Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Be Able to Command the Entire Room
It’s a critical and obvious ability for any live performer to possess. I only wish that bit of sterling wisdom had been shared at the audition.
“Okay, Bill. Go ahead whenever you’re ready.”
I cleared my throat and stepped to the front of the performance area—not even a stage, really. Ranks of folding chairs stretched to the back of the dusty room, though the only others present were the three folks sitting attentively in the front row, notepads at the ready. Late afternoon sunlight taunted me through the grimy far windows. I checked the sheaf of pages in my sweaty hand—“The Fanatic in the Street,” the selfsame essay that I posted here last week, abridged from a longer excerpt of a much longer manuscript—and made brief eye contact with each of my auditors in turn.
“Temple Square occupies a full city block in the heart of Salt Lake City,” I began.
I had ten minutes, no more, to impress the pants off the panel.
The date was February 27, 2013. The place was the second story of a seedy prewar office building tucked just off the commuter-rail tracks in the Ravenswood neighborhood on Chicago’s North Side. I was there to audition for a slot in the upcoming season of one of the most prestigious storytelling series in the city. If I made it—and I had no reason that year to believe I wouldn’t—I would spend the next few months attending workshops aimed at honing my material and performance to the point where I would not appear out of place in a lineup with some of the best storytellers on the crowded and competitive local scene. I would finally have arrived.
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I was, in fact, there at the instigation of the organization’s creative director, who I’ll call Janet. I was not exactly a newcomer to live performance. At that point I’d been doing readings of my fiction for two decades, and over the preceding few years I’d been appearing around Chicago at various reading series, one of which had liked my style enough to invite me aboard as a host and producer. I had been with that show, Tuesday Funk, for two years, refining its format and honing it into a fine monthly evening of entertainment, when Janet appeared as part of the lineup. I myself happened to be reading a personal essay on the program that same evening, and Janet was impressed enough afterward to suggest that I should be performing with her organization. She encouraged me to submit a personal essay at their next open call for submissions.
“I sent something in last year,” I said, “but I didn’t get called in for an audition.”
“Oh, don’t worry,” she said. “You’ll get a call.”
So I figured I was a shoo-in.
Of course, that didn’t mean I wasn’t nervous as I delivered my piece before three of the most powerful storytelling forces in Chicago. I ignored the sweat pouring down my back, focused on my rhythm, my intonation, my enunciation, all the while pitching my passion and persuasiveness at the appraisers in that prime pew with the precision of a pilot on his umpteenth bombing run.
And then, magically, the runway was in sight, and I was bringing my audience in for the landing. “He won’t hear these words, of course,” I said with a sad and practiced nod, “but as a proxy … maybe you’ll do.”
The panel stirred. “Well, that was wonderful, just wonderful, Bill. Thank you very much. You’ll be hearing from us soon.”
Oh, yes. Thanks to Janet, I knew I would. I was in like Flynn.
Over the weeks that followed, as I waited for the good news, I hosted two more editions of Tuesday Funk before appearing on back-to-back nights in two of Chicago’s most popular “live-lit” shows—the dueling essay competition Write Club at The Hideout, and the themed personal essay showcase The First Time at Second City’s UP Comedy Club. I killed it both times. I killed it so hard it wasn’t even funny.
Well, except in the parts where it was meant to be funny.
After those two triumphs I was riding high. And then the email arrived with the results of my audition.
“ ‘The Fanatic in the Street’ demonstrates a lot of potential—there are some really funny moments and the writing is very strong—but the Story Development Team felt that the piece overall wasn't right for us right now, mostly due to performance… You were a bit subdued and quiet, which was a lovely energy to have in the room, but the delivery of a personal narrative story at one of our shows demands that you be able to command the entire room. This has to do with body and energy, and some things to explore would be overall volume and projection, and generally being louder and bolder with your performance. Think of how you might tell this story to a group of friends in a bar or restaurant; how might your energy be different?”
I gaped at the computer screen. But … but … I wasn’t telling the story in a bar or a restaurant, I wanted to shout. I was telling it to three people sitting close enough to smell me in a quiet room! You want to see loud and bold? You want to see volume and projection? You should have seen me a week ago at the Hideout, commanding a room of a hundred rowdy drinkers, every one of whom had better taste in their elbows than the likes of you! You want me to talk to the back of the room? Then tell me to talk to the back of the room! I can talk to the back of the room. You want me to talk past the front row? Then don’t all sit in the front row!
Can’t command a room. You buttheads.
I was mad, yes, but I was mad at myself as much or more than anyone else at my audition. I should have known I wasn’t there to play to the front row. I would have known that if only I weren’t such a clueless piece of garbage.
But dammit, if they had just offered that one little piece of direction…
And Janet, what about Janet? She didn’t have as much juice as she’d implied she did, did she? Didn’t have control of what was happening in her own house! Or maybe she did, and she’d been confident after my performance at Tuesday Funk that I’d knock my audition out of the park, only I’d gone and blown it, so it really was all my own damn fault…
I could have ridden this spiral of negativity indefinitely, like an angry hobbit on an angrier eagle circling the angriest volcano, but eventually I pulled out my phone and watched the video a friend of mine had shot from the audience at the Hideout the week before and reminded myself that, yes, maybe I didn’t show the panel exactly what they were looking for, but they didn’t hate me, and I was capable of delivering when it really counted.
And anyway, in the weeks between my audition and their response I’d made the decision to move from Chicago back to New York City, so none of it really affected me anyway. There was a certain zen satisfaction in that. They couldn’t have had me even if they’d wanted me.
But it didn’t mean those buttheads weren’t buttheads, either. ∅
Next week I’ll share “Devil and God,” my prize-winning monologue from Write Club, video included, and you can judge for yourself whether or not Bill Shunn can command a room.