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December 04, 2016
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Beautiful work

“Beautiful work,” says the beautiful woman who shakes my hand with two-handed sincerity at the end of a recent audition. I carry her praise home with me down Eighth Avenue through throngs of middle-aged men in hockey jerseys on their way to the Garden, into the subway where the temperature is always two days behind the street weather, and finally up two flights of stairs into my apartment before realizing her praise was a consolation prize. I would not be getting the part but I did “beautiful work.”

It was true, I knew. You can feel it when the character speaks to you and you feel the room you’re in and the invisible props are visible only to you until you touch them and make them visible to your audience. When you take a bit of stage direction and make it tickle your skin with the memory of a lover’s touch and you shudder a little and sigh, you know you created something people call “beautiful work.”

Beautiful work doesn’t matter though, if you’re three inches taller than the leading man or if the actress already cast as your younger self has olive skin and you are fair. If you don’t meet the criteria hidden in the director’s mind and not stated in the casting notice, you are sunk before you can swim.

To a performer, the end of a show creates a brief elation of freedom from the stringent demands of the stage. But before post-show depression sets in, you’d best be racking up auditions for the next one, lest your tools get rusty, your belly slack. For a few days after a run, your email bulges with invitations from colleagues to readings or performances by friends of friends. Then, as if your membership had expired without a call for renewal, the invitations end and you are back to having the friends you always had and remembering to get in touch with them after all that time spent in rehearsals and performances.

The auditions are good for keeping you in the game and for making you feel like you have a job. The job that leads to the real job involves things like keeping your appearance up—plucking and shaving and stretching and moisturizing. Above all, moisturizing! All the things writers never have to do if they don’t want to. And all of the things that don’t matter if you can’t do what people call “beautiful work.” But these things feel necessary, and they probably are, because your agent would drop you like a relapsed addict if you showed up at an audition with your nose hairs poking out.

Every actor wants an agent until they get one. First they don’t want to know you, then they “love” you, then they try to make you someone you are not, then they drop you.

It’s sort of like adolescent love, now that you mention it.

Like adolescents, actors are always up for a thrill. We’ll try anything. I remember being asked if I would be put off by a request from a casting agent to put my fingers in my mouth. “I’m an actor,” I said. “I’ll do anything that isn’t illegal.” In the last show I did, I was midwife to a bowel movement. Believe me, it was beautiful work.