Auditioning for the Met
Today I auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly. Their production uses a bunraku-style puppet for Madame Butterfly’s child. This style of puppet normally takes three performers and they were casting understudies; the principals were pre-cast.
First of all, receiving an email which says, “go to the back of the Met to the stage entrance,” was pretty darn cool in and of itself. Once you get past security the way to the rehearsal room is through a labyrinth of halls crowded with set pieces. In one corner stood a trio of temple bells. Another hall took me past a vast marble arch disassembled on the ground. The first rehearsal room had singers in rehearsal for a production, but no puppeteers. I rounded a corner, past a stack of chairs, and at the end of the hall found our rehearsal room. In it, they had put up the set for Madama Butterfly. A vast black lacquered floor dominated the room; shoji screens sat waiting in tracks to be slipped on stage.
I was one of the first puppeteers to arrive. For a while, it looked like there were only going to be eight of us auditioning but a whole gaggle of puppeteers arrived as soon as Mark Down (head puppeteer) said, “Shall we start?” All told there were between twenty to thirty of us auditioning.
Mark had us start by doing some elementary yoga. It was really nice that he took fifteen minutes or so to make certain that everyone was warmed up. Of course, it’s also a covert way to check for limberness and fluidity of movement.
He then introduced us to the puppet. As I mentioned, this style normally takes three puppeteers, but Mark wanted to see what we could do solo. He asked us to do a short scene using only the head and the torso to emote. We simply had to run across stage (with the puppet lifted so the feet didn’t drag) and then explore the “room” that our character had entered. What he wanted, he said, was a sense of breath and of the puppet being. He wanted to know that the puppet looked and listened rather than just seeing and hearing because he wanted to know that the puppet was thinking about what he was experiencing — incidentally, that’s good advice for writers too, I think. Then he said, “So who wants to go first.”
The room was silent for a moment as we all held our breath, waiting for someone else to volunteer.
“I’ll go,” I said as I stood and took the puppet from him. Inside I was trying to reassure myself that it was actually a good plan. I figured showing initiative and eagerness would make me stand out of the pack. Also, it meant that none of the obvious emotional beats had been tried yet. Anyone who came after me would either have to come up with something new, or repeat what I had already done. There is a downside to going first, of course. You can’t see how the puppet moves and don’t know what the director is looking for.
So, I ran the puppet across, peered around the corner of the screen set center stage and entered the “room.” The rehearsal hall phone rang. Instinctively, my puppet turned to look at it. Everyone laughed. Whew. But then… now what do I do? In order for the puppet to really look at something I needed to know what he was looking at. We were standing alone on a blank stage. So I decided that my character was looking for his mother. I didn’t do much walking because the dragging feet annoyed me. The whole time, a part of my brain was thinking, “When is he going to stop me?” It felt like I was up there forever.
Mark asked me to be very still with the puppet. There’s a difference, and it’s a very fine one, between still and static. With a puppet it is very easy to have stillness become static — it is, after all, an inanimate object. The difference comes from minute movements of breath and focus to keep the puppet thinking. My hand started trembling. I shifted position to get into a stronger hold and ignored the tremble.
(By the way, when I use the word “breath” I mean the rhythms of the puppet rather than just the act of breathing. When I teach puppetry I say, “Focus indicates thought; breath indicates emotion,” because the only time you notice someone in the act of breathing it carries meaning. The rest of the time we filter it out.)
Anyway. The rest of the performers went and I did the usual compare and contrast between their performance and mine. And that’s the thing. It really felt like I was watching performances; these were, for the most part, really good puppeteers. Some people he let go for a long time. Some he stopped fairly quickly. Some got direction. Others didn’t. It wasn’t always easy to tell why.
Then he introduced us to the choreographer. Since the stage is so bare, the performers form a large part of the world of the opera, so they needed puppeteers who can move well. They went in the same order as before, which meant — joy! — I was first again. The choreography was deceptively simple. Walk in, kneel, bow, sit up, say your name, stand, exit. No problem, right? Now do this very particular Japenese stage hand walk, where your feet don’t leave the ground. Keep your eyes facing down at 45 degrees. Fold your thumbs into your palm so they don’t show and you have “long fingers.” Make sure when you kneel, that your left foot is half a pace back and you kneel straight down like an elevator… The specificity went on.
This is where it sucked going first. I only got to see the movements twice before trying to remember them all. I was not expressing the “soul” the choreographer was looking for; I was expressing, “what next?”
Then came working as a team. Three performers on the puppet and we had to run the puppet across the stage. I dunno, sixty feet? Here’s the thing. The person on the feet had to crouch or squat. Go ahead. Try this at home. Crouch down and put your hands on the floor. Now stretch your arms out as far in front of you as possible, without losing the crouch. Now, in that position — while trying to make feet look like they are actually walking — run sixty feet. On a raked stage. I sucked at it. I felt marginally better because everyone sucked at it. Until one guy got up on stage and just did it. It was like watching magic. The puppet ran; the puppeteer didn’t fall on his face.
They had us break for fifteen minutes while they conferred.
When we came back, Mark said, “We’re going to break for lunch and when we come back we only need to keep these people. Jodi, Mary–” I stopped listening at that point. Thank God. I’d made the first cut.
He only kept seven of us. Some friends, who are brilliant puppeteers, didn’t make the cut. I’ve been on the other side of that line and it’s always hard.
After lunch, we headed back down to the rehearsal hall. This distinguished Spanish man was in the catacombs and a group of elderly ladies was lost. He said, “People who have worked here for years still get lost” and proceeded to tell them where the elevator was. I wonder if they knew that they were talking to PlÃ¡cido Domingo.
In fact, as each of us walked back into the rehearsal room, there would be this moment of, “Was that…?”
“PlÃ¡cido Domingo? Yeah.”
But, back to the audition. Mark kept switching us around trying to see what team would mesh best. Poor Oliver, the fellow who could do the feet, was on the feet the whole time. Granted, he knew he was cast by implication, but it was an awful physical position to be in for hours. Mark had us act out miniature scenes and play off an actor. It was fun to be onstage and wonderful to be in the audience. Everyone was good so it was like watching lots of little puppet shows.
After one of the teams did a very nice scene, Mark said, “Well, we’re only casting three people, and I think I’d like it to be the three on stage now.”
So. After reading all that, you now learn that I am not in the upcoming cast of Madama Butterfly. Which, you know, I’m okay with. Being on the list to audition for the Met? That’s something.
And here’s the final cool thing. One of the casting people referred to those of us who didn’t get cast and said, “We need to get their contact information, in case someone can’t do the part.”
Mark said, “Oh, right. I think we can just get Mary and Jodi’s information, then.”
I’m not cast. I’m not even an understudy. But I’m on the list for replacement performers and that’s not a bad place to be. Not bad at all.
This. Today. That opportunity is why we moved to New York.