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Mmmm . . . Sour Grapes . . .

2004-08-29 - 5:39 p.m.

I'd like to take a moment to welcome GreatSirG to the NotoriousRRZ family. He wrote in his own blog (which I won't name, as his tends to be more for his friends, a group in which I am happy to be included) that I was the friendliest and most honest person that he has met since coming to California. Boy, do I have THAT fucker fooled.

This entry goes out to him, as he is in it, and also to fellow theatre peeps, particularly those with diaries of their own.

While I ostensibly came to Berkeley to do English, the real truth is that this goal is going to have to timeshare my mind, heart, and soul, in that I also came to the Bay Area in order to pursue my love of experimental theatre. I say "love" rather than "dream" because "famous experimental theatre artist" is something of a contradiction in terms. However, I chose to attempt this here rather than in Austin because 1) I hoped to be exposed to cutting edge experimental stuff and to incorporate said stuff into my own work and 2) because I know I need my instrument, and I'm starting to believe that my instrument needs to be miked, to borrow from an Ani's "Here for Now." I felt like, in San Francisco, it would be a lot easier for me to get my ass to a microphone.

Deciding to start small and easy, I went to the performance studies office to find out when auditions were. I went to the office on Tuesday and discovered that auditions were on Wednesday. This meant that I had about 24 hours in which to find and memorize a one-minute monologue, find a pop song to perform in a spoken-word style, and create a small piece about a personal calamity using a chair for something other than sitting.

I like those odds.

That night, I thumbed through some of my Christopher Durang scripts (for those who don't know, Durang writes plays that are completely absurd, hysterically funny, and, more often than not, deeply affecting) and my compilation of performance monologues (it's called Extreme Exposure, and it anthologizes pieces from Moms Mabley and Lenny Bruce to Whoopi Goldberg and John Leguizamo to Holly Hughes and the aforementioned Josh Kornbluth--I highly recommend buying a copy). I wound up choosing one of my favorite pieces in the performance anthology: Deb Margolin's "Bill Me Later," in which the Monica Lewinsky scandal is recounted not as something tawdry and salacious, but as something sensual, romantic, sad, and tragically human.

As a companion piece, I decided, after much deliberation, to talk about the death of Lynda Hart, who was best friends with Deb and who edited a collection of her pieces, for my personal calamity. I decided to have the chair face me and remain empty, with a paper on it saying, "Reserved for Lynda Hart," after which I would speak to Lynda's spirit as though she had arrived for the show, promising her that no one would sit in the chair meant for her, trying to tell her, as I've tried to do many times since her death, how I'd be a pitiful fraction of the person that I am now if she'd never come into my life.

As for the pop song, I initially thought of doing a sadomasochistic version of "Hit Me Baby One More Time," but it occurred to me that a lot of people would probably be doing that, so I decided to take one of my favorite songs--"Here, There and Everywhere" by the Beatles--and do it as a stalker. Let me tell you, in the wrong hands, those lyrics get deadly.

Wednesday night, I show up for auditions and realize that it has been more than two years since I have done this, and that it has been almost six years since I've done this cold, without the person on the other side of the desk knowing anything about me. See, as an undergraduate, I had a pretty good reputation. I was far from being one of the best actors on campus, but I was reliable, and relatively versatile, and I had never gone to a set of auditions (at Penn, all the shows of the season auditioned at the same time) without being offered at least one part, often having to choose between parts that had been offered. However, I knew that a lot of that had as much to do with those directors having seen me in other performances as it did with my audition, so I was fighting back more tension than I'd had to deal with in a long time.

When I was finally called in, I was called in with a girl who was primarily a dancer, but who was auditioning for the play because it would involve a lot of movement pieces. I heard her do her monologue and her calamity story, and, I'll admit, I felt confident afterwards. I performed my monologue, and then got to choose between the song or the calamity. I did the calamity piece, and then it was time to read monologues and scenes from the piece. I was given a monolgue for a character called Louie, and read it initially without any direction. I think I did okay. Then I started to get some direction.

This is where things started to go wrong.

