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  • Writer's pictureJessika Brust

First Audition in Philly

"Locker room talk" was the latest hot topic in the news, to a reeling nation that had no idea what horrors and embarrassments were in store for the immediate future. Artists were the first to take up arms in response, at least from what I could see in my small realm of social media. One local theater company sent out a call for auditions, to do a semi-staged reading of a script. A local playwright had been workshopping a piece that told the story of a young woman who'd been raped by a group of five college boys; it was eloquently and sensitively told in flashback sequences, where each character got the chance to tell their perspective. Then the audience would be left to their own devices to piece together what happened. It explored all the touchy subtleties, from misogyny, to toxic masculinity, to the hive mind, to victim shaming, and to the way girls are culturally conditioned to accept male advances.

The playwright believed now was the time to put this piece out into the world, and I agreed, so I submitted. I've never been fond of straight acting gigs that don't involve music, but once in a while something grabs me and I need to help tell the story.

The script was emailed to us, so we could prepare a monologue and a few scenes. I devoured it -- it was brilliant: excellent pacing, at times funny, at times horrific, and always thought provoking. If it had been crap I would've cancelled my appointment, but instead I studied my ass off to learn the lead (and only) female role.

The evening of the audition arrived. I had only recently moved to Philadelphia, and had actually never been to any auditions in my new city at all. I'd entered the entertainment industry while living in the fair-weathered state of North Carolina, and had learned to conduct myself according to their cultural standards. So like I would for auditions below the Mason Dixon line, I put on a dress with heels, did my hair, and donned a full stage face -- minus false eyelashes, of course, because that's just overkill.

I followed the audition signs into the hall. Dreary hipster millennials sat in wooden chairs in a community center that hadn't been renovated since the 1940s. They glumly stared at their hands, dressed as if they were weary from the cold and the short daylight hours of Northeastern autumns. When I entered, they all turned and gawked at me in confusion.

Who is this high maintenance woman and what business does she have here? they seemed to think.

Where are the auditions? I thought. No one else seems to be here for that...

On a round table was a sign-in sheet, so apparently I was in the right place. But were these the other talents I was up against...?

The ladies all had pulled back their hair, and compounded it under headbands. They wore jeans -- go on ahead and try that in the south, and see if they'll let you speak the first line before dismissing you. If these girls wore any makeup at all, it was mascara and chapstick. Chapstick!? My lips were bright red! Scarves were tightly wrapped on top of their sweaters, and on their feet they wore boots. Hiking boots.

What kind of theater industry does Philadelphia have...? I pondered judgmentally. Here, I was clearly the outsider, and an extremely self-absorbed looking one at that.

If I thought the women looked sloppy, I could barely describe the men. Unshaven, hair uncombed, ripped t-shirts, pants that didn't fit.

This is a paid gig, people -- don't you want it?! What a sorry lot.

The production team called me in to read the monologue. As I entered, they smiled with relief -- ok, so maybe they were also alarmed about the quality of the talent pool that responded to their call.

I connected with that monologue and delivered it like a boss. They asked me to repeat it, but with my stilettos off, and seated. No problem -- I intrinsically knew this character, I'd survived a similar reality, albeit much less severe than a gang - bang, and remembered that mentality vividly.

"Wonderful, thank you," the director said. Then to the stage manager, "Would you bring in that last actor?" Then back to me, "He's going to read that scene with you on page eight."

I loved that scene -- it was the one of comic relief. One rapist was telling his account of the evening in question, and remembers the victim as "asking for it". So in his flashback, I was playing the seductress. Some staging was dictated in the script, but the rest was up to me, and any direction the panel might give.

In walked my scene partner. I was stunned. He looked homeless.

Greasy hair, an unshaven early-puberty beard, cystic acne covering his face under the oil of his skin. His baggy brown sweater had a gaping hole, and the soles of his boots were barely attached. He smelled of sweaty musk and a lack of soap. It looked like it had maybe been a while since he'd eaten meals with any regularity, and his teeth were peeling with plaque inside his severely chapped lips. Even with my heels off, I stood a full five inches taller than him, and could see his flakey scalp through signs of early balding. Homeboy didn't look like he was capable of doing anything to anybody, even if he HAD consent -- let alone rape someone. This certainly wasn't type casting.

Should I have compassion for what could be a treacherous life that he lives? Or is he just a pothead hipster who hasn't seen the necessity to "adult"? Why couldn't he have at least showered? I had to get all up in his grill and seduce him.

I decided to begin the scene a few feet apart from him, to give the tension somewhere to build as I gradually got closer. Who knew how this was going to play out.

"And scene," said the director.

"Sh-she was begging me to be ins-s-side her," he began with a stutter.

I stared straight at him with the intention of a hungry lioness, with a slight smile, and took a slinky step towards him. And his pants jumped to life.

Apparently homeless homeboy was quite hung, because that circus tent went up hastily and stood remarkably high. So he had one thing going for him. Where did he even keep it?!

His face turned red as a stop sign, and I took that as my cue to not get any closer. I was barely four feet from a guy, and from just looking at him I gave him the boner of the century. Is this why no other woman was dressed up? Is there something wrong with men in Philly?! God help these boys if they ever travel south...

You could hear the audition panel inhale sharply, and hold it. I read through my lines awkwardly, as if I were behind a curtain. Beads of sweat formed on the director's forehead. My scene partner began to tremble. I rotated myself to not be directly facing the erection's trajectory.

It was terrible. And my scene partner was the largest dude (in height people, come on...although likely in that way too...) who showed up for the audition. Not one of those male physiques could do anything to a woman of my stature in a million years. The suspension of disbelief would be impossible if I were cast in the part. It was hopeless for me.

The next day I got an email from the director, apologizing for the incident, thanking me for the thorough preparation I'd done, and regretfully saying I couldn't be cast because of the other talent available -- it just could not work visually. They'd wanted to find a way to cast me, but couldn't come up with a solution.

An apologetic rejection letter is unheard of in the world of entertainment, but at least they'd acknowledged my work. I still couldn't help but wonder, though: had I moved to the wrong city? What a first impression.

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