An actor goes to an audition with dismal prospects, high hopes and a terrible sense of direction. 2,447 words. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
The cold metal doors slam shut, and I am sealed in, coffin-like, for a smattering of seconds or even for a minute or more. But this will pass. I will endure; I always have. Breathe now — slow from the gut, deep down within the solar plexus. Slower — till the lungs, every inch, are full and aching. Hold. Exhale. Better. Yes. I control my fate. Breath of life, breath of life, breath of life.
My eyes open with the elevator doors, and I move to exit this vertical casket. “Wrong floor, sweetheart. I think you want seven,” warns a small corpulent woman blocking my path. We ride in silence but the woman, sensing my phobia of small spaces, kindly relinquishes as much of the elevator square footage as she can. She doesn’t know that, in my early youth, I had once been trapped in a smashed-up Buick, submerged on a river bottom with my family dead all around me. I survived off trapped air from an empty Thermos till those divers came.
Well, actually — no, that’s not really true. It had happened to my friend Kenny, not me. My invented past can seem so real. God knows I utilize it every chance imaginable for “sense memory.” Pathetic, isn’t it, to have no real trauma of your own? Is it my fault that, as the only child of diplomats, my upbringing was so uneventful? I’ve always been jealous of those raw-nerve actors with some hellish past to draw upon as grist for the creative mill. Maybe that’s why I am still a nobody with an ever-closing five year window to play leads. Yet I try to stir up faux claustrophobia to cover the anticipatory dread of an audition.
The elevator doors open, and I, Josh Barnes, the handsome-ish everyman — early 30s to mid-40s — exhale into the casting anteroom. A dozen others, all from the same narrow band of eerily similar likeness, are spaced around. Some I know, some I know too well. Most sit, many pace, all giving each other as wide berth as they possibly can. Everyone has the same three pages of ‘sides" in their hands. The room is silent but for rustling paper and the compound murmuring.
I spy the small corpulent woman again. I note she must work here.
I endure 45 minutes of hell, then a voice calls from across the room. I keep my breathing steady and take measured steps over to a flimsy card table.
“You’re here for the lead, right?”
What? I’m not right for the lead? This lead? Any lead? Was that an insinuation?
“Just do the first two scenes, and we are 10 behind at least, so it’s gonna be short and sweet." Then I’m led into The Room. It is beige on beige, dim, and far too large for this activity. A harsh spotlight on a C-stand roasts a wooden chair with a sickly hue. A video camera blinks a steady red dot. Three figures sit at a long table with notebooks and refreshments in front of them. I am led to this tribunal that will mete out judgment upon my soul. Or at least my career.
I am introduced to the unholy Trinity. “This is Josh Barnes, a multi-Obie nominated vet of local theater. He’s done all the Dick Wolf shows, too,”
Ian, the director, is pale as a corpse, with about the same pleasant demeanor, long unkempt hair, and a hideously expensive pre-distressed leather jacket. Saul, the producer, sports a supernatural tan, his teeth dazzling white which can’t be real. And, lastly, Marla, the casting director, who’s wearing layers upon layers of billowy fabric hiding her body, with masses of orange-brown locks and huge tinted glasses obscuring her heavily made-up face.
First comes the requisite ritual known as icebreaking, a sussing-out through unplanned chit-chat to obtain a general indication of social comfort level. This is going on a bit longer than normal. Which is good, very good. Someone who has borrowed my skin and my voice is nimbly carrying on in a marvelous urbane style, bantering with these three like we’ve all known each other since university.
Then, with a clearing-of-the-throat signal, it begins — The Audition.
“We’re doing a cop show loosely based on Hamlet. Well, inspired by, really,” Marla says.
“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are deadbeats, perhaps?” I quip.
“Pimps, actually,” says Saul, trampling my witticism.
“I have done the bard on several occasions.” I shrug modestly yet confidently. “Midsummer at The Guthrie, three splendid Ashland summers, and twice in the Park back in the glory of the Papp years. Never the Scottish play, however, and never shall I.”
The director loosens into the barest of smiles. “West End ever?” Ian asks, covering his Midlands accent well. He doesn’t even bother to look up from a thorough perusing of my res. A nervous cough scoots out of my mouth.
