Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Dancing With a Star

It was at some point on the first day, the setup day, that I heard that MF and JP were going to be there. I called my dance partner and left a message.

“They’re having these auditions here and MF and JP are the judges, and all you gotta do is read some portion of some script -- all the info is online.” I carefully read the web address in the message.

My dance partner has been in local theater productions, has worked as an extra and a key extra, had a small part in the TV series DC.

I didn’t get a response to that message. I imagined my dance partner rushing to get ready for the audition, too busy to call me back. I wanted to not know when she would show up -- to just see her walk in the door and blow everyone away with what I know she’s got. Here was a chance to have her in something I was also working on, and with MF and JP as well!

The next day the judges started seeing contestants. Before each one entered, the producer would pass out papers to the judges showing the next contestant’s answers to his screeming questions. “Please note item number 7,” the producer might say, “which says that he sweats profusely.”

One contestant had stated, on his papers, that he has a rare form of diabetes involving kidney failure, and needs to drink water continually.

“You have to drink 3 gallons of water every day?” the judges asked him. He concurred. “You must be just constantly pissing,” they said. The contestant kind of nodded but said nothing, and I wondered if he were handling it some way he didn’t want to mention, like maybe with diapers. The judges harped on that for a while; it was then said that the guy was also an ironman triathlete; the guy read his part and wasn’t very good; they let him down easily and he left.

In his absence, the judges kept on about his disease, speculating on how he could compete in a triathalon if he had to pee all the time. I wondered, to myself, if maybe doing extreme exercise, and sweating, was the only time he could get a break from his constant peeing. The liquid was needed elsewhere, on the skin, so it could go there instead of to his bladder. You know, like how ADHD people finally get to focus and connect with the world, in a sense, when they are in an environment that reflects the spasms going on in their brains, like when playing a video game or performing search and rescue during a hurricane.

MF explained the name of the disease, pointing out that the prefix “nephr-” means “kidney.” Looking at her website, one can see that she knows about world health matters and diseases.

In the random conversations that occurred during the days, it was MF who had the assessments and background information to offer. While talking about relationships with JP, she said that she didn’t know what was up with younger folks these days. “I work on these shows with these young girls, and it’s amazing, they have nothing to talk about. Their minds are empty.”

JP said, “Plus, they’re crazy.”

MF said, “Well, men like crazy women.”

I was putting a mic in her orange sequined blazer at the time, and I said, “I tend to go for the crazy ones,” not even looking up from her blazer.

“Well, there you go, even [Elrond],” she said.

Another contestant had written on his papers that he loved architecture. After a series of contestants who had little to say for themselves, who got through the audition just by being cute (MF told one, “You can’t just vamp your way through this”), MF took the opportunity to ask him who his favorite architect was. When he named his first and second favorites (names I have not heard of), she nodded, smiling, as if seeing something new in a person -- knowledge of architecture that rivals hers, perhaps? She said, at another time, that she was an avid reader.

Another contestant mentioned something that he had “learned in social studies,” and MF said dryly, “At least they’re still teaching social studies.”

At the end of this first day of seeing contestants, I called my dance partner again and left another message. I said look, they’re doing this thing here and not enough contestants are showing up. They need people. I know you can bang this out. If you do it, you may see me in the room, but don’t worry about saying “Hi” to me. Just do your thing for the judges.

But I harbored a fantasy. What if they asked her about her ballroom dancing, and what if she said, “My dance parter is right over there?”

“[Elrond]?!?!” they would say. Surely, they would make us dance together. I would take off the headphones and leave the faders set in some lowish, safe position and go out there and hope I would look confident enough, happy enough, while struggling to overcome stiffness accumulated from standing all day, and to remember moves that we have not practiced for weeks because we’ve both been so busy trying to earn a living. No doubt, MF would have something to say about our presentation, would have notes for me in particular, because she has spent her life dealing with these matters of poise and stage presence. I would probably not feel that I had impressed her and the others, but I could at least say something like, “I did mambo for MF today, and this is what she said about my hip movement . . .”

I had decided I would suggest mambo because there was room for it on the small “dance floor” they had laid down for the contestants to stand on, and because I had heard a nice slow mambo in the music selections that the producer would play from his iPod during the down times.

That night I called my dance partner again, and this time she answered. She said it sounded like a neat thing to do, but she was really busy and had 5 hours of lessons to teach the next (and last) day of auditioning, and there was so much to do regarding home repairs and other matters.

Okay, I said, I understand. But, I told her, these folks are here, it’s right here in town, and I’ve seen them give a gold ticket to (that is, pass on to the next level of auditioning which will be in New Orleans a few months from now -- the second round of the ”tournament,” so to speak) people who have as much talent overall as you have in your little finger; I’ve seen you do so much better without even trying. But do what you want, and I won’t say any more about it.

