I was a young 14 in Autumn 1988 when I walked down the endless cascade of steps to The Goodman Theatre Lobby, nestled behind Chicago’s Art Institute, feelings traversing through my body. There must have been a hundred steps down into that lobby and with each one I felt a different emotion: determination, excitement, anxiety. I descended into the bowels of the Art Institute to what would be my very first audition for a professional theatre company. Not intimidating enough? The theatre was now A Tony Award-winning Theatre company, having just won the Tony the year earlier for August Wilson’s Fences. They were holding a young actor open call for their annual production of A Christmas Carol. I was so nervous, so excited. My all-time favorite story.
The lobby was a veritable zoo filled with Children of all ages from throughout the greater Chicagoland/ northwest Indiana area. Some rehearsing Christmas poems with their stage mothers, others rehearsing their Christmas songs. All of them waiting to go into the Goodman Rehearsal room for their audition.
Inside Voice: “God I hope they don’t bring us all in together. I’ll completely freak. I can handle an audition in front of a few Goodman Creatives, but not in front of all these other young actors.”
While going over my audition material, Silent Night, I peered up the elegant steps to the doorway and saw a camera man and news reporter making their way down the steps to the lobby. ABC Television arrived to do a piece on the Goodman for the 10:00 News. I knew this was a big deal, but come on – the Channel 7 News?
Inside Voice: “The Channel 7 News! Shit!!”
The lobby fell silent. Into the rehearsal room they went. The frenzy resumed. The lobby grew louder and a tiny woman appeared. An Intern.
The Intern: “Please keep your voices to a minimum while in the lobby. Karl Maschek, would you come with me please?”
No. Not right after the Channel 7 News crew! All eyes were on me. As much as I felt like running up that palisade posing as a staircase to get away from the news crew, I couldn’t do it. My legs had a mind of their own and their intention was to lead me to humiliation on a grand scale. This wasn’t just an audition for the Goodman anymore…this was about to be…an audition for the City of Chicago.
Through the door I went to find the friendly smiling faces of Director Steve Scott and Casting Director Tara Lonzo greeting me. And a camera man with camera on shoulder, rolling. Steve asked me who I was.
Inside Voice: “Me? I’m an idiot about to make an ass out of myself. But I really wanna act!”
Tara asked me what I’d be singing.
Inside Voice: “Singing? I’m supposed to sing something?”
If only the audition were that simple. Auditioning with Silent Night is stressful enough, not to mention doing it in front of a television news camera. As I began to sing, I completely left my body… and took the lyrics with me. I don’t know what I was saying. The tune was Silent Night, the rhythm was Silent Night, but the words were something else. All I could see was Steve and Tara watching me, at least until the camera man stood directly in front of me to share my mess of an audition with the city.
I totally freaked at my first audition. I forgot the damn lyrics to Silent Night. SILENT NIGHT! A song I’d done dozens of time before. I was mortified. Defeated. That was a blown audition of epic proportion. My first – but certainly not my last – blown or not. Although I was horrified to find myself actually ON the news later that night (thank GOD with an anchorman talking over my singing to cover up that mess), I was NOT about to allow that one experience to determine my fate. I would keep moving forward, and continue my journey into the life of an actor.
Luckily, even after that, I dug up the moxie to show up to the auditions the following year. By then I had already two other Chicago Theatre productions under my belt. Steve Scot cast me as Boy Scrooge/Turkey Boy. Such a wonderful experience. The Goodman Theatre is naturally a supportive creative community, but imagine how much more joyous and festive it is at Christmas time; and for a production of Dicken’s classic. Such joy and camaraderie. Singing, Dancing, Living in Christmastime London every night from mid-October until the end of December.
The 1989 production featured many wonderful people. William J Norris as Scrooge. Whom I watched just as intently off stage as I did on stage. I loved watching Bill work. His process fascinated me. He was a professional and a delight. The most delightfully lovable curmudgeon I’ve ever met.
The remarkable Ernest Perry Jr. was Christmas Present. Carmen Roman as Past. Robert Scoggin as Bob Cratchit. Dennis Kennedy as Fezziwig. I was among greats. These people were a huge influence on me. A Positive influence.
I also made many friends, I was surrounded by people who got me. I was truly in my element. Not a Christmas goes by when I don’t think about that wonderful experience in 1989. I am so grateful.
Is it easy to think back on how challenging a journey was once one has reached their destination? The difficulties overcome? To accept them? Share them with the world? Would these stories affect us the same way coming from still struggling artists like myself? So often, we are compelled to share our thrills and successes. But sometimes it appears as if those moments of success float in a sea of disappointment and frustration – at least they do for me. I’ve had truly fortunate opportunities as an actor, but there have been major heartbreaks. Some I revisit from time to time.
This time of the year, I revisit one of my first heartbreaks. Flashback 1989. I know, let it go, right? It’s not that easy. This movie is on television multiple times throughout the holiday season, and I quite enjoy watching it. Every time I do, I’m brought back to that time and place.
One day in the first year of my career as a young actor, I got a call from my agent, Ginny Long at Jefferson and Associates. Audition for Risa Bramon Garcia! As if that weren’t exciting enough, the film was to be a sequel to an early Harold Ramis film I grew up loving. National Lampoons Christmas Vacation! I was to audition to play Russ Griswold! I’d had some pretty big auditions up to that point, but this was VACATION! Chevy Chase! The Griswolds were coming back and the opportunity to read to be Russ was MINE!! It was, officially, a dream come true.
I was 100% emotionally invested. I read the script and worked so hard on the sides. I was this character completely. I visualized it over and over. As far as I was concerned, Russ Griswold was MINE! Risa just had to meet me and see my read. That simple task was – of course - easier said than done. The audition was located about an hour and a half away. My appointment at 6:30 pm. Major traffic slowing me down, and if that weren’t enough, while driving there, the tire blew and I had no spare. It felt like the rug of euphoria I was standing on had been ripped out from underneath me.
What to do? No cell phones to call or text my agent. This was 1989. No taxi cab could get me there because I had no cash, nor an ATM card. Not to mention, the car could not just be left at the side of the road. In a matter of just a couple minutes, my stomach began to ache. Pain from the realization that as badly as I wanted that audition, the reality was that my car was tireless on the side of the road, and it had to be dealt with. In that moment, there went that opportunity of a lifetime. Had to “no show.” “No show” to an audition? Very bad. Luckily, my agent was very understanding. Disappointed, but understanding. Perhaps she could manage to get me back in another day? I would beg and plead, but the fact remained: this one was just not meant to be. Johnny Galecki, a fantastic actor, would earn the part of Russ Griswold (I like to think, “by default,” considering I forfeited it by no-show). Thanks to me, and a blown tire, we all have Johnny Galecki.
Truth be told, it’s likely Mr. Galecki would have been cast regardless if I got to that audition or not. But my sense of humor is wicked. All kidding aside, I was crushed for weeks. Felt like quitting. Moral? Many. Check my tires on a regular basis. Don’t get my hopes up. Maintain a sense of humor. But most importantly, what did I learn from this experience? This is show business. It wasn’t going to get any easier. And as this was very early on in my journey, there would be many more lessons like this one to be learned. Knowing there was more heartbreak and disappointment yet to come, I pushed on knowing that my love of acting would help carry me through.