Act One: AmericanAirlines Arena, Wednesday, August 22. Big steps covered with darting humanity. Camera crews, journos, fast-moving people wearing color-coded shirts and performing mysterious functions. And kids — thousands of them, some heading into the arena and some heading out, some scared or grim and others bursting out of their skins with excitement, maybe just happy to be there, but more likely convinced this is their day, destined to go down in history as the beginning of a storied upward trajectory that will find them forever basking in the warm glow of public adoration and easy wealth. Anxiety be damned: You've arrived, you're loved, never fear anything again.
If those are not the thoughts running through the minds of the kids who've shown up for this, the first-round audition for a slot on the seventh season of American Idol, the stakes are comparably high. There is a hovering fever in the air, kids looking too relaxed to be believed or else looking like the exact opposite. The media are not allowed to see what becomes of the contestants once they are inside the arena — American Idol can document that perfectly well itself, thankyouverymuch — but we can glimpse the before and after. Before: Kids talk to family or friends on the steps, their hands moving quickly, smoothing their shirts or skirts, touching their hair, smiling hugely and bravely, eyes flashing wildly when you meet them. You will know me. Then they hug Mom or whomever and head in. After: If they exit on the north side of the arena, they are smiling more brightly than before. Their voices explode, their hands fly in the air, they are surrounded by camera crews. They knew they'd make it, of course, and they tell us so. If they exit on the south side of the arena, they might be crying.
American Idol segregates the winners and the losers this way: winners to the north, losers to the south. It takes about two minutes to walk at a normal, purposeful pace from the winners' to the losers' door.
Act Two: GableStage at the Biltmore, Monday, August 27. A narrow street alongside the hotel where service personnel come and go. Mike, the stage manager, has set up chairs for the people getting ready to audition for the theater's upcoming season. GableStage is arguably the most important of South Florida's regional theaters. It is, in any event, one of the most exciting and well attended.
But it's a sleepy scene. The actors come in dribs and drabs. A lovely young girl, tiny and breakably pretty, didn't get the memo that auditions have been pushed back to 1:00 p.m., and she's been waiting awhile. When the hour rolls around, artistic director Joe Adler appears and shakes her hand. "I'm so sorry you've been waiting," he says, and you believe him. Even when he might be about to deny you work, there is something paternal in his manner. These are artists; they are his people.
Act Three: At the American Idol auditions, there is a spot outside the arena that the other reporters haven't gotten hip to, where one can walk up to a thin stone latticework fence and peer onto the veranda where the registered hopefuls are waiting.
They are only a few feet away, and they are doing a very stupid thing. They are singing in full voice, belting out their audition pieces. If you ask them, they say they are practicing, but they really appear to be showing off for each other. Several strong voices weaken after long minutes of sustained vocal pyrotechnics. These people, one can assume, will leave from the south side of the building.
I talk to a few of the Idol supplicants, but the roar of the million-headed teenage beast on the veranda makes my recording impossible to transcribe. I talk to Veronica Williams and her friend Tyra Dixon. Veronica has one of the best, most sensual altos you could ever hope to hear. Tyra has a lovely voice, too, and she's dressed fabulously, like the frontwoman for a Sixties Spector girl-group. I wonder if these girls will depart the arena from the same door, and which door that will be.
I talk to Lamar Blandin, who sounds like a cross between Sam Cooke and somebody I can't put my finger on. I talk to DeQuan Allen, a handsome 20-year-old with a gorgeous, light tenor that trills and flits like the voice of a coloratura soprano. Williams, Dixon, and Blandin seem nervous when I talk to them; Allen is all braggadocio. He will make it, he knows, and I believe him. He tells me he gigs a lot.
On the losers' side, a girl named Sharonda is crying. Through her tears, she sings a smoky, earthy rendition of a song I don't know, and the sound coming from her mouth is more nuanced and beautiful than anything you're likely to hear from this year's Top 12.
Act Four: At GableStage, none of the actors look happy when they leave their auditions. Actors are self-critical, and this theater will rarely if ever deliver any verdicts immediately. GableStage is casting for the whole year. Some of these people won't be cast for maybe six months.
Adler won't let me watch the auditions. Not because he wants or needs exclusive rights to some footage, but because he doesn't want to make the actors uncomfortable. They're uncomfortable enough to begin with, auditions being the anguished things they are.
A man arrives with his girlfriend and we share a friendly chat. He goes in; I talk with the girl. He comes out, a twisted look on his face. He tells me he's not depending on this gig, that he did the best he could. Actors really are self-critical. I could have recorded this talk, because there is no million-headed teenage beast in Coral Gables today, but I am not allowed to quote anybody. Joe doesn't want anyone feeling uncomfortable. These are artists, and they are his people.
An actor whose work I'm familiar with shows up dressed, like the others present today, in an outfit of surpassing casual classiness. I introduce myself and wish him luck. He deserves it. He has recently done great things at Sol Theatre and Promethean Theatre, and it'd be nice if he could get a gig with an outfit as prestigious as GableStage.
When he's done, he comes outside and sits down. We chat for a while, about who's done what in which theater lately, what roles he wants, what shows he's liked, what shows I've liked. It's always good to talk to people who know about these things — especially to talk to somebody who can act so cool after what should be, for all of Joe Adler's loving paternal vibing, a very trying ordeal.
But the actor is cool and sober and friendly, and totally unflustered. The people here love theater and want to see it done well, and nerves aside, this is all part of the process. Honest work, a little self-abasement, take the knocks and roll, try to make something good out of it one way or the other, and try not to hurt anybody along the way. This is why GableStage is art, and the thing at the arena is something else.
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