Addison — I remember as a young actor romanticizing what life would someday be like — pounding the pavement, trying to prove myself with the perfect monologue and 16-bars. The montage in my mind, played to Broadway Baby, looked like some sort of combination of A Chorus Line and Rocky. In the series of shots of film I work hard, prove myself, and at the end of a 90-second set of clips where I’m systematically rejected, I am starring in a Broadway show. And I lived happily ever after.
I call it the American (theater) Dream — that the most tenacious and hardworking of us will succeed and be stars. That all the roadblocks we come to just need to be crushed by our strong wills and we will “make it.” That there is an “it” to “make.”
I’m writing this from New York, where I’m auditioning people for a workshop of some new 10-minute plays, as part of a program for emerging playwrights called Theatre Masters. A young man came in to audition yesterday and was mortified that he had left his headshot and résumé on a bus seat. I tried to make him feel better about it by saying that perhaps he’ll be discovered by someone who finds it. That’s another possibility of the dream, that you’ll be “discovered” by someone, plucked out of obscurity while you’re working your crappy day job, or on a bus, at some point when things are so bad you’re on the brink of giving up. And you’ll suddenly be a star. And live happily ever after.
The idea of this romantic dream is that the artist has proved themselves through self-sacrifice and determination. If you just work hard enough and have enough grit, the world is your oyster.
The world is so different than a movie, a song, or a montage. The world is much more mystifying, unfair, biased, and complicated than any of those things promise. I have theatre friends who go from Broadway shows to dry periods where they contemplate waiting tables and taking odd jobs. Most theatre professionals I know have a second job even if it’s within the theatre world: teaching, on a theatre staff, doing voice overs, industrial videos, editing commercials, doing corporate training, etc. We are all doing what we can to continue our mission as artists, something we are obviously compelled to do and don’t pursue because it’s easy.
Within this imperfect reality of the theatre world, actors have the constant and unyielding job of auditioning. Continually putting themselves out there to be chosen or not chosen, for a million mysterious reasons that may never be clear. And there’s no end in sight for that. Over these couple of long days in New York I also auditioned a ton of what we would call “successful” actors: people you’ve seen on television shows, who have starred on Broadway, and who this week auditioned for a low-paid contract to do five performances of world premiere 10-minute plays. Because they are working actors who want to work.
But this is where the American (theater) Dream instills a crucial idea into us that hurts us: that there’s a destination. That there’s a goal that we will achieve at the end of our own personal movie montage that will leave us stable, satisfied, happy, etc. But instead the work of life isn’t the destination, it’s the travelling, as we’re reminded over and over in self-help books, bumper stickers, and the Oprah Channel.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t set a course of direction, but my dream is that we spend more time in our theater training and in our theater lives setting internal measurements that are at least as important to us as the measurements and feedback of the outside world. I dream that artists empower ourselves in every moment to do the work we love, to remember why we do it, and to fulfill those internal goals of our artistic work, instead of relying on the fickleness of external validation. That we set personal artistic missions, and create goals for how we want to work and grow. That we are mindful about what we want to express and share in the moments we get to. That in this unfair world we keep focused on what we can influence: our experience and our work. There are always rejections and disappointments, and because every time a hill is climbed, there is another in the distance that is now in focus; and we will have victorious moments like Rocky, but there will be more fights, and sequels upon sequels, and the work will never be truly done.
As a director, I started doing something a few years ago that profoundly helped my practice: the day of a show opening, I write a review of the play. I look at the goals of the production, the obstacles that faced us, the challenges that came up, and the ways in which I led the artists through that. I write a clear and fair assessment not just of the production, but of the process. The result is that I can the work see clearly for myself, learn and grow from it, and have a deep understanding of what I accomplish before any other voices get into my head from the audiences, other artists, or critics.
And now I am experiencing this on an entirely new level, as the Artistic Director of WaterTower Theatre. I’m now in a role that says to many that I’ve “arrived.” I’ve “made it.” But I’m still pounding the pavement, it’s just different pavement now. Different challenges, different kinds of rejection and approval, different wins and losses. And different ways of setting goals for myself and assessing my own work.
I’m reflecting on all of this because we are having general auditions at WaterTower Theatre next week. Auditions, as I’ve said many times before, are a less-than-perfect system. The entire setup is harsh, and taken at face value, it’s a momentary transaction wherein every actor comes in and tries to impress the director in order to be chosen. But I’d like to challenge that mindset, as hard as that might be. And for the sake of this article I’d like to call that mindset “tryouts.” Such as when I tried out for the cheerleading squad in high school (which I did multiple times before they finally let me in). The job of a tryout is to impress. To be the best. To win. If we were to separate that idea from the idea of the audition, what would the audition be?
My dream for auditions is that each actor comes in and performs a piece that they care about and want to work on. That they have a goal for themselves that will be fulfilling for them in that day and that moment. That in that three minutes we spend together the transaction isn’t simply an attempt to impress--it’s a moment of art. That each audition is a micro-version of the beauty of our art form, a meeting of performer and audience. I will bring my best attention, as the professional audience member I am, and the actor comes with something to express and say to me as the audience. That we can all leave the room on the other side knowing that we didn’t just have tryouts that I pass judgement upon, but that we had an experience together.
At last count we will be seeing 305 people next weekend, over two days. It’s going to be intense, and tiring, and I’m looking forward to it. I’m honored to encounter so many artists in one day. I’m excited to give my attention to them, to share space with them, to have these moments. I get to have the energy of hundreds of incredible artists in a room with me, for which I’m incredibly grateful.
In my personal artistic practice I am constantly trying to remind myself of this question: if I reached my destination, if my montage came true, if I did “make it”: how would my life be different? Or, as a wise mentor once told me, “Once you get your foot in the door, what are you going to do with your foot?” And if I can identify that, why not do that part now? And maybe, just maybe, that’s what an audition can be: working on something important to you in that moment that you do have agency over, in a world that leaves actors with very little control. After all, we’re all ultimately theater creators for our individual satisfaction, and maybe it will make us all better artists if we’re honest with ourselves about what how to achieve that. And perhaps that will make us winners of our own respective montages, just in a different way.
» An Artistic Director Prepares runs on the last Friday of the month in TheaterJones.
- January: Where I'm From
- February: Where I'm Going
- March: What Is a Theatre, Anyway?
- April: Our Theatrical Family Tree
- May: Connecting the Dreams
- June: Six Months In
- August: When the Artistic Director is a Director
- September: Happy New Year!
- October: A User's Guide to Previews
- November/December: Me Too