Twenty Seconds of Terrible

Is acting really that hard? Do you need years of study and suffering to be any good at it or can you jump right in, no experience necessary?

I often wondered if I could be an actor. I seem to like talking to myself; I love wigs and costumes and don’t mind having an audience. I can picture myself rehearsing after work on a Wednesday night and drinking too much at the cast party. Yes, that I’d like. The theater company in my town is holding auditions for their upcoming play. I will go for it!

I live in a small town. What it lacks in population, it makes up for in community involvement. Community Theater! Everyone Welcome! The company’s website announces, “Novice actors encouraged to audition.” Hey, that’s me. The play currently being cast is Ordinary People. Anyone my age whose family had cable in the ‘80s is thoroughly familiar with the movie. It’s the story of a teenage boy trying to readjust to life following a suicide attempt. I will audition for the role of Dr. Berger, the boy’s psychiatrist. It’s the only part available to me since the mother has already been cast but I like it. I’m going to come in swinging: genial and sloppy, yet wise.

The auditions take place on a Sunday afternoon from 2 to 4. I have prepared by reading the script and recalling the words as the actor Judd Hirsch spoke them. My husband has taken a photo of me in the backyard and I have had it printed where everyone has her headshots done, the corner CVS. My resume? I settle for listing my contact info and mention my only stage experience: singing in bars with friends a few lifetimes ago.

At the theater, two elderly women instruct me to sign in, hand me a form to fill out and earnestly wish me, “Good Luck!” I pick up a copy of the sides to get acquainted with the scenes. Looking around the room, I see the teenage girls are out in force. But where are the young Timothy Huttons today? The girls outnumber the boys and as I watch their mothers quietly make arrangements to pick them up later, it occurs to me that today I’m not one of the moms. Am I intruding in on someone else’s game here? “I’m here for the doctor part…” I want to say as a way of explanation.

It’s now 2:00 and we are ushered into the little black box theater. I am surprised to learn that we are all going to watch each other audition. I guess that’s how it’s done.  I take a seat and soon am nestled between two impossibly pretty teenage girls. Perfect skin, shiny hair, no frizz. When did High School kids start practicing such impeccable grooming? What’s more, these are girls from my neighborhood. We are acquainted with one another. This in itself makes me feel self conscious and it takes a bit of effort on my part to suppress the words “pathetic weirdo” that are floating to the surface. Who, me?

The other cast of characters include, no surprise, more pretty teenagers, both girls and boys. Some quiet and contemplative, some hammy and one particularly extra hammy guy. If he had a newsy cap, he’d surely be doffing it right now. I may have heard him say, “ ‘Ello, Guvnah!” Thank goodness for the director: an adult with a slouchy blouse, Dansko clogs and a delightful mess of frizzy hair.

And so we begin. I muster up some confidence. After all, the process is not completely foreign to me. It’s not like I’ll be asked to perform an appendectomy or something. It’s just talking and moving, talking and moving. No sweat. Two Dr. Bergers have a go at their scenes. Quickly, the director interrupts them, offering actor-ly words of advice. “A pinch and then an ouch.” “Actor’s Neutral Stance, use it.” “More flow.” The actors now approach their lines differently and try it again and again. Time is devoted to giving feedback and corrections are made. The director is blunt but helpful. After a few more scenes, she turns to the rest of us and reminds us all to breathe. I will be sure to do that.

“No sweat?” That’s a lie. There is sweat. It’s too hot in here. What kind of nonsense made me think I could pull this off just by winging it? After all, acting is an art form like any other and art requires practice. I don’t say, “Hey, what’s this, a paintbrush?” and then expect any painting of mine to hang in a gallery. Maybe because acting uses a brain and a body (which I have) and involves talking and maybe some moving (which I can do) I assumed it would be easy.

Just the anticipation of my little scene with young Conrad Jarrett was making me intensely nervous and with that came all of the predictable symptoms. Can anyone hear my heart pounding? Are we all dying of stage fright? It’s so hot in here! Maybe it would help if I remove a layer of clothing, my socks perhaps. I think better of it and try to rein in my thoughts.

Time ticks away. It’s nearly 4:00 and several of us had yet to audition. Abruptly says the director, “I’m going to speed this up. Plow on through.” Essentially, she has made up her mind within 10 seconds of watching an actor. So, it’s not a big deal if we only have a few minutes left. She’ll see what she needs to see in the time remaining. I’m given to understand that those of us left need to be absolutely sensational as those first lines come spilling out. Just act the shit out of the part. No pressure.

Finally, there are only two of us waiting to audition. I am called up next. Will my knees buckle as I walk to the stage? Will I faint? Why exactly am I doing this? Oh fuck it. Just read the stupid lines. So I do and that was when it happened. My twenty seconds of terrible. I wasn’t acting. Maybe I was reading or maybe I was memorizing. I’m not sure if that was even me up there.

Madame director stops me almost immediately.  She glances down at my “headshot” and mentions aloud my fifteen nanoseconds of stage experience eight million years ago. Referring to my singing, she claims, “I assume you needed vocal prowess to do this.” We laugh. Ok, that counts as constructive criticism. I’ll take it. So with that, my acting just got…louder. And for some outrageous reason, I channeled my inner Andrea Martin, an actress I love but who is not usually known for playing sensitive psychiatrists. And so, there I was, up there looking completely…amateurish. At that moment it became very clear to me that, yes, acting is hard and not everyone can do it. The director mercifully ended my scene, came over to me, and told the group she wanted to tell me something privately. From one middle-aged woman to another, she whispered, “You gotta go balls to the walls.” Indeed. Balls. To. The. Wall.

But my chance was over. I hadn’t any balls to give to the wall.

-Carla Eisenberg

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