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Awkward Stage 

A would-be "basketcase" relives her audition anxiety

Published April 20, 2005 at 7:03 p.m.

I'm standing outside the Champlain College Alumni Auditorium early on a Saturday morning, taking alternate hits off a cigarette and a latte while practicing my yoga breathing for inner poise. I'm waiting for my turn to audition for a local stage production of The Breakfast Club. Somehow, this once seemed like a good idea. Waiting in the cold, it feels like a very bad idea. I'm a corner dweller, an eye-contact avoider. I don't even like to play Charades. I take neither direction nor criticism well. And I know nothing about acting -- unless you count pretending to be someone else on the phone when bill collectors call.

In short, I have no business seeking the spotlight. So why am I torturing myself like this? Well, because every once in a while I like to challenge myself, to do something I had never imagined doing before. Also, I know the directors -- Shawn Lipenski and Seth Jarvis -- and figured it would be fun to work with them. Not least, I like the film. A lot. Released in 1985, when I was 9, The Breakfast Club helped remind the world that, contrary to popular adult opinion, teenagers have souls.

Watching an edited-for-TV version with my junior-high friends in a New Jersey suburb, I wanted to grow up fast and play by my own rules -- something these characters seemed, at the time, to have down. My friends and I were just figuring out who we were, which stereotype we would fit into as we navigated our way into adolescence and beyond. We each identified with at least one of these characters -- the brain, the jock, the freak, the princess, the criminal -- but what really struck us was that these characters mattered. Therefore, maybe we did, too. Besides, it was reassuring that these kids were all huge balls of insecurity and angst. Just like me.

Twelve people show up for the first audition, trying out for only seven parts. With yet another audition coming up, the competition feels fierce. There's a lot of talent here: I've seen a number of my fellow hopefuls perform in both theater and films. Of course, since this is Burlington, my favorite waitress and the guy who makes my coffee are here as well.

First we're herded onto the stage to play a couple of games to loosen our acting muscles. We pretend to be students at a high school dance in different groups -- jocks, drama geeks, stoners, Goths, hip-hop kids. By coincidence, this audition is just days after my own 10-year high school reunion, so I feel strangely prepared, as if all the time spent revisiting my yearbook had been a rehearsal. The games are relaxing and funny. Eventually we're sent out of the room to wait our turns. Lipenski advises, "Don't try to play the actor playing the part. Just play the part." Right.

I don't really feel that nervous when I'm called in, perhaps due to the Tension Tamer tea I'd drunk (before the coffee), a dab of lavender oil on the temples, and my assumption that I won't get the part. Don't get me wrong; I want it. Allison -- played by Ally Sheedy in the movie -- is the freak, a neurotic, compulsive liar with a tendency to fall for jocks. How could she not be my hero? And, I realize to my surprise, I do want the opportunity to emote in front of -- say it! -- an audience. Maybe I'm secretly as much of an exhibitionist as the next gal.

First we read in a group. I don't know what the hell I'm doing, but I try, my "acting" informed only by my lingering case of teen trauma. The reading is fast-paced and intense, with moments of rage and humor. It's only a couple of pages, and we read through them twice. Some of the actors respond differently each time.

While we wait in the no-frills lobby for our second reading -- this one in pairs -- I learn that most everyone has auditioned before. And each person has a different take on the process. One girl admits to having "audition anxiety" and hyperventilating on her way over here. Another veteran says she hates being judged. An actor friend tells me about auditioning in New York, where you can "make or break" on a mere 16 bars of a song. Here, at least, there are no prepared monologues, and everyone is friendly.

When asked if I've auditioned before I say no, but that's really a lie. In fifth grade, I auditioned for a student-written and -produced opera. I didn't get the part. Even though I'm certain that brutal moment of rejection was less traumatizing than singing in front of the whole school would have been, I can't help but wonder what would have happened if I had gotten the part. I might be making millions in Hollywood right now!

When we're called in for paired readings, I'm partnered with a local barista who's trying out for the part of Andy, the jock -- referred to as "Sporto" by the directors. The scene is intimate and emotional, with both characters practically bursting at the seams. The script calls for tears at one point, but I don't cry because I'm not sure if you're supposed to at an audition. When my performance is over I feel pretty good about it, although that might be the result of the Xanax I had bummed off my roommate -- before the Tension Tamer and the latte.

A few days later, I get a call-back. I'm surprised and pleased, as if I have already accomplished something. Yet the second audition proves a bit anticlimactic. Though we're assured some cuts have been made, nearly as many people show up as had been at the first one. I'm given the same scenes to read and plough through them pretty much the same way. I still don't cry, opting instead to look really, really sad. Afterwards, a friend informs me, "Yes, you're supposed to cry. How else are they supposed to know you can deliver the goods?" Oh.

With the right cast, Jarvis says, the job of director is half done. He "looks to see if the actor can portray the primary characteristics of that character; whether they have those qualities naturally or can act them. I always look to see if they can respond to me and other actors."

I wonder if I am really up to the task. Not only do I doubt my acting ability, I'm not sure I could appear in front of a live audience without fainting. On the one hand, I relate to the character of Allison so well that I envision simply channeling parts of my own personality -- "acting" would be unnecessary. Maybe playing the role would even help me exorcise my inner 16-year-old.

"The other crucial trick in casting correctly is choosing not just the right actor, but the right mix of actors," Jarvis continues. "When you do that, physical attributes come more into play, because you don't want a cast with all the same height and hair color." Great. Not only do I have to compete for the role, I have to look just right, too. This is starting to sound a lot like high school.

After the call-back, the directors promise to be in touch soon. A few days later, Jarvis calls. He regrets to tell me that I didn't get the part. He tries to comfort me with the old joke: "How many actors does it take to change a light bulb? One hundred -- one to change it and 99 to sit there and say, 'I could have done that better.'"

It's OK that I'm not going to spend four months of my life being Allison. I'm not a teenager anymore, and I don't need an audience to remember why I'm glad about that. Instead, I can just pull out that yearbook and have a good laugh.

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Rebecca Gollin


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