Now, before I went to auditions, I promised myself I would forget that I had ever been a director and just listen to what the director of this piece had to say. I knew what it was like to direct people who had directed shows themselves, and that it was frustrating to try to convince someone else to read a script one way when they were reading it another way. Usually, as a director, I try to compromise. As an actor, I tend to get frustrated fast. I'm not proud of this, but it seems to come with the territory.

The director, whom, I should note, was also the writer of the piece, began telling me that this character was a busboy (uh-oh), and he wasn't very bright (UH-oh), and that he was this sad sack who was weighed down by the tragedy of his life (ooookay) and that he was the kind of guy that you'd look at and say, "That's the guy who cleans the floors" (aaaaahshit).

Yeah, when you're last name ends with a "Z," these are not the words you want to here. Granted, I do NOT think that my race was a factor in my being given this monologue (I think my body type was, but that's not as bad), but I did have to fight down the words in my throat that wanted to say, rather sharply, "You know, most busboys aren't stupid. They're just the wrong color, or they speak the wrong language, and they can't get a better job!" But I held it back, and I tried to do the monologue as I saw fit.

And the good news was I got a callback.

The afternoon before callbacks, I was a bit worried. I had looked at the rehearsal schedule, and saw that it was 6-10pm five nights a week and 10-5pm on Saturdays. I was used to intensive schedules, but this was too much. On top of this, I would have to balance my first semester of graduate school, which would no doubt be intensive, particularly if I had to take the 18th century lit course that my advisor was pressuring me to take. Then there was the realization that I would have no time to spend getting to know all the awesome friends I'd been making, or to go into the city, or to do activism work in Berkeley.

I was ready to go to callbacks with a sorry smile and a "Thank you so much, but I can't" when Stratford-on-Avon Lady interceded (my nickname for a prof here who seems to be in the process of adopting me, and whom I adore). She said that the director of this piece was well-known and well-respected throughout the Bay Area, and that his work was always fascinating and avant-garde. She knew of my non-English-PhD desires, and was okay with them, and said that if I had been called back, to go for it, because this might be the man who'd hook me up with the big opportunities. So when the time came, I headed back to callbacks, where I found out that being called back was quite the honor, as many notable Berkeley actors had been passed over.

Initially, things went well. I ran into someone I'd met at a welcome event earlier, and that was a major comfort. We did a song-movement sequence that got us warmed up and relaxed. Then we got the monologues and scenes again. I was handed the busboy monologue again, and the director took me and the other men aside for some pointers.

This is where things started to get worse.

There is one thing that I vowed never to do after the first show that I directed: I would never read a line for an actor. There is nothing worse for an actor than to have a director say the line a certain way, because then the actor is faced with a difficult choice: imitate the director exactly and make the director happy, or try to keep making the part his or her or hir own, even if it means pissing the director off. I have had actors beg me to say the line for them, just so we can move on with a scene, but I have never done so since my first show and I never will again, so help me.

The director read us some lines.

Not only that, but he kept on emphasizing the slowness and stupidity of this character, how he was tragic and resonant, and how the words came slowly to him, and how he was happy when the words DID come, and all the time he was doing it in this voice and with this face and I realized that he was pretty much telling us exactly how he wanted it done, and it was up to us to match his expectations.

Notorious RRZ don't play that way.

I read and reread the monologue and tried to find my own way into it. When I went in to read for it, I began by doing it my own way. He stopped me and gave me some more direction, this time refraining from reading the lines. It wound up feeling okay, and after I was done he told me that I would now be reading another part, and that I would have to be matched up with a partner. I wound up with the person whom I'd already met, and we began rehearsing a scene between an ageing queen and the young woman he's taken under his wing.

I actually liked this scene a lot, but I was still a little troubled: here I was a Mexican queer, and I was reading for the busboy and the latest permutation of Oscar Wilde. Also, I need to say that queer roles and I have had an odd history. My first role in college was as Sterling, the ageing queen with the young, sexy, HIV positive boyfriend in Paul Rudnick's play, Jeffrey. I'm not a big fan of the play, but Sterling was a fun role, because I got all the best one-liners and had a breakdown scene at the end after my lover finally succumbs to AIDS. Since then, however, I've been reluctant to take gay roles. In fact, there was one semester when I was performing in Penn Life Sketches, a performance for incoming freshmen written by upper classmen about student life. It was always funny and always a big hit, but the year I did it I was one of five self identified queer men in the cast, and yet I was always the one chosen to play the flaming gay character. Eventually, it started pissing me off, and I demanded at that point to play the rapist, because I was that sick of being the token homo.

