I hereby lay out, before my readers and potentially (if improbably) the entirety of the earth, my confessional. This is the story of my first audition, and if you think this is going to be a tale of triumph, you are unspeakably incorrect.
Let me begin this tale of terrible sorrow and ignorant woe with a brief acknowledgment. This was not, strictly speaking, my first audition. That took place in elementary school, when for reasons unknown I won the enviable role of Steve in the kindergarten choir’s musical production of Blue’s Clues. The choir was in kindergarten. I was in 5th grade at the time, specially chosen to portray the role of Steve because, I can only assume, of my prodigious talents, apparent even then to our choir instructor, Mr. Potts. Naturally, I then went on to never perform again until high school, when out of boredom and a sure and certain feeling that I would not make the basketball team, I tried out for the school play.
But, let us leave these tiresome, entirely trivial caveats behind us and cut straight to the heart of our present story. Let us rejoin our hapless hero, me, during my Freshman year of college, when, for reasons that I shall explain in but a moment, I was forced to try out for the fall musical.
Like many a fool before me, I had arrived at my college (Huntington University) without having picked a major. This was, I thought, practical. I would only change my mind, I reasoned, and so it made sense to get things going without the pretense of certainty and feel my way out as I went along. The dean had kindly, therefore, recommended classes based on my high school activities, and had signed me up for not one but two beginning acting classes. This sealed my fate, as it was a requirement for all beginning acting students to audition for ALL of the university’s productions. The first production open to incoming Freshman was, as I am certain you will agree, a vehicle that simply SCREAMED for my involvement – a musical version of Little Women. What could be more perfect for an average sized man such as myself, who had never sung a show tune in his life?
At the time, I considered myself a "funny man," destined to act (if at all) in PLAYS … comedy ones. A serious musical role was not something I aspired to in the slightest. But, class requirements, after all, being class requirements, I dutifully prepared for my audition by not really preparing at all, because I had no idea how you would do that. When told by a concerned observer that I would need to bring sheet music for my musical audition, I responded with an honest, if alarming question, “What is sheet music?”
This should alert you to the depths of my ignorance.
A brief word of explanation might be in order before we proceed to the inevitable unpleasantries. We are not all, it’s true, musical theatre people, and some of us may not be aware of how a standard musical theatre audition is meant to go. Typically, this is the order of events:
Needless to say, I knew nothing about these expectations, and, safe in the fortified city of my own ignorance, I made no extra effort to find out what was truly required of me. I simply prepared in my own quiet, completely incorrect way.
I picked a song I was familiar with (Pure Imagination from the Gene Wilder classic, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), and I printed out the lyrics…just the lyrics. As I eluded to earlier, sheet music was not something which I knew how to find at the time. I was, it must be said, and in the truest sense of the word, an idiot. I practiced singing my selection, but I did not memorize the lyrics.
The day of my doom dawned dark and early. In my memory, it was a very stormy day. Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled. Tornado watches were in effect, although it may have been a perfectly sunny day – memories are like that. I nervously arrived at the Arts building and paced about with the other auditionees, awaiting my appointed time slot.
Eventually, my name was called, rolling out like the tolling of a far off church bell.
I entered the room and proceeded to desecrate the very foundations of the theatrical art form.
Allow me to list for you my manifold errors:
A few days later, I returned to the site of my shame to gaze morosely on the freshly posted cast list. Imagine my surprise when I saw that I had been CAST. It was a small role, but it was a role. As a willing young man possessed of a beating heart and a mouth capable of forming sounds, I was deemed too valuable of a commodity to be lost by the tiny Huntington University theatre department. That I lacked any knowledge or talent in the realms of music or theatre or musical theatre was a fact that could be remedied in time, or so those charitable professors decided. They needed bodies to fill the stage, and, at the very least, I had a body, if not a very impressive one.
It was only later on, at the end of that school year, that my eventual acting instructor, Jay Duffer (who was a guest director at the time) confided to me that, having seen my first audition, he had thought me to be completely tone deaf.
At the time, he was completely correct.
One final note. That audition was filmed. Someday, I would like to find that DVD, if it still exists. I would like to watch it once, and then I would like to lock it in a box and drop kick that box into the Pacific Ocean. Anyone who tracks the DVD down is welcome to watch the travesty with me.
But only I get to drop kick it into the ocean.
