When Susan Shopmaker -- the New York casting agent whose corporate icon is an overstuffed red couch -- phoned to invite me to these auditions, I asked her if there was anything I, as a nonprofessional, could do to prepare. "Absolutely nothing," she replied.
So I immediately set about doing something, which consisted of calling up Barbara Scott, the San Francisco improv guru whose popular intro class at the American Conservatory Theater I had taken three years before. Barbara offered to hold a crash refresher course for me and some friends a few nights before my departure.
For two hours between 10 and midnight, Barbara coached four of us, all nonactors, on the basics of improvisation. The first rule was no blocking. Accept whatever ideas or premises your partner suggests; practice saying yes. Keep the mind clear of plans and preconceptions. Free yourself to a constant acceptance of the present moment and a mindful retention of the recent past. Endow your partner and your setting with physical attributes. Don't try to be funny or clever. Don't be afraid of silence; once a character has been defined, his or her silence has great emotional depth.
Most of the session was review for me, but Barbara offered one or two tidbits I didn't remember from class. One that would have a substantial impact on my auditions was the mantra, a method of conjuring a mood or affect by silently repeating a simple phrase. Barbara introduced this during a scenario that had stalled badly. "OK, you're not having enough fun," Barbara interrupted. "When this happens, use this mantra: 'This is fun! This is fun! This is fun!' Sometimes I will be onstage screaming this inside my head. It will always turn the scene around."
To demonstrate the power of mantras, Barbara did an experiment. First she sent me out of the room and had me come back in as though I were entering an audition. Then she asked me a rapid-fire series of questions in a hostile monotone: "What's your name? Where are you from? What do you like about it?"
I was able to answer the first two coherently, then stumbled through the third. Without critiquing my performance, Barbara sent me out of the room again, now assigning me to spend some time repeating a mantra before I returned: They like me, they like me, they like me, they like me...
"What's your name?" Barbara barked when I came back.
"Paul Festa," I answered, smiling.
"Where are you from?" she snarled.
"I'm a California boy," I replied easily. "I was born and raised in San Francisco."
"Oh, really, how nice. Mariah Carey as the next Bond girl. Why?"
"Well, who else is going to fuck her?"
The class cheered.
Friday morning I woke up two hours before my first audition and immediately reached for my mantras. Shaving in the shower, wolfing down two overcooked pork chops for breakfast, riding the 2 Express from Chambers to 14th Street, hiking across town and up to the casting office on Madison Square Park, I practiced them in combination: They like me, this is fun, this is fun, they like me, this is fun, this is fun, this is fun...
When I arrived, three or four guys were loafing in the waiting room. We made small talk; in the lulls I silently practiced my mantras. Then John Cameron Mitchell walked in.
"OK, let's have you --" He pointed to "Keith," a burly, conventionally handsome L.A. guy who in his video had sat naked in front of a huge American flag and narrated a kidnapping fantasy come true. "And you." He pointed at me.
Keith and I followed the director down the hall and into a small room where Rob and his assistant on HBO's documentary in development had their cameras trained on a somewhat battered gray love seat.
Keith and I sat down and John gave us our first scenario. "You're in the waiting room out there," he said, "and you've just watched the audition videos. And you know that once you're called into the room, you're going to have to kiss."
The conversation started off woodenly as we compared notes on the videos and gave each other our vital stats. "How old are you?" he asked. "Thirty-two," I answered. "What about you?" "Oh, I'm 36," he said. "I'm really old."
"Well at least you're not as old as John," I said. "I think he's, like, 39."
My left ear curled listening for a laugh from the director and encountered silence.
My second audition was with the only other San Franciscan candidate, a mixed-race boy in his mid-twenties named Jarrad whom I've kissed at a few parties and clubs back home. Jarrad, whose alter ego Suppositori Spelling is the reigning Miss Trannyshack (new wave drag's highest honor west of the Hudson and north of Sunset Boulevard) has no recollection of those encounters, but acknowledging some alcohol-induced memory loss, does not categorically deny they took place.
