OK, So I still harbor the desire to make my living as an actor, and my Equity card is burning a hole in my pocket.  Actually, it’s just a dull-thudding reminder that I haven’t made any of my career goals – yet.  However, it would be nice if I could manage to go to an audition where I didn’t meet up with some of the world’s most interesting, if unprepared, casting directors.  I’ve been to many auditions in my life, and as a teenager, I was “typed out” of more auditions than I care to remember.  (To be “typed out” is to not make it through the door of the audition.  Some miserable sod walks down the line of hopefuls at a cattle call, looks, and simply says, “No.”  Some are nicer; they’ll add an “I’m sorry,” but the inevitable “No” will be forthcoming.)

Ravishingly Dapper Headshot of Michael Tomas Otten

Just so that you have a point of reference, this is one of the headshots I use most often.  I honestly do look like this, and you must keep this in mind as I relate the following anecdotes about the fun world of theatrical auditions.

I think I must first explain that an audition can take place absolutely anywhere.  I have been in ballrooms, on stages, in a kitchen, in an empty office that echoed worse than the Grand Canyon, and, among others, a room so small, the three of us were touching knees.  Often, there is a table or two with an assortment of people who generally do everything except watch the audition.  These can be assistants, designers, boyfriends, etc.  It is extremely annoying when the entire row of people are all on their phones, texting furiously while one is pouring his or her heart out.  In any event, I think you get the picture.  Here are just a few of the interchanges that have taken place after I have not gotten the job:

1. Casting Director (CD): “Who called you for this audition?” (Definitely not a good sign.)

Me (Knowing full well that I have not gotten this job): “Well, since I sent my picture and resume to your office, and I received a telephone call from your office to come here today, I am assuming that you called me in for this audition.”

CD: “Why would I call you in for an audition for this show?”

Me: “Because you wanted to hire me is the only reason that springs to my mind.”

CD: “No, I don’t think it was that.”

Me: “Oh.  Well, do you want me to read anyway?”

CD: “No, I don’t think so,” Then, turning to the young man on his left, “What show are we casting today?”

Me: “Well then, I hope you find whatever you’re not looking for.” (Exuent)

2.  CD (Digging through a pile of photos scattered across the table in no particular order): “Who are you?”

Me:  “My stage name is Michael Tomas Otten.  You just missed me on your left.”

CD:  “OK, thank you… Ah – Um, You look like your headshot.”

Me:  “Pardon?”

CD:  “You look like your headshot.”

Me (Looking at the others seated at the table to see if this is a joke or an ice-breaker or something): “I thought that was the purpose of headshots – to be “looked-like” and all.”

CD:  “Well, you’re a character actor aren’t you?”

Me:  “I do and have played ‘characters,’ but I have also done leads.”

CD:  “…But everyone knows that the headshots of character actors are always fifteen years out of date.  This looks recent.”

Me (Knowing once again that this audition is going nowhere): “Oh, I’m sorry.  I must have been absent that day in character actor school when they told us that our headshots should always be fifteen years out of date.  I should have gotten the notes from a classmate.”  (At this point the CD just looked at me, and the director turned and left the room by a side door.  I could hear him laughing in the hallway.  The CD just looked at me, so I left.)

3. (a personal favorite!) CD: “Thank you for coming in today.  This is a brand new play, and we’re very pleased to be mounting it.  What role are you reading for?”

Me:  “I’m sure I don’t know.   I was told to prepare a monologue as you didn’t have a character breakdown yet.  You said you would supply script pages if needed.”

CD:  “Well, I can’t give you a script if I don’t know what the part is.”

Me:  “…But I don’t know what the characters are, so I wouldn’t know what to ask for.”

CD:  “Well, we’re writing characters in and out of the show all of the time, so you need to tell us.”

Me (After standing quietly for a few seconds):  “I just think I’ll go outside and try this again later.  Thank you.”  (I was always told to be polite, even to those who are obviously deranged.)

4. CD:  “Wow, thank you.  You gave a phenomenal reading; the best we’ve had today, but I’m sorry; you aren’t what we’re looking for.”