In my defense, it was a very hot day. It’s important that you remember that. Weathervane Playhouse’s main theatre was climate-controlled, but it was still remarkably warm, especially if you happened to be onstage behind the red curtain wearing a vintage three-piece suit, which is precisely where I was at the time, clad in just such a suit. I was seated (jauntily, it must be said) in a plush armchair on wheels, and for reasons I will explain shortly, I was sitting under a white sheet, which covered both me and the armchair. This did nothing to help the heat. In one hand, I held a glass of iced tea, which looks like Scotch from stage, and in the other hand I held an unlit cigar. Beside me sat a side table with a lamp. This side table was also on wheels.
Everything was set for the start of a play called The 39 Steps, a parody of the Hitchcock film of the same name, a 1930s spy thriller set in England. Here was the plan. As the play began, the curtain would be drawn back, trumpets would blare, and the sheet would be dramatically whipped off the armchair, just as I launched into an epic opening monologue with the words, “London, 1935!" As I spoke this monologue, in a flawless British accent, the chair and the side table would be slowly pushed forward towards the edge of the stage, imitating the slow motion close-ups used in films (hence, the wheels). The people who were to do the pushing, my cast mates, Matt and Carlos, stood ready, one behind my chair, and the other behind the side table. At least, I assume they stood ready. I, as you'll remember, was seated under the aforementioned sheet and could see nothing.
When a play is to begin, in case you are unaware, the stage manager, whose job it is in part to wrangle the actors, comes to the dressing room and calls out, “Places!" This means the actors should take their positions for the start of the play. This is both a formality and a necessity. Actors are people, after all, full of flaws and foibles, and we are not necessarily to be trusted with knowing when to be where. Our stage manager had already called places, and that is why we were all dutifully at the ready.
After the actors are at places, the stage manager heads to the booth and calls for the show to begin. Before the show starts, lights are dimmed, and often a curtain speech is made, wherein someone greets the audience, informs them of the rules of the room, and emphasizes that all cellphones are to be silenced on pain of death, perdition, and Dante-esque levels of entirely justifiable eternal stress and suffering. These days, this speech is often a recorded announcement, short and to the point, but sometimes, at smaller theatres, the curtain speech is given live by someone like the Artistic Director of that theatre. This latter, live option was how the curtain speeches were done at the Weathervane Playhouse.
Six years have passed since that summer, and I honestly don’t remember many details about these particular curtain speeches. But I do remember they were significantly longer than you would wish them to be when you were standing or sitting at places, waiting for the show to start. The audience, no doubt, needed to hear all these details (now forgotten by me) about the snacks available in the lobby, and the exciting other shows on offer that season, but we behind the curtain, at places, waiting to begin the performance, had heard it all before. Really, to us, these speeches couldn’t be short enough.
On the night of our story, I sat under that sheet, at places, waiting, for a particularly long time. It’s important to emphasize that. And, I must insist, in my defense, that we all remember that it was a very hot day, and that it was very warm under that sheet.
One final note. Weathervane Playhouse was (and still is) a summer stock theatre, which means that we performed one show at night, while we rehearsed the next show during the day. On the night in question, my cast and I were performing The 39 Steps, but our day had been spent busily rehearsing Big River, a truly beautiful and, it must be stated, possibly overly long musical adaptation of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In it, I played the Duke, part of a conniving duo of confidence tricksters who, as you would expect, filled their stage time by taking advantage of dupes. The Duke, played by me, spoke in a Southern accent, because everyone in Big River speaks in a Southern accent, because it takes place in the American South. Remember this, because it’s important.
And so, there we all were. There I sat, in a heavy woolen suit, exhausted after a long day’s rehearsing, hidden under a sheet in a comfortable chair. It really had been a long, hot day, and it was very warm and still under that sheet.
You can probably guess what happened next.
I fell asleep.
The next thing I knew, there was a grand blare of trumpets and the sheet was rudely, if dramatically, ripped from my head. I awoke with a start and launched confidently into my line, grateful that I remembered where I was and which line to say, and that I had not, in my slumber, spilled the fake Scotch.
"London!" I cried, "1935!"
And yet, something was wrong. In my awakening haste, I had, understandably, if now famously, reverted to the SOUTHERN ACCENT which I was presently using during my daytime rehearsals. I had just yelled, "London, 1935!" in as hillbilly an accent as it has ever been uttered in. In that moment, Alfred Hitchcock rolled over in his grave, which is no small feat for man who was, in life, quite remarkably rotund.
