I’m not an actor, heaven knows, but I did work as an editor and reporter at Back Stage, the trade publication and website for actors, for the better part of 10 years (freelance and full-time work combined), so I think I may know something, a wee little bit, about it.
One of the things I know, for example, is that the market is over-saturated with how-to books for actors. If every actor internalized every morsel of advice from every how-to book out there about acting, wouldn’t they all be working? Well, no, of course not. More than many professions, acting is indisputably a numbers game — you’ve a better shot winning a nine-figure Megamillions drawing than making it big — or making it small or middling, for that matter. There will never and can never be enough roles — forget about paying roles — for all the actors out there pursuing them. And it will never really matter all that much how good or bad you are as an actor, or how well or not well prepared you seem. The odds still stink.
Ah, but it never hurts to maximize your chances, right? That’s true, too. And so how-to books continue to come.
So many books, in fact, that during my last three years at Back Stage, when one of my responsibilities was overseeing, writing and assigning book reviews, the sense of losing the battle against sheer volume was maddening and palpable. Back Stage’s publisher and power-wielding poo-bahs could have allocated unlimited space and Sigmund Freud could have bestowed on us more sanity, and it still wouldn’t have made a difference — not only was there no point in trying to cover but a fraction of this metastasizing genre, the majority of these books weren’t worth the energy needed to really read them, anyway. Now, we all did read them, of course, but we embraced semiotic shortcuts — like allowing a cover design, say, to clue us in about content. You’d see a serious cover, for example, and immediately intuit that the book would be all about the rigors of acting, the aspirational nobility of the actor’s craft, the duty of actors to always be true to themselves and to the work and to whatever theory or theories would be promulgated and espoused. Or you’d see a less eyebrow-knitting cover — an explosion of color, font and maybe caricature — and immediately intuit that the book would promise a whimsically pungent parade of feel-good checklists, bullet points and here’s-how-easy-it-can-be spirit that keeps actors on the Habitrail to hopelessness. I remember sitting at my desk one day and asking myself why actors spend so much money on these texts — money they could spend, I felt, more effectively elsewhere.
I remember one stretch of about a year when, sadly, it seemed to me that anybody with a pulse — and very often a soul without one — could get an acting book published or could otherwise opine or some related slice of the hoary business of show. That thing we might call psychological depth, or even really good humor, remained elusive, prized and rare: it’s virtually impossible to write meaningfully about acting as a technical, emotional and professional process. I should also note that when such a book does come along, it’s a pleasure. I always felt that Howard Fine (with whom I became phone-friendly) did a superlative job with Fine on Acting, partly because his analytical skills echoed his surname and because I never got the sense that Fine got off on his own press. For every Fine on Acting, unfortunately, there are 10 or 20 derivative, lowest-common-denominator how-tos out there, which meant many, many reviews were little more than exercises in arts-journalism diplomacy.
With all this as a backdrop, I can tell you that Andrew Gerle‘s The Enraged Accompanist’s Guide to the Perfect Audition is a welcome departure from the usual blather, blither and bumble. Gerle is a composer and playwright of fast-rising stature on the American stag — a three-time recipient of the Richard Rodgers Award for new musical writing and an accompanist of renown. Gerle’s book is published by Applause, and I wonder if it may have had some other title when it was originally proposed. I could ask him or Applause myself, but since “enraged” strikes me as the kind of word that is bandied about when publishers ask authors the inevitable Passover question (“Why is this how-to book different from all the other books?”), I decided that creating an imaginary dialogue would be much more fun:
“I get so angry when actors show up for auditions and don’t know what the hell they’re doing,” said Gerle.
“No, no, Andrew,” cautioned the publisher. “You’re not angry. You’re enraged.”
“Yes! Yes, I am enraged,” Gerle replied, his breath shallower, his heart-rate increasing, his face a lighter shade of persimmon. “I can get so enraged. You wouldn’t believe how enraged I can become. I can become — oh, I can become absolutely apoplectic.”
“We’re not calling this The Apoplectic Accompanist’s Guide to the Perfect Audition,” said the publisher. “I think ‘enraged’ is fine.”
“I love ‘enraged,’ Gerle said. I really get ‘enraged,’ too. ‘Enraged’ is the new black.”