Me:  “I know I shouldn’t ask this, but I would like to know for future reference.  What is it about me that ‘is not right’?  Am I too fat, too short, too tall, or is it the mustache or hair color?  I only ask so that I can better prepare.”

CD:  “No, that’s an excellent question.  You don’t need to change anything.  If we were looking for someone like you, you’d be fine.  However, you just don’t look like anybody.”

Me:  “Pardon?”

CD:  “You don’t look like anybody.”

Me:  “Ah, I look like – me.”

CD:  “Yes, but you’re not somebody else.”

Me (OK, by this time, I was totally confused, and I’m afraid that I said the first thing that came into my mind.):  “Who’s on first?’  (…And with that, I gathered what dignity I had left, performed a rather graceful turn, and sauntered out of the room.)

5. (One last one –  a vocal audition when I was through singing) CD:  “Wow!  Thank you.  That was wonderful.  That’s the way that song should be sung!  That’s exactly what we’re looking for.”

Me (…feeling as though I have it this time – he really seemed to mean it.):  “Thank you.”

CD: “Now, if we could just get some other actor to sing it the same way.”

Me:  “…but you just said that I did it extremely well.”

CD:  “Yes, you did, but I wouldn’t hire you.  You don’t have enough credits.”

Me (suddenly feeling like a pinball machine with not enough quarters in it):  “…but if I did it well, why not take a chance with me if it was exactly what you were looking for?”  (Actually, I wanted to ask how many credits I needed, but…)

CD:  “No, it’s too risky.  I’d rather have someone I know who won’t be as good than take a chance on someone I don’t know who may or may not be phenomenal.”  (Looking back, I can applaud his candor, but I still want to throw a chair at him.  He cast a known “friend” in the role.  He was terrible and got the worst reviews I’ve seen in quite a while.  I was too upset to gloat.)

The moral of all of this is: “Leave the ego at the door.”   I have been to many good auditions where I did well, but I knew I was wrong for the role.  They don’t hurt that bad.  It’s the auditions where I know I’m right for the role, and I see someone who is not nearly as good as me get it that hurt.    Just once, I want to look like “someone” or be known or have the correct headshot.  Ah, well…

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This is a short posting today. It’s been a while since I have been able to write. Summer school has taken its toll, and I was very happy to find a recording that made the last week bearable.

I have long been a fan of Readers Theatre – I mean true Readers Theatre, not poetry slam or rhapsodic utterances that get lost in an imposed rhythmic pattern alien to the pieces. Readers Theatre, or Oral Interpretation, has its roots in the Dithyramb of ancient Greece – this was the festival to Dionysus, the demigod who was born of Zeus’ thigh, twice. It’s one of those fun stories worth reading. The Romans took Dionysus and turned him into Bacchus, and you know the stories about him, but that is enough of that.

Modern Readers Theatre seemed to originate in the 1940’s, somewhere around 1945. Some credit a Chicago theatre troupe who wanted to do Shakespeare but did not have the cast or money for costumes and sets. Others suggest that it was with the group that called itself Readers Theatre. Inc. who presented a production of Oedipus Rex in New York City. This is immaterial for this posting too, but it makes for good fodder to liven up dull cocktail party conversation. Really, look up the Dithyramb – those Greeks knew how to party!

Readers Theatre is basically taking text that was or was not initially meant for performance and performing it. It embodies all of the various forms of theatre and gives the actors involved the challenge of performing different characters in often split-second shifts. One performer can also portray a variety of characters using off-stage focus and different focal points. It really is a great deal of fun, but first and foremost, there is a respect for the material being performed. It is acted; characters are defined; it is not merely spoken to a strident rhythm in the same manner of the rhapsodes of ancient Greece who traveled the ancient world with their various tales which were augmented by anyone with a few drachmas to spend.

What does any of this have to do with a modern day CD? Not much really, excepting that it’s a wonderful Readers Theatre production of a text written by novelist E.B. White. The piece in question is The Trumpet of the Swan, and it’s wonderful. Marsha Norman of Night Mother fame has voiced this material for a stellar cast that includes John Lithgow, James Naughton, Kathy Bates, Jesse Tyler Fergusen, Mandy Moore, and Martin Short, and the results are simply charming.

