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  1. by Helene "the Spleen" Gresser



    I hate auditioning. Hate it. Always have. Standing in front of one or two people (sometimes more) for an acting audition, or a tiny, early-evening crowd at a club with the owner/booker looking on makes me all jumpy and out-of-sorts and ridiculous.  I talk too fast or stutter or forget my place. I look at the wrong person or zone out in the middle of a sentence. Nerves take over and I falter, or race, or, very rarely, just nail the sucker. Usually I can nail it when I see I have made the director/owner/booker laugh. Then I relax and breathe. That's why stand-up has made me a far better auditionee in every arena: I am more myself when standing up in front of people making fun of myself and silly situations.

    Weirdos: my hilarious brother John, my goofy cousin Kristen,  and gawping me.
    When I was a kid in grade school, I loved to get up in front of the class to read. In middle school, I ran for Student Council president and won, because I gave good speech. That's what I did: gave good speech. I did it again for Freshman class prez, Sophomore class prez, Drama Clurb prez, Forensics team. In the Academic Decathlon I got a perfect score of 800 for my ability to interview with several business leaders. I extemporaneously spoke and got another high score (and gold medal! I love the medals!) and felt powerful and fearless. Mr. Zwick taught me how to do this in middle school because he was a Toastmaster and showed our class how to not look like a complete moron when speaking in front of people. Don't hem and haw and ummm. Don't fidget with your hands. Don't close your eyes too often or blink too much (Cory Booker, quit closing your eyes so much. It's weird.) Be funny and forthright and look people in the eyes. Have a point, a good starter line or two, and a solid finish, and the audience will love you for not making them cringe for you. My mother coached me patiently on my Forensics pieces and helped me tell a story truthfully and with emotion. I sang solos at State contests and won more medals for German and French and Italian songs sung in perfect dialect, each note and key change and half-step fairly precise, if not beautiful. (I have always dreamed of being a wonderful singer, but the gods did not bless me with a powerhouse sound. Just an adequate voice with a good ear for the lyrics and meaning. Sad sigh.) I was my Senior class speaker at my high school graduation, one of my proudest moments. It was validation to be voted to the honor by my peers. I was ready for anything, I thought.

    Oh, prithee,  I am a funny Nurse in high school Romeo and Juliet
    But --- someone sitting in an empty room behind a desk watching me perform a "scene" was a whole new game. Just as when I learned to play the violin or piano, or a vocal solo, practiced a piece comfortably well, and faltered only when the teacher stood over me to hear how I sounded, I cannot take the instant criticism or rejection. I feel the eyes and see the change of expression on a person's face and I stumble because I think I see disappointment or boredom or worse: apathy.  I am a people-pleaser, a puppy needing a pat on the head, an empath picking up on people's emotions hidden behind their frozen smiles and nodding heads. I auditioned for high school plays and musicals and never won the leading role. But I just KNEW I had it in me. I KNEW it. I wanted to be an actress. I loved being in a show, rehearsing and working alongside my fellow drama nerds. We are a weird family of Charlie-in-the-Boxes, us performers. I was determined to be part of that world. I would be on Broadway, damnit. I was sure my high school drama teacher was wrong about my lack of discipline learning lines (oh, that attention-deficit issue again) and lack of song-belting skills. I was sure she just didn't see me as anything but a funny lady, a clown.
    My brilliant and demanding high school drama teacher, Barb Gensler.


    Clowning around at summer stock, per usual. 

    Undergrad auditions saw some successes for me, because I still felt strong and fearless and funny. I got cast as leads now, and KNEW it meant I was headed for greater things in the THEATRE. I got singing leads in musicals, many roles that I surely mangled with my limited voice and marginal dancing abilities.  But I had MOXIE, and I was ready to take on the world. I even took a year off in the middle of college and lived in New York - seeing shows, meeting with famous acting coaches ("Go back to college," acting guru Sanford Meisner told me at 20 years old,) and making connections with people I thought could get me work in the future. Then I decided to go to graduate school. And break up with my absolutely loving fiance. And live with a new poetic and sensitive boyfriend, who then proceeded to fall for someone else in his department the minute we moved in together. Not poetic or sensitive. It devastated me.

