Stock Season, Johnson-Liff, 2 Princesses and Pacoima

Posted on October 8, 2011

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Many have written to me asking for stories about “behind the scenes” stuff. I enjoy reading other people’s behind the scenes stuff, so I totally get it. My own life has taken many odd and unexpected turns and I’ve had interaction with some brilliant people, and a few who were (and may still be) as annoying as a swarm of noseeums on a hot summer day. What follows is a bit about interaction with both kinds.

my headshot from 1986

In NYC, in the late winter and going into the early spring actors experience summer stock audition season. During that time my friends and I would scour the pages of Backstage Magazine looking for the shows and roles we were most interested in, most right for, or that might actually pay enough to live on. Very few did that but hey, what did we know? We’d prepare 16 bars of a ballad, 16 bars of an uptempo song, a couple of back up songs for call-backs, some of us even had (gasp) prepared monologs – yeah we actually studied acting – we were funny that way. We’d staple our headshots (an 8×10 portrait of ourselves) to our resumes and run ALL OVER MANHATTAN from studio to studio beginning at 7 or 8 in the morning (or if we were truly lucky at 10 in the morning).

I have friends who hate to audition, hate to cold read, and hate the whole process. To quote Hall and Oates, “I don’t go for that. No. No can do.” I always look at auditions as a chance to perform. Since I love to perform, I love to audition. Well, most of the time anyway. It was an amazing and exhilarating time. It was a very social experience. I meet some terrific people and (to quote Jim Caruso) “also some others”.

There was a group of us who were audition friends; all ‘about’ the same age and of varying types, abilities etc. who got to know each other pretty well during this period. After all, we were all waiting on the same lines, sometimes hours on end, for a chance “to be seen”.

my headshot circa 1989

Simply getting to auditions could often be a logistical nightmare. Since the window of opportunity for an entire summer of work (or longer) boiled down to just a few weeks of auditions, interviews and call-backs. There were a lot of times when more than one theater or company was auditioning on the same day (and frequently at the same time). Theaters from all over the country would converge on NYC during this short window. To save on expenses they would attempt to cast their entire seasons at once. Great for them, it’s just a little tough on the actors. But frankly, if you’re not at least a little tough – don’t be an actor in New York. Just don’t do it. Go back to Pacoima and do community theater. There’s nothing wrong with doing it there. Performing is performing and I’ve always loved it, even community theater – though I’ve never done that in Pacoima. Actually I don’t think I’ve ever been in Pacoima. So if you’re from Pacoima or have been to Pacoima, please don’t take offense. It just not New York. Nothing is.  It’s a different experience from beginning to end.

Here’s a little of what made the process of even being seen for a job tough. And since I have always been primarily into musical theater, I will explain it from that perspective. Companies would audition male singers at one time (and/or day), female singers at another time (and/or day) then male dancers at one time (and/or day), and female dancers at another. The women almost always had the later start time for everything. We used to muse this was done because casting directors and theater owners didn’t want to listen to sopranos screeching high C’s at 9am. But I can tell you from personal experience that certain barking baritones and yowling tenors are no better at the same hour. Save yourself the horror and trust me on that. Just trust me.

Anyway let’s say that on Wednesday I want to audition for two or three theaters who are all auditioning that day (and in different parts of town). Here’s how it worked:

On Tuesday night, there would be a feverish round of phone calls between friends who were also trying to get to those same auditions, or to auditions of other theater companies working out of the same buildings. We would all agree on who would sign up who for which audition time slots and for which theaters, and then we’d get up early enough to make the rounds.

On Wednesday, I might go to Broadway and 18th street at 8am and sign up for time slots for both me and a friend for 3pm, while my friend who was up at Broadway and 45th would be signing us up for time slots at 11am. Then I would go uptown, we’d audition in those 11am time slots and then we’d travel downtown together and do the same at the 3pm time slots.  And so on, and so on.