The story centers on Louie, a Trumpeter Swan who is born without a voice. Through a series of events, he is befriended by a young boy who teaches him to write on a chalkboard that is hung around his neck, and eventually, his father steals a trumpet from a nearby music store, so Louie gets his “voice.” I don’t know why this story has affected me as it has. It is gentle, positive, and reassuring in some way, and the performances are just wonderful.

Even though Lithgow is excellent as both the boy involved in helping Louie and the narrator (the boy’s older self), I find James Naughton’s commitment to the role of the father to be the most endearing. The scene in which he steals the trumpet along with the voicing of his self-recriminations for a lack of morality still make me laugh on the fifth hearing.

It’s a wonderful example of what Readers Theatre should be. This was a text that was written to be read, but Norman’s care in scripting it leaves the listener with a sense of joy that is sadly missing in today’s world.

This is all beautifully scored by Jason Robert Brown with some wonderful trumpet work by Christopher Michael Venditti. Peter and the Wolf has long been a favorite of children, but that obnoxious brat and the stupid duck are no match for the lessons being taught in this piece that contains the moral of “Be true to your dream, and you can overcome any obstacle.” I defy anyone not to smile when they listen to this recording.

This took me back to my years in college and the many performances of Readers Theatre I was in under the direction of my dear friend Dr. Annette Mazzaferri whom I miss very much. This is so beautifully simple and effective that it reminded me of how unnecessary it is to have million dollar sets and over-the-top costumes. They are not needed as long as the source material is superb, the adaptation intelligent and moving, and the performances sublime. This is a CD that will be played many times in my home. I need the reinforcement that good can happen; I teach English composition.

Among the trends in theatre lately is another frightening one.  Some directors seem to feel that it is acceptable to impose any theme or idea they want on an existing script regardless of that concept’s validity.  For example, recently I saw a production of MACBETH where the director decided that all of the actors, male and female, would take turns playing both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.  Each passed the crown to the next performer in line to express the theme that “there is evil in everyone.”  MACBETH does not contain the theme “there is evil in everyone.”   The major theme of “blind ambition corrupts” has been good enough to make the play successful for almost four hundred years, but that’s not good enough for that production’s director.  The result was annoying for those who knew the play and totally incomprehensible to those who did not.  This can also be seen as a lack of trust in the material or in the audience’s ability to understand it.

Shakespeare has long suffered from the frenzy to make his work “more accessible” and “more relevant.”  Once again, the works have survived and have been constantly performed, and the fact that these plays have survived in spite of all of the meddling by many misguided directors is a testament to the quality of the work.

Over the years, I have seen operas fall prey to the same treatment.  At times, these unusual treatments work.  Quite often, they don’t.

I have almost always enjoyed going to English National Opera productions.  They often do operas that I would not otherwise get to see, and they often approach the material in interesting ways.  Although not all of these approaches are successful, the singing and playing are generally first rate, so any visit to ENO is worthwhile in one way or another.

Recently, Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame staged Hector Berlioz’s THE DAMNATION OF FAUST, and he imposed his own theme on the piece, a theme that is not in the original, and a theme that overshadowed the themes and story already decided upon by Goethe or Berlioz.  To be fair, this version of FAUST is not generally considered an opera.  Berlioz himself considered it a légende dramatique while many others consider it an oratorio.  However, it still has its basis in the Faust legend which had absolutely nothing to do with Nazi Germany or the Holocaust.

I want to make clear that Gilliam is responsible for three of my favorite films: THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, TIME BANDITS, and BRAZIL.  I generally like his approach and off-center attitude towards things, but here, he has allowed his “vision” to overpower what the work’s creators provided, and he does a disservice to the material as a result.  It really looked as though he did not trust that Berlioz’s glorious music would continue to carry the original, simplified plot along as it has since the work was written in 1846.

Before going too deeply into the problems, credit must be given to the superb cast and musicians.

