January 3, 2012

A Stratford Actor... almost

It's a brand new year, full of opportunities (and possible Mayan doom). I thought I'd write about a past goal as a reminder to myself to laugh in the face of Failure this year. Because it's never really failure, right? It's just future blogging material.

Who? Me???
You can argue the Stratford Festival is the pinnacle of Canadian theatre. It's the largest theatre festival in the country, it has an international reputation and past stars have included some of the greatest English language actors: Alec Guinness, Christopher Plummer, James Mason, John Neville, Jessica Tandy, Christopher Walken, Peter Ustinov...

And me. Almost.

The Birmingham Conservatory is Stratford's school. The late Richard Monette founded it when he was Artistic Director as a way of ensuring Canada has a constant supply of thespians skilled in ye olde school theatre. They used to hold (not sure if they still do) an annual audition tour across Canada for the Conservatory: if you made the cut, you would spend a year studying at Stratford, followed by a summer performing with the company. In the shaky world of Canadian theatre (aka artistic poverty), that's golden.

In 2006, I auditioned. In the cavernous main space at MTYP (when it's just you and 40 feet of bare stage "cavernous" is justified) I did my little monologues for David Latham (Birmingham's Principal at the time). Pieces from Julius Caesar and Wild Abandon. He didn't seem enthusiastic; just a nod and a thank you. I trudged the long walk home and had a drink. Oh well.

But no, not oh well! A few weeks later, I came home from the warehouse (I had a glamorous job stacking boxes) to a message on the machine. Something to the effect of, "We're going to fly you out to Toronto, put you up for the night and have you audition for Mr. Monette. Congratulations."

My response? Something to the effect of, "Ohmygodohmygodohmygod..."

It was a gorgeous July day in Toronto when my flight arrived. Sunshiny. Warm without being muggy. I checked into my downtown hotel, then took a stroll. The bars were full of soccer fans (2006 FIFA cup was on) cheering for their teams; they suited my mood. I headed to the CBC building, visiting its shrine of puppets from Children's Shows Past. I caught the evening Dream in High Park where they were doing The Comedy of Errors - the show my own theatre company had opened its life with. All good omens.

The next day I did some more walking. My audition wasn't until 5pm, so I had the whole day to nervously kill time. I hit the hot tub at my classy hotel; the business people staying there glared (they could smell the free room on me). The hotel gave me the classy boot at checkout time. Eaton Place, CN Tower, Yonge - I wandered randomly, waiting for my big chance.

5pm crept close. I waited outside the Elgin Theatre on Yonge Street, scaring pedestrians with my vocal warm ups. I was the very last to audition. They brought me into the theatre and onto the stage, where roughly seven people sat behind two tables. Richard Monette was at the centre.

"Ahhh, let's see (checks papers) Matthew! Matthew, thank you for joining us. What are you going to do for us today?"

"Umm... some Shakespeare?"

"Ha! Haha! That's very good, very good. Right - when you're ready!"

I did my monologues again. I'd drilled them enough that it didn't matter my knees were shaking, my heart was pounding and my palms were sweating. I finished. Richard Monette made some notes.

"Matthew, I want to let you know that - as I'm retiring after this season - this is the very last audition that I will be watching for the Conservatory. And I am NOT disappointed."

A chorus of angels burst through the ceiling of the Elgin, singing and blowing trumpets.

"Now Matthew, if I could just ask one more thing. I see here it says on your resume that you can sing. Can you please give us a little sample?"

Let me explain that while yes, it does say on my acting resume that I can "sing" it's more of a "sing in the background, part of a chorus, not-on-the-spot-in-front-of-the-most-powerful-Canadian-director" kind of singing that I do. So I shouldn't have put that on my resume. Ouch.

My palms burst into waterfalls, my throat clenched and my mind blanked as I tried to think of a song. The one that came to mind was Last Saskatchewan Pirate by the Arrogant Worms. This, apparently, is what I can trust my brain to do in the clinch.

I made it to the chorus, ending on a squeak. There was silence at the other end of the room for the cliched seconds stretching into hours. Richard Monette cleared his throat.

"Well Matthew... thank you."

And that was that. Oh, I held out hope for a few weeks after - rushing home to check the answering machine, sending (what must have been irritating) emails to ask if a decision had been made - but deep down I knew that I wasn't going to make the cut.

I'd sung myself out of Stratford.

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