This month at Lethe sees the release of The Role by Richard Taylor Pearson, a backstage pass to behind the scenes of a Broadway play and all the complications it brings. Read the first chapter right here:
When I was twenty, I thought all I had to do was get to New York City. Fate would surely smile on the brave boy who left Houston with nothing but a dream, right? Isn’t that how it always happens? I’d find a little spot in Central Park to rehearse a monologue, and everyone who passed by would become entranced. A big-time agent would stumble upon the crowd, offer to represent me, and then I’d rush home to my shoebox apartment to tell my roommate. He’d be a writer, though I wasn’t sure whether he’d be a journalist, a novelist, or a playwright. All I knew was that he’d have black hair, glasses, and be just a little too skinny to be considered hot; though, of course, I’d see his inner beauty. He’d offer me a glass of cheap Chianti and ask me to read his newest work. I would be so overcome by the beauty of his words that we’d push our beds and bodies together that night. We would make love, and I would finally know the kind of passion that I’d seen on stage so many times. The next morning, my agent would call and demand I rush to an audition. I’d kiss my new love goodbye, burst through the casting agency doors, and land the lead role. Then, when opening night arrived, the Times would herald me as Broadway’s newest star. The city just needed me to get there.
After five years in the city, the only part of that dream that’s come close to true is that I did eventually fall in love with my roommate. My boyfriend Eric, and I have lived together for three years, but are still a few weeks away from our one year anniversary as an official couple. Eric is almost as I imagined him: skinny, glasses, black hair, and a writer. Though I suppose saying he’s a writer is a bit of a stretch. He writes code for videogames, so it’s not exactly a thrilling read. Still, I can’t really complain. The city owed me nothing, but led me to the love of my life. The rest is up to me, so I keep auditioning.
“Hello, I’m here to audition for Masque,” I announce to the front desk assistant of the casting agency.
“You and everyone else.” He doesn’t even bother looking up from his computer screen.
“Is there a big turn out?”
“Um, of course there is. It’s a James Merchant production.” He stops browsing the web to give me a withering glance.
“Oh.” James Merchant is basically Broadway royalty. An absolute genius director. I spent almost twenty-four hours waiting outside the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park last summer to get free tickets to his reimagining of Much Ado About Nothing.
“You do know who that is, right?”
“Of course! I love his work!” The words come out so eager they sound false.
“I’m sure you do,” he says, with a condescending smile. “Anyway, auditions are being held in Studio 6B. So you go down the hall, take the first left, and it’s the second door on the right.”
“Thanks so much. Have a nice day,” I reply instinctively. Five years in the city has yet to wipe out the southern charm my mother instilled in me.
To get to the studio I have to make my way through the gauntlet of actors who are warming up, practicing lines, and coming and going from other auditions in various states of anticipation, exultation, and disappointment. Although these places were designed to house multiple auditions at a time, the cheapskates who built them cut every corner imaginable so the walls have about as much sound insulation as a paper bag. While each of them is trying their best, the combination of a woman belting out the hits of Wicked, a man wailing unintelligibly through a monologue, and the blaring hip-hop a group of dancers is using to rehearse their choreography disorients me for a moment. I lean against the wall, hoping the dizziness will pass, when suddenly the door next to me swings open and pins me against the wall.
“Ah!” I yelp, as the door handle barely misses punching me in the gut.
“Oh, man! Hey, are you okay back there? Sorry!” I instantly recognize the voice coming from the other side. Kevin Caldwell. Most people probably know of him from his minor roles on television. Kevin played a charismatic cult leader in a Lifetime movie, and had a short recurring role as a sexy undercover cop on Law & Order SVU, but I met him long before his brush with television fame. After I finally made it to New York, I enrolled in an acting class that was supposed to help me break into the business. Kevin and I were scene partners, so we spent countless hours together that summer. Unfortunately, I spent most of that time trying desperately to get him to fall in love with me instead of getting casting directors to notice me.
“Kevin?” I ask, as the door pulls away.
“Mason? Oh man! Is it really you?”
“Have I changed that much?” My heart races as he looks me over, and I feel my face flush as I take him in. I thought that over the past few years my mind had exaggerated how gorgeous he was, but Kevin looks even better than I remember. Six feet tall, with the lean and toned musculature of an Olympic swimmer, Kevin is one hundred percent leading man material. He actually seems to glow, partly because of the way his wavy blond hair always manages to catch the light, but it’s more than just superficial, he radiates confidence like a true star. He’s like the sun god Apollo, only in designer jeans. I have a hard time looking directly at him for more than a few seconds.
“Of course not! You look just the same as I remember.”
“I hope not! I’m hideously out of shape now.” To most of the world this isn’t true, but in terms of gay New York theatre boys, I’m practically a lost cause. Since I’m only five foot eight inches tall, my thirty-two-inch waist typecasts me as the “less attractive best friend” whenever I audition.
“Don’t be ridiculous. You’ve still got the cute ‘boy next door’ thing going on,” he says. It’s the nice way of saying “less attractive best friend.”
“Thanks. Hopefully that’s what they’re looking for.”
“So, you’re here to audition?” Kevin asks, eyeing me suspiciously.
