IN independent theatre circles, there’s long been an urban myth that if you manage to attract a casting agent to see your production, you’re in with a chance of scoring an audition for something bigger and better.
Securing the attendance of a casting agent is no mean feat.
It takes a great deal of networking (read: bothering) and a heavy dose of self belief (read: ambition).
The only time I ever managed it was during a production of The Taming of the Shrew, part of the annual Shakespeare by the River in the Penrith Valley, produced by the Acting Factory.
I’d met an assistant at an agency in the city during a previous casting. She was young, very inexperienced, and she revealed that she was from Penrith, allowing me to casually mention Shakespeare by the River …
I bothered. She came.
Maybe it was karma, but playing Petruchio, Shakespeare’s misogynist shrew-taming victimiser, somehow suggested I’d be perfect for playing a victim.
Generally in the ‘fifty-worder’ zone (roles of fifty words or less, defining them in an Equity pay bracket), victim roles are notoriously difficult to cast, because no serious (read: ambitious) actor wants to play them.
But I didn’t know any better, when I leapt at the chance of a casting session for the role of David Begg in an episode of Australia’s hottest hospital drama of the day: All Saints.
I donned my regulation neutral black T-shirt, which ensured I looked as much like my headshot as possible. I arrived slightly ahead of time to avoid the waiting room nerves, which was a good thing, because the noises coming from inside the casting room sounded like I was waiting to see a doctor at an amputation clinic: Mr Begg was the victim of a machete attack by his wife.
Listening to actors emulate the pain levels of machete attack is a little like tuning-into your neighbours having sex. When the casting agent asks for the actor to “please do it again, but make the pain levels nine out of 10” the intimacy escalates and diminishes in an amusingly familiar cadence, because, as they say, there’s a fine line between pleasure and pain.
Casting sessions and auditions are artificial situations that most actors relate as agonising. They are a chance to show that you’re a directable actor (read: you listen), and an opportunity to secure that ten-second moment in which the casting agency staff make up their minds about you, regardless of the performance you’re about to give.
I told my agent I’d gotten a casting for All Saints, and asked her to look out for a call about the result. Yes, you read correctly – I got the casting session independently of my agent, and I was willing to give her ten per cent of the fee should I get the job. If you can work out why actors always do this, you’ll make a million bucks.
A week later, she called, which meant I’d got the job. Agents never call otherwise.
A script followed. David Begg had five words (“Bitch cut my hand off”) and a maximum of 45 howls of pain, as he was wheeled into the Emergency ward of All Saints’ hospital, his hand-in-a-bag at his thigh, blood spraying everywhere.
At the read through early the next week, the familiar faces (read: stars) of All Saints sat on one side of the room, flanked by a wall of slightly familiar faces (read: guest stars), and a wall of nobodies (read: fifty-worders) by the door.
David Begg’s violent argument with his wife, of course, was background to looming hospital administration issues, and the sudden arrival of an emergency case was a way to see careworn and jaded hospital workers at their level best, but I spoke my lines (and expressed my pain) with the best of them.
A production assistant showed me to the props department, where my hand was matched with a latex dummy and an entire fake arm with a grisly stump wrist. The props team were having too much fun working out how to make an arterial spray.
Then the big day. Call sheets, early morning catering, quiet on the set, and plenty of waiting in the off-set zone of the studio, where I got chatting with the regular featured extras, those people you see in the background of the All Saints wards: nurses, doctors, and patients, none of them “serious” actors, but everyday people in well-paid regular work.
My call came and I was strapped onto the gurney with my good arm underneath me, in a position for which I would quickly become grateful for occasional yoga classes. The prosthetics were put into action and tested, and a nice, arterial spray was created by the props guy, cramped into the gurney below me.
No direction from the young director, then all of a sudden we were off …
Several takes of crashing through the plastic double doors resulted in a message from the director that there was “not enough blood!”. He put in a brief appearance and demonstrated to the prosthetics team, by wildly gesticulating, how he wanted the slaughter to appear.
They wheeled me back, the team tested a few angles, and we went through a few more takes.
Another message came through: my five words not being delivered clearly enough.
Now, I had my back story worked out. My imaginary wife had a name, and if you’d asked me anything about how we’d come to such a momentous argument, I’d have been able to tell you.
But, locked onto a gurney with my real arm numb below me, teams of creatives arguing about how to get the best out of the bloody stump, and me having to deliver my five words in the middle of the stars’ lines, I determined to go up a gear on the next take …
“That’s great!” the director yelled from his hidey-hole straight afterwards, “but MORE blood please!” he added.
The next take I sat up and grabbed the latex stump, aware of the proximity of the camera over the stars’ shoulders, and gave them all a liberal spraying.
“Better, but higher next time please,” was the response.
We had to wait while they replaced surgical gloves and cleaned-up the spray from the stars’ hospital scrubs, then, emboldened by creative ambition, and also wishing to get it right so my real arm could get real blood supplied to it as quickly as possible, I sat up higher, shouted my words to the boom, and sprayed a wall of Logie award winners with as much fake blood as they were ever likely to cop outside of a hammer horror remake of the Brides of Dracula. Acting method went out the window.
“Got it!” came the cry from behind the flats. “Thankyou to Michael,” a production assistant encouraged. The stars clapped unenthusiastically while costume attendants saw to the fake blood dripping from their brows.
Friends and family waited with great anticipation for the broadcast of my ten-second appearance weeks later. I missed it, working at my day job across town, but also because I was waiting for another call from fostering effective relations with a casting agency. Perhaps next time I’d graduate to more than 50 words?
But I’m still waiting, which is, I suppose, why serious actors never play the victim.
© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.