The more people who were involved, or the more companies auditioning in one building, the more auditions you could hit in a day. Of course this all became even more complicated as many companies would have call-back auditions on the same day as the first auditions. A call back is a second interview with a much more specific focus on roles they were actually looking at you for. At that point you’d have to weigh your options, and figure out just how fast you could travel from place to place. Also add into that mix, you might have to go to the call-backs having learned specific scenes or new songs that you didn’t know before. I was very lucky during this period in that I was living right in the middle of the city (which isn’t actually called mid-town) and I had a piano. So I frequently made pit stops at home, warmed up, learned new music etc. and then ran back out.

If all of this information is a little overwhelming or even horrifying; to anyone but an actor it would be. To anyone but an actor it should be. But I can honestly say it was one of the best times of my life. And most of my friends will agree: we loved the pace, the challenge and supported each other as peers.

I can remember one time being on the phone with my friend Paul. We had both been through numerous auditions and call-backs for the revival of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and several weeks had passed since the last of those auditions. We were both called back for the role of Baker, and could not have been more different physically or vocally. Paul was a lighter/higher bari-tenor as I recall, I was more of a true baritone. Paul was blonde, shorter and rounder. I was tall and brunette, less round but still a big guy. Anyway, it had been about a week since the final call-backs and we were on the phone asking each other if we’d heard anything. His call-waiting beep went off. It was Vinny Liff (of Johnson-Liff Casting). Vinny offered Paul the job, Paul and I got back on with each other, he told me and I congratulated him. And there were zero hard feelings, I was genuinely thrilled for him, disappointed sure but thrilled for my friend. He was gracious and as we were saying goodbye my call waiting beeped– this time it was Vinny Liff himself calling me to tell me that they’d gone in another direction (that’s how they say, we hired someone else). But since Paul and I were so different as actors, they really did go in another direction. I told him I already knew (and the irony of how I knew) and that I was thrilled for Paul. Vinny had some encouraging words for me and I hung up the phone. Yeah, I was disappointed. But not down – and it was because of what Vinny told me. It had really come down to the two of us, and a choice had to be made. It just wasn’t me that time. But Vinny liked me. So did Tara Rubin who was in their office (and at all of my initial auditions and call-backs for the show). I always felt that Tara was a bit of a cheerleader for me over the years during auditions for Joseph*, CATS and a few other shows. I admire all of them from that office.

I can honestly say I’d never had anything less than an amazing experience while auditioning for Johnson-Liff Casting.  Almost everyone from that office was polite, kind, and full of guidance. It was from them I learned that casting directors REALLY DO want you to be the answer to all of their problems. They are all but praying for the perfect person to walk through the door.  And if you’re not the perfect person for one role, you might be right for another. If you are prepared, prompt and professional, you will be remembered. And I learned this from my very first experience auditioning for someone from that office.  Unfortunately that wasn’t the best of days.

It was one of those seasons of frantic auditions, and I hadn’t been doing it long enough at that point to have it down to a science yet, but for the most part I managed. Anyway, I ended up with an early morning appointment being held in Actor’s Equity Building. There was a bunch of rehearsal studios adjacent to the Equity Lounge. The lounge served as a much-needed spot in midtown where members of Actor’s Equity (the stage actors union) could stop in, use a bathroom, or check audition notices, job listings, apartments for rent/sublet (or post one of those kinds of notices). Some days you might be able to get free tickets to a show in town that was papering the house. You could change clothes for your day job (which was frequently a night job after a day of auditions), or wait comfortably with friends sharing insights and tips about auditions and theater companies you’d heard about, been to or worked with. Sometimes the place was bustling with activity and other times it was just a big open space, but since you had to have a union card to get in the door you were always in welcome company.

It was late February, one year – I think that’s right only because I remember it being icily cold, and slushy (not light fluffy snowy/slushy, I’m talking about NYC grimy, city pidgeon-dirty slushy here)…  I was up at the crack of dawn to go to an EPA (Equity Principal Audition) and for some reason I had my appointment scheduled in the first group of 10 people being seen. In fact, I was number 10. There was a casting director with the aforementioned Johnson-Liff Casting who had a reputation as sometimes volatile or even abusive ( I had never witnessed that personally so to me it was hearsay). At the time I only knew him by face/name/reputation and from the piano bars where I had my day job (at night, of course). Anyway, that day in late February, there was a rare “perfect storm” of sorts.