After Jarrad and I had performed the same initial exercise, discussing the tapes and our upcoming audition, John pulled me out into the hallway to give me my instructions for the next scene. The premise was that I was calling up a phone sex line in order to enact a rape fantasy, that is, that I wanted to be raped. Jarrad, playing the phone sex operator, was given his own instructions out of my earshot.
I started off trying to take this one seriously. I adopted all the poses of what Barbara referred to as low status -- eyes downcast, toes pointed inward, brow furrowed -- and with great pathos tried to convey the message, without spelling it out, that I wanted the phone sex operator also known as Suppositori Spelling to take me against my will.
As if that weren't a steep enough challenge, Jarrad blocked me at every turn. Every offer I made, he dismissed; the best I could get from him was indifference. He was only following directions, it turned out -- his assignment was to be a phone sex operator at the end of a long day, who's bored with his job in general and anxious to finish up with this call in particular.
"You're trying to humiliate me, aren't you?" I asked after Jarrad roughly blocked me for the fifth time in a minute.
"Yeah, whatever," he replied.
"It's OK -- I deserve to be humiliated." Then I let my eyes go out of focus into the distance and declared solemnly: "I have low self-esteem."
The director howled with laughter.
My third and final audition of the day was with a handsome 6-foot, 5-inch black Chicagoan. In the warm-up exercise, chatting in the imaginary waiting room with the knowledge we would have to kiss, I made a move on him. He froze. Then he tried to explain: It wasn't that he found me unattractive, but that even though we were supposed to pretend there weren't other people in the room, he knew there were other people -- one of them with a camera. That made him uncomfortable. This was the most unusual argument I'd yet heard for being cast in the Sex Film Project, and with it the audition quickly came to an end.
Before leaving the office, I was assigned my first date -- with Jarrad. I suggested that the two of us meet for drinks at Albert Fuller's place at 7:30. A few hours later, waiting at Albert's bar for Jarred to show up, I found myself struggling to justify some of the Action Week activities, particularly the hazily defined liaison Jarrad and I had been assigned.
"Why would somebody, as a director, want his stars to fuck with one another before he cast them?" Albert asked as he rolled us a cigarette.
"Well, he's trying to make a sexually explicit movie, and he wants the plots and themes and characters to come out of our own improvisations," I explained. "And he feels that the best way to get the right chemistry on the screen is if there's the right chemistry in person. There are definitely some people who are professional actors, but most of us, I think, are not, and we're not trained to fake it. We're not trained to pretend we're hot for somebody."
"Well, honey, when you're not, you're not."
"But if Hepburn wasn't, she would learn. She would fake it, because she's an actress," I said. Albert and I had watched a Katharine Hepburn bio on TV a few nights before.
"There are some porno stars who can get it up for anything," Albert observed, handing me the lit cigarette. "And there are some who can't. And I've looked at a lot of them."
"I think John wouldn't want the film to be two actors who weren't hot for each other faking it really well," I said. "That's not what he wants -- he wants something a little bit more vérité, something a little bit more real, where you sometimes have to ask yourself, is this real? Or is this fiction?"
Jarrad was now 20 minutes late. I told Albert about the Salon serial and read him a passage that concluded with my realization that I was camped out this week in a pseudo-celebrity's waiting room.
Albert put down his gin glass and gave me an almost affronted look.
"Pseudo! Honey, drop the 'pseudo'! This shit is real."
Maybe it is -- and maybe that's what's keeping me up nights. This week in New York I am sleepless with excitement. Staring at the guest-bedroom ceiling of my borrowed TriBeCa duplex at 5 in the morning I am happy! But I am also afraid. Before the Thursday screening, John tried to get us to distinguish between our fear of the known and fear of the unknown, and to understand and perhaps even embrace the fact that so much of what we all were doing with this project ended with a big question mark. So what am I really afraid of? In America, you can become dangerously famous for much less than starring in John Cameron Mitchell's sexually explicit new movie. Am I afraid that these steps to Parnassus could actually be leading me to a point where notoriety grows beyond my control, beyond pseudo, beyond being fun, to the absurd realm of stalkers and public harassment, of obnoxious fans stopping one in public to have their left breast signed, of a chronic, insufferable invasion of privacy? (Whether my career as a confessional writer over the past few years has left me any privacy to be invaded is a separate question.)
