ewhightower

Spelling Bee at Berkeley Playhouse: Auditions and Callbacks

In Employment, Theatre on March 20, 2014 at 10:07 pm

I’m documenting my experience playing Vice Principal Douglas Panch in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at the Berkeley Playhouse (BP). In the past, when I’ve written about my theatrical experiences, it has usually been in hindsight, and/or filtered through a fictional, amalgamized company. The one time I told the truth as I was experiencing it was during Oliver! in Idaho, and I didn’t follow through with consistent writing at the time. In this instance, I plan to document my entire experience, including the highs and lows as they come.

A little background: I’ve been acting for a long time. Started in 1989. In 2009, I hit what I didn’t know at the time was my personal glass ceiling: playing Max Bialystock in The Producers for Solano College Theatre, followed immediately by The Storyteller in The Cotton Patch Gospel for Custom Made in San Francisco. Bialystock won me a Sacramento Elly, Cotton Patch got me nominated for a BATCC Award. Right around that time I was offered a job directing Thoroughly Modern Millie at Solano College, which I accepted.

In hindsight, while it paid very well, directing Millie was the wrong way to go for my career. I didn’t know it at the time, but the Theatre Department at Solano College was on a fast-track to destruction — though at whose hand, precisely, remains a mystery as of this writing. I stuck it out, having been privately told I was the first choice to step in as head of the Theatre Department when George Maguire retired. Directing The Wizard of Oz at SCT in 2011 remains one of the single most disappointing artistic experiences of my career to date, for reasons detailed elsewhere. My last, and apparently final, directing job at Solano College was The Three Musketeers in 2013. Adapted by Charles Morey, that production was in many ways an artistic triumph. However, it was not enough to get me the full-time faculty position at the college, for which I am eternally grateful: it would appear that the college has succeeded in stamping the Theatre Department down into the same realm of mediocrity in which most other community college theatre departments reign supreme. I would have been deeply unhappy under the oppressive thumb of a school determined to disembowel our every endeavor.

Since May of 2013 I have been unemployed. There have been one or two small independent projects which have paid a couple hundred dollars, but I had arrived at a personal crossroads: at age 40 I remained firmly ensconced in a semi-upper echelon of community and regional theatre, not yet a member of Actors’ Equity, but having done this for so long that accepting a $250 travel stipend for a nine week commitment was suicidally embarrassing. I was offered work here and there, but it was all small-time, small-fry, small-pay. 100% Rinky Dink.

The jobs I accepted were the ones that a) paid well and b) weren’t embarrassing.

Then came an opportunity to audition for SHREK! the musical, at Berkeley Playhouse. I leapt at it, fumbling, and failed. First mistake: wrong material. I have nothing in my rep book which would suitably pop me into the Shrek spot in the minds of anyone watching. I sang something that was very general, and quite boring. I knew it at the time, but I was too broke to get my hands on other music. Yes, even taking the bus to the library and photocopying sheet music was impossible. No, nobody who lives close to me has sheet music I could have copied. I was in a pit I had allowed to erode beneath me, but determined to leap out of it by willpower alone.

I was called back for Shrek, but at the callbacks I was seen only for Farquaad. In all honesty, as the Farquaad sides were a late addition via e-mail, I didn’t work terribly hard on them. My work that night was what could only be called pure shit. Truth be told, I was really, really confused: why was I called for Shrek but then lumped in with the Farquaads, with no explanation? I was struck dumb by this turn of events, barely able to speak. It dredged up every lurking phantom of self-doubt, every insidious goblin that has ever jabbed me awake in the wee hours. Had I been out of the game so long? Was I suddenly transformed into everything I loathe?

I had been asked — either in person at the audition, or via e-mail, not sure which came first — if I would also be willing to read for Douglas Panch, the one role which remained uncast in BP’s production of SPELLING BEE. At the callbacks, I was told they would read me for Panch as soon as they could. After reading and singing badly for Farquaad, I waited on the stairs of the Berkeley Ballet School (which shares space with BP) for hours, the numbers of bunheaded women carrying heavy dance bags down the stairs dwindling along with the numbers of actors called back in the foyer below.

Asking an audition intern/assistant if I was in fact called back for Shrek, I felt certain I had misunderstood: I must have misread the e-mail, I must have mis-heard their words at the audition; he confirmed, however, that I was called for Shrek. This only served to compound my doubt. It was as I was sitting on those steps, listening to several other men singing the music I had worked for the last two weeks to master, that I made up my mind to leave. Had there been a back door, I probably would have. But the only way out of there was down the stairs, past other people and past the doors to the callbacks space. If the doors opened as I was making my getaway, wowsers, everything that was bad would be worse. I sat, frozen with indecision, very much aware of how pathetic my situation had become: my work is so universally unknown that I am sitting here thinking of ways to escape an audition for what is, essentially, a community theatre.

I was read for Panch by Matthew McCoy, Casting Director and Assistant to the Artistic Director. He recorded my reading via tablet or smartphone of some sort, to e-mail to Kimberly Dooley, director of SPELLING BEE. He thanked me for waiting, I replied with something amusing and polite — I’m full of amusing and polite statements in case of soul-crushing embarrassment — and, rather than raise the question of for which role, precisely, I had been called back, I quietly collected my belongings and left.

I could not trust myself to keep it together, whichever way things might fall. I have dissolved once when discussing an issue with a director, and I will never allow myself to do so again.

No surprise came with the e-mail telling me that I was not cast in Shrek!, but the e-mail that came a couple weeks later offering me the role of Panch was a pleasant surprise.

Here’s what I believe now: I was never seriously called back for the role of Shrek, for any number of reasons (non-AEA? Poor audition material? The role was pre-cast?), and Farquaad was an afterthought. Panch was what they wanted.

This job pays more than most other local non-AEA jobs, but my preliminary calculations indicate that I’m making about $.26 per hour. My unemployment has run out. I did not get the job at REI. We have many expenses. Veronica will only tell me how she truly feels about my employment status when she is intoxicated.

I hear it a lot these days.

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  1. I’ve seen this play. Everyone should go see it.

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