Sunday, September 5, 2010

Friendly Fire

It's been an interesting week, as I fill time while I remain "between engagements, " a euphemism for Shit Outta Work. The new theatrical season in DC is just getting started, with many if not most of the area theatres opening shows this week or next. Everybody I know seems to be working on something exciting.

My lovely Washington Stage Guild is one of the few locals not opening a show soon; the first show of their season will appear in late October. The WSG held two days of union-mandated auditions this week, and I volunteered to help at the front desk. While other philanthropists volunteer to feed the homeless, I volunteer to usher actors in and out of the audition chamber. Maybe it helps actors get jobs. I'm that kind of guy.

The Stage Guilders were holding these auditions mostly to refresh their files, but my old friend Steve Carpenter, who will be directing half of the company's shows this year, was actively looking to cast two roles in the season opener, Darwin in Malibu. I bulldozed Steve into letting me read for one of the roles, though he freely admitted that he did not see me in the part. I greatly appreciate that kind of honesty from a director (even as I hate to hear it), as too many directors don't tell the truth to actors, fearing that they may hurt some feelings. And I went into the audition having known Steve for 17 years, so was pretty sure I would not be changing his mind.

This week's experience started me thinking about the weird relationship which actors often have with directors who are also their friends. That relationship can develop one of two ways. First, a director may hire an actor who is unknown to him, or is known to him only slightly. Sometimes, through the course of working together, that director and actor can become personal friends (that's happened to me many times). But when that director is again auditioning that friend, the parameters have already been set in place, so there isn't much awkwardness if the actor-friend is not hired by the director-friend. It's all part of the accepted structure of the relationship.

But here's a second scenario. Suppose the actor and director were initially peers. This is exactly what happened the very first time I auditioned for Steve. I had arrived at grad school in the fall of 1993, and Steve was in the MFA class ahead of me. We were a small crowd, and as usually happens with MFA actors, we all became very close very quickly. Though Steve was in the program as an actor, he was stretching his directorial muscles as well. After knowing him for several months as a colleague and friend, I auditioned for his production of Lee Blesssing's hostage drama, Two Rooms. Now that I think of it, I had already been appearing on stage for about 20 years, and in all that time, whenever I had auditioned for a director who was first a friend, I had been cast. Let's not delve too deeply into that; if my friend the director cast me because I was his friend, rather than for my ability, I don't think I want to know about it.

In this instance, with Steve's production of Two Rooms, I did not get the part. It was the first time I felt that palpable awkwardness from being rejected by someone I considered an equal.

The feeling was yucky on both sides I'm sure. I have come to admire Steve's directorial work greatly, and he is responsible for placing me in two of my favorite projects in DC theaters. Back in '03, Steve cast me in Thief River, where I played two wildly different characters, including this dude (I really rocked that head scarf, didn't I?):

The second role Steve placed in my hands in Thief River was much more comfortable for me. And I got to sit on the floor:

Three years ago, Steve invited me to participate in a Stage Guild production of Opus, playing the slightly off-balanced viola player dismissed from a famous string quartet. During the casting process, I felt the role Steve asked me to play was not as good a fit for me as the uptight, priggish violinist. Steve respected my opinion enough to consider my suggestion that I play the other part, but he returned to tell me that whenever he heard Dorian (the violist) speak, it was in my voice. That is just about the most complimentary thing any director has ever said to me, and Steve was very smart to say it. I stopped lobbying for the other role, and ended up having a great success playing the guy Steve wanted me to play all along.

Which brings me back to this week's audition for Darwin in Malibu. Because Steve respects me as an actor and as a friend, he was not going to say no when I demanded an audition, for a role he could not see me in. The reading itself went swell, just as I wanted, and Steve was gracious enough to thank me for my efforts. The role for which I read is written in my cadence and rhythm, so I may have come upon some nice material to use for audition purposes in the future, though for now, my audition did not lead to an offer of employment.

I don't believe Steve makes many mistakes regarding the casting of his shows, and I have none of the awkward feelings this time that I had 17 years ago at the University of South Carolina. Steve's production of Darwin in Malibu will be terrific, I have no doubt. I actually mean that, even as I would be a fool to say otherwise, since he occasionally reads these pages. He and I will work together again one day, I'm certain.

But I have to confess this. Just for a very quick moment this week, that old awkwardness resurfaced. After my reading went exceedingly well and I performed exactly as I had hoped, there was a nano-second of that old feeling I had first experienced 17 years ago in South Carolina. No one was to blame, and it was only a glancing blow, but just for a moment, I felt myself nicked by friendly fire.