‘An Actor Prepares’ is a short story about a self-centered actor that will be familiar to theater people. It was published by several literary magazines.
An Actor Prepares
“Not like that, Andrew,” Eliot whined for the fourth time. “You’re supposed to be having a nervous breakdown. You have to look it, not just say the lines.” “I’m working on it, Eliot,” I replied, in the tone that I knew would piss him off. “I’ll get it. It just doesn’t come as naturally to some of us as others,” and I looked at him suggestively. Eliot glared at me impotently, a look that I was used to, since he resorted to it frequently. We had been at loggerheads from the first day of rehearsal, when I took exception to his request to keep working past the contracted time.
“Eliot,” I said in a patronizing tone, “Union regs don’t let us rehearse more than six hours a day. This is a showcase. You were told the rules by the union rep. If you like, I’ll show you the handbook. I didn’t make a fuss when I didn’t get all of my allotted break, but it’s time to respect Equity rules. You don’t want me to file a grievance, do you?” I scornfully dismissed his silly appeal for me to forget the regulations for the sake of the show. That was when he glared for the first time. As if he cared about anything but his dumb concept. Then he babbled to us about the need to work hard to produce art. The other actors nodded solemnly, but I laughed in his face. “This isn’t art, Eliot. It’s like a meat market with talent for sale. If you want art, you shouldn’t be doing a showcase.”
I must admit I enjoyed watching him squirm when I reminded him in front of the others that the showcase system was designed primarily to allow actors to demonstrate their talent to agents and producers. I didn’t bother pointing out that actors couldn’t demonstrate very much with minimal rehearsal and three weeks of performances. But that didn’t bother me. I mean it’s not as if we’re trained like dancers, with all kinds of different skills. I had a different agenda. I wasn’t really interested in theater, though I knew I could do the classics if I wanted to. I wanted a career in television. A part in a long running show was my goal, with the accompanying rewards of fame and fortune.
Unlike many actors, I had disciplined myself to put on a good front and always look confident, even when I felt like crapping in my pants. The truth was that I was meant for the showcase system that encouraged surface skills and facility. It was an ideal vehicle for me to display my confidence, relaxed ease and magnetism. I hoped that by doing showcases I would land an agent and maybe even get a commercial. That would pay my freight as I worked my way up the ladder to a big time tv show. This was my fourth showcase and nothing had happened yet, but I was still hopeful.
I hadn’t bothered explaining the plan to Eliot. He wouldn’t see the logic of it. He was another dumb liberal arts grad with a degree in directing. He’d have a better chance for regular work if he became a traffic warden. At least he’d be able to direct motorists, who might listen. He had no real idea what he was doing and his selection of the play further indicated how dumb he was. Nobody would stay awake while a young man had a nervous breakdown in front of his father, mother and older sister, just because he was turned down by the college of his choice. Well, maybe the playright’s mother. And Eliot didn’t even know how to block properly. He kept putting people in front of me, so I couldn’t be seen while I was doing my lines.
To make matters worse, Eliot had cast a retired insurance executive as my father, and a retired school teacher as my mother. I never understood what prompted these greyheads to suddenly try a second career in theater. These retreads took everything very seriously and went about their business as if they were preparing for a Broadway opening. They even supported Eliot when he demanded that I learn my lines. I tried to explain that I would know most of them by opening night. They got real nervous when I said it wouldn’t make much difference, since the audience didn’t know the script, so they wouldn’t know if I dropped a line or two. But they kept hassling me. Mr. Insurance company mumbled over and over: “How will we know our cues, if you don’t say your lines?” They freaked out when I said: “Just wing it, pop.”
Eliot had cast a slightly overweight, nervous girl as my older sister, but she wasn’t bad looking in a fleshy sort of way. I figured to slip her some unbrotherly love, once she got to know me. There was nothing better available. I never seemed to meet anyone at my waiter job at the restaurant, an untrendy hamburger joint, where the female customers kept their legs tightly shut. So I had no where else to meet women…. But sis turned out to be an ingénue, trapped in a bulky body and I was just too crude for her. Then, as if things weren’t bad enough, the playright showed up and droned on and on about how we were missing the real theme of the play; ‘the breakdown of high expectations’. Give me a break.
Well I can get through two more weeks of rehearsal. Maybe the show won’t be as bad as it sounds. And if they give me a hard time, I can always walk. That’s the beauty of the showcase system. An actor can leave the show anytime for paid work, or an audition for paid work. And what would these losers do, bring a lawsuit to the union? Fat chance of that. If things go bad and I decide to split, I’ll just pick an audition from a trade paper and say I have to prepare for it. But it may not come to that. If I don’t have anything better, I’ll stick it out. Maybe I’ll get lucky this time and I’ll get discovered. You never know.