Auditioning for Fame and Fortune: 'You Have To Think You'll Be One of Those Who Make It'
Miami--The young man steps to the center of the stage. "My number is five," he says. "I will be doing the character of Hamlet in William Shakespeare's play Hamlet, and Bernard in Jules Pfeiffer's Pfeiffer's People."
He pauses briefly, then begins. For part of his four alloted minutes, he is Hamlet, vainly wishing that his too, too solid flesh would melt, lamenting the weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable state of this world.
For a few seconds, he turns his back to the audience. When he turns again, Hamlet has been replaced by Bernard, a lisping, wimpy kid who wears glasses and a baseball cap. "I never used to go out on the street," he says, launching into a monologue that slowly becomes more intense and seems to be approaching a dramatic moment: "I was sitting comfortably in my living room when suddenly ..."
"THANK YOU," a voice interrupts from the audience. "Next!" Number five exits, his audition finished.
If the young man who has just left the stage has his way, that scene--a stage, a darkened auditorium, and a director watching him perform--will recur many times in his life. Sometimes he'll get the part; sometimes he won't.
But like many of the 131 other young people who have come here as participants in the Arts Recognition and Talent Search (arts), he seems willing to take his chances in a field--the arts--in which the number called far exceeds the number chosen.
The odds that this group will succeed may be better than average. Chosen from more than 3,000 applicants, the 132 arts participants, most of whom are high-school seniors, were judged the best in the nation in five areas of the arts: dance, drama, visual arts, music, and writing.
The National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts sponsors the annual event, which is administered by the Educational Testing Service (ets) in Princeton. The program's designers intend arts to identify exceptional talent, to reward it with money and honor, and to enhance it through the workshops, classes, and informal gatherings here.
Finalists will receive $3,000 scholarships; semi-finalists will receive $1,500 scholarships. All participants receive the recognition and encouragement that may help them launch successful careers.
But during the two days of auditions that began shortly after they arrived for the week in Miami, the students have had little time to contemplate the glittering prizes that may--or may not--await them. At various locations in the city, all except the writers (who are chosen on the basis of work submitted earlier) are preoccupied with one thing: showing the judges that they are the best.
The drama participants, who were chosen from videotaped performances, begin their auditions with rehearsed monologues from two works. After stating his or her number, the names and authors of the plays, and the characters to be portrayed, the actor has four minutes to perform.
"Forget the cameras," says Michael J. Zieky, the ets staff member who coordinates the drama division. "Play for the judges. Your job is to make the judges believe in you and make me forget to look at my stopwatch."
One by one, the students go through their routines. Most have chosen one modern and one "classic" play. Many chose Shakespeare and contemporary plays such as Elizabeth Swados's Runaways.
Mr. Zieky, a psychometrician who was given the task of developing judging criteria for drama, does not forget to look at his watch. Actors who have not correctly estimated the length of their performances do not get to finish their scenes. They exit and return to the audience, where they exchange sympathetic smiles with those who preceded them. After the 30 actors have finished, everyone takes a break.
The judges, meanwhile, must decide which students to rank highest. They look for a variety of characteristics, most of them difficult to quantify.
"What I like is the old theater term, 'come across,"' says Jack Morrison, the former executive director of the American Theater Association and one of the judges. He and other judges acknowledge that they find the qualities they seek hard to define.
"What's interesting is that we get people to agree on things they can't really describe," Mr. Zieky says of the judges. "They talk about 'energy level,' and 'filling space.' But they can't describe it in terms of what people do."
"What it takes is more than talent," says Brian McEleney, an actor and teacher who is working with the drama students. "It takes imagination and bravery. It takes a good business sense. It takes the ability to be rejected again and again."
Do these students have what it takes? "Some of them," he says. "Not all of them." Some, he says, may have received poor training at their high schools, which he says are seldom distinguished in their dra-ma programs. Many of the young actors, however, indicate that they are aware of and willing to confront the difficulties inherent in their chosen calling.
"It's vicious. It's a hard thing to want to be," says Ronald J. Eldard, a student of drama at the New York High School for the Performing Arts.
"You have to think you'll be one of the ones who makes it."
