I’ve been in “retirement” as an actress for the past 6 years. By retirement, I mean I hit those awkward years between ingenue and Ruth Gordon (i.e., hot young thing and crazy old lady). There are not a lot of roles for women in these ‘tween years — at least not for short women. If you’re tall and lucky, you can move into the “leading lady” category. But I am not tall, so it was either wait tables, temp or learn how to do something else.
Now, when I quit acting, aside from sort of being driven out by a lack of suitable parts, I also left because I had become the kind of actress I’d always sworn I’d never be: bitter. I was angry all the time. Twenty years of feeling you have no control over your fate; of being stepped over or brushed aside while someone less…skilled…gets the part instead of you, will do that to a girl. Plus, I hated auditioning. And since an actor spends the bulk of their time auditioning, and since giving terrific auditions is the only way to get work, hating them is probably a huge strike against you. Towards the end of my career I was usually auditioning for people I’d worked with consistently over the previous twenty years, and I really resented having to prove myself again and again and again.
I definitely had an attitude problem. If you walk into an audition looking like you want to bite the artistic director’s head off and shove it where the sun doesn’t shine, there’s probably a good chance they’ll hire someone else. Because rehearsals take place (usually) in a windowless room in some dark corner of a theatre basement, and who wants to spend six weeks in a windowless-basement-room with a crazy lady who wants to make your head do things that are physically impossible? And unappetizing. No one.
The kicker for me was my last audition — it was endless. It was for a play called Under the Syringa Tree. It’s a one-woman show set in South Africa. And the director was someone I’d known since 1984. He’d played my father in the first show I’d ever done, and I worked with him at least once a year from 1991 to 2003. Anyway, he gives us the sides (the parts you read for the audition) and they are 21 pages long! 21 pages! Insane! Most sides are about 3-5 pages tops. And because it’s a one-woman show, you’re playing all the parts, and there are all these dialects involved, and different physicalities that need to be created for each character, so people can differentiate. I think within those 21 pages, you had to play like seven different people. Or maybe it was fifteen? I forget. I know there was the girl as a girl, as a woman, her nurse, her brother, an infant, her dad, a minister…
So I do the audition. And when I finish, the casting director and the “reader” (a person who reads the scene with you) were both in tears. The reader stops me on the way to the elevator and talks about how it was the most amazing thing he’s ever seen. He’s practically sobbing. And he keeps saying “You nailed it! You nailed it! There’s no way you’re not getting this part! No one has come close to touching what you just did in there.” And he hugs me, blah, blah, blah he’s so inspired!
And of course, I didn’t get the part. [Editorial Note: Whenever someone talks about what a great job you did in an audition, it is the kiss of death. You will not get the job. Who knows why?] And when the director called me to talk to me about it (this never happens — usually you have no idea why you didn’t get a part; I assume he called because of our long-term association with one another), he said he didn’t hire me because I was too short.
Excuse me? It’s 2003! We’ve known each other since 1984. What about my height did you NOT know before the audition? Why waste my time like that? And get my hopes up? And besides that… I’m the only person on stage younumbskull! It’s a one-person show! Height is irrelevant!
But you can’t say that to your boss. So I quit. And started writing.
But this past week, my husband had a reading of his new play. And he asked them to cast me in a role. And because the theatre is saving money, I got be in another show as well.
The past two nights of these play readings reminded me of why I loved acting in the first place. Because it’s fun. It really is. So much of it is like being in a perma-state of adolescence. Play, play, play. For me, it engages every part of me: my intellect, my wit, my emotions, my body. It’s just — compared to any other job in the world — when you’re actually working, acting is the BEST. It’s the unemployment that will kill you.
I still don’t want to audition again. Or to have to go back to waiting tables or word processing to pay the bills for the seven months out of twelve that an actor usually is not employed as an actor. (My friend Shelly used to refer to this cycle of acting work/office work as the great hamster wheel of despair.) And I love the lifestyle that my current job affords me (being to travel whenever because all I need is a laptop and a modem to work). But if someone asked me to do a show again, I will not lie — I would leap at the chance because it is so much friggin’ fun.