“Yeah, for Masque,” I say, and Kevin breaks out a huge smile. I try to smile back, but realize I’ve been smiling since I saw him. Everyone always smiles when they look at Kevin. It’s like an instinct, the same as raising the pitch of your voice when you talk to a baby. I often wonder if Kevin even knows that people can frown, outside of times in which a script specifically calls for it.
“I bet you’ll do great!”
“If I even get seen. You know how it goes when you don’t have an Equity card.”
“You’re not Equity yet?” he asks, making me feel like even more of a failure. Membership in the Actor’s Equity Association requires the equivalent of fifty weeks’ worth of work in theatres that adhere to union standards. Of course most union theatres hire actors who are already members of the union. This makes sense because one of the perks is that every union member is seen before the casting directors will even consider seeing non-Equity. It’s a big advantage.
“Nope. I’ve only got thirty-six weeks of work on my resume.”
“Oh, that totally sucks,” he says, his smile fading quickly.
“Yeah, but you’ve got to keep trying, right?”
“Well…right,” he says, and then drops his voice to a whisper. “Look, I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but I’m working the audition for Masque. I’m the reader.” Meaning he is the person who reads with whoever is auditioning when a scene has more than one character.
“That’s a great gig.”
“Right, so…what part were you thinking about trying out for?”
“Part? Oh, I was just hoping to be in the ensemble.”
“Mason, come on, you can talk to me,” he says, throwing one of his long, lanky arms over my shoulder. The second his skin touches mine, a shiver runs from the top of my head all the way down to my toes, and Kevin pulls me in a little closer. He knows exactly what he’s doing. The arm-over-the-shoulder move was just one of many tools Kevin liked to use to get me to partake in whatever mischief he had planned. It was never enough for him to just go out and do outlandish stuff in the city. He needed an audience, and he knew how to get me to follow him anywhere.
“Honestly, I’ll take anything.”
“I didn’t ask what you’d take.” He brings his lips close to my ear and in a rich baritone, speaking slowly, so as to draw out every word, says “I’m asking what you want.”
“Well…” I start, but my brain feels like it is short-circuiting. I turn my head as far away from him as I can, and eventually I can finish the thought. “I thought I might be a good fit for Lord Dyne, the advisor. That’s why I planned to use a Polonius monologue. Last time I did it, I was cast as Cinna the Poet in Julius Caesar. So I’m pretty confid—”
“Dyne? No way, I bet they want someone older,” he says, before returning my face to meet his. “You should try for Caleb.”
“Isn’t that a lead?”
“I’m not really a lead actor kind of guy,” I say, causing Kevin to look at me as if I’m some sort of alien. I guess if I were Kevin, I’d also find it odd that anyone would pursue a supporting role. They’re not glamorous, but as some Greek philosopher once famously chiseled on a wall: KNOW THYSELF.
“What kind of guy are you then?”
“Oh you know, the leading man’s best friend, his lackey.”
“Then Caleb is perfect for you. His whole thing is that he’s a manipulated innocent, and who wouldn’t see that when they look at your little face?” he says, pinching my cheek a little too hard.
“Ah! Not so rough.” I rear back.
“Sorry, but…I mean, look at you. You’re adorable! Even that vest looks a little period.”
What I wear to auditions is more of a uniform than anything else – white button down shirt layered under a slate gray vest, black tie, dark jeans, and knock-off designer boots. The vest is my favorite, and not just because Kevin complimented it, but because it was made specifically for me. It was part of my costume in a show. Ever since then, it has served as my own personal corset, helping me hide the ten extra pounds I seem incapable of losing.
“I’m just not sure I’m what they are looking for. I think that—”
“Mason,” Kevin interrupts. “Stop making excuses! Do you know how lucky you are to run into me?” He seems to have already forgotten that he’s the one who hit me with a door only a few minutes ago. “How many times are you going to have someone on the inside?”
“I know I’m right, so just listen to me and do exactly what I tell you. Go sign up on the non-Equity list, and then use your phone to look up the first scene in Edward II by Marlowe. The end of the scene has a monologue by Gaveston that would make the perfect audition piece for this show.”
“Okay, but even if I manage to memorize it in time, what’s the point? There’s a ton of people here. They probably won’t even see any non-Equity people, let alone one who’s so late to sign up.”
“Have a little faith, Mason,” Kevin protests. “You focus on learning that monologue, and let me worry about trying to get you inside. If they like you, you’ll get to read with me. It’ll be like old times.”
I blush at the mention of old times. I would’ve thought a couple of years away from Kevin’s glow would have made him easier to be around, but it hasn’t at all. In fact, I’ve seemingly lost my tolerance completely. He’s more intoxicating than ever, but unlike before, I have Eric now. Thinking of him helps me remember I’m stronger than I was back then.
“Okay. But if this works, don’t show me up like you did in class! We all know you’re brilliant,” I say, rolling my eyes.
“I’ll see what I can do. Remember, stay in the waiting room no matter what. If I don’t get you in, drinks are on me.”
“I think you’re more excited than I am,” I say, finding it hard to keep pretending I’m not thrilled at the chance to get seen.
“It’s just…well…it’s just really good to see you again!” He flashes me one last smile before returning to the room.
I always wonder whether it’s just me, or if everyone else feels slightly depressed when Kevin turns his gaze away from them. I shake my head to clear it. I don’t have time to lament. I need to get my name on that list and start memorizing. Something tells me the other part of my Broadway dream is about to come true.
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