I should probably explain a little bit about what happens after an audition. In fiction, when I submit a story I will eventually hear back from a market with either an acceptance or a rejection. With auditions, you only hear back if they want to invite you on to the next level.
So the thing I do when I walk out of an audition is to close the door behind me. As a metaphor, think of it as leaving things tidy so the flies don’t get in, flies being the “what ifs” that can buzz around in my brain.
I’m pretty clearly not moving on to the next round for the big horse, but that may or may not mean anything for the colt track. There’s no way to tell and it’s too easy to go crazy waiting to hear.
So I try to close the door and move on. If it opens and I get to go back in, that is awesome. Meanwhile, it’s nothing to fret about.
It turns out that thinking of this as a callback wasn’t quite accurate. This was really for a different part within the same show, I think, since I was the only woman there who had also been tried on the big horse. The group was multi-ethnic which was really nice to see especially since the play is set in France and England in WWI.
The colt is significantly harder in many ways that the big horse. Though with fewer moving parts, the small size meant that I had to bend at the waist to reach the front legs, which is less comfortable than standing straight up. The legs also aren’t attached to the puppets body and rely on the puppeteer to make the connection. So you are working to keep things lined up and act with it as well. Doable, but it takes a bit more thought than the big horse who is built to move like a horse.
Once you get the hang of him though he is gorgeous. One of the other teams on the colt did this fabulous rearing thing with him. And his head is just… I mean these are really beautiful and very evocative puppets. I am a total geeky fan girl here and am pretty sure I had a ridiculous smile on my face the whole time I was there.
We also did some work with paper people, which were close to lifesize puppets made for the workshop. Those were fun three-person figures. I actually spent more time working those than on the colt. One of the teams I was on really clicked I thought and felt very much in sync.
After that, we were sent off to read in a more traditional audition format. As you might guess, I do mostly puppet auditions and had serious nerves going in. Fortunately, everyone is extraordinarily nice. It went mostly okay. I had one place where I thought I had jumped to the wrong part of the scene but hadn’t… sigh. Anyway, I asked if I could start again and the second try went better.
My one French line came out clean and with emotion, which was a relief. All things considered, I felt like I presented myself well and that everything else is stuff that is out of my control.
I’m skipping stuff since basically the report is: I had fun. The colt puppet is beautiful. I have no idea about anything beyond that.
I’ve just had the audition and frankly have no idea how I did. But I had fun.
They had Topthorn here, the black horse. He is a gorgeous, gorgeous puppet that just wants to do the work if you don’t fight him. We spent most of the time just trying to walk. Walking is a four-beat gait so very hard. They divide the role into Head, Heart and Hind. The heart is the one in the center and controls the front legs. Walking went right front (1), left rear (2), left front (3), right rear (4). The Heart puppeteers legs moved in time with the puppets legs, so both right legs went at the same time. (I never got to try the Heart position, though they let me play with the controls after.)
The Hind puppeteer’s legs move counter to the horse’s legs. It got confusing. Also, the legs are behind the puppeteer so you have to rely on feel to know what was happening. It was… challenging.
Basically they just rotated us through trying folks in different positions. I worked the Head once and the Hind twice. It was loads of fun and MY GOD the puppet is beautiful. It just wants to work and all the puppeteer has to do is not get in the way of it being a horse. Clearly, we’re supplying the physical means for that but horses are very much about stillness and it’s hard to not want to Move The Puppet at times when it should wait.
The other challenging thing is that you can see squat, so it really is all about feeling and breathing and trying to think together. One of the reasons that I love multiple person puppets is that there comes a moment when you stop being three people strapped to a thing and all have the same thought. It’s the closest to telepathy that I’ve experienced.
One of my favorite touring memories comes from a Tales of Japan show. I was on the feet of this character called Myoga. He had to climb a mountain, which would later collapse. Something went wrong and the mountain collapsed early so the poor guy was looking at a sheer rock face but we STILL had to get to the other side. My partner and I stopped being two people and just went into this full on rock-climbing routine. I love that sense of sharing the same mind. Ballroom dance, with a good partner, is similar.
