activate Midwest Festival and the Latino Theatre Commons Carnaval of New Work. It also earned him a residency with UMS, Djerassi, and the Mitten Lab. As a producer, he has worked on the Detroit Fringe Festival, The Michigan Playwrights Festival at Theatre Nova and The Women’s Play Fest at Two Muses Theatre. Women’s Play Fest at Two Muses; Detroit Free Press on Detroit Fringe.

Janet Bentley is a freelance theatre director, actor, writer, dramaturg, literary manager, composer, sound designer, singer, amateur photographer, and company member for the New York-based Nylon Fusion Theatre Company. Janet holds an MFA in dramaturgy from the University of Iowa and a BA in theatre from the University of South Florida (Tampa). She currently lives in New York, NY. Now Playing: http://www.nylonfusion.org/#!comes-a-faery/c1q11 (Sound and original music)
Updates: https://janeturgy.wordpress.com/theatre/.

Peter Hsieh is a playwright from San Jose, California. Recent credits include his play Interstate at the Detroit Fringe Festival and T. Schreiber Studio, Argus at the San Francisco Olympians Festival, and Maybe at Brooklyn College as part of GI60 2015. Additionally, his works have been produced and developed by Hollywood Fringe Festival, Piney Fork Press, Douglas Morrisson Theatre, NYU Performing Arts Club, Nylon Fusion Collective, Actor’s Company, Brooklyn College, North Park Playwright’s Festival, Viaduct Theatre, SPROUT, San Francisco Theatre Pub, World Premiere Weekend, City Light’s Theater Company, GI60, San Jose Rep’s Emerging Artist Lab, West Valley College, and Fringe of Marin. Peter is a graduate from the University of California, Irvine.