The weather had conspired against everyone and the temperatures outside were sub-zero, but the temperatures inside were sub-tropical (due to a malfunction of the steam heating system in the building), the casting director was running very late, and there was a pair of VERY bitchy girls in long floral print dresses waiting ahead of me. I don’t know what show they thought they were auditioning for, but they looked like there was a bad bus and truck of Oklahoma with their names on it. These two didn’t stop talking for 10 seconds in the entire 45 minutes we all sat there. Unfortunately, it was beyond just casual talk. They spent all of the time prior to what is a job interview bitching loudly to each other about everything and everyone in their lives, professional and otherwise. I got up and walked away after someone (who worked for the union) asked them to keep it down as others in the packed, overheated room were trying to collect themselves for their auditions –  one of these two Princesses told that person to shut up. Nice.

Finally, almost 30 minutes late, the casting director showed up. He flew through the room with his long wool coat flapping behind him. In his arms were a briefcase and a few white paper bags (the kind you get with take-out food from a NYC Bodega.) There was no food or beverage allowed in the Equity Lounge, but Mr. Casting Director was headed into the rehearsal studio where we would be auditioning and presumably he felt it would be okay in there (or he didn’t care – I’ll let you guess.)

Anyway, we lined up in numerical order to go into the room to be seen. We were instructed by the audition monitor that because the casting director was running late, we would all have to do 8 bars – not 16 bars of music. From any perspective it’s a ridiculous demand, but most of us had suffered that particular indignity many times before and had something prepared (no matter how annoying it was to do it). Note: the two floral print princesses, still hadn’t shut up and were now complaining about 8 bars (to be fair, it was the first thing they had to complain about that made sense, but there’s was nothing to do but roll with it.) They were just ahead of me.

Actors 1-7 went in one after the other. Upon their exits they each muttered about the casting person not paying attention, not even looking up, slurping his coffee while they were speaking (or singing) etc. And then in went Princess #1…and the fun really began. Through the door/wall I heard her singing something unremarkable and the casting director yelling, “STOP! STOP! STOP!”

There was a muffled exchange, and she burst back through the door all but in tears. Apparently she (and her friend, Princess #2) had planned to just keep singing until the casting director stopped them (never a good idea when they’re rushed and are specific about 8 bars). The monitor stuck his head in the door to see if the casting director was ready for the next person and was called into the room and told to close the door. There was some not-so-hushed conversation, and the monitor emerged from the room, clearly shaken and pale as a ghost, to make an announcement to all 150 people in the room, “I have been informed that you are to sing no more than 8 bars.  Do not sing more than that unless asked to.” That was all he said.

A couple of people walked out. I don’t know why, they just did. But now, Princess #2 was up. All I remember of her as she walked from her chair to the door was her trembling from head to toe. I’m not afraid to audition, and I’m not afraid of speaking my mind, but I was afraid for her and for me. If she was anything like her friend, the casting director was going to be foaming at the mouth by the time I got in there. She went in and … nothing. There was a pause: a long, pregnant, honest-to-God-Pinter-esque pause. Time may have actually stood still. Finally, I heard the accompanist play a single note – and then nothing. No singing. Nothing. I heard the note again, and still nothing. Moments later she left in a hurry with her head down. And then, to everyone’s shock,  the casting director walked out right behind her. He was taking a break after only 9 people! That was unheard of. But maybe it was a good sign…I hoped he would have a moment to collect himself and start fresh. Well, hope springs eternal.

I learned later she had gone in, and went to shake the casting directors hand. He gave her such an icy stare that that she was completely unnerved and exited without ever having sung so much as the one note the accompanist provided. In a job interview, for an actual “job” you might extend your hand. It is a friendly, businesslike and appropriate thing to do. But experience has taught me that in these cattle call situations, you don’t offer your hand unless the casting person offers theirs. You’re an actor. You have to play to the room. You have to know your audience. You have mere seconds to size them up and work it. She didn’t. In an audition, actors always have to act friendly, and like they want to be where they are – this casting director wasn’t an actor. And he was proving it with his every breath that morning.

