My last performance as an undergraduate actor was sharing the stage with my closest friends at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C in front of a sold-out house of hundreds.
My first performance as a professional actor was in a play about the black plague and butt sex while sharing the stage with a bunch of strangers for an audience of 2.
But, I'm getting ahead of myself.
The BFA program at the University of Minnesota Duluth taught me many things. For instance, I know how to scream without harming my vocal cords, I can juggle, and if you ever need anyone to walk backwards in a modern dance piece, I'm your guy. However, I graduated on a performance high that left me unprepared and unaware of just what was waiting for me in Chicago.
My senior year at UMD I performed in one show and one show only: The Movie Game by my good friend Adam Hummel. I got to work on a brand-new script, originate a role, be directed by my mentor and be part of a cast full of good friends (including my future wife, Katy). Over the course of that year The Movie Game became a freight train. Audiences ate up this original comedy during our run in UMD's black box. Then we were entered in the American College Theatre Regional Festival in Lincoln, Nebraska. We performed in the Lied Center in front of thousands and were selected to advance to the National Festival in Washington, D.C. Everyone in the cast got along, the show was an absolute blast to perform and I got to spend almost a full nine months doing something I loved with people I loved.
I graduated with a swollen ego, a D- in my last Lib Ed and a sense that things would only get better from here. Katy and I married and moved to Chicago. Eager to dive right in to the Chicago theater scene, we grabbed a copy of PeformInk, I circled the first audition I saw and started prepping my monologue.
And here is where I began my real-world education. In an effort to spare others from the same fate, I present my online course: Post-Grad Acting 101: It's Going To Suck.
PIECE OF ADVICE #1: Don't audition for the first show you see.
There are countless theater companies in Chicago. Countless. There were no shortage of shows to audition for. Had I been patient, I could have picked something that actually interested me. Instead, I threw myself at the very first show I saw, like a horny teenager at the Internet or Nicolas Cage at a screenplay.
I auditioned, I cold-read scenes at the callback, and I got the part. The lead. My ego got another boost. And all that swelling made me actor-blind to a few important bits of information:
- I would be playing a man in his 50's. While this is commonplace in a University setting, the fact that a guy in his early 20's was the best actor they could find for the role in all of Chicago should have set off a warning bell.
- The script was dark and unsettling, featuring a sequence where an insane character strapped me to a chair and beat the shit out of me, and another scene where a sailor regaled me with tales of butt sex while shoving my finger into and out of an orange he was eating. These are scenes best attempted with actors you know and have a solid foundation of trust with. Not strangers who are into bands that you google and find terrifying.
- We were to rehearse in their living room.
- We were to perform Monday through Wednesday nights in January.
- We couldn't build a set because another theater company was paying the primetime weekend rate and had control of the space. So we would be performing this tale of a family in 17th Century London on the set of a modern-day sports bar.
PIECE OF ADVICE #2: If you're cast in a show and shit gets weird, you can drop out.
Now, I should take a moment here to say that the people involved - director, producers, cast and crew - were all very nice people. However, here's the thing about a passion project: If it's not something you're passionate about, get out while the getting is good. Otherwise you're going to spend the entire process rolling your eyes, growing frustrated, and wondering why the hell everyone is so excited.
As opening night drew near, I realized that I had passed my window to back out, and so I grit my teeth and soldiered on, hoping that maybe things would turn around.
Then my costume arrived. From an online store called Halloween Express. The cardboard label tucked into the cellophane bag proclaimed that I would be sporting the Dandy Fop. It was one-size-fits-all and made of (apparently) paper, spit and a wish.
I did not look good in that costume.
Especially next to the neon Rolling Rock sign in our 17th century London flat.
Opening night came, complete with snowstorm. We had an audience of 2: the director and the critic from the Chicago Reader. How was the review you ask? Here's my favorite snippet:
"The intimacy in this debut production is all the more intense because [they are] performing on the apron of a stage in a space that's already snug (and underheated)."
Put it on the poster!
The next night, nobody showed up to see us. I found this out while in the dirty, filthy bathroom, as I struggled to squeeze my actual size thigh through the one-size-fits-all tissue paper pantaloons. Safe behind the closed door, I rejoiced, realizing I would get to spend my Tuesday night at home with my wife instead of finger-fucking an orange for an empty audience.
Then the director marched in and proclaimed: "We don't do this for an audience! We do this because we love it! The show must go on!"
PIECE OF ADVICE #3: If you're not getting paid, you don't have to put up with this shit.
I wasn't getting paid, and I did put up with this shit. And I shouldn't have. I had a full-time job. I was taking classes at the Improv Olympic. I was a newlywed in a new city who had left his wife home alone on a Tuesday night in a strange new apartment. Performing for an empty house is rehearsal at best, an exercise in artistic masturbation at worst. There shouldn't be any pride in it. It's not a badge of honor. It's a badge of poor marketing. I should have put my foot down and stood up for myself. But I didn't. That night I performed for an empty house.
As it happens, that night I also got beat up for real. By a 20-year-old girl half my size. Maybe it was because there was nobody there and she felt more free in her impulses or some actor-y bullshit, but in the scene where she strapped me to the chair, she forgot anything called "Stage Combat" existed and just went for actual combat. She tied my hands tight. Too tight. There was no wiggle room. No way to escape if I needed, as we had planned and rehearsed. She grabbed my face and squeezed my cheeks until my lips puckered painfully. She slapped me twice. Hard. My eyes watered from the sting of it. Then she spit in my face.
I saw the look in her eye. That indulgent look artists sometimes get when they are really feeling it, man. SO in the moment. I knew that later she would feign ignorance and sip her red wine smugly while saying something like "I'm sorry, I guess sometimes the training just takes over and I get lost in the truth of the moment."
It was bullshit. But if she could use that excuse, so could I.
She slapped me again, and reared her hand back for another, final strike. So I did the only thing I could think of to get her to stop.
I head-butted her.
She staggered back, the crazed indulgent actor look gone from her eyes, and as the train roared past over the roof of our 17th century London sports bar I vowed that the next time, I would be choosy. I wouldn't pick just any show to be a part of.
In fact, I would pave my own way.
I would march home and start making plans with Katy. Together would do something so original, so revolutionary, so inspired that it had never before been conceived of in the city of Chicago:
We would create a theater company.
(to be continued...)