By Jason Cooper

Entire contents are copyright © 2020 by Jason Cooper. All rights reserved.

6. Touched Down In The Land Of The Delta Blues

Something you do on a whim can change your life forever; this is something I know. In my last semester of college, at the very last minute, I decided to go with my roommates to a vast cattle call audition where theatres from around the country come, and you have ninety seconds to try and get them to hire you. I was very unsure I wanted to pursue theatre as a career, but I thought, “what the hell? It can’t hurt to go and see what it’s like.”

I must have done pretty well on my auditions because I got about eleven callbacks. The very first callback I went to was for Playhouse on the Square, Memphis Tennessee’s only professional theatre. They have a small Resident Company of actors, which included a feeble weekly stipend and housing. When not in rehearsals or running a show, actors are required to put in hours in other various aspects of the theatre. Usually, they have a few specific roles in mind when hiring each season’s new crop of actors.

I felt something click between the two Playhouse staff members who were interviewing me and myself; I left that meeting thinking, wow, I would love to do that, that would be a great way to learn how a professional theatre works in every aspect. I got excited because I thought if my first callback went so well I couldn’t wait to go to the others. Some of the others went well and some…not so much, but my mind kept drifting back to that first one with Playhouse on the Square. My audition and callbacks were on Friday; my roommates were on Monday, so I had a lot of time to mix and mingle. All of the representative companies are put up in one hotel, and that’s where all the callbacks are held. I had two days with nothing to do but to talk to people and to gather information. The more I found out, the more I was drawn to Playhouse on the Square. Still, I was a realist, working in the professional theatre seemed such a pipe dream to me. I did not think it could actually happen.

By the time we left for home, I was thinking to myself; that was a great trip, I had a lot of fun, learned a lot, I even managed to get lucky, all in all, not a bad trip. I had my hopes up a little, but I had no real expectations. We returned home late Monday night, and on Tuesday Playhouse on the Square offered me a job. When summer came around, I loaded up my trusty old Chevy Nova, nicknamed “The Fuzz,” and started on my big adventure. My life would never be the same.

I was going to be a real actor; or at least something like it. When I was offered the contract, even though all I knew about the theatre was what I learned in my fifteen-minute interview, I said yes right away. I had never lived anywhere more than a ten-minute drive from the house in which I grew up. I was 26 years old, and I knew it was time. I was scared out of my wits. I was moving to a strange city where I did not know a soul, leaving the safety of my family and friends. All I knew about Memphis is that it’s where Elvis died on his toilet. Here is some advice, if you ever move to Memphis do not make fat Elvis jokes, they will not be appreciated. “My life is starting now” that is what I kept saying to myself as I drove The Fuzz on the six-hour journey south, into the unknown, chain-smoking and blasting 80s tunes all the way. I did not have to find a place to live because I was going to live in the Actor’s House, right down the street from the theatre with my fellow company members. If you think there will be a lot of drama in a house full of actors, you would be correct.

I dove right in when it came to life at the theatre, there wasn’t much choice, and the pace was breakneck. Because of my experience in college, I was assigned to do my company hours in the costume shop. I had a few days to learn the ropes before I started rehearsals, when I did begin rehearsals it was for two shows at once, Peter Pan and Smoke on the Mountain, which would run in rep. This was not a college theatre; you did not get 12 weeks to block the curtain call. This was a job, and either you could step up to it or not. My schedule was made for me, and I loved that. I loved how structured it all was. I liked how Playhouse operated as one big family. Not to say there weren’t some elements of dysfunction; naturally, there were conflicts, mostly when it came to casting; shocking! It was like being on The Real World but without the cameras. We were together twenty-four hours a day. When I was hired, I was told that there were two specific roles I was already cast in; most of us had pretty much the same deal. The remaining shows in the season were up for grabs; we knew we would be in them, but we didn’t know in what capacity. As a whole, most of the time we got along surprisingly well. Except when it came time for casting, then the backbiting would start and the secret campaigning with directors, I’d be a big fat hypocrite if I said I did not do this as well, it is how the business is; we just had to sleep under the same roof at night which made for some awkwardness.

I loved life at Playhouse, and I knew very soon after getting there that I wanted to stay longer than my contracted year. I started laying the groundwork for that very early on. Most actors think of it as a stepping stone, a place to build their resume then move on. Since I didn’t have such lofty career ambitions and I was so under the spell of working there I figured why not make it last for as long as possible. I stayed for another two years.

Working at a professional theatre for three years made me a better actor, it also provided me with an inside education on how a theatre runs and operates. I know the ins and outs of the theatre business from acting to the front of house duties, from ticketing to set construction, from marketing to fundraising. If you want a career in theatre, you better know how to fundraise. I, however, was still unsure if I wanted to pursue theatre as a career. Here is what no one tells you, once acting becomes your job; it’s your job. A small part of the magic disappears. Furthermore, it is mentally and physically exhausting to always be putting yourself out there to be judged. It begins with casting, you don’t get the part that you want – or any part at all in most cases – and the seedlings of self-doubt start to sprout leaves. I do not care who you are or what you say; it is impossible to be told no over and over again without thinking at least once “boy, I must suck at this. Essentially you are being told, “we don’t want you.” Say, hello to abandonment issues.

Then there are reviews. Every actor needs to get a terrible review at least once, to help put reviews into perspective. I was in a production of Batboy: The Musical for which I received some positive notices. I was riding high on those superlatives when the theatre cast me as the lead in the next show. In it, I was playing an alien who gets stranded on Earth and quickly becomes addicted to pop-culture and junk food. The first line of the review in The Commercial Appeal, Memphis’s major paper  (there used to be these things called newspapers) went as follows.

            – “He’s green. His face is green; his neck is green, his hands are green, so for God’s sake paint the damn bald spot.”

It only got less favorable from there. In the years that have followed, I have been referred to as “the best comic actor in town,” and I’ve been called “thoroughly un-engaging.” Once a critic said I came off “like a lost puppy.” I am not sure what to make of that one. If you buy into the good reviews, you have to buy into the bad, therefore either don’t read your own press or take it all with a grain of salt. A lot of actors tell me they don’t read their reviews. I believe zero of them, I know actors.

Not only are you leaving yourself exposed for audiences and critics to judge, but you are also continually being sized up by your director, castmates, and peers, many of whom are pissed because they were not cast. No one, and I mean, no one talks more shit than an actor who didn’t get a role.  Why would any reasonable person choose a profession where the competition is immense and cutthroat, jobs are nearly impossible to get, and even if you do get work, odds are the pay is abysmal? There are two answers to this question: first, no reasonable person would. Actors have a desperate need for attention and affirmation. Secondly, we don’t have a choice, the burning desire to perform, to act, is a fire that cannot be put out. It is worth pointing out that these answers are not mutually exclusive. 

Tomorrow’s chapter: Land of the Lost

Jason Cooper has worked in professional, regional, and community theatre for over twenty years. After receiving his BFA in theatre performance he spent three seasons with the award-winning Playhouse on the Square in Memphis, TN. After working in theatres all over the country for a time, Jason settled in Chicago and worked with The Chicago Dramatists, Apple Tree Theatre, and Red Moon Theatre before returning home to Louisville to become a high school English teacher. Locally, Jason has worked extensively as an actor and director primarily for Pandora Productions, CenterStage, The Bard’s Town, Derby Dinner Playhouse, and Stage One.