She said she’d think about it.

On the morning of the second and last day, as we were about to start, the producer said that there were only six contestants waiting outside. I called my dance partner again, and she answered. I said, “Look, I had said I wouldn’t hassle you about this again, but I just wanted to say, there are only six people here now, so there might not even be much of a wait.”

She said that she had awakened with a migraine and couldn’t keep food down, but she’d do her best. And she said she had talked to her husband the previous night and he had said, “Where is the audition,” and she said, “in Durham,” and he had said, “well you silly, go and do it then!”

“Thank goodness for my coaches,” she said. “That’s what I’m talking about,” I said.

We went through the morning, seeing the contestants as they came. We had lunch at 2pm, and on the way through the hotel lobby to our lunch area, I scanned the upcoming contestants in the waiting area. My dance parter was not there.

After lunch, I did see her there, filling out her forms. I spoke to her. She was on low energy, mellow, quiet, unassuming.

The first batch after lunch were more of the cute ones who had hardly prepared, had nothing to say for themselves, and couldn’t act at all. By now, our judges had acquired a little bit of edge and would say, “It’s clear you have no experience, and if you really want to be an actor, then take some classes and see how that goes. And good luck. Stay in school.”

(My dance partner told me later that some of these contestants came out of the room crying. One of them said, “How can she shatter my dreams like that?” and my dance parter said to her, “Nobody can shatter your dreams. I’ve done this a hundred times and had my guts torn out. It’s the only way you learn to get better.”)

Eventually, the door opened, and it was my dance partner who stepped through, into the lights. She still had that low-energy demeanor. She took her place on the mark in the middle of the room, and MF said right away, “It says here you are a ballroom dance instructor.”

“Yes,” my dance partner said.

“Dance with JP,” MF and AZ said. “Can you dance with him?”

My dance partner nodded cheerily, and I was nodding as well in my shadowy corner behind the tent-like chimeras. She has been making beginning male dancers look and feel good for years.

“Nothing hard. Not tango,” said MF, again knowing something about a subject. Tango is indeed one of the harder ballroom dances.

JP was crossing the room -- no urging needed here for a star to do something when he’s on camera already.

“We’ll do a box,” my dance partner said. “So, come forward on your left foot.” She back led him, keeping her head up, her poise that MF would approve of. JP was looking down, watching his feet. The other judges hooted and clapped, and then JP took the lead, breaking out of the box and turning my dance partner in quasi-swing, stepping back too far on his rock-steps and letting his arm get too extended. My dance partner made it look good though, doing what she knows how to do, her eyes stabbing along their momentary sightlines as she spun, her long curls bouncing.

JP started to go back to his seat, then returned to the dance floor and said, “Can you jitterbug?”

“Sure!” my dance partner said. I have never exactly jitterbugged with her. Or shagged, really. She says that it’s all the same, just swing. JP started leading her in something that was pretty much swing, and there were more turns and spins, and then it was over.

“Wow, she really can dance,” he said, returning to his seat.

MF said, “It also says you run a non-profit acting troupe that goes to assisted living homes?”

My dance partner talked about that. MF said, “As someone who has had a mother in that situation, thank you for bringing joy into those lives.”

It was time for my dance parter to show what she had prepared. She spread papers around on the floor, and I thought “Uh-oh, she’s going to be one of those that moves around.” We had just the boom mic for the contestants, and the boom operator was up on a ladder to keep himself and shadows out of the sightlines of the four cameras. Being up there meant that he could not move laterally very much. Some contestants had walked out of his boom range and had to be heard off-mic.

She was doing a scene from this movie about a rock star, the scene where one of his girlfriends is on drugs and becomes furious with him. She started sitting on the floor with those papers around her, and our boom guy had to lower the boom much more than normal. This risked getting it in to the criss-crossing camera angles, but he could see the monitors from where he was sitting on the ladder, so he could see if he were dipping in anywhere.

My dance partner started with her manner confused and quiet, her pale Irish face wondering but not inquisitive, like a child’s. How does it affect parents when they see their grown children, as actors, revert to childhood like this? She stood up and came to my side of the room, off mic, and was now paranoid, strung out, her voice cracking near some nervous breaking point, warning some imagined person that the rock star would not care about her; then she flew across the room to the other side, again off mic, and screamed at the rock star in the way that it sounds like the throat is being torn. It was the only audio that distorted in the whole two days.

I had not been able to see her face, and now I really wish I could see the video of it, but this may have to wait until the show comes out, and even then, who knows if they’ll use it.

