“Do you sing?” asked director Keith Baxter. I started crooning Gershwin. “Oh, not like that. Stand at the back of the room and sing to the wall.”
Ten seconds into my audition for Angelique in The Imaginary Invalid at Michael Kahn's Shakespeare Theatre Company and I’d already blown it.
“Do you dance?” Clown I am, I swiveled around and shuffled off to Buffalo, limbs akimbo—nothing like the young romantic lead I was to portray. “No, no, darling, do you do the ballet?” Into first position I went.
And so it continued, Keith assessing my skills with a candor not often found in American audition halls. By the time I finally got to the scene, I was hoping he’d put me out of my misery. Why not let me dissolve into oblivion after chastising my "naughty choice"--a perfectly hilarious coquettish reading of the text? Why keep asking me to embarrass myself? I can't say for certain, but I feel like at some point I tied my skirt in a knot between my legs and began doing cartwheels. (The fact I'm not sure that did or did not happen speaks to the traumatic nature of the audition.) Keith hated me, I was certain, and he was torturing me to make a point to the other auditors: Don't bring that girl in ever again.
After what seemed like hours (but more likely was 20 minutes), I skulked out of the room, dumped myself on a bus, and called my boyfriend, who, upon hearing my tale of woe, did not console me. Instead, he blew a puff of air out of his mouth. I could just see him shaking his head: “You just humiliated yourself in front of theatre royalty.”
Keith, you see, is a legend. He was Prince Hal to Orson Welles’ Falstaff in Chimes at Midnight. When he recalls an evening at Liz and Dick’s house, you know exactly who he’s talking about. And even well into his 80s he’s performing and directing all over the world. He is the raconteur of raconteurs, as wry and quick and devastatingly funny as you’d imagine.
When we discussed that fateful audition, Keith remembered that I sang “Someone to Watch Over Me.” He did not remember that I had a boyfriend back then. And he incorrectly remembered offering me the role in the room. If I’d only known then that I was the first actor cast in a play that would forever change my life, I wouldn’t have exited that bus with my mind made up to quit acting... at least until David Muse called and offered me the role.
Keith and I caught up at Joe Allen in London last week, a long overdue reunion. We chatted about love and life and the elevated role of the director (thanks, Kenneth Tynan). We talked about how exotic and exciting it is to be an actor and how it can destroy any chance one has at a normal family life. We shared excitement for our Cleante, the talented and handsome Tony Roach, who is about to open as Professor Higgins on Broadway. But mostly we shared joy and sadness about our beloved Dame Gillian Lynne. I'd so hoped to see her miraculous self, her adorable husband Peter, and dear Keith during this sojourn to England, but I'd missed her by a matter of weeks. Fortunately, before her death, a theatre in the West End was named in her honor, and Keith assured me the fanfare for the naming ceremony was as sublime as it should have been for a woman of such extraordinary talent and accomplishment.
Upon arriving in London, I strolled down Drury Lane meditating on the gifts Gillian left the world, grateful to have ever been in her presence. Then I ambled into Joe Allen and waited for Keith. He was 30 minutes late, and I'd convinced myself he too had died. What if Keith was right all those years ago? What if my timing really is that bad?
Then, with the bravado of boy made invincible by his superhero cape, Keith burst into the restaurant. Powered by his giant smile and mirrored sunglasses he sighed, "Sorry, darling, the trains were a mess."
Production Stills from The Imaginary Invalid, directed by Keith Baxter - Shakespeare Theatre Company, 2008
An homage to Malcolm Gladwell, this recurring blog topic highlights some of my best (read: most horrific) audition experiences. Because, hey, if you wanna get good at something, you have to spend 10,000 hours doing it. That’s science.