I wrote this in July of ’09. I am amused by my own belly button gazing and the absolutely panicky tone. I’m all over the place. I’m long-winded. I’m trying too hard. Right now, I’m howling rereading it. Laughter? Pain? I want to edit, edit, edit. (I was so into the incomplete sentence a year ago.) I won’t. I’m going to let it stand. It is my prologue.
My New Side, born 18 months ago after a harrowing car accident, is amused by my lack of alacrity in opening it. “What’s the worst thing it could say? You didn’t make it? You were there. You did it. Whether or not you are a fit with that group is irrelevant. Take this opportunity to learn how to get a rejection. Heck, print it up and frame it. Your first official improvisation rejection. And,” she says with a twinkle, “you never know. You just may actually have to deal with a congratulations!” My Chatter Clowns, firmly planted in my left brain from birth it seems, are already pecking me: how self-unctuous is it to publish your own blog? Did you just use the word “unctuous.” Stop stalling and start writing! Is anybody there? Does anybody care? (My Chatter Clowns like to quote verses from classic Broadway musicals.)
Since my car accident in November of 2007, I’ve attempted to harness the clowns that slyly get me to trail my toe through my own self-analyzing wading pool. Part of the reason for studying improv is to get out of my head and focus on the here and now, to give the clowns a break, and try to trust that other half of my brain, the Primal Artist and shut out the self criticizing, envious, insecure ego and to stop analyzing and turning every look, every nuance, every piece of non-verbal communication for what it really means. (A handy skill for an English teacher.) I can find symbolism and meaning and woe in a nutrition label….not healthy though. All interactions become meta conversations.
Improvisation is supposed to yank you out of your own bs, focusing you on your partner, your environment. In a perfect world, you step aside and let the divine creative voice take over, hopefully distracting your left brain enough with object work and wondering if the class is going to go out for coffee after playing its zillionth round of Freeze Tag.
When it works, it is glorious, liquid, beyond you, explosive. When it doesn’t work it’s like my audition this morning.
I love auditioning. I am pretty good at it. Frankly, I often feel I disappoint my directors because I tend to take several rehearsals to get back to the level of insight, ability, and energy that seems to come so effortlessly in auditions…because I am not in my head in auditions.
I like the psychology of auditioning. It plays to my strengths: working under pressure, not showing nerves, reading an audience, reading a script, quick analysis, while under pressure to perform being able to remember basic tenets of success.
What is impossible to prepare for, of course, is other people. For a life-long planner like me, that’s tricky. In an audition where 75% is improvisation, necessarily focusing on others, reacting, responding, breathing in concert with an actor you met by the vending machine, creating a character based solely on the fact that you’ve got serious pit stains from flop sweat making you pull your arms in tightly around you, inspiring a whole pinched approach to life…well, for a life-long planner like me it’s both terrifying and liberating.
It is, in some cases like today, a place for me to fail publicly and completely, both victim and master of disposable art.
Maybe being in the official SC uniform — dark pants, solid button-down, gave me a false sense of security, an arrogance. How surprised was I to see my 9 fellow auditioners in jeans and tees. Except for one guy: jeans and a sweater. It’s July. It’s 85 degrees out. Get your Bill Cosby sweater-wearing behind to Target.
There’s something about being in the lobby of Second City that makes me look for cosmic signs, as though Belushi and Radner were trying to break through the firmament and give me semi-sarcastic thumbs up. Usually before class if one of the security guards whose uniform fits him like a stripper (velcro tabs in the back?) gives me his usual “Hey there, Mama” greeting, I know I’m in for a rollicking class. If the second soap dispenser from the left in the doors-always-open ladies’ room is broken, well, it’s not that class is bad, I just feel so dirty.
Today some interesting signs — I saw dear Arthur, whom I haven’t laid eyes on in months (although I follow his antics religiously on Facebook. Arthur has the most disgusting and hysterical experiences on Chicago Public Transportation). We chit-chatted. Arthur said I was funny. I think that’s like saying “Hamlet” backstage at a theater, cuz after that, all hell broke loose.
Was that Peyton Daley? That’s an awesome sign. It should mean something besides the fact that she probably teaches a class on Saturday morning.
Do we get some sort of credit for being awake, willing, and not hung over on a Saturday morning?
At 9:59, Intern comes out with the giant black check-in table and says they are running late. Thanks for our patience. All the folks hanging around the lobby who are just there to be loud and funny before class leave. We’re left with ten of us. In an effort to be super-tricky, I turn around to see who I will be auditioning with…who am I there to make look good? Who are these 9 other people there to make me look good (gotta love those odds!) And, crap. They’re all sitting together. I go over to introduce myself to my new besties. Crap. They all know each other from class, other shows, yoga, previous lives…I lost count after awhile. I am concerned because they are all so happy to be auditioning with each other and look at me like I’m from Peter Horton from Children of the Corn — not because I’m an interloper, but because they know there’s a real possibility I will go on to star in The Geena Davis Show and that is quite unforgiveable.