I was thrilled to see and hear Christine Rice again after enjoying her as Carmen last year.  Her Marguerite is simply glorious from her soaring highs to earthly chest-voice.  Her most famous aria, “D’amour l’ardente flame” (“Love is an ardent flame”), is absolutely stunning even though it was bizarrely staged.  She is obviously a talent with few limits as I have now seen her handle beautifully two very diverse women’s roles, each requiring entirely different approaches.  I can hardly wait for my next opportunity to see and hear her.

Her Faust, Peter Hoare, has a huge hurdle to overcome in this production, but Hoare, who has had an interesting and varied career, is still able to shine.   Because of Gilliam’s concept, Faust almost become secondary or even tertiary to Marguerite and Mephistopheles.  Hoare’s clarion voice effortlessly presents Berlioz’s emotionally drenched music, and as long as you don’t look too closely at him (as he resembles a cross between Eraserhead and a member of the Irish Band Jedward with a ridiculous shock of red hair that makes him look the fool), he’s quite effective as the impetuous lover.

I was also impressed by Christopher Purves who sings Mephistopheles as I remember Purves as one of the members of Harvey and the Wallbangers in the 1980’s, and he is an incredibly impressive force on the opera stage.  It may sound elitist, but one doesn’t expect a rock’n’roll singer to make the transition to opera so beautifully.  He’s had quite a varied operatic career, and he not only sings Mephistopheles beautifully, but his acting is also first-rate with just the right touches of malice and irony.

Edward Gardiner conducts the glorious ENO orchestra with a deft hand here and supports the singers beautifully.  There is never any conflict between the two groups which is imperative.  When adding the committed and adroit ENO chorus, the musical portion of the evening is delightful and even more so if one just listens and does not look at the production.

Why this treatment has gotten such rave reviews is beyond me.

Gilliam has decided to impose the rise of the Nazis and the Holocaust on this fabled love story which is simply unnecessary and removes the focus from the fall of Faust and the seduction of Marguerite while often ignoring the text, and I have always found this kind of distortion unconscionable.

Here, Marguerite is a Jewess and is not sentenced to death because she accidentally kills her mother by overdosing her on a sleeping drug so that Faust can visit her.  In fact, as far as I remember, it isn’t even mentioned here.  Instead, Marguerite is taken to a death camp after what appears to be Kristallnacht.  There is alsosubstantial staging dedicated to the anti-Semitic dealings of the Nazis which further detracts focus from Faust’s quest and Mephistopheles’ conquest.

Now, the original libretto by Hector Berlioz, Almire Gandonanière and Gérard de Nerval does not include very much of a story, so it might be a temptation to directors to “flesh it out.”  However, some common sense with the libretto should prevail.

I was not taking notes during the opera, but a few awkward moments were so jarring that they remain fresh in my memory.  During the “love scene” between Faust and Marguerite, they both sing about the rapture of being in each other’s arms.  This is a lovely moment except for the fact that Faust is inexplicably washing Marguerite’s feet at that moment.  Why would he wash her feet?  He shows no other signs of a foot fetish.  They both sing repeatedly about this, so I guess the audience is supposed to ignore that aspect.

Another moment that is ruined is when Marguerite waits in vain for Faust to return to her.  She clearly sings about “standing at her window,” but because of the imposed themes, she is sitting on a suitcase in a darkened boxcar on the way to a death camp when she sings this.  She shows no other signs of insanity, so why she should be singing about waiting for Faust to come at this point is unclear.  Hugo Macdonald translated this version of the libretto, so why Gilliam did not work with him to alter the text to fit the Gilliam vision and remove such irregularities is a wonderment.

The final scene is also problematic.  As Faust is dragged to hell and Marguerite makes her ascension to heaven, Marguerite sings what is arguably the most beautiful aria of the evening.  Here, Marguerite is lying atop a pile of dead bodies from the Nazi death camp.  This not only goes against the libretto, but it also lessens the horrific situation it is representing.  Judging from the comments I overheard at the end of the opera, it also confused quite a few of the audience members who simply did not realize what was happening.  This, coupled with Faust in a straightjacket being strapped and suspended upside down to a swastika, seems to get further away from the sources and overwhelmed the intentions of both Goethe and Berlioz.

