Yes, I can be petty.
I wrote in my previous post that I was not an actor yet still had a Bacon Number. The truth is that at one point in my life, I did want to be an actor. In my four years of high school, I was in the drama department for three and a half years. I took part in our school’s productions of Childe Byron, A Thurber Carnival, Bullshot Crummond, Don’t Drink the Water, The Shadow Box, Hagar’s Children, and The Rimers of Eldritch. I also competed in drama competitions and festivals throughout the Southern California area. I only garnered a sole award during my time treading the boards in front of judges, but it was a first place accolade and it was one for the ages.
When I went from high school to college, I did not major in drama. Instead, I opted for a communications major because I wanted to work in radio. Radio, to me, was still drama and acting, but only from an audio point of view. I still adored theater and so I thought I continue with my thespian experience and stun the folks at Northwestern University with my dramatic chops by auditioning for various plays whenever I felt the urge. I was thinking I was akin to the star varsity player walking on to the college football team and making it as a starter.
This weekend marks the 30th anniversary of my penultimate audition ever as an actor. I found out, like the high school gridiron star who is knocked left and right when playing with the big boys, that I was not in Kansas anymore.
This is my story.
Northwestern University has a theatrical tradition called Waa-Mu. It is a musical revue full of singing, dancing, and comedy.
At least that’s what the advertisements say.
When auditions were announced for the 1987 version of this show, I, being the starry-eyed and plucky freshman that I was, thought I had just as good a shot as anyone. I tromped on down to our school’s library and picked up a copy of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead because I wanted to use the “question tennis” scene as my audition piece.
Now, those of you with a knowledge of theater will know that the scene that I picked is a dialogue between the titular characters and a dialogue is a tough platter of material to use as an audition. Most people go for a monologue, but I wanted to show my range as I would transition between the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern which would, of course, seriously impress the director and his minions. Such was my hubris that I thought I could pull this off.
Audition day arrived and I showed up at Cahn Auditorium will all of the other dreamers and I filled out my application sheet that asked for my basic biographical information. Because this was a musical revue, the sheet also asked for my vocal range. Since I was not a singer, I wrote “None”.
I waited in the wings until my number was called and I walked confidently on stage. I hit my mark and stared out into the bright lights and could see nothing. I could also hear nothing. So I waited. And waited. I was waiting for some sort of sign or acknowledgement from whoever was out there that they were ready for me. And so I waited and stared.
“You can start whenever you want,” I heard a disembodied and slightly irritated voice call out from the audience.
Not an auspicious start.
My audition of being two people engaged in a conversation consisting of nothing but questions was adequate. It didn’t make the angels weep, but it didn’t cause anyone else to cringe either.
When I finished, I heard another voice ask, “It says here you have no vocal range. Does that mean you can’t sing?”
“Yes,” I admitted.
There was a pause. There was the sound of some paper shuffling.
Probably not the best thing to admit when trying out for a musical that one cannot sing, but I was truly hoping that my acting skills and character work would land me one of the purely acting slots
“Okay, then. Thank you for your time,” I heard.
Translation: Don’t call us – we call you.
The next day, the call backs were posted on the side of Cahn and I was not surprised (disappointed, yes; but surprised, no) to see that my name was not among those the director wanted to see again.
I knew I had failed. I was okay, but not great. I couldn’t sing and I was trying out for a musical revue. There were other people far more talented than I was. I fully understand why I was not selected. I’m saying this so you don’t think the next part of this story falls into “sour grapes” territory.
Now, I am going to fast forward to when the night I saw the show and I was elated that I was not part of this spectacle. I had expected comedy, but I didn’t expect it to be tacky.
To get that “joke” you have to know that Byrne dyed her dark hair blonde and that Washington was an African-American. Are your sides split yet?
Sample joke #2: [A white woman enters stage right in a flowing gown]: Hi, I’m Vanna White.
[An African-American woman enters stage left in the same gown]: So what, I’m Vanna Black.
Now I had expected music, but I didn’t expect cruelty.
One of the numbers features singers dressed up as bag ladies. There were homeless folk who lived in Evanston (the city where Northwestern was located) and this song was meant to satirize them. Years later, I can still recall the lyrics, “We’re lazy / We’re crazy / We’re a drain on society”.
Normally, I would have had no outlet to express my huge sense of disappointment over the promise of Waa-Mu (music! comedy! extravaganza!) and the reality of this dud (poking fun at the poor? race jokes?), but Fate allowed me to draw to an inside straight.
Starting in May of 1989, at the end of my junior year at college, I was a comic strip writer for the weekly campus periodical The Northwestern Review. In the panels of my creation, Talking Styx, I was allowed to poke fun and fingers at the foibles and follies of life on campus.
So, in October of 1989, when the first advertisements for the 1990 edition of Waa-Mu appeared on campus, I took out my pen and drew this:
Yes, it’s petty and it probably persuaded nary a soul from viewing the spectacle, but sometimes it just feels good to vent.
In May of 1988, I would try one last time and audition for a campus production The Shadow Box. I auditioned for the role of Brian, the character I had played in high school and won an award for. I would not receive a call back and it was the last time I was on a theatrical stage.
I have had other auditions since then. I have auditioned to be a club DJ. I have auditioned with three thousand other people during an open casting call in Los Angeles to be a talk show host for a radio station. I auditioned to be on the second season of the television show The Mole. Every job interview I have been on has been an audition of sorts.
With every new audition, I won some and I lost some.
But, with every new audition, I never again admitted that I couldn’t sing.
That’s my story.
P.S. Just in case you were pondering how a guy who can only draw stick figures landed a job as a comic strip writer for a college newspaper…well, that’s a story for another day.