“Alas, despite my agent’s enthusiasm, only as an understudy,” I confess.
Ian looks up, his cold reptilian heart clearly revealed through his narrow gray eyes. “Well, I saw that particular production,” he says, then milks a dramatic pause far too long. “Just as well you never made the stage. Truly dreadful. This, as you may know, is a cutting-edge premium cable television series about an actor of immense talent and meager success who moonlights as a beat cop.”
“Versa visa really,” says Saul.
“Pardon?” Ian flinches at this latest interjection. Saul sighs.
“Our guy moonlights as a working actor. You had it ass backward.”
“Saul, I know what moonlighting is. Do you really think I don’t?” Ian bristles.
I thank God for someone else’s tension filling the room.
“Anyhoo, we are thinking of going unknown,” Marla says with a wink, meaning this might be the most important day of my entire life. “Clooney wanted that bridegroom part in Sideways, you know that? But the director said, ‘No star baggage, I want fresh faces,’ and all that fucking crap. Smart kid, that director.”
“That actor wasn’t completely unknown — he’d done a great many things,” Ian corrects.
Marla turns the focus back to me. “What we are trying to say, Joshua, is that what Sopranos did for the then unknown Jimmy Gandolfini, this will do for whosoever we cast. That kind of zeitgeist part.”
My agent was right. Never was I more perfect for a role. Josh, you have waited a lifetime for this one, and the wait was worth it. Zeitgeist indeed.
But she wants a cold read. A trained chimpanzee, am I, to dance for her pleasure and ridicule because of an inadequate haphazard snippet with no relevance whatsoever to theater, cinema, or even cable acting? Nevertheless, I courageously barrel through the shopworn Shakespeare condensed and truncated in the sides. But I do the actual text from memory, which seems to please Ian but thoroughly confuses Saul.
Then I am asked to utter some truly awful modern law-enforcement dialogue. “Freeze, you piece-of-shit skell! Come out now and live a decent life. Or stay in that would-be tomb and die a miserable forgotten death!” I say without believing a word.
And it’s over. A dead-air pause hangs in the room like fresh gun smoke. Saul pours another glass of water. Marla checks her watch. I admit that last part was somewhere on the lackluster spectrum. Perhaps I should ask to give it a second go? And what exactly is a skell? Oh yes, skeleton, of course! I should have used a Yoric reference. Anything, other than that bland atrocious read.
I sigh, ready to stand and walk out of the room. Back to scraping by to keep up minimum payments on three maxed-out credit cards. Back to the prospect of dinner theater in the Poconos or a cruise performance of Cactus Flower. Back to a long slow suicide disguised as a life.
“Now that we’ve done the basics, I’d like to venture off book and do a little exercise,” Ian says. Saul rolls his eyes and makes a “jerk-off” hand motion.
Ian makes me repeat those same trite lines again and again, but this time with a new patois or brogue that he tosses to me at the last possible instant.
“South Boston! Appalachian! Irish! Cockney! French! Aussie! Jamaican! Mentally challenged! Afrikaner!” he shouts. Not only do I bat back each volley with near flawless diction and tasteful nuance, I even assume radical new postures to complement each voice. The loping gait of a tall Jamaican. The impudent squat of a small Frenchman. The bodily blarney of an inebriated Celt. This is a perfect showcase for my talents. Thank God for Gary Austin’s improv workshop and Easton’s dialect classes. Worth every penny, more than Northwestern and Juilliard combined.
The casting director can’t help smiling. The producer nods approval to her. But this coy director covers his face, trying to hide what must be his pleasure with my seasoned protean craft. Finally, he stares for a long moment.
“Yes, very nice indeed, Mr. Barnes,” Ian says. “But can you be — street? Our character has a certain lower socioeconomic background. You seem a bit well-fed/well-bred.”
“We may go ethnic,” explains Marla.
“Depends on the talent pool out there,” Saul says.
“The question here is one of believability. Street cred as they say,” adds Ian, laying down a new gauntlet for me.
I am hiding behind a weakening grin. Then it dawns on me — Josh, you must simply channel one Eddie Pelotti, the worst roommate who ever lived. Use him. Embody him. Let his animalistic fervor, even his bad cologne, fill the room.
