Just one week ago, Hickman High School graduate Betsy Head, 25, watched nervously as a dozen actors took the stage of a small theater in New York City’s East Village. It was opening night for “The Audition,” a play she wrote, produced and brought to the stage almost entirely on her own steam and with more than $2,000 of her own money.
Unlike most producer/directors, Head had never met her cast members before they took the stage on opening night. But that’s the concept behind her show: Twelve actors, different each night, perform three-minute monologues for the audience and three New York directors. At intermission, audience members vote for their favorite male and female actor. The top six are called back for the second act, during which they “cold” read a play Head wrote — a dark comedy.
“These are people I don’t know, and I have no idea what’s going to happen,” Head said.
She said she had her doubts when one of the actors nearly put the audience to sleep with his monologue, but a director saved the day when he asked the actor to show how he would catch a fish. The actor stole the show as he mimed catching a huge fish, wrestling it to shore and even scaling it. Head breathed a sigh of relief when the audience called the actor back for the second act.
Head wasn’t alone that night with her nerves and laryngitis. Her mother, Donna Head, watched from the wings after running the box office. Becky MacKenzie, a neighbor from Betsy Head’s childhood,was in the lobby selling candy bars and soft drinks. And another former neighbor, Sheila Akers, helped out as front house manager, while fellow Kewpie Dora Naughton was handling stage manager duties.
The play gave Head a chance to do what she’d wanted to do for a long time: create theater in a town where it’s almost impossible to get a job as an actor. “There are so many talented people in this town,” she said. “I wanted to give everyone a role.”
All four shows have sold out, and there were waiting lists for last Friday and Saturday night’s performances. The show will run tonight and Saturday as well. At $15 a ticket, it’s significantly cheaper than a seat at a Broadway musical, which can cost as much as $100 and often more.
Head acknowledged the show’s similarity to TV programs like “American Idol” because it gives the audience thumbs-up or thumbs-down power. But there the comparison ends.
“There are no winners and losers in this,” she said. “No one goes home crying. There are actors begging for the chance to be in a show and audiences looking for something different.”
After graduating from Hickman in 1997, Head went to Macalester College in Minnesota to study theater. She moved to New York two weeks after graduation to pursue an acting career.
She was on her way to yet another audition for a New York play last spring when it occurred to her that for every part, there are 60 actors trying out, giving great performances no audience ever sees, she said. She wondered if she could change that fact of life in the theater.
With encouragement from her acting teacher in New York, Head started setting aside money from her day job as a bartender to rent a theater, print programs and buy concessions. She began looking for the right venue and placed an advertisement in a trade magazine for actors.
She eventually found the 55-seat Gene Frankel Theatre at 24 Bond St. The response from New York’s acting community was immediate and enormous.Head received more than 300 head shots and resumes from New York actors, And she chose the first 50 asher cast. For some of the actors, it was a first audition; for others it was the 200th. They ranged in age from 19 to 70.
Directors didn’t jump at the idea the way the actors did. Head said many were hesitant to put their names on something they had never seen before, but she finally found five willing to be part of the show.
Meanwhile, word of Head’s plans made its way to Columbia and back to New York where another Hickman graduate, Naughton, 27, was also living and trying to get work as an actor. Although they didn’t remember each other well, Naughton and Head had been in plays together with the Columbia Entertainment Company. They met again, and Naughton agreed to be Head’s stage manager. “There was no question that I wanted to be involved as soon as she told me about it,” said Naughton, who works as a receptionist in Manhattan. She was surprised that no one had ever tried it before.
On Thursday, Naughton already had butterflies about her own “audition,” which will take place Saturday night with her mother in the audience. She has the advantage of having already watched 24 actors survive the process.
Lee Solomon, 24, was one of Saturday night’s cast. “It was a great experience, but it was weird to be in a show competing for something,” he said. “I was a little upset I didn’t get called back for the second act; you can’t help but be disappointed.”
Dana Cohen, 23, thought “The Audition” would be a good opportunity to be on stage again after a long time away. “I was happy with my performance, then I got called back, which made it even better,” she said. “I learned a lot about myself as an actor.”
Jim Boerlin, part of the director’s panel at last weekend’s performances and Head’s acting teacher, said he thought the show was a “wonderful and daring concept.”
Boerlin sees potential for Head and the play. “She has the talent and the desire to get up and do something instead of just talking about it,” he said.
Head will break even on the production if she sells out every performance. “But it’s not about making money, she said. “It’s about seeing a vision through.”
Head hopes “The Audition” will be picked up as an off-Broadway show and has sent letters to theater producers, managers and celebrities to get the word out. Paul Newman’s publicist called back with polite regrets, she said.
In the process of production, Head said she is finding out just how much actors appreciate an opportunity. She has had calls and e-mails from actors thanking her for a shot at the limelight — even from some who weren’t called back for the second act. “It’s never been about making it for me; it’s about making good theater,” she said. “I don’t need this show to go to Broadway to feel successful.”