Since none of what we were doing in rehearsal was choreographed, it was all improvised. That’s tricky under normal circumstances but more so with folks that you’ve never worked with before since you won’t necessarily have the same vocabulary of movement. But it can work if you can get into that fusion of minds. I felt like that happened toward the end a little. It wasn’t a perfect blend but it made me sense all the possibilities.
Lord knows what will happen because there were no clues in the workshop, but it was worth coming out just to play and spend an afternoon being a horse.
So, I have my audition slot. June 17th next week from 2:30-5:30. There will be eight other people in my slot and they are calling it a workshop.
This means I can make some guesses about the format, although they are just guesses at this point. I know that one of the horses will be there along with the puppetry coordinator. Since there are nine of us and the horse takes three puppeteers, my guess is that they will show us how to use the horse and then rotate us through different slots and combinations of puppeteers.
Since they are auditioning for four days with a morning and afternoon slot each day, my guess is that they’ll probably see about 70 puppeteers. The show requires 12 for the cast but some of those may be precast.
There’s really not much I can do with this information but knowing that the audition will be in workshop format makes me relax some because it means I’ll have three hours in which to watch and try to understand the puppet. The worst is when you come in and have five minutes.
They’ll pick a group from that to go onto call backs the following week, which I am trying my hardest not to think about. I may get in there and just be too small.
Here’s another of the video diaries from the West End production. They go visit real horses of the King’s Troop. Around the 2:30 mark Toby Olié talks about being conscious of how he was sitting as a rider because of the time he’s spent as a horse. Fascinating stuff.
I was talking with one of my theater friends the other day and told him about this very cool audition I have lined up. I realized as I was talking that there’s a difference in the way theater people approach auditions and the way writers approach submissions.
Granted, every person is different, but for the most part the mentality going into an audition is that it doesn’t matter. I mean, you want it. You want it badly sometimes, but there’s this mental adjustment you have to do in order to survive the audition process. You focus on it the way you focus on doing a show. So the goal is to give a really good audition, the same way you’d do a really good performance and then you walk away.
Because out of the hundreds of people they see for that part, the directors will cast only one person.
With writers, we do this whole rejectomancy thing, trying to read into the rejections to see how “close” we came to getting the part. Really, it doesn’t matter and in some ways it matters less than in theater. How so? Let me explain and I’ll explain using a real world example.
Before I go any further let me explain the etiquette of discussing pending auditions.
I’m a normally rational person, around auditions I get very skittish and superstitious about jinxing things by talking about it. As I said, my brain is not rational about this. There’s this whole variety of things that I have to do to convince myself that the results of the audition don’t matter when, of course, they do.
Please do not wish me luck. You can talk about how amazingly cool the show is, but not about me in relation to the show. If in doubt, just pretend the audition doesn’t exist.
I mean it.
So, I’m going to be in NYC starting on June 15th to audition for Warhorse. This is exceptionally cool and the sort of audition that I would go to just for the chance of trying the puppets.
Here’s the trailer for the show, for those who haven’t seen it.
The show is one of the most beautiful uses of puppetry I’ve seen over a twenty-year career and I want this part very, very badly. But…
Realistically, my chances are slim because I’m at the bottom end of their height limit. With puppetry, there are solid mechanical reasons for casting someone based on size. Even so, for the next two weeks, you’ll get to hear me talk about the things I’m doing to prep for the audition. This is why I want to hang out with horses for a bit. Youtube is only getting me so far and the clips are too short.
I’m doing all of this because I would dearly love to land this role but my focus isn’t on landing the part, it is on turning in a really good audition.
This is why for me, as a writer, rejections don’t really matter. In theater, you go to auditions and sometimes, man, you want that part and you do a lot of intensive prep for the audition, then– maybe you don’t get past the first round, or you make it all the way to the end and get a cold, or you just aren’t right. Whatever it is, the rejection comes hard on the heels of the work and you only get one chance.
I’ve made the mistake of focusing on landing the part and hoping. I was one of the last three women called back for Avenue Q when it moved to Broadway. I worked so hard prepping that I lost my voice.
It was devastating, in part because I’d done it to myself. It is dangerous to want something too badly.
