I always read with interest whether it's on these pages of Scene 4 or elsewhere the audition experiences of those in the acting profession. Their experiences are sometimes humorous, bitter, sad, nerve wracking but always illuminating. My experiences are no different. Much of my auditions (both good and bad) took place in Austin, Texas in the 90's.
For several decades now, Austin has been known as a vibrant community for live music entertainment. Connoisseurs of PBS are surely familiar with the popular Austin City Limits. What folks may not be aware of is the growing importance of Austin as a legitimate venue and proving ground for would be film makers and actors. The 90's gave rise to such Austin talent as Mike Judge (Office Space, Beavis and Butthead, King of the Hill), Richard Linklater (whose film Slacker was a dead on portrayal of the aimless, eccentric characters populating Austin at that time), and Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids, Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn, SinCity). Rodriguez's first film El Mariachi wasn't pretty but it was good enough to gain access to bigger budgets and greater fanfare. El Mariachi was financed in part by participating in medical research studies. And yes that is what one did at the time (me included) when one was between auditions, music gigs, travels etc. You did that or sold blood. Pick your poison. We didn't wait tables. That's an LA thing. It turns out Big Pharma pays out big bucks to research subjects willing to endure constant blood draws, strict diets, cranky staff, adverse reactions to experimental drugs, and severe isolation.
But that's a topic for another talk show as they say. Those were the days. Everyone who owned a movie camera back then called themselves a director. Everyone else – actors. And what do actors do? They audition. And while the good auditions were interesting in and of themselves, I feel we learn more about the acting profession and more about ourselves from the bad ones. And they're fun to write about.
Over the years my worst experiences have gained such notoriety in my mind that I've given them their own monikers.
The Backyard Production: This was one of my first and definitely more bizarre auditions. The audition was held at a house in an older Austin residential neighborhood where neighborhood watch parties meant that the neighbors frequently watched crimes being committed. I arrived at the appointed time without a hitch (I had forgotten my bullet proof vest). I was ushered into the house and was told to wait in a closet. Already off to an inauspicious start. A friggin' closet. It seems that the audition before mine was running long. I remember the closet walls were painted green. Maybe this was their version of the "green room" I kept hearing about. But where were the refreshments? Luckily, I didn't have to wait terribly long with me being claustrophobic and all. I was led outside to the back yard and greeted by a young couple with a faraway look in their eyes. I was beginning to wonder if they were recruiters for a cult. But I kept an open mind and heard what they had to say. The "production" as they called it would take place in the backyard. Some scenes might require nudity. People would be bussed in to see the "production". Who these people would be was never made entirely clear. Were they prisoners? The homeless? I dunno, but it seems that there would be a captive audience. Alarm bells should have gone off in my head but I still kept an open mind. Hey I wanted to act and get some credits under my belt so I proceeded to do a cold reading. I had to start from the alley and walk toward the back door while saying my lines. The only problem with this scenario as it turns out is that we weren't going to be miked. So screaming the lines was necessary in order to drown out the neighborhood noise – gunshots, dogs and cats, domestic disputes…well you get the picture. After running through the lines several times, we did an improvisational exercise which went well. I was beginning to feel a little reassured at this point. Maybe they had at least a rudimentary knowledge of acting and theater. But alas I never got a call back which was probably a good thing. I drove back to the audition site weeks later only to find the house vacant and in disrepair. It looked as if someone got out of there in a hurry.
What I've Learned: Just because someone has an audition posted on some bulletin board or some web site doesn't mean it's an all together legitimate enterprise. Do some research. Be careful. Be very careful. Keep an open mind but also find an open door to make your escape if necessary. Maybe their intentions were good but the execution was terrible.
Dead Bodies On The Highway: The burgeoning Austin film community of the 90's coincided with a vibrant, thriving, local theater scene as well. One such theater was holding auditions for adult roles in a children's stage production. It had something to do with pirates is all I remember. I had a successful audition at the same theater several months earlier. So I was looking forward to the audition. On the drive there, I witnessed a horrific scene on the highway. It appeared a car crash had just happened. Two bodies had been ejected from their car and it became quite apparent that they were dead. I had a sickening feeling in my stomach knowing that there was nothing I could do to help. First responders had just gotten to the site when I drove by. This powerful imagery did nothing to bolster my confidence for the audition. When I arrived, I decided to perform a dreary piece I wrote about what else – dead bodies. I tried to make the mood work for me – it didn't. I tried to offer an explanation for my state of mind. But the director wasn't very engaging and I left the audition more depressed than when I arrived.
What I've Learned: It's up to the actor to elevate the mood and not let circumstances derail an audition. Bad choices lead to bad auditions. The choice of monologues did not help in this situation. The old maxim "The show must go on" is true. It will go on with or without you.
The Southern Lawyer: While Austin could brag about the occasional big budget blockbuster, most of what was being offered up to local thespians was a steady diet of low budget affairs with lame scripts. I've had my share of those. One such enterprise had me reading the part for a "southern" lawyer. After all, I've got the southern part down. It wouldn't be a big stretch of my limited talents. I figured I could out good ol' boy the next guy. What I didn't realize at the time is that my definition of "southern" was different from the director's definition. It was a script he had written and was evidently proud to present to the community as outstanding. It was nothing of the sort. In my initial reading, I was already changing my lines. Needless to say, he wasn't happy with my changes. He told me to read again as it was written and to sound less southern. I read again feeling less comfortable about the role. I focused on my cadence and delivery but my accent remained unchanged. I was asked to read once more with a stern warning to sound less southern. Now I was down right confused. After all the description of the role I was auditioning for clearly stated that the character was a "southern" lawyer. Maybe I was coming off as too "hillbilly" or too "redneck". Maybe what he was after was a southern gentility a la Atticus Finch. I somehow missed the acting classes that dealt with accents and dialects. I had only seconds to figure out how I would proceed for my third and last reading. I decided to ditch the southern accent all together which is not easy for me to do. Again he was no more satisfied than the first time I read. Was there another part I could read for? No, there was not. I was unceremoniously dismissed.
What I've Learned: Never, ever change someone's script or ad lib during an audition unless expressly permitted to do so. Doing so will get you off on the wrong foot. While you might think the script weak and unworkable, the person who wrote it is proud of it and doesn't want to see it compromised. Do take the class on accents and dialects and please be advised that "southern" lawyers are not always southern.
Remember The Alamo: We're now in the 2000's. A remake of the classic film The Alamo which starred John Wayne was in the works. Texan John Lee Hancock would helm the director's chair and Billy Bob Thornton would play the role of Davy Crockett. I was ecstatic as I attended a huge casting call at a downtown Austin Hotel. When I arrived, I felt that filming had already commenced. I was surrounded by hundreds of people already in period costume. No one had told me to wear a bear skin coat and a coon skin cap. Did I miss something I wondered? I was dressed as a cross between a Vegas lounge lizard and a drugstore cowboy. The funny thing about it is that I was actually measured for wardrobe. The audition was not so much an audition as an interview. I left the hotel not feeling good about my prospects.
What I've learned: Sometimes in order to play the part you must look the part. And while I was ultimately unsuccessful in securing a role I would learn about the wonderful world of reenactors and the valuable service they provide on the set of many a film. They provide the passion and commitment needed for historical accuracy deemed necessary in films with battlefield scenes.
Well I've told you my stories, tell me yours. When you audition, you might not get the part but you'll learn something invaluable about yourself and human nature. And I promise you, you'll be better off for it.