Once More, With Feeling

It’s that time of year again. Snow is falling. Students ante in for the first round of misery poker (I bet my winter break was more stressful than yours). Seniors try to figure out where “I acted in a lot of plays” can fit on a resume. And the dreaded audition period begins.

There are many ways to audition, and subsequently humiliate oneself, at Swarthmore College. There are the plays, the musicals, the one-acts. There are the improvisation teams. Most people can boast that they have been rejected by at least one a cappella group. Are auditions fun? Oh, sure. If one can be sure of being cast, they can be fun. Otherwise they are as dreaded as writing one more cover letter that will never be read.

I recall one particular time when I auditioned for a musical. I was an impressionable freshman, excited about the prospect of singing before a large audience of twenty or so family members and significant others, and I felt that my superior acting and singing abilities, coupled with my impassioned desire to major in theater, made me a shoo-in. I recited my monologue. Silence. I started to sing my song. After the first couple of lines, as I’m taking in a breath to belt out the third, one of the directors holds up her hand. “Yes, that will do,” she says. Needless to say, I was not cast.

If we can problematize (thank you, Swarthmore) auditions for a moment, their inherent flaw is that the auditioner is being judged (the dreaded word). I always long to tell the directors at an audition, “I know I’m not that good right now, but trust me, I get there!” Maybe I should; maybe that is the right thing to say to a director. But it would put the director in an awkward position. What is she to say after? “No, no, you’re great! We just don’t have room for you.” And besides, where is my proof? Where is anyone’s proof that they are any good—at acting, at singing, at improvising?

In the same way, I want to tell interviewers at job interviews, “I know I don’t have much experience, but I’ll get there—trust me! Maybe I do not know how to do this job yet, but I learn quickly and will make up for lost time.” The words die in my mouth. I cannot bring myself to announce such confidence; I will turn bright red, I will stutter. Instead I say quietly, “Thank you for your time.”

For those unfamiliar with the auditioning process, in theater it goes something like this. The actor sees signs taped to every bathroom stall on the whole campus, so that he cannot help but have the dates and times of auditions burnt into his mind. “All right,” he thinks, if the director is lucky, “Let’s go see if this is good enough to justify killing two trees and whatever resource tape is made out of.” He goes to the audition spot. He is made to wait for a certain period of time due to lack of organization. He is asked to fill out a form asking such questions as “What is your prior experience?” and “Do you like ducks?” because theater people fancy themselves to be quirky. He is finally asked into the audition room.

“Here’s a monologue,” the director will say. “Read it over, then perform it for me.”

The thing about acting is that it is akin to baring one’s soul. Pretending to be someone else was acceptable and cute when we were three-year-olds, but has long since become sort of weird and a sign of a fast deteriorating mind. So, that’s one draw-back. Then, actors, who like anyone else generally do not like to cry in public or confess their love in front of a crowd, or to kiss in front of their friends and family or to show that they are ashamed, do all of these things on the stage. The actor feels, in front of anyone who will watch, what he would rather feel in private. A good actor, by most definitions, should not affect her emotions, but truly feel them. This means that in the performance of a tragedy, the actor will feel to some degree that her heart has been torn open again and again.

Take the difficulty of the task just described, and give it the indignity of “Once more, with feeling,” and you might understand why auditions tend to be dreaded. Actors are afraid of looking foolish, just like anyone else, though our familiarity with the feeling does make it a little easier to handle. A read-through of a monologue and a swift judgment by the director who, after all, probably does not know one eighth of what the actor is capable of, cannot help but hurt.

In my recent rejection letters from jobs and fellowships, as in my rejections from plays and other groups over the past few years, I have felt a little like writing back to the prospective employer and saying, “No, you don’t understand. I can do this. I have done so much. So many people have believed in me. You should, too; I won’t let you down.” And perhaps someday I will.

Until then: Once more, with feeling.

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