04/13/2011 11:29 am ET Updated Jun 13, 2011

No Talent Beyond This Point

Auditions mess with your head. Especially during pilot season. There's just no getting around it.

You have a short window of time to work on a character, sometimes with only a day to prepare. You have to find that person's reality within your own experience (acting), but also commit to "just being yourself" (auditioning). You have to memorize the text, make the words your own, investigate your relationship with the other character(s) in the scene(s), and then find a few interesting choices that might (please!) allow you to stand out amongst the hundreds of other actors who look very similar to you and probably have a lot more credits. All of this you have to do without losing your day job because let's face it, you're not going to book the thing anyway. Well, maybe...

Then this work, as well as the agonizing over whether you have a chance in hell, plus the anxiety of looking good enough to even leave the apartment, has to be bottled up so you are sufficiently present to drive through traffic. But you better not lose your connection with the material in the meantime. It has to be instantly released again in a room where people are IMing, texting, and doing a vague impression of politeness while they simultaneously assess you and hope that the deal with whatever name they are out to gets made. And that's if you're lucky. More often than not, you work your ass off and end up in a room auditioning for an assistant and a camera, knowing the whole time that the tape will never be seen.

But I've skipped a step. Sometimes you go straight through to the audition, however, most often you sit for an undetermined period of time (from 20 minutes to 2 hours) in a waiting room not wholly unlike the one at your childhood doctors office. Instead of toys and Highlights magazine, though, there are pictures of celebrities and countless US Weeklys. As though the promise of fame will keep you well-behaved and prevent any whining. In an audition for a pilot I went to last week, they employed the extra kindness of playing a movie with the volume turned off. Priscilla Queen of the Desert. An inspiration for greatness if ever there was one.

They also had another means of keeping nervous actors in their place. A large sign declaiming:


The sign prevented actors from working on their material outside of the delineated 4x4 sq ft space allotted to them, eliminating the potential spread of icky contagions such as pressure and nerves to innocent passers-by. But it did make me wonder whether the sign-posters were aware of the other implication of the admonishment: that the space behind the sign was a TALENT FREE ZONE. It felt as insulting to the "non-talent" as it did degrading to the "talent."

I keep reading about how British, Australian, and European actors are wiping the floor with their American counterparts. I attended a 3-year drama conservatory in London and so am tempted to compare and contrast. Young artists are raised differently abroad. There is a tradition of training, but beyond that, of respect. In these places, the commodification of art is a relatively new thing, so the "talent" is still given the space to work and create before they are foisted in front of casting directors, agents, and producers to be judged.

In the US, young actors are potential commodities from the word go. As a result, they are not protected, encouraged, and trained, but instead sequestered, degraded, and dismissed until such time when it will be lucrative to exploit them. The consequence being that once Americans have finally "made it," most are either deeply cynical or desperate to please. Both states are anathema to creative expression. And so they ultimately lose out to the actors who have spent their down time doing Shakespeare and Chekhov instead of waiting for hours in front of signs that say things like, "No Talent Beyond This Point."

Sequestering talent doesn't benefit anyone. And if we want to have new generations of American actors sensitive and skillful enough to convey the complexities of life in this changing country and world, so beset with heartache and tragedy, we have to question the ethos of a system that latches on to a star only once all his or her ability to create has been thwarted.