Running about 110 pages, one also gets the sense that, for Gerle, rage is also black and white. Take his advice and hear his notes and follow his lead and no one gets hurt. Or else, prepare to die:
Playing from music that is badly prepared makes me enraged. You try reading from illegible faxes and fighting the Amazing Self-Closing Book two hundred times a day. Playing bad songs makes me enraged. No tune, no money note, no joke, no point. Idiotic sixteen-bar versions of great songs make me enraged. Death by a thousand bad cuts. Playing the same song over and over and over makes me enraged. Trying to read the minds of singers who have never been taught how to talk to a pianist makes me enraged…
But the thing that makes me the most enraged, the thing that makes me want to stop the audition and stand up on the piano bench, stomp my feet, and throw an eighty-five-pound glitter- and decal-encrusted binder across the room is seeing actors with the potential to knock an audition out of the park give yet another ho-hum, serenely competent, comfortable, “Who’s next?” performance and watching them walk out the door, knowing they think they did a great job, knowing they won’t get a callback, and knowing they’ll give the same audition every day for the next five years (if they last that long) and never be remembered.
Maybe you can’t blame Gerle for chug-a-lugging the bitters. Indeed, he sometimes horrifies the reader with compare-contrast tales from the theatrical shitty. I wouldn’t want him for an enemy.
At the same time, it can be helpful to remember how Gerle’s particular viewpoint affects the way he instructs. There is a lot of talk about what casting directors want, and while some of it is illuminating, I’d be remiss not to note that guessing what casting directors really want is like asking Mr. Spock to have a total emotional breakdown. Which is to say that no matter how many tips one may offer (and Gerle is generous with them), ultimately the audition process for any show is a totally subjective exercise in absurdity, one that no amount of preparation, no amount of professionalism, can really prepare an actor for. Of course it’s unhelpful thing to give anything less than “two hundred percent” or something “bold and beautiful,” in an audition, but energy, timing, mood, weather, hemorrhoids, someone’s jackass boyfriend and burnt Starbucks coffee are all factors, too, and there’s not a goddamn thing that the finest earthly actor can do about it if the stars refuse to align. This is why I read Gerle’s third chapter, “What Are They Looking For?,” with increasing skepticism. I don’t think he intends the chapter to mislead, but I fear it has the effect, for, again, casting directors often don’t know what they’re looking for beyond general notions and characteristic, and once actors have cleared certain basic hurdles in terms of their presentation — you know, taking showers, not wearing bloomers — auditioning is all about what Simon Cowell is soon to promote as the “x-factor,” and that’s as clear as mud. We’re in the realm of the crap-shoot, the big spin of the metaphysical wheel, and while Gerle’s do’s and don’ts are smart, and while he does acknowledge that actors can never beat the odds, he sometimes comes off as making the do’s and don’ts all about him, not about getting the gig.
The fourth chapter, called “Your Book,” was most helpful to actors — and, not coincidentally, to Gerle. Don’t, he asks, give him a reason to screw you:
Being an audition accompanist is not easy. Up to two dozen times an hour, you’re handed a piece of music that you may or may not have seen before, in any key under the sun, and are expected to play it cleanly, in the right style and the right tempo, following whatever repeats and cuts the singer requests. …If you or your book make my life more difficult than it already is, I will become enraged and it is your audition that will suffer.
Fair enough. But you know what? Part of me — maybe the idiot part, maybe the masochistic part — would rather some disorganized actor come in and absolutely flatten me than be the tidiest, most organized performer on earth and be no more interesting in an audition, or distinctive in talent, than sunshine on a southern California day.
There are two chapters on song interpretation, and these are delightful — precisely what you’d want from a songwriter and audition accompanist. And there’s a tight chapter on headshots and resumes, arguably the most debated — and the most boring — subject after the epic history of beige.
But how good is it, I wonder, for Gerle to get enraged in the first place? Why should he give a damn? If he’s serving as accompanist for auditions for someone else’s show, how does infusing himself into the process help anyone? If nothing else, it seems to me Gerle has been privy to a weeding-out process without the actual weeding-out having to involve his own material a fair amount of the time. And if the audition is for one of his shows, isn’t it easier to say “We’ll be in touch” than have a stroke? The people who should be really enraged, when you think about it, are the actors themselves.