So as I said, Princess #2 left the room, head down and hadn’t even sung. Then I was told to go in. I walked directly to the pianist and handed him my music that was clearly marked with a start and stopping place for 8 bars. As I spoke to the pianist there was a loud and insistent rustling coming from the casting director who was seated behind a 6-foot table on the other side of the room. He was pulling cream cheese, a plastic knife and a bagel out of his white paper bags and apparently they were glued into the bag or something. I really didn’t know what was going on.  All I knew was I was about to sing and here he was about to spread cream cheese on a bagel that he apparently intended to eat in front of me wile I was auditioning for him.

There are many schools of thought about dairy products and singers. A lot of people can’t so much as look at skim milk for their coffee without their throats producing gobs of phlegm that prevents them from singing. I’m not one of those people. In that respect, I’m like the honey badger and if I ‘m going eat it, I’m going eat it. Period.  I once drank an entire chocolate milkshake and ate fried chicken (from a Churches Fried Chicken in Virginia Beach, VA) during my first vocal rehearsal for a production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein review Some Enchanted Evening (1986). It drove the leading lady (a soprano) nuts, but I had just traveled directly to that rehearsal for 4 hours on no sleep having closed a production of South Pacific in Pennsylvania the night before, and I was hungry. Besides, honey badger don’t give a shit.

Anyway, I had to somehow ignore this guy and get on with it. Now I admit – I wasn’t exactly sure how advisable it was to do what I was about to do. But I had committed to it in my head –  here went nothing.  The pianist played the 2 bar intro (that I had marked for him). From that intro it was immediately obvious I was about to sing – and WHAT I was about to sing (it was that recognizable). The casting director stopped the accompanist just as I was about to open my mouth and asked, “It won’t bother you if I eat this will it?”

So many answers ran through my head. So many. But the one that came out (absolutely deadpan) was, “You’re giving me phlegm just looking at you.” I saw the corner of his mouth curl up beyond sneer and almost into a smile. But it was clear he wasn’t going to be that easily turned. The accompanist began again… and I sang in the biggest, broadway-baritone-beltiest voice I could muster, “ Myyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy little town blues, are melting away. I want to be a part of it in old New York.”

If you don’t recognize it, that is the highest part at the climactic key change from the song New York, New York.  I want to tell you that I held onto that first note/word for all I was worth, as though my life depended on it, and for a long, long…long time. Then I stopped abruptly after the word New York, practically spitting the “k” all over him, said, “Thank you” and turned to leave.

What I got really surprised me. He asked me why I had stopped. I explained we were told to do only 8 bars and nothing more. He then said, very politely, “You’re not really right for anything in this show, but I’d like you to please audition for me again.”  And he meant it. I don’t recall what that show was, or ever auditioning for him specifically again. But I did audition for others from that office many times over the years.  Vinny, Jeffrey, Tara, Andy. At one audition (I think it was for Sideshow), where I had connected so fully to the material, I even made Tara Rubin cry doing Meatloaf’s “Two Out of Three ‘Aint Bad”. She was an amazing and supportive audience. But equally, if not more important, there was one call-back for Tara who was casting a film on her own at the time. It was one where I knew I was absolutely awful, in very poor health after some surgery and that I shouldn’t have been out of bed let alone at a call-back. In that instance Tara was so kind to me about it all, that while she may have forgotten it, I will never forget her kindness or support or the support from that office of true professionals.

headshot circa 1998

to summarize:
It was a great time in my life.
The “evil” casting director wasn’t that at all.
I am truly fortunate to have met such inspiring professionals.
Annoying Actresses in floral print dresses should stay in Pacoima.
I mean no disrespect to Pacoima.

* I will at some point in the future write about the risks I took during the Joseph auditions, and a few others.

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Posted in: Theater