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Not Throwing Away My Shot

My experience auditioning for Derby Dinner Playhouse

BY REMY SISK | PHOTOS BY CHRISTIAN WATSONscreen-shot-2018-01-31-at-4-22-05-pm

AS A MUSICAL THEATRE ACTOR in Kentuckiana, I have often wondered what it would be like to be on the stage of Derby Dinner Playhouse, the region’s preeminent dinner theatre.

The quality of Derby productions is always top-notch, from their technical production value to their supremely talented casts.

I’d thought about auditioning at Derby’s periodic open calls on multiple occasions, but for whatever reason – I thought I wasn’t good enough, I thought there wasn’t a role for me, etc. – I had backed out each time. However, at their recent January call, one of the auditionees was a semi-awkward 26-year-old tenor whose palms were sweaty and water bottle was almost empty upon arrival…in other words, it was me.

I have a problem that many musical theatre performers can likely relate to: I am not great at auditioning.

I can sing my song well, do my monologue proficiently and look natural the whole time while at home, with a coach or in the car, but the second you put me in front of a table of individuals judging my ability, I overthink the song, fumble the monologue and look uncomfortable doing both.

But this audition wasn’t for a smaller local company; it was for Derby Dinner Playhouse, a professional theatre where, if I were to be cast, I would be able to call myself a paid, working actor. With that knowledge, I resolved to make this audition my best in years.

Derby’s criteria for an audition is a one-minute monologue as well as 16 bars of music or one full song – both fairly standard.

My monologue choice was easy. I have one that I’ve used on a few different occasions, and I knew it was the one I wanted to perform. It’s from the groundbreaking play “The Laramie Project” and is spoken by a college student who recounts getting into an argument with his parents when he tells them he’ll be auditioning for “Angels in America.” The monologue fits me, as it’s meant for a younger actor, is a little awkward and goofy and also deals with some deep subject matter. I re-read it a couple times, made some new choices and it was ready to go. The song, on the other hand, was a much trickier selection.

Any musical theatre actor has their “book” or catalog of songs they’ve collected over the years that fit their voice well, show it off or are just particularly right for them.

I started looking through my book and couldn’t make a choice. “I’m Alive” from “Next to Normal” is usually my go-to, but I felt it wasn’t the fit for this audition. “Moving too Fast” from “The Last Five Years” was another option, but it also seemed wrong. “This World Will Remember Me” from “Bonnie & Clyde” almost became my selection, but Derby actually did that show not too long ago and I wanted to avoid comparisons. After further deliberation, I settled on “Corner of the Sky” from “Pippin.” My only hesitation was that it can often be seen as an “overdone” audition song, but I knew it fit my voice and was an appropriate choice for the venue. Right or wrong, the decision was made.

I worked with a friend of mine who is also a vocal coach a few days before the big day, and we selected the portion of the song I’d be performing at the audition. Derby asks for 16 bars or one full song, and we both thought it safest to go with 16 bars to save myself from the possible embarrassment of being cut off mid-song. We tweaked a few things here and there, and the cut – the last minute or so of the revival version of “Corner in the Sky” – was as ready as it would ever be.

I started audition day at Please & Thank You (a coffee shop in Louisville) reading over my monologue and trying to keep my nerves from getting the best of me.

I swung by FedEx to pick up my resume and headshot before heading home to make possibly the hardest choice of the day: my audition outfit. I looked through button-downs, t-shirts, dress pants, jeans and, at long last, settled on an open-collar henley (Google it) and dark, skinny jeans. My “type” in musical theatre is usually on the edgier or rock side of things, so I wanted to give that off while also not looking like an actual rocker (my torn-up black jeans did almost make the cut, however).

Driving to Derby, I sang “Corner of the Sky” once, but knew I was just going to psych myself out if I beat it to death. So, as I crossed the Second Street Bridge in 30-degree weather, I threw the windows down and blasted David Lee Roth’s “Just Like Paradise,” singing it all at the top of my lungs. Maybe not the most conventional audition prep, but it weirdly put me at ease.