I’m afraid that this approach is a bit to “Emperor’s New Clothes” to me.  No, it is not acceptable to do anything one wants to a script.  As far as I’m concerned, directors and designers have a responsibility to uphold the integrity of the material while making a production interesting.  The saving grace here (no pun intended) is that the glorious singing and playing are still there when your eyes are closed.

Well – I have a post script – unfortunately.

A disrespect for material far greater than this production of THE DAMNATION OF FAUST has also been perpetrated by ENO.  Christopher Alden has staged a repugnant MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM that voids every aspect of Shakespeare’s most magical play.  Set in a dingy gray boys’ school devoid of color, soul, and humor, this DREAM keeps much of Shakespeare’s text as delivered by Benjamin Britten’s music and simply ignores it.  This has been called intelligent by some critics, but it must be one of the most dismal productions I have ever seen.

Alden’s Puck is a damaged school boy who was seemingly abused by the callous Oberon as headmaster.  His Titania is an oversexed music teacher who ends up in a basement “bower” with Bottom who is made to look like an ass but he wears no ass’ head.  The purple flower that causes people to fall in love seems to be a joint, but it’s hard to tell since everyone, children’s chorus and all, seem to be lighting up.

This production is a travesty.  Why bother to use an existing libretto if you’re just going to ignore it?  I pity the singers as once again, the singing is lovely, but they’re forced to perform such ludicrous actions.  Some seem decidedly embarassed.  The promo from ENO promises a “richly romantic and fantastical score,” but the fine orchestra as conducted by Leo Hussain delivers a sound as tedious, grey, and soulless as Alden’s production.

Didn’t anyone in administration have the sense to say, “No”?  The entire production and design staff should be ashamed.

…Sorry – One more.

SIMON BOCCANEGRA at the ENO is equally as gray as the MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM.  I guess when one modernizes an opera, it’s “hip” if it’s black, white, and gray, and one cannot possibly pick the leads out in any crowd scene.  Someone mentioned that the set looked like a “job center in Lewisham.”  This is not a complement, and I agree with it totally.  The famed Council Chamber Scene is reduced to a disjointed mob scene without any of the grandeur it demands.  I don’t even want to go into why Boccanegra ends up with a folded newspaper “hat” on his head.  What a farce this production is!

Ah well…  Now I am getting off the soapbox.  I need a rest.

 

 

The best performances do not always have to occur on a stage, and I had the joy of watching a true “pro” at work in Disney’s Hollywood Studios.  Her name is Evie Starlight, and from her incredible magenta heels to her feathered hat, she is a rare bird indeed.

For me, since it seems that I can no longer go on roller coasters and since they have increased the drop on Tower of Terror to continually go up and down in a nauseating frenzy, there is little that I generally expect to do at the Studios.  It was a hot day when we were there last month, so we did a great deal of sitting.  During one of those sits, we met and were accosted by Evie and had the most enjoyable twenty minutes in the park.

Evie has a back story; I am sure that she has several.  In one, she was valedictorian of her high school where she was voted “most likely to win the Nobel Peace Prize.”  While she was bird watching – because she could not get a date with any boys – she was hit by an albatross and fell out of a tree onto her head.  Unfortunately, this rendered her useless for her chosen profession in rocket science, but from then on, she walked with a “wiggle” which proved to be highly profitable.   One could really love a woman like that.

Evie is so committed to being “Evie” that she handles any situation effortlessly – at least, those situations we were fortunate enough to see.  With a voice that ranged from a gurgling, shrill nails-on-blackboard mania to a husky baritone, Evie dealt with a blushing young man who was celebrating his twenty-first birthday – he blushed more when Evie was through with him – to a group of giggling pre-teen girls where she managed to make each one “special” for a few seconds.   I absolutely adored it when she told a woman who wanted a picture with her about her latest film.  When the woman tried to explain that she did not “speak English,” Evie immediately countered, “That’s alright honey, neither do I!” which she followed with an uproarious cackle.

Her memory is incredible.  She stopped in the middle of the street to size me up, and when she saw my “anniversary” button, she congratulated me and asked me how many years I was celebrating.  When I told her it was twenty-seven, she screamed and very loudly exclaimed, “Twenty-seven?  That sure ain’t a Hollywood marriage.  They don’t last a year!”  She kept this going for the next twenty minutes or so by stopping in the middle of a conversation with someone else to look over at me and scream, “Twenty-seven?”   Her timing is impeccable.