    I was a wreck emotionally, and I made the move to audition for grad school while breaking up with my roommate/boyfriend. I barely got into the school, after auditioning unsuccessfully for other grad programs (one famous program director yelled "DON'T LOOK AT ME!!" while I was trying to do a monologue from Shakespeare in his tiny room with only he and I occupying it. It threw me completely. I was rattled.) My acting teacher in grad school made it clear I was lucky I got in the three-year MFA program at all -- I had been an alternate choice. He said I had terrible habits from my undergrad training. Our little "studio" of eight actors were a motley crew eventually nicknamed the "Biker Studio." We were tough and old and grizzled and cynical and crazy, at least most of us were, and the school wanted to beat that all out of us and mold us into something else. We were stripped of our old "bag of tricks" and told to start anew. I lost my moxie. It was completely gone.

    The "Biker  Studio." Eric, Mike, Thom, me, Tim, Ellen's butt. 
    No longer was my humor looked upon as an asset: rather, it was criticized as a hurdle to my being viewed as a "leading lady." I was to be graceful and elegant and ladylike and thinner and not silly in the least. And I trembled every time my name was called to stand in front of the class to do a monologue or attempt farce physicalizations (a "double-take", a "triple-take", a trip, a "slow burn,." etc.) I could not be funny even if I tried to be at that point in my training. And I always waited until last to go up and try. I hated myself. I was miserable. I did not get cast in any mainstage show. I was, I thought, the least-talented of my studio. I deliberately sabotaged myself - by skipping a rehearsal of a small show I was in - to drive to Cleveland and say goodbye to a new love interest as he left for NYC. I was given an F and put on probation in my program. I would never succeed at the THEATRE, I was sure of it.

    I decided to try a stand-up competition at that time, on a whim. It would only be the second time I had ever attempted stand-up, and here I was trying to win a nationwide commercial competition. I was ill-prepared, but I KNEW I could stand in front of a crowd and make things up if I had to. A crowd is safe, if the numbers are large enough to mildly amuse, I just knew. Crowds laugh a little and they become contagious with the laughter - it travels and moves and people laugh at others' laughter. I did not win, but managed my way through two minutes of  semi-funny material and only one falter -- my poetic ex-boyfriend was in the audience and I locked eyes with him as I was making fun of our relationship. It threw me, and I stopped short. I ended my set, deflated by the sight of his face. Apathy, then embarrassment for me was written on his face, or so I imagined.

    Yet that one moment of bravery led to others: I auditioned for the Artistic Director of  the Cleveland Play House wearing comfortable clothes and an I-don't-have-anything-to-lose-now approach. I was told I had an exceptionally good audition, despite the fact that this same lovely lady took all the studio's headshots and resumes and made fun of them one-by-one, in front of us, to show us how we would be viewed by casting directors. Granted, my acceptance was merely as an acting intern, as was the rest of my studio, but I now look at that comedy competition as my moment of clarity. An epiphany. I am what I am. And that is all that I am.

    It took several more years of living in NYC-- being rejected, being cast in eight tours of theater for young audiences, being a camp Drama Director, working in casting, and then, finally, being a stand-up comic-- to regrow my moxie. The comedy gigs helped me to overcome my shaking, all-consuming dread that I was a fraud, a flop, a nothing. I liken standing on that stage with microphone in hand to jumping out of an airplane -- it can be absolutely terrifying the first time, and then, if you let it happen, it can be thrilling. And it's all you. It's all me. No script, no one's words but mine, the audience just wanting to laugh. Hell, I can do THAT, I thought, and still think. And if it doesn't always work, so the fuck what?? There's always another chance, another show. I won't let anyone scare me away with grim looks or crossed arms or apathy. I will make it my mission to muscle through, improvise, make fun of myself, find the humor in the dread. Talk about it openly. Flay myself so the audience sees my innards and can identify and recognize the similarity of our shared inner works.

    De La Vega, the street artist, spurs me on. 
    Now I cannot wait to be tested. Try me. I have that moxie and I'm not letting it go again. Give me your best apathy, I will not shy away in fear. I know you want to laugh. I KNOW it. It will save you from the darkest depths of self-loathing and criticism and ugliness thrown at you every day. It has saved me. I am what I am. And that is all that I am.

    - Spleen
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  2. 2 comments:

    1. i liked this a lot. thanks for sharing the way you do.

    2. Andrea said...

      I read your amazing posts every week over my Wednesday morning cup of tea. Last week I forgot to check in. I'm so glad I came back to this. It brought me to tears. I think the you that you are is hilarious, kind, authentic, charasmatic, charming, and incredibly talented. I always have. And to discover your talent in writing has been a wonderful surprise. I'm so glad you've got your moxie back. I know you'll never let it go again. xx, andrea

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