I pulled up to the theater and walked into a room of about 30 other people, some of whom I knew. Many had traveled from hours away for the audition, and the ages spanned from teenagers to older adults. We were eventually ushered to Derby Dinner’s rehearsal hall, where Associate Producer Lee Buckholz and Director of Children’s Theatre/Performing Arts Academy Tina Jo Wallac were waiting for us.

Everything from there on was executed in the most professional manner with all instructions and information relayed in a manner that was both clear and kind. With an affable smile, Buckholz let us know that we would be coming in 10 at a time to sing 16 bars (if auditionees had prepared a full song, they now needed to select their best 16 bars) and then possibly perform their monologue if he and Wallace wanted to see more. The first group of 10 went in and, with almost no service on my phone, I was left with only my thoughts for 20 minutes or so.

I could’ve looked over my monologue or my song but decided to just trust that I had prepared all I could. I would go in and give it my best shot, knowing all the while that there’s nothing I could have done differently in advance. And even if I was going to mess up and botch the audition completely, the experience of auditioning for a professional theatre and putting myself out there would be gratifying enough.

They called the next 10, and in we went. We all took a seat and handed in our resumes. With that same genuine affability, Buckholz called us up one by one to show the accompanist our music cut and then do what we came here to do. I was called maybe seventh or eighth, so I had plenty of time to watch as several extremely talented individuals performed their songs and, in some cases, their monologues.

When he called my name, I handed my music to the pianist and took my spot on the X in front of Buckholz and Wallace. The room was massive with mirrored walls and high ceilings, and there I was alone in the middle of it with two people watching from 15 feet away. My only hope in that moment was that I wouldn’t mess my song up enough to not get to do my monologue. Admittedly, as someone who’s been in theatre for years, I understand that not being asked for the monologue doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want you – it just means they’ve seen “enough.” Nonetheless, I was confident about my monologue and very much wanted to be able to perform it.

The pianist gave me my starting note and off we went. Bizarrely, I actually felt comfortable singing the song. It went well, and – as far as I could tell – my high note at the end was on pitch. I finished, and by the grace of God heard the words, “Do you have a monologue?” I sure did and launched right into it. I thought I did it justice, and I even got some laughs from the other auditionees in the room. I finished that as well, sat back down and suddenly noticed my heart was racing. The adrenaline was surging strong, and I was thankful there were only a couple more to go in our group. While the next person was going over their music with the accompanist, a woman next to me leaned over and whispered, “That was fantastic!” It probably meant nothing to her, but her compliment made me feel so tremendously relaxed as I waited for us to be released.

Buckholz told us that as the choreographer was ill, there would be no movement call, so we were free to go. I walked outside across the snow-covered lawn to my car. Ordinarily, leaving an audition, I feel down on myself, frustrated with myself and annoyed with myself for my inability to do better. But, I left feeling positive, knowing that possibly for the first time in my life, my audition went as well as it could’ve gone. Now, that doesn’t mean I gave a Broadway-worthy audition, but I performed at a level I was proud of. I gave it my best shot in a supportive environment after preparing as much as I could without overdoing it, and whether or not I get called in for a show, that feeling made the whole experience more than worth it.

Interested in auditioning? 

Derby Dinner’s next open call is 1 p.m. Aug. 24 and no appointment is necessary. Just show up at the theater at 525 Marriott Drive in Clarksville and have a one-minute monologue memorized and 16 bars of music or one full song prepared (bring sheet music for the accompanist!). Be sure to bring a resume and headshot and be prepared for a dance combination to be taught. As Derby Dinner is a professional theatre, previous theatrical experience is required, and you must have availability to rehearse in the day and perform at night. 

For more information visit derbydinner.com or contact Annie Myers at amyers@derbydinner. com or 812.288.2632 ext. 114.