The director comes out and herds us all into a classroom. Apparently Room 402 is where all the action is because every audition I’ve had at Second City (two now!) has been there, and there is a hand written note telling some other class to go elsewhere. We’re squatters already.
Starts out typical — introduce yourself to the panel of writers and director. Say your favorite snack food. Although I’m pretty sure this is just a way to see if we’re poised and give the panel a way to remember us, my fellow auditioners start fretting over their snack choices. Do I really believe that you eat peanut butter straight out of the jar after putting both chocolate chips and potato chips on there? No. No I do not. Do I need to hear your dissertation on why mixing together buttered popcorn and Goobers and/or Raisinets makes your movie going experience that much more enjoyable? Then it’s my turn. “Jackie Pick. Doritos” After five dissertations on savory, sweet, and combo snacks (“I like Bubble Gum Ice Cream at Baskin Robbins.” No, you don’t. No one over the age of 6 can eat that and not want to immediately beat themselves silly with Tiger Beat), the writers grin, perhaps smirk, at my brevity. They are shocked and look up from whatever they’re scribbling, not sure if I’m just taking a dramatic pause. I’m not. If you’re going to cast us all based on this and this alone, at least you know I’m not going to make your show run long with my crazy editorializing about the merits of Sour Patch Kids mixed with Jicama chips.
I’m feel trapped in some sort of bizarre competition here. The 4 folks after me seem to be straining for the Right Snack. One gal is actually a little pissed that someone “took hers.” Yeah, you’re the only one in the world who eats Peanut M&Ms. Way to blaze trails.
I wait for the first instruction and see that half of the actors are waving — waving — at the writers.
The writers wave back. It is at this point I feel that I’ve lost any edge I had being the only one in the “Second City Uniform” of dark pants and a solid button down shirt.
We move on to the nebulous “I’m going to call your name. Start a scene and then 1 or 2 people from the back row come in and support them.” I don’t know if that’s the actual name. Probably not. There’s a shorthand to naming improv games. Explaining the games often takes longer than playing them ( “Bunny Bunny” for example.) The part of this that resonates with me, because Lord knows I’m always trying to figure things out, is that the person whose name is called INITIATES the scene. Then some brave souls, who may or may not jump out at the same time, joins in.
My interpretation was way off, and it was a free for all. Tom is called? Tom may or may not initiate the scene, depending on whether Lola jumps in to “help” and opens her mouth first. Whoever speaks first, apparently, gets the points. At least in the mind of the actors.
I of course was determined not only to use my ever-honed improv skills (come in with a character! how do you feel about the other character?! And, if feeling snazzy, play the opposite of what’s expected.) but also to follow the rules. You call my name, I’m going to initiate. No one, of course told my scene partner this.
I went out and took a second to notice my body position. I opened my mouth, rather curious as to what would come out. I realized I was about to start a Segue tour of Gitmo. Topical! Funny! Damn it all if Vanessa jumped out from the back line, God bless her, and started a scene that was not the one in my head. It took me a second to recover and say something brilliant (I think I came up with the astounding, “Yes!”). I spend the rest of that 30 seconds pissed that people weren’t playing by the rules and more pissed that I was absolutely being dragged behind some sort of improv car and desperately simultaneously dragging my feet to slow down the vehicle because of risk of bodily harm and not wanting to slow the car down because the scene was well underway and I needed to go along for the ride.
That, by the way, that mangled, over-reached for analogy? That was the level of my audition today. Awfully precocious.
I of course jumped in to support other people’s scenes, my instructors’ guidance at the forefront: Be there for your partner. Make your partner look good. All scenes are about relationships.
I went out with Bill, who seemed to be taking a moment to ground himself in his environment. I dig that. I waited and saw him raise his arms quietly, as though he were about to give a sermon of some sort. Then he looked at me, bobbled his arms, and screamed, “And that’s how you juggle hamsters.”
The writers laughed.
I paid close attention to my gut reaction. Are you shitting me with this? Yeah, I can go with disbelief…and now who am I in relation to rodent juggling dude? His manager. Good. My hand is already on my hip. Use that.
That thought process, mercifully, takes less than a second. Juggle Man is still screaming at me.
I hold my hand up, “Phil, I…”
Phil the Juggling apparently works solo. “Pick up your hamsters over there and start juggling.” I did.
“And the skunk! Don’t forget the skunk!”