I crouch on my haunches in the corner, exhale a 15 second moan, then slowly boil up to a Joe Pesce-like anger, moving cat-like toward the director. “Kiddin’ me with this shit? You want street, huh? You arrogant little limey cocksucker. You think you can come o’er to my country, my city, my neighborhood, and fuckin’ talk like that to me? I will bitchslap you back to Birmingham then suck out your eyeballs one by one and skull fuck you six ways from Sunday. Cuz not fer nuthin’ motherfucker, I AM THESE STREETS!”
Ian jumps back in his chair as if yanked with a rope.
“Scene,” I intone and nearly curtsy.
Ian exhales with relief.
“Need to change shorts, Ian?” says Saul, and Ian smiles back. These two adversaries are now united by their adoration of my work. I do a sharp nod and turn to leave. It is a mere dozen steps to the door. Well, actually, there are two doors, but I do not notice this as I am walking on air, wondering how will I deal with the paparazzi hounding me now that Barnes-mania is everywhere.
Then darkness suddenly closes in once more. What? Has the power gone off in this 20-story building? A blackout all over the city?
Then I realize. I have walked into a closet, not exited back into the anteroom. This is where I am now. Easy enough to do. Easy enough to undo. I could immediately laugh and scoot back out — “Whoops, wrong door” — but I’ve waited too long.
I reach out to the knob but cannot make my hand begin to twist it. Every second I remain compounds the issue tenfold. Perhaps they don’t even know what’s in this room. Or that I am in it. Sweat begins to soak through every layer of fabric I wear. I must wait this out now, however long it takes. A new burden to bear.
Through a crack in the door I see the small corpulent woman bring in the next actor. He bested me for a soap two years ago and for Biff in Salesman at The Kaleidoscope. My eyes begin to adjust to the dark. I can see there is supply shelving in here but not much more. I gently remove a tall cardboard cylinder and fill it to the brim with my bladder’s release. I nearly drop it.
“Freeze, you piece-of-shit skell. Come out now!” I know these lines. But I nearly come out as ordered. Oh God, what to do? Why can’t I move? I could tell them I wanted this part so badly, I went into the closet on purpose just to recon my competition. Ethically questionable, yes, but that kind of dedication is also admirable. Better than the horrible truth that I simply blundered.
I peek out as the small crpulent woman brings in yet another thesp. I notice she sees me and does a double take. I pray she keeps this secret to herself.
Actor after actor enters, chats, spouts Shakespeare, shouts “skell,” then leaves. Seconds, minutes, an hour melts into a temporal smear. Memories, lies, reviews, delusions, soliloquies, fears, footlight glimpses, snapshots of relationships half-forgotten. This is where acting has led me — on the brink of dreams, but in fact entombed here in abject mortification.
I decide it’s time to face my harshest truths now, starting with the fact my name isn’t Joshua or Barnes. It’s Oswald Specker. From Ft. Logan, North Dakota. I was a quiet orphan, then foster charge of a series of lowlife scoundrels and meth-addled mothers. I dropped out of a junior college in Illinois near Northwestern, where I haunted the theater bars wishing to be of that world. Later, marginally, I was. Learning to be a chameleon, regurgitating author’s lines, aping others’ lives, feigning and pretending. My life has been nothing but one long deceit within a sorry fraud wrapped around a never-ending charade.
I feel as if I have taken my last step in this life. It is madness where I am now.
Whoever you are — do something! At least choose to disappear. That’s a thought. If I could only stop breathing, slow my heart to a stop and still my blood. What a righteous act that would be. To will my will to cease.
Then something happens. A soft click, nothing more. I let go of it all — fear, hope, regret, anger, lust, fame, everything. I fall fetal on the floor. I am rising now, up from darkness, toward infinite light. I see Saul, Marla and Ian are heading out the casting room door on their way to lunch. A moment later I see the small corpulent woman tiptoeing near and knocking gently on the closet door.
“You take a nap in there, sweetie?” she says, pulling the door open to check on me. "Tough little sitch ya got yourself into, huh? I’ll never tell — trust me on this. You and two others. Call back. Thursday.”
"Zeitgeist," I hear myself whisper as she backs out and leaves me alone.
Television Fiction Package for Emmy Season