The judges were quiet for a few moments, and then AZ started saying things like, “You were really well prepared . . . I thought it was a little over-the-top, but has potential . . . as far as voting on whether you should move to the next level, hmmm, I’m not sure . . . it seemed a little crazy . . .”

The authoritative MF said, “JM would drive any woman crazy.”

AZ said, “Well let’s see how the others vote.”

MF said, “I say absolutely yes.” It was the most positive response anyone got from any judge the whole time.

JP waffled like AZ. It was like they were judging my dance parter by different standards. They had given the gold ticket to others who showed “potential” or “could be directed.” If they thought her performance was a little crazy, couldn’t they ask her to do it again, tone it down a little, see if she can take direction?

No, she got no second chance. I had practically begged her to come here and do this when she had other things to do, necessary things with a clear goal that she was certain to achieve. She had changed her priorities for the day, put her heart into this, and now two of the judges had gone all “New York Times Critic” on her, acting like exacting standards had been theirs all along.

She had been right in her first reaction to my messages, which was to blow this off and get her errands done.

I forget how the two guys actually voted. At least one begrudgingly voted yes, because I recall them saying half-heartedly, “Congratulations. You got a call back,” and AZ handing out the ticket to her.

My dance partner said “Thank you,” and stepped up to take her ticket. As she went back to the stage area and bent down to pick up her papers, JP said, “Nice job. Thanks for coming in.” And my dance partner said, with a little crack in her voice, “Thank you too, it’s a pleasure, I really admire your work.”

When she had left, the producer talked it over with the judges. They talked about how, with some direction, she could be someone who might have a chance. They shrugged. I was thinking, “You knuckleheads, you don’t know what to do with someone who is good; who may, with a little more focus, really surpass the acting skills of any of these judges; someone who has also demonstrated a practical side by employing herself and earning a living, who has a college degree, who took the time to learn ballroom dance so she wouldn’t have to support herself by being a secretary, who has put much effort into a long-term relationship which has turned into a very solid marriage, who has built a following of real friends and clients . . .”

Oh wait, those are real accomplishments. Hollywood just wants someone they can use, who gets the ratings, who gets a few laughs, and who cares if the laughs are the malicious kind.

On the phone later, my dance partner told me they had made her wait for four hours before her audition. I had not expected that to happen. One of her dance students had cancelled that day, so that was good, but the next one she had to cancel. Even with that, after the audition she had five more hours of teaching, then grocery shopping to do.

We were talking as she was driving home. It was almost 10 o’clock and I had just finished my day and packed up all the gear and put it in my car. For me, it had been a 13 hour day.

I said that I couldn’t believe the judges had acted uncertain. I told her she was easily in the top three who auditioned the whole time, and they gave out maybe eight or so total callbacks over the two days. The other two top contestants, in my view, were a student at the local university who acts in a soap opera there and, on her second try at her audition (after getting some direction!) had made herself really cry over a lost lover; and a woman from a town to the west who is in a semi-professional improv comedy group and gave a fairly original-seeming interpretation to a scene she did, though I don’t remember now why I thought that.

My dance parter said it was all political. The actors behind the desk were just trying to prove something because “they’re all washed up,” she said.

“But MF is on top of her stuff,” I said. “And she gave you an absolutely positive ‘yes.’”

“Yeah. Well. I’m not gonna think about it. If they call me, I’ll think about it then.”

“Would you go to New Orleans for the second round?”

She sighed. “I’ll just have to see.” She had practical matters to think about.

I guess it gets even more political in the later round, as in all reality shows. I can’t wish this nonsense on her. It’s like MF said in the previous post. If there’s anything else you can do that will make you happy, then do that.

“At least you got to dance with JP,” I said.

“Yeah, that was awesome.”

“It sounds like you really admire him.” I had not paid attention to him back in the SNL days, or at any time.

“Yeah, I liked his stuff. He was hilarious.”

So there was that at least.

She was arriving home. I could hear her dog barking in the background on her phone.

“Are you gonna celebrate?” I said.

“I’m gonna eat some nachos and go to bed,” she said.


Phil said...

Man. What a story. I can't wait to find out what happens next.

Stew said...

I'm with Phil. That's a fantastic story. You did the right thing, and I wish they *had* called on you to dance.

Glenn said...

Great story. I wish your dance partner well. I guess MF doesn't think "dancing about architecture" is pejorative.

Elrond Hubbard said...

Thanks for your kind comments, everyone. As far as my dance partner continuing in this, we'll have to just see. We'll have to see if they honor the call-back by actually calling back. And, if that happens, I'm sure it just gets more political. Contestants get more and more "used" as fodder for what makes "good TV." You know how it is. So, let's all just be pleasantly surprised if something positive does follow from this.