I recently auditioned for the Public Broadcasting Service production of Frontline: Portrait of a Raging Underclass. The program attempts to chronicle the travails of one individual whose struggle is deemed entertaining enough to elicit donations for other provocative programming.
At 10 AM on March 6, I arrived at the studio for the first casting call. I was greeted by Nina, an associate producer, who immediately praised my work in Dateline: Public Assistances, Public Resistance, in which I played the vulnerable visitor to Window B.
Nina told me they were looking for someone whose hourly hardships meshed neatly into their shooting schedule.
“Are most of your woes visual?” she asked.
“I do this thing where I open the window, and scream out a self-absorbed notion,” I replied.
She jotted that down. My rantings were every bit as cinematic as those of the downtrodden, a group we’re regularly pitted against, and whose mail we often receive.
“Our cameras are there first thing in the morning. How deep into the day do you usually experience your first reversal?” she asked.
I had to think for a moment. “Reversal” presupposes a higher expectation. My expectations are so eminently attainable that I feared I would not appear to be as tragic a figure as she had hoped.
“My first reversal is generally in the form of an early morning leg cramp,” I finally answered. “Your viewers should enjoy that. You might even work it into Great Performances. I’ll sign a release.”
Nina asked me to follow her into Jake Ramsey’s office. He had produced several award-winning documentaries, including 48 Hours: Two Days, 48 Hours.
Ramsey handed me the script: “Why don’t you read the opening narration. Take a look for a few seconds, then start when you’re comfortable.”
I highlighted my lines, took a deep breath, and then launched into it: “Each day is an assault. I cannot remember a day that was not. Life has become a labyrinth of false hopes and dead ends….”
I turned to Ramsey: “Nobody says ‘dead end’ any more. I’d prefer to say ‘cul de sac.’”
“Turn to page three,” Ramsey ordered. “This is still the same narration.”
I flipped to page three, highlighted my lines, and began: “I have distanced myself—projecting a self-reliance that fools no one….”
Again I protested: “The character would not say this! I see her as a buoyant eccentric! She is surrounded by nine-to-fivers who furtively resent her maverick spirit and matinee coupon book. She’s an American original, an underclass icon.”
Ramsey seemed unconvinced: “That’s not where we want to take this. We want to examine a casualty of the system. We’re not looking to create doomed heroes. Turn to page six, and read, please.”
I arrived at page six. Mercifully, the narration was over. We were now in the scene where my character is visited by her compassionate cousin, Iris, who just so happens to be the director as well.
“Where do you want me to start?” I asked.
“Begin right after Iris says, ‘Although I am self-assured, creative, and successful, I feel stripped of all that upon entering my cousin’s efficiency—four bare walls encasing the forgotten in a joyless time warp.’”
I started in: “Hello, Cousin Iris! I saw you pulling up in your new Mercedes. Can I offer you some federally issued cheese food?”
I wasn’t happy with this dialogue, either, and felt compelled to voice it: “First of all, this character’s walls are not bare. She spends her entire day staring at these walls. They may seem bare to Iris, but this character sees things Iris cannot—a Metro-Transit bus schedule, for one.”
Ramsey clung to his vision: “We’re inclined to keep the script as is. Thank you for your reading. That was very nice.”
As I left the room, Nina called out: “You just came off too confident. Can you come back tomorrow, and read for the part of Cousin Iris?”
I can’t wait. I have a few ideas for the character. Well, hey, consider the source.
Bye for now.