Reginald Bythewood, also of the New York performing-arts high school, says that he is no longer daunted by thoughts of the large number of failed actors. "It bothered me at first, but for some reason I'm not scared about that. It's like a passion. I have to act."
The ballet dancers are ready to begin their auditions. Having arrived early for a master class and solo-performance audition, many are warming up: stretching, executing moves from the pieces they will later perform.
Several rows up in the tiered auditorium sits Ted Arison, the Miami businessman whose $5-million donation has provided much-needed support for the fledgling arts foundation.
Mr. Arison says that he cannot, unfortunately, attend all the auditions, but he likes to drop by for some. "It's my premium," he says.
The dancers line up at portable barres and begin their master class with Lupe Serrano, the director of the School of the Pennsylvania Ballet.
In the audience, Roseann Cox, who directs the dance program at the Arts Magnet High School in Dallas, sits with Mary Martha Lappe, who chairs the dance department at Houston's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Both have students participating this year, as they have in past years, and both are nervously watching the class. "Pull in your stomach," Ms. Cox says, addressing the student on stage.
Both teachers are great fans of the arts program. "It gives them a moment of saying, 'I'm doing okay, I'm going somewhere,"' Ms. Cox says. Adds Ms. Lappe, "The financial rewards are what's going to ensure it's really going to be an opportunity to study."
Because a dancer's career begins--and ends--earlier than those of other artists, the judges are looking for polished, professional or near-professional performances. The auditions, the judges say, give them a chance to assess technique and "stage presence," and to give promising dancers the recognition they deserve.
"We think it's superb," says Jeanne Beaman, a dance judge who danced professionally and taught at the University of Pittsburgh. "If there had been a program like this, it would have made a difference in my life. I was asked to come to New York, but I needed $1,000. I didn't have $1,000. I'm not complaining about how my life has turned out, but it could have been differ-ent." The dancers say the arts program provides useful feedback from professionals and peers. "I'm glad to be here, and it's a lot of fun meeting peers," says Lisa L. Arrington, a ballet dancer from New York City. "You learn a little bit from each person. You get to meet professional people in the field. It's a big help."
Ideally, Ms. Arrington says, she would like to join a large ballet company after she graduates from high school.
If that doesn't work out, she will probably go to college.
Across town, in nearby Coral Gables, the visual-arts students are finishing the two exercises assigned that morning. Provided with a supply of materials, the students were asked to respond, abstractly, to a piece of electronic music and to draw two American Indian women who are seated on a platform doing craft work.
One young woman walks slowly around her drawing of the two women, scrutinizing it from all angles. "It looks better upside down," she says.
The visual-arts judges seek students who, in addition to being talented, have a good understanding of their work. They look for an ability to respond imaginatively to an assignment that differs greatly from what they are used to doing.
"We try to throw things at them that the teachers wouldn't give them," says Francine Meredith, the ets staff member who coordinates the visual-arts section. "We're looking for general, all-around types of talents in design."
Although students are required to show talent in more than one medium, most are strongest in one in particular, Ms. Meredith says.
The participants do not seem threatened by their talented peers. "I watched them as they went around the room, and there was not one whit of 'I can't say something good about them because they might get something I don't,"' she says.
The students say the exercises are challenging. "It was rough," concurs Mark D. Matcho, a student at Walter Johnson High School in Montgomery County, Md. "They were unusual. I wasn't prepared to respond to music." It was also, he says, "the first time I'd drawn for that length of time."
"People ignore young artists a lot," Mr. Matcho says. "These people here are the best. This is a big asset--to tell people I was selected."
By the end of the second day of auditions, the judges are beginning to look tired, but the students are still running full speed ahead. Cruising around Miami on a chartered boat, they dance to disco music and gather by the deckrails to talk.
"I hope I win," says one young woman, a musician. "I mean, I'm really honored to be here and all that. But I hope I win."
"I have this fantasy," says a young man. "I'd like to go back home in 10 years and hear everybody say, 'Look at him. He made it."'
Dancers and other young artists came to Miami this month to audition, to learn, and to meet professionals in their fields. Story on page 10.
Dancers and other young artists came to Miami this month to audition, to learn, and to meet professionals in their fields. Story on Page 10.