But if in that moment Hitchcock was rolling, my fellow cast mates were also pushing, pushing me irrevocably towards the edge of the stage, just as we had rehearsed and performed countless times before, shaking with laughter as they did so. It was completely understandable, but it did nothing to bring me comfort in my distress.
I don't know if you are the sort of person who “does” accents. I don't know a thing about you. Who are you? How did you happen upon this blog? But if you do happen to be an American, and more specifically an American with a relatively standard, middle-of-the-road accent like myself, you know that it takes some effort to adopt a more interesting accent. It has also been noted by the sorts of people who make a habit of doing accents that Southern American and standard British, or "Received Pronunciation" as the snobs call it, are not without a sort of similarity. You may try both now if you wish and are able. Perhaps you will agree with me. However, I mention this last point to you only to say that it is devilishly hard to switch from one to the other once you have one going -- especially if you have just woken up, and have launched into one of the accents completely by accident. You hear that the sounds are wrong, but it's a hell of a thing to try to jump lightly from one to the other, laughing off the mistake.
I could clearly hear that the sounds were wrong. I knew it. And yet, the fanfare continued its fanning, and my friends, pushing me on, continued to howl with controlled mirth, and I, poor fool that I was, continued my speech, slowly and awkwardly morphing from a Southern huckster to a cool British gentleman throughout the entirety of my now somewhat soiled opening speech.
I was saved, I think, in part by the fact that the trumpets were quite loud and that most people who see theatre (in America, at any rate) are quite old and hard of hearing. In any event, everyone in the audience was quite kind, and no one mentioned my gaff at the end of the show. Of course, these were the very first lines of the show, and by the time an audience has hacked their way through the confusion inherent in the start of a show, and maneuvered through two whole acts to the end, they have probably forgotten most of it anyway.
At least, that’s what I tell myself after a significant misstep on the stage.
My friends have never let me live the moment down.
And nor should they.
Your recent comments have been noted, and, as requested, here is your essay on PUTIN. It may be argued, from a purely logical stand point, that accepting requests somewhat undermines the entire conceit of this blog, titled, as it is, ESSAYS NO ONE ASKED FOR. However, let’s just choose to collectively ignore this discomforting technicality. In the very broadest possible sense… who cares?
Now, I can make no claims to defend Putin the MAN. I have never met him, and to be honest with you, I have not kept up on his recent doings, other than noting with a distant (yet growing) sense of dismay the usual tremor and hum of the 24-hour news cycle that now beats upon our collective brows like a never-ending, doom-proclaiming DRUM. I have not even BEEN to Russia since the winter of the 2007/2008 school year, when I passed (pleasantly) the first Christmas break of my college career amongst family and friends in the snowy city of Moscow. This last fact makes any insider info I may possess on the current state of the Russian mind essentially ONE DECADE OLD.
However, I did live in Russia for 7 years, and I would certainly like to think I learned SOMETHING while I was there. So, what I WOULD like to do with this essay is to try and explain why Putin is POPULAR in Russia, even while he is decried for his seeming villainy all throughout the rest of our troubled world. To do this, let’s look at three differences in the way Russians view the world as contrasted with a stereotypical American view. This is part two of a series, so if you didn’t catch last week’s blog, click HERE to do so.
RUSSIANS ASSUME THEIR GOVERNMENT IS CORRUPT, BECAUSE OF COURSE IT IS.
As Americans, we like to pretend the world is a just and righteous place. Now, yes, as we age into adulthood, we all acknowledge that things aren’t PERFECT, but even the most jaded among us still tend to appeal to some sort of higher code of Law. We assume, at least, that laws are (for the most part) there to protect and defend our rights to life, liberty, and all the rest of it. At the very least, we would say this is the goal that we are working towards, and we all talk as though we think this may (someday) come to pass. There is some shared belief amongst us, divided as we may BE, that laws, in the end, ought to be obeyed.
Russians DO NOT think this.
After seventy plus years spent under a repressive, Communist government, where “Big Brother” was an active, terrifying REALITY rather than a lackluster reality television show, the assumption that laws are there to help people has, in Russia, become laughable. Russians just ASSUME everything in their government is corrupt. This is because, generally speaking, everything in their government IS corrupt.
