-Flying out of Washington-National in the middle of a snow storm. -The plane’s departure delayed due to de-icing. Twice. -Getting off the plane in Savannah, Georgia, and discovering that it felt like summer – it was only March. -Buying pralines from various vendors along River Street, then discovering that they were giving them away for free at the convention hospitality booth. -The mile walk between the hotels. That’s really all I remember about the 1994 Southeastern Theatre Conference Convention. My first set of Spring SETC Professional Division Auditions.
The most recent SETC Convention was just held in Chattanooga, Tennessee; it was their 59th Annual Convention. As I was preparing my opening remarks to the actors and actresses auditioning, I was all set to say that it was my 20th Anniversary year with SETC. Well, after thinking it through, I realized it was more likely my 15th year. Then after consulting the "Past Conventions" listing in the convention program, it turned out it was only my 12th. I guess it only seemed like I’ve been playing the Spring SETCs for 20 years already. *For anyone doing the math: I haven’t played for all of the Spring SETCs since 1994. Due to work commitments, I’ve missed three of the annual conventions. Strangely enough, the three years I missed (1997, 2001, 2006), the conventions were held in Florida (Miami, Jacksonville, Orlando). We’ll have to see if that pattern continues in the future. (I also play for the smaller Fall Professional Auditions, so I’m guessing that may have contributed to my 20-year syndrome.)
My first SETC actually came about after I had lobbied for the job. That year, a number of theatre students I played for at Virginia Commonwealth University had made it through the state screenings, and were passed on to the regional level. I just wanted to see if I could play for them. As it turned out, the pianist who had been playing for the auditions the previous couple of years was not available that year. After a few brief phone conversations, as well as some recommendations – including a particularly glowing, unsolicited one from the Theatre VCU secretary – I was hired for the gig. It was basically a blind and deaf hiring. No one in the central office had ever heard of me, let alone had heard me play. And, truth be told, I had no real idea what I was going to be in for once I got down to Savannah. I had heard tales of the "Big Convention", but I had never experienced one myself.
Besides the travel woes, the weather and the pralines, there really is not much more I remember about my first SETC Convention. Oh! I do remember that a group of students had gotten mugged while walking along the River Street Waterfront, and they took a collection up to help them with their food, clothing and other expenses. But as for the specifics of the actual auditions themselves, well, there’s actually not a lot I remember about those. I think I had a grand piano in the ballroom. It was the usual three days of auditions, with about 250 people auditioning each day. And I was asked to come back the following year – and the following years – so I guess I did a job. What I tend to retain about my annual SETC adventures are the airports, the hotels, and, yes, the food.
There aren’t that many specific auditions or auditionees I remember from the past 14 years. Yes, I can remember being generally entertained from time to time, but as for which song and monologue went with which number, name and face in a particular ballroom, hotel and city, well, all bets are off. However, there is one young gentleman who totally caught me by surprise by actually including me in his audition…
(to the tune of the Gershwin’s "They Can’t That Away From Me")
The way you play my pitch
The way you hit those keys
I think you’ve found your niche
Oh, no, they can’t take Jose away from me.
…Or something very close to that – and he continued on through the bridge and final refrain. It also turned out that the monologue he performed before the song was directed towards me, but since I was multi-tasking – getting the tempo and other info from the next person – I didn’t pick up on that until someone told me he had customized his whole audition package "towards" me. His monologue, I believe, was one of Shakespeare’s Fools. Alas, since everything had happened so fast – and since I was sort of in shock – I was not able to follow-up with him to thank him, nor to see how many callbacks he ended up getting.
Otherwise, what I tend to remember are "trends". The end of "Soliloquy" made a huge comeback in popularity the year the Lincoln Center revival of Carousel opened. There was even one young gentleman who, as he was placing his music on the piano, asked me, "Do you know this? It’s from a new show." After making sure I only rolled my eyes inside my head, I just responded that I did know it, and made a semi-obvious gesture towards the copyright date on the opening page. Then there was the year of the Damn Yankees revival where I believe "Goodbye, Old Girl" set the record for the most performed, most repeated song. There was at least one actor who sang that song in each group of 25 auditions, sometimes two; and in the final group of the day, of the convention, there were four renditions of that song, perhaps even five, with at least two back-to-back. I had blocked it out after a while, and had had the accompaniment memorized by rote by the middle of the second day of auditions. It had even become sort of a joke among the people auditioning. One guy didn’t even bother giving me a tempo indication as he put his book on the piano, "I guess you know this one by now." The most recent trends seem to center around the Kristin Chenoweth and Sutton Foster Songbooks: "Taylor, the Latte Boy", "The Girl in 14G", "Not for the Life of Me", "Astonishing", "Show Off", and, of course, "Gimme, Gimme". And, yes, playwrights also seem to inspire trends from time to time. If Christopher Durang, Jane Martin (the long suspected and speculated nom de plum of theatrical administrator, Jon Jory) and Neil Simon had a nickel for each time one of their monologues had been extracted, well, they’d have a lot of nickels. -Too bad William Shakespeare’s benefactors and heirs(?) had not set up some sort of royalty agreement in place at the time of the Bard’s death.
I guess it’s a good thing I don’t remember more about the thousands of auditions I’ve played over the years at SETC and elsewhere. God knows, I kick myself enough during the process whenever I have a bad audition, I would go crazy trying to retain all the details of even just a fraction of the auditions I’ve played – the good, the bad, the ugly, the downright awful, the painfully oblivious, and the refreshingly brilliant ones. Although, I have to wonder if somewhere down the line, something in my head will snap, and I will be found walking around Times Square re-enacting the audition packages I’ve experienced over the years. So, if you happen to come to New York City, and run into a shaggy-haired Filipino with a sign around his neck reading, "Will sight read for food," and reciting the "Tuna Fish" monologue from Laughing Wild, and sprech-stimming "How Could I Ever Know?", well… Just remember: He likes the Monkey Cake from Amy’s Bread, and the Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookies from Levain.