With writing, the rejection comes months after I did the work, after I’ve already moved onto another project that I’m excited about. I just pop the story in the mail and send it off to someone new. Eventually, it will sell if I’m patient enough.
There’s always another chance to sell a story. And I only have to do the work once.
This is why I say rejections don’t matter in fiction. Of course, I’d rather sell the story but the important thing, the thing I learned from theater is to put all my effort into performing the audition — which in writing is the story — and not worry about the results of the casting. The performance of the audition is in my control. The casting isn’t.
The writing is in my control. The editor’s choice, isn’t.
You see why rejections for fiction make me laugh?
Just don’t wish me luck for an audition. It will make me think about landing the part. It will make me hope. I can’t afford that.
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.
I have a mild cold that I picked up from the germ factories that come aboard the boat to meet the Cinnamon Bear. It’s not bad, just a scratchy throat and fatigue–although I suppose the fatigue comes from other sources. Anyway, we carol as people are boarding. I enjoy this even though I’m scantily dressed in a fairy costume. What’s interesting about the way my voice functions when ill is that I lose my mid-range.
My speaking voice drops, but usually my head voice stays more or less clear. I can’t blend the two ranges at all. Now, this is a problem if I’m trying to belt Christmas Carols, (which uses the chest voice and blending) so I dealt with it by jumping up to my upper end and avoiding the midrange. So here’s me, speaking a couple of steps lower than normal, and then singing high soprano because that’s the only sound I’ve got reliable available. It’s useful to know how one’s voice behaves when sick.
Next time you have a cold, I want you to hum through your range. Start at the low end and hum up to the high end, then back down. Now, with me, my voice drops out on the way up the scale, and then comes back again. On the way down, I have more notes. It usually happens this way for me. I’ve been able to use this to compete, perform or audition by either picking pieces that fit the “sick” range or by adapting the work that I doing.
For a reading, I pitch my narrator higher than usual, to get above my dead zone. I save my suddenly deep low end for the male characters. It’s the only time I can really do a convincing male voice. I’ve always wished I were an alto because of that. It seems like it would be sooooo much more useful for voice work.
I really thought that I had told everyone what the final result of my audition was, but I just had another person ask me, so evidently I didn’t. Sesame Street cast an in-house puppeteer without going to callbacks, which is pretty much what I expected to happen. Even so, it was a fun ride.
I can’t believe it. Strange Horizons just wrote to say they want to buy Portrait of Ari at pro-rates! I’m beside myself with excitement–really, it takes two of me to express my joy fully.
Here’s the letter.
Dear Mary Robinette Kowal,
We’re pleased to accept your story “Portrait of Ari” for publication in Strange Horizons, at a rate of 5 cents/word.
Our current schedule has this running early in 2006, but that could change.
At some point between now and then, we’ll do a detailed editing pass and send you the results for your approval. But that probably won’t happen for another few weeks.
In the meantime, below please find a copy of our informational questionnaire. Once we receive your response to it, we will send you a check and contract. Please allow two months after sending the questionnaire for processing; if you haven’t received a check and contract within two months, please let us know. And please don’t hesitate to contact our editor-in-chief, Susan Marie Groppi, at email@example.com, if you have any questions about your contract.
If you have any other questions, please feel free to ask. And thank you for sending us this story!
For those of you following along, Susan Marie Groppi is my editor at All-Star Stories. I don’t know how much that had an impact on my story’s acceptance, but I’m counting my blessings in whatever form they take.
Now I just have to hope that tomorrow’s audition will go as well.
A lot of you already know about this–and thank you to everyone who sent me a copy of the notice–Sesame Street is having auditions for a new female character. This is extremely rare. I sent my resume in and have been granted an audition spot.
Fortunately, it’s in Seattle, so I don’t have to go haring off across the country again. I’ll be up there for my audition at 4:00 on Tuesday so start thinking positive thoughts. Meanwhile, I have two songs and two scenes to memorize.
(Tor Books — August 21, 2018) Continuing the grand sweep of alternate history laid out in The Calculating Stars, The Fated Sky looks forward to 1961, when mankind is well-established on the moon and looking forward to its next step: journeying to, and eventually colonizing, Mars. Of course, the noted Lady Astronaut Elma York would like to go, […]