Even now, 25 + years after the fall of the U.S.S.R., the Russian legal code remains an instrument of paralyzing complexity and confusion, and the system is riddled through with poorly paid government employees taking advantage of that fact. From what I understand, multiple contradictory laws are often all still simultaneously on the books, and it is up to officials to “choose” which they would like to enforce. Like I said, these officials are poorly paid, so bribes are simply a part of doing government business. They aren’t even looked at as a shameful thing. “You scratch my back, I give you your permit” is essentially the law of the land. Therefore, the fact that corruption charges are easily leveled at Putin is SHOCKING in our neck of the woods, but it is taken as dull, self-evident fact in Russia. This is just how things work.
RUSSIANS SEE THINGS THROUGH AN “US VS. THEM” LENS.
Seeing as the running assumption in Russia is that laws are crooked and the government is not on your side, YOU pick YOUR FRIENDS, YOU trust YOUR FRIENDS, and YOU help YOUR FRIENDS, because THEY help YOU. In a world where there is no benevolent higher authority to turn to, it is up to you to help yourself. This reality is what gives groups of Russians who work together their “mob family” type feel. This is how things work there. You make your friends in school growing up, and at university, and at your first jobs, and then you all move together as a kind of pack, helping each other out along the way. You trust each other, and you help each other out.
So, when Putin seems like an obvious “mob boss” to us, moving about with his gang of oligarchs, making moves that solidify his wealth and power, as well as the power and wealth of his friends, this just seems normal to Russians. The fact that he is in CONTROL of the corrupt government does not make him the cause of its corruption. It’s an “us vs. them” world, after all. In this view, we’re all just doing the best we can – even Putin.
RUSSIANS ARE READY TO RISE – THIS IS THE TRUE NATURE OF PUTIN’S “STRONG MAN” APPEAL.
In order to REALLY understand Putin’s popularity, let’s do a simple role reversal. Imagine, if you will, a world where the United States’ economy buckles and then crumbles into dust at the end of the 1980s. By the 90s, the Union has been dissolved, and several states (let’s be real - California and Texas) have become their own countries, with the majority of the states forming a severely weakened Federation. In this imagined world, the U.S.S.R. is now the only true world super power. Communism has been vindicated. Capitalism, in the end, has turned out to be nothing but a grotesque delusion. All our grandparents’ savings and their pensions went up in smoke in the economic catastrophe that preceded the U.S.’s downfall. The older generations are hopelessly disillusioned. The younger generations aren’t sure what to think…at first. Soon, Soviet styles, pop music, and movies begin to dominate the world’s youth culture. (Admittedly, that last part is the hardest bit to imagine, but just go with me.)
Now imagine a charismatic former C.I.A. member begins to gain power in the new U.S. Federation. We realize, in a world desperate for oil, that we are sitting on vast energy reserves. America begins to flex its muscles again, standing up to the U.S.S.R. We annex Texas. Then California. Now, just you try and tell me that the American public wouldn’t love that former C.I.A. guy. We totally would!
If you imagine this scenario for even a second, you’ll begin to understand how Russians see Putin. I’m not saying this scenario is a perfect analogy, but it gives you the gist. Russians are very ready to rise from the ashes of their past, and someone like Putin, who offers to lead them with a firm and determined hand, has a strong appeal.
To try and explain some of Putin’s weirder moments, often featured here in America primarily in memes, I recommend this excellent video by Vox. Their “Explained” series is often interesting and sometimes informative. There is so much in this world, after all, that desperately requires some explaining. See you next week.
Last week, I announced a new series on the importance of acting, live theatre, and the FUTURE of the American theatre. Someday I may actually write those essays, soaked through (as they no doubt will be) with enough self-importance to choke a moose, but that day is not today.
Let’s talk about Russia.
Russia has, thanks to our recent election and the subsequently ratcheting levels of international tension, itself been the subject of much spilled digital “ink” of late. Now, I will not claim to know much about these international tensions, per say. I am not an expert with up-to-date, insider info on the hopes, dreams, aspirations, and potentially evil schemes of various leaders of State. But I did begin visiting Russia in 1992 at the age of 4. No, I was not a globe-trotting, independently-operating C.I.A. spy as a TODDLER (although – ding, ding! – MOVIE PITCH). I was simply tagging along with my parents on cultural exchange programs held after the fall of the Soviet Union. These summer trips continued until the year 2000, when in a fit of religious fervor, my father relocated us permanently to Russia, where I continued to live until 2007 when I left for college. So, I CAN make the humble claim to understand SOMETHING about Russia as a country, and something about the way Russians see the world.
