Sunday, April 3, 2011

Outsider in the AEA

Ladies, and gentlemen, the headquarters of professional stage acting in the United States: the New York City office of the Actor's Equity Association.

When you invite someone into your house for the first time, you kind of get a glimpse yourself of what the place must look like to an outsider. You look at everything there in a new light, imagining what the person next to you is seeing and thinking about what they see. Same thing happens when you show someone a bit of your lifestyle for the first time.

My oldest niece, Emily, came to visit me this week. Because it was on only a few days notice, she ended up there on the day of an Equity Principal Audition-- an open call for actors from an Equity theater.

It was also the first time I've ever done and audition in AEA HQ, just off of Times Square. It's full of florescent lighting in a hallway of chairs with a fabric pattern that must been considered subtle and neutral in 1993. To be fair, I was in the line in the hallway for the non-members, but even progressing to the union waiting room just upgraded the patterns to circa 1998 and added windows.

A couple of the decorations were pretty nice though: big color wall photos of the Broadway theaters, and, in a glass case near the restrooms, one of the most elaborate costumes I've ever seen. It was a period dress, full of frills and layered with accessories.

I'd warned Emily of the procedure: I'd sign my name on the non-members list, sit down, and hope for an opening. This really could take all day. Equity members in good standing can choose whatever time slot is available. The rest of us wait and hope. The audition monitors (the people who keep track of who's going in to read, when) come out to update us on occasion, which tells us if we can leave and come back at some specific time. Otherwise, we just have to sit tight-- if they call your name and you're not there to answer, it doesn't matter how many hours you'd spent there, you're going back to the end of the line.

This is of course assuming that the auditors are willing to see non-members at all. They aren't obligated to do so.

As it is an open call, you are one of literally hundreds of actors applying for a handful of open jobs. And as a reminder, these are actors who are good enough to have set aside any "normal" job or acting opportunity elsewhere, and have come to read for Broadway. In other words, it doesn't matter who you are, they're probably just as good as you.

So it's really playing a lottery, only it costs time instead of money to enter. Also, while if you can audition well, it's no guarantee of work, if you audition poorly, it will more or less guarantee failure.

The time spent on all this seems normal when you're talking with other actors. It's part of the job. But when viewed by an outsider, as I sort of imagined Emily doing, it seemed a little excessive. I'd told her it would be us sitting around for hours, possibly all day, and that maybe she might enjoy something else. She insisted she wanted to see it, and brought a book.

I heard her later describe it a bit like how one might describe a group of young, attractive, huddled war refugees waiting an hoping for food and water. The poor, huddled masses, waiting for a chance to perform. Really tells you how much fun the job must be if we go through all that for an interview.

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