So here I was auditioning for a part I was not terribly excited about playing again. My partner and I wound up being the last people to read that night, and we were all called back again for the next day. In the meantime, my partner and I joined up with another actor (a very cute one, I must say) for Thai food, and I got to voice some of my concerns about the show. We had a lot of laughs, and I felt pretty good heading off to a party with my fellow first years afterwards.

Saturday was the last day of callbacks, and I showed up at noon already feeling exhausted. I got hooked up with another girl for the ageing queen scene, and after way too long a time I got to read it again, this time being told to read it as though I was living in a Noel Coward fantasy. Finally, I was handed my last script to read, a scene between the ageing queen and a younger man.

This is where everything went to shit.

I was told that there was a monologue about liberation in this scene, and I was excited, because I have a good family background in liberationl. Then I read the monologue. Holy mother of god. It was a great gay liberation monologue, provided that you see gay liberation as ultimately tied to consumerism, elitism, and gays being the cultural leaders of the upper class. Seriously, this monologue was pissing me off. Having an impeccably designed living room is not the path to liberation. It isn't even a stop along the way. If you find strength in your possessions, then you need to reexamine your priorities, no matter how lovely they are. And also, what about queer men who aren't urbane, well-educated, and upper-class? And what about lesbians, and the transgender, and the radically queer, which, oh yes, included me? Where were we in this liberation speech that extolled the values of a well-designed piece of furniture? Nowhere, that's where.

Yeah, after having spent so much time and energy on these auditions, I was reading for a character that I would have smacked in real life, about to say a monologue that encapsulated so much of what I can't stand about gay culture. Also, I was saying this as an older man, desperate for some beauty in his life, to a younger man whom I was falling in love with largely due to me seeing him dance and then get beaten up by gay bashers. THE HELL?!?!?!

Nevertheless, I pushed on. I gave that monologue everything I had, because I wanted to win or lose that role on my own merits, because I was willing to believe that I would have some reveletory experience during the rehearsal process and see the genius of the piece, and because the guy playing the younger man was the really, really hot guy I'd had dinner with the night before.

I read. I did myself proud.

That night, I had dinner with GreatSirG, who is himself a theatre artist, along with his girlfriend, whom I am anxious to meet. We had bonded over a love of theatre and They Might Be Giants, and when I told him about my concerns, he told me that I shouldn't do the show. When he mentioned shows that he had worked on and hated, I thought back to the many terrible experiences I'd had, and how they'd done a lot of damage to me. I was still able to justify to myself the reasons for auditioning (that guy was really hot), but I was still worried that I'd gotten myself into a mess that might end my grad school career before it started.

Today, the cast list was posted. I walked over to the theatre studies office with a weight in the pit of my stomach, trying to figure out how I would balance studying and rehearsals, realizing as I got closer that I was, for the first time in my life, hoping that I hadn't gotten the part. I took a look at the sheet of paper, read every name, saw that NotoriousRRZ was not on the list, and let out a huge sigh of relief. Suddenly, all the trepidation I felt about the coming week was gone. I was excited for classes again. There was a spring in my step as I realized I'd never have to argue that gay men should find strength in our ability to pick the perfect throw pillows to match the amari porcelain.

Am I just enjoying the taste of sour grapes (which is somewhat contradictory, seeing as the grapes are sour because you can't taste them, but moving on)? Maybe. But I figure that there's another show that's having auditions in a couple of weeks, and that with my evenings free I'll have plenty of time to get to know my future colleagues and random people I just meet on the street, and to do yoga and learn to cook more than breakfast, and that the monologue really was like an ice pick in my ear.

In the meantime, I wish the cast, crew, and director the best of luck, and tell them, in absentia, that I will be there in the audience when the show goes up, and that I will be ready with applause at the end, because theatre is hard and blending movement pieces with dramatic action is even harder.

And I promise to keep my hand over my mouth at any mention of the liberating power of end tables. If any noise comes out, I'll say that sour grapes always give me gas.

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The Curse, and This Bee's a Keeper - 2005-02-01
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