Allow me to lay a few facts before you. If this topic is of interest, let me know with a comment below, and I may continue down this path with a part two.
Let’s begin with a simple difference between Americans and Russians.
RUSSIANS FROWN FIRST AND SMILE LATER.
This may sound minor, but if you think about it for even a short stretch of time, it will begin to hint at how differently our two cultures see the world. As Americans, we are raised to always present a friendly, smiling mask to the world. We are told that this is polite. Later, after we know someone, it becomes culturally appropriate to act grumpy if we are really having a bad day. Russians are raised to think the exact OPPOSITE. There is no cultural pressure there to pretend to happy. Everyone walks around Russia, therefore, looking grim and glum and as grumpy as can be. Later on, when you know someone in Russia, when you trust that they are a friend, THEN you can act happy if you want. Consequently, when Americans arrive in Russia, grinning and acting friendly to try to be polite, Russians think they look insane at worst and silly at best. This is simply the result of having completely opposing expectations in our two different cultures.
RUSSIANS ARE ALL OR NOTHING.
Russians are indescribably passionate people…. once you crack into that gruff, grumpy exterior that they present to strangers. As such, they either care more deeply about a thing than you ever imagined was possible, or they could not possibly care less.
One funny example of this is the fact that in Russia there is no such thing as high school sports. At Hinkson, the private, English-language academy I attended in Moscow, they did their best to mimic the experience of high school sports for our mostly international student body, arranging for soccer and basketball games with neighboring Russian schools. What this meant, particularly in the case of basketball, was basically that we would either be playing the equivalent of that school’s gym class, a group of rowdy young Russians just looking to goof off and show up the international students, or we would be playing the Young Olympian School, a group of towering future stars. That is the essence of Russian effort. They either don’t give a fig, or they are hell-bent on being the best in the world. There is no middle ground.
Another funny example of this all-or-nothing viewpoint is the fact that Russians find our American obsession with being thrifty and bargain-hunting hilarious. This is a thoroughly foreign concept to them. Americans, even rich Americans, will always brag about finding a deal. If I find a leather coat that is normally $275 and I get it for $99, then I, as an American, will brag about that, even if I have a cool 25 million in the bank. Russians believe in CONSPICIOUS consumption. If they can afford it, they will buy the most expensive thing in the store and parade it around. They want it all, or they will settle for nothing.
Let’s wrap up with one more difference for now.
RUSSIANS ARE LITERALLY STUCK (CULTURALLY) IN THE AMERICAN 50s
Until the 1990s, the U.S.S.R. was entirely cut off from the rest of the world by the so-called “Iron Curtain,” a term which I believe was first coined by Winston Churchill. The metaphorical construction of this wall began shortly after the end of WWII and reached its full flowering by the mid-1950s. THEREFORE, in a way that is hard for us in America to comprehend, Russia is in many ways STILL IN THE 50s, culturally speaking.
Picture an early episode of Mad Men, if you have ever seen that excellent AMC television series. THAT IS RUSSIA. Modern feminism has yet the arrive there. Men are real “men”; women are real “women”. The men all buy into a notion of tough, rugged manhood, drinking hard, never showing pain. The women are all out to get married, all dressing to impress, all accepting the inherent misogyny of the system with alarming alacrity. Most people still smoke, as though cancer did not exist. And, on an even sadder note, racism is scarily prevalent, to an extent that makes our racial woes in the States seem tame, and there is precious little regard given for the rights of the LGBTQ community.
I certainly cannot defend this strange backwards streak in Russian society, and I will make not attempt at the feat. I would simply point out the strange, time-capsule nature of their world. They are a society that was frozen on ice by a repressive regime while a lot of positive change happened elsewhere in the world. This does not make their views acceptable, but I hope it gives you a little insight into how their views came about. After all, it was not so long ago that the majority of Americans held the same views. There, but for the grace of God, go we.
I am tempted to write an essay next week explaining the popularity of Putin. Placed into the context of his culture, country, and time, he makes more sense than you’d expect. Please let me know in the comments below if this is of interest. If not, I will return next with a decidedly different offering. I will make no effort to predict what this will be. I tire of writing myself into corners. Have a pleasant Friday, and enjoy your weekend.