I have low self-esteem. Perhaps the issue, the reason for "pseudo" and the other halfhearted self-deprecations that pockmark this diary, is that I do not feel allowed, as a writer, to enjoy the week, to relish the experience of having been called, or the fantastic (if complicated) outcomes that success could yield, because I think the reader will prefer to see me stretched on a rack of angst and self-doubt. I certainly have generous, genuine doses of both those emotions in their highest grades and concentrations, but I remain unsure how much of it at this point in my life I manufacture for the sake of softening the edges of my literary persona. Perhaps we could observe a moment of central transparency on my part to name and nominate for oblivion this tendency or tic of mine, learned equally from W.C. Fields, Woody Allen and Macbeth, which is forever capitalizing on the idea that for a schlimazel onstage, nothing succeeds like complete failure. We love those characters, or we love watching them implode, because they are foiled at every turn, because none of their good deeds goes unpunished, because no blessing fails to bring them a wealth of misery.
But it occurred to me as Albert told me to "drop the pseudo" that whatever mask of haplessness and self-defeat I wear in this diary, I had better enjoy this part of the experience, this airborne moment, no matter how brief, tentative, or morally vexed, because if I can't go from an office job in February to having John Cameron Mitchell declare my "incredibly promising" career in filmmaking in March and take pleasure in that, I will never enjoy anything in my entire career even if they give me enough golden statuettes to plug every butt double in Hollywood.
The boyfriend didn't like the second episode of this diary, particularly the satirical curl to my description of his struggle with the project. "Why don't you try being serious for a change?" he demanded. It's a good question. I'm 32 years old -- isn't it time I started taking my responsibilities and my day job and the sensitivities of my friends and family and boyfriend, and my prose and my career and my whole life more seriously? I reflect on the matchless quality of this week in New York, this sensation of having flung myself in a lucid dream from a great height, and I am now in that moment of freefall in which I am not sure yet whether I will be able to fly or whether the sensation of lucidity was a fatal illusion. In freefall, I feel happy, afraid, awakened, alive. What I don't know is this: Was I brought here by my lack of seriousness? Or my overabundance of it?
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Jarrad arrived about 40 minutes late, flustered, and took a seat next to me at Albert's bar. I poured him a glass of champagne and sat back to watch how Miss Trannyshack 2002 and Albert Fuller would get along. Introducing them had seemed like a risky proposition from the beginning, and as I watched them conversationally circle each other I had to ask myself why I'd set this up. The short answer was that I knew no more fun or stimulating place in New York than Albert's bar. But then, as I monitored their responses to each other, I realized that I was taking this date far more seriously than I'd thought -- I had taken Jarrad home to meet the family.
After a few awkward minutes, Albert and Jarrad had a radically transformative effect on each other. As Albert talked, I watched Jarrad become uncharacteristically still and quiet. At certain points I had to laugh and grab his thigh, because his mouth was literally hanging open as Albert's discourse careened from the formal to the filthy to the sublime. Albert in turn had transformed from his normally gregarious self into a man onstage in front of an extremely desirable audience. His story of how he and the apartment wound up in Ned Rorem's diaries -- normally a three-minute anecdote -- expanded to a 15-minute deadpan comedy routine that had Jarrad and me clutching each other with laughter.
Shortly before Albert threw us out at around 10 p.m., my phone started vibrating in my pants pocket. John Cameron Mitchell, read the LCD. I had left him a message earlier, when Jarrad first showed up, to ask him exactly what it was that we were supposed to be doing on this date. "Oh, it's no big deal. Just get to know one another, see what the chemistry is like," he said when I posed the question. I had brought the phone upstairs to Albert's private quarters, because in the studio we were blasting Albert's recording of Bach's Italian Concerto so loud it could be heard down the street at the Café des Artistes. I told John I thought the date with Jarrad was going well and asked him how his day had been.