“I — ”
I was now down to single syllables and juggling my improv roadkill.
Finally, Phil/Bill took a breath and I saw my chance to do my thing.
And I asked a question. I could see Ghosts of Belushi and Radner and Marion Talbot (the resident ghost of my college dorm) cringe, wince, and go to squat over by Phil/Bill to catch any errant hamsters that got away.
“And…scene!” called the director.
Next challenge? Be called out with two other people, be given a location, and … scene! I was in a scene with two of the more aggressively perky young women. Aggressive doesn’t bother me. Perky bothers me.
“You are…on a front porch…go”
I immediately struck a pose like I was leaning back against a railing, looking out at the view. My two partners looked at me, shrugged, and proceeded to knock on an improv door. Instead of looking out at a view, I was now staring at improv aluminum siding. And I now had to justify that. To be sure, I looked like a jerk.
The other two gals got into an argument about who was going to ring the bell and who was going to light the bag of poo. I stood there and tried to turn my “staring off into the distance after a satisfying meal of steak and maybe a nice glass of port” into “staring into the window of a house we are about to vandalize.”
Starblossom and I’m-Wearing-A-Knit-Scarf-in-July-Because-I-Look-Artistic stopped arguing. Starblossom said to me, “Well, what do you think we should do?”
I said, in an attempt to be slow, laconic, sincere, and different from the hyperactive poo flamers they were establishing, “Well, whatever you decide is fine. I know that with all this planning, nothing could possibly go wrong.”
“Are you being sarcastic?”
“Nope. I mean every word of that. This is a really great idea,” I said with the earnestness and sincerity of a Sesame Street muppet (if you ever want to learn how to be devoid of sarcasm, watch that show.)
“I think you are being sarcastic. I’m in National Honors Society. I know these things.”
There were two things I could do here. I could get into an argument, which is easy and not particularly interesting for very long, or I could do something else.
Like panic and say nothing. Which is exactly what I did. I shrugged and let the two of them argue for a while and finally said, exasperated, “I’m going to ring the doorbell.”
And I did. And while I screamed and pretended to run, they just stood there. Let’s play “Who Looks Like a Jerk?”
Finally, the poor pained director stopped our scene. The writers had the decency not to make eye contact with me. I love pity. It at least is better than being ignored entirely.
Finally, the scenes were handed out. We were assigned parts to read over and given about 2-3 minutes to go over them with our partners. I was paired with Starblossom. By the grace of God, my character had some damned good lines. Also working in my favor was that this was a stereotypical scene of stereotypical Jewish mothers at what appeared to be a rather stereotypical Bar Mitzvah. Talk about a wheelhouse.
My only screw up was one part where my character says something about the coffee she’s drinking. I somehow managed to drink my improv coffee after saying the line, but maybe the panel thought I was going for a prognosticating angle. Or they thought I was stupid. Either way, I got a few laughs at what was a fairly bland script.
In a moment of weakness, panic, and perhaps mild embarrassment, I hear the bouncing chatter in the back of my head, little evil Chatter Clowns in little evil hooped pants giggling merrily. The clowns all have names. Babies Were Up All Night; Hubs Is Pokey and Made Me Late (he’s tied at the hip to That Drives Me Nuts); Everyone Thinks I Should Be Better At This Than I Am; I’ve Been in a Slump in Class for Four Weeks; I’m Feeling Bloated and Unfunny; and Frank. I hate Frank. Frank is the smallest Chatter Clown, not unlike Willie Olsen, who knows my weak spot. Frank is Ever-present Failure.
Frank has been on vacation for the last 18 months and I’d sincerely hoped he’d retired.
I thought about my teachers. Kim, Matt, Brian, Kevin, and that dude who looked like Treat Williams who covered on class who I adore to this day for his Zen Approach. Mark? Mike? What would they tell me at this point, the point of no return, the point where it’s just not going anywhere good but you have about half a mile to go before you break the tape and someone hugs you and hands you some Gatorade and tells you all about how they followed you to three separate check-in points.
Have fun. I’d forgotten to have fun. I was having less and less fun as the audition went on. That is my fault and my fault alone, but easily resolved. I was ready for what would probably be the last part of the audition.
Other actors read their scenes and the director had us line up one more time in front of the panel. I was itching to do something…hopefully a singing game. I love those. I smile and feel confidence warmly tingle my toes.
“All right, we cast pretty quickly so if you’re in, you’ll get a call in the next day or two. Thank you all very much!”
Fun would be had another time.
I thanked the panel as I gathered my things. Director started talking with Starblossom and her scarf(!) and about how many times they’ve bumped into each other on the improv scene here in Chicago.
I figure at worst, my audition success rate is 50%, which is pretty darned good.