Apparently, I’m not the only Evie fan as there are videos of her all over the internet, so her vocal talents can be appreciated as well as her improvisational skills.

Unless one is born to it, improve can be deadly, and there are varying degrees of successfulness in the park inhabited by Evie and the other citizens of Hollywood with some of them being forced and unconvincing.   I don’t know how much of Evie is a background given to her and how much is her creation, but the result is joyful and not to be missed.  I hope that I don’t ever meet a real person like her,  but I will happily look for this creation the next time I visit the park.

Leake Street before the blight.

I remember a book from the 1970s where some “learned person” decided that graffiti was “art” and should be embraced.  The type of graffiti showcased in that book was little more than vandalism on the sides of public buildings and train and subway cars.  Although graphically interesting, the sameness left a question regarding artistic value.   However, there are a few gifted people who have taken to the streets, especially in London, to use art as the springboard for social commentary as well as some just great visual puns.  Is it still vandalism?  Yes, but it’s not mindless vandalism.   In fact, I have been told that shopkeepers often ask for paintings on their security gates or walls to promote their shops.  This is especially true with Banksy.  Like the bubble figures of Keith Haring, Banksy’s grayscale images are immediately recognizable.

Back to Leake Street which is a strange, partially underground access road that runs off of York Road in London.  When the Eurostar (which has been dubbed by some pessimists as “The World’s Longest Crematorium”) used to leave from Waterloo Station, this road was the hub for cabs to pick-up and drop-off travelers.  When the Eurostar moved to King’s Cross / St. Pancras, it shut down.  Now, there’s only a hand car wash underneath this “tunnel.”  At times, it can be a little frightening to walk through, but it’s the fastest route from the London Eye to the shops on Lower Marsh. 

When it first became redundant, the usual vandalism occurred, but shortly after that, something wonderful happened.  Street artists moved in and brought some interesting visuals to the walls.  It became an interesting place to walk through; a chance to see what topics were important to the artists.  Of course, there were simply some very good “pieces” on the walls, but some of them really worked towards statements as can be seen in some of the pictures below which were taken in June of 2008. 

To be honest, I was amazed by the dexterity shown and the product delivered by the people who were using only spray cans as tools.  I eagerly looked forward to going through this new gallery on subsequent trips.   Sadly, the blight moved in, and the vandals who were celebrated in the aforementioned book took over.  Much like the rest of the world, if someone should try to add something of merit to this “urban fresco,” another is ready to deface it.  Often with an unintelligible scribble as if to say that an image of a name, whether readable or not, is more important than anything else.   The “self” wins again.  I believe that this is the problem facing the world today: individuals are being brought up to believe that their importance stems simply from who they are, not what they achieve or create.  Right, wrong, or ludicrous, a person’s beliefs wants and beliefs should be glorified and respected.  No one needs to earn respect today; it’s guaranteed – as long as those ideas stay in line with “the majority.” 

I’m sorry; I digress.  I don’t know why I was so taken with something that I normally dislike.  I am against defacing buildings and the property of others.  I can only believe that I enjoyed this because this was an otherwise dark and somewhat derelict spot that had been reclaimed by artists.  It could not be seen from the street; it did not detract from the surroundings.  Because it was a closed in spot, it did seem that this was a new form of gallery.  It almost felt like one of the social movement I remember from the 1960’s.  Now, sadly, it’s mostly an eyesore.  At least, I still have the pictures since all of these pieces are now under several layers of paint.

I really loved this one for some strange reason.

This one used damages in the bricks for relief.

...What superb commentary.For some reason, I found this haunting.

 

 

 

I can only think that this is a personal statement regarding the artist's beliefs. In any event, it is a strong image.

 

 

I know they probably used stencils, but the results are still startling.

These were on station emergency exit doors.

 

 

I found this incredibly intriguing...

 If any of the artists represented here would like me to remove their image(s), please e-mail me.   Conversely, if I can credit you for your work, I will happily include your name with a piece as long as you can send me proof of your ownership.