"Exhausting," he said. "But good. People were coming up with really deep, personal material in the auditions today. It was kind of overwhelming."
Deep, personal material? Overwhelmingly exhausting deep personal material? I scanned quickly over my auditions: A flat joke about John's age. A rape fantasy with an uninterested rapist. A Sex Film aspirant who was camera shy. Meanwhile the others sat on that dingy love seat unpacking their souls and overwhelming him with pathos. This is fun, this is fun, this is fun, I had insisted all morning and into the afternoon. Perhaps I should have had a little less fun.
Shaken, I returned to the bar, where Jarrad was talking at length for the first time, describing to Albert the Tori Amos video in which she sings while playing harpsichord with one hand and piano with the other.
"Far out, honey," Albert said.
Finally Albert sent us on our way, out into the cold where Jarred clutched my arm and gushed about how wonderful Albert was, how amazing the studio, how great it was to spend time with someone that age (76) who was that hip. "I have a total phobia about old people," Jarred told me. "I'm normally terrified of them, and of getting old."
I was still preoccupied with what John had said about the afternoon's auditions and quickly set about dulling that anxiety at the open bar of a club in the East Village where a number of Sex Film Project dates were ending up. In addition to our colleagues, several of New York's most illustrious cross-dressers were there. After an hour or so I found myself crowded into a photo booth with a few others, including the legendary Justin Bond -- a great performer and a genuine pseudo-celebrity -- as a little dime bag of cocaine made its way around. I was busy passing the bag when I felt my black cotton pants being yanked down and saw Justin Bond, seated on the photo booth stool, closing in on the kill.
I quickly fell to a squatting position, putting my genitals out of reach and bringing me face-to-knees with the legendary performer.
"Justin, I swear to God, there's no way I would ever turn down a blow job from you except for the fact that I'm dating this guy --"
"I was just blotting my lipstick!" Justin interrupted me with nasal indignation. With that, she gathered her skirts with great dignity and sailed out of the photo booth.
I suppose I was asking for it, wearing those summery cotton pants with no underwear. A wide range of other hands, most of them attached to Sex Film Project candidates, had found their way underneath them already that night, including those of the burly, handsome Keith, whom I spent some time kissing next to the photo booth, and Jarrad, and two or three or four guys who were hanging around Jarrad. After two or three hours, the combination of the loose pants and loose guys playing with them resulted in the worst case of blue balls I've ever had in my life.
At around 3 in the morning, I limped in acute pain back to the East Village apartment of a new friend of Jarrad's, someone so well connected he was going to be in the Sex Film without even having to audition. I wasn't nearly drunk enough not to feel guilty about heading back to an East Village apartment with a Sex Film cast member and candidate, but in a number of conversations with the boyfriend that day I had come to what I thought was a practical compromise to govern my sexual behavior for the week. I had explained to Jarrad just as we left Albert Fuller's that I was in a relationship with a really amazing guy at home, and that while he was tolerating this week and this date, I would have to rein it in on our date tonight: kissing and jerking off were my limits.
"I'm going to hold you to that," Jarred whispered to me as we entered his new friend's tiny fourth-floor walkup. I appreciated the sentiment, but it was entirely academic, because all I was capable of doing for the first 20 minutes while Jarrad and his friend went at it on the bed next to me was to hold a refrigerated bottle of Rolling Rock to my aching testicles, which were swollen to the size of Meyer lemons. Once the swelling went down and the beer was at room temperature I jerked off, coming on Jarrad, his new friend and his new friend's ceiling. Then I gathered my things, kissed my date goodbye, and walked through the crisp spring dawn back to TriBeCa.
Next: Hangover, hermaphrodites and the breeders