How two actors took control of their budding careers by sending letters, making phone calls and hitting the road
by Eliza Bent
So you wanna be an actor. Or maybe you already are an actor but you’ve yet to really jump-start your career. Or perhaps you’re in a bit of a lull. Whatever the case, acting is a difficult vocation. Even obtaining an audition can prove elusive—if your theatre community is a small one, it may be hard to tap into a tightly woven network. If you live in a metropolis like New York or Chicago, there may seem to be no shortage of opportunities, but showing up to an Equity audition without your Equity card can be a dehumanizing, cattle-herding kind of experience. Bret Jaspers and Emily Clare Zempel were about to graduate from Brooklyn College in May ’07 and their horizons as actors with MFAs seemed grim. Instead of entering the real world with high hopes of snagging auditions but with no real plan of action, the two thespians decided to turn the system on its head by creating auditions that did not pre-exist. They picked up and traveled to regional theatres instead of having the theatres come to them.
Mary Beth Easley, who teaches “Audition Techniques and the Business of Acting” at Brooklyn College, had been mentioning to her students for years that small-scale day trips could be useful for making connections, and Zempel took the idea and ran with it. “Coming from the Midwest, I have so much respect for regional theatre, and I just wanted to work,” she says. “In New York, you can’t even get an appointment.” Zempel’s wanderlust, combined with an industry showcase kerfuffle (it coincided with a nor’easter), propelled Zempel and her classmate Jaspers to seriously consider hitting the road post-graduation. They bought some regional theatre directories and began researching. In short order, one thing became clear: “If we were going to go, we had to go all the way,” Zempel says with a laugh. Jaspers had a car sitting in his dad’s driveway in Rochester, N.Y., and both have friends and family scattered across the nation. “You’d be surprised how large your network is when you put out the call,” Japsers notes. While preparing for the trip, the two sent out a letter to various artistic directors stating who they were and expressing interest in presenting their work. They then followed up with phone calls. “That was one of the most terrifying things I’d ever done,” Zempel admits. Nevertheless, they saw results. In their 5 weeks on the road, Zempel and Jaspers managed to arrange 27 auditions and 3 meetings—not bad for two recent MFA grads.
Easley had put the travel bee in their acting bonnets, but friends and families of Jaspers and Zempel were indispensable for enabling the trip’s logistics. Theatre staffs—such as the artistic directors, casting directors and artistic associates who met with the actors—gave the excursion its practical focus. Some of the biggest key players turned out to be strangers. “Someone we met in Minneapolis put us in touch with a friend in Seattle,” Jaspers shares. And when they didn’t have a place to stay, the two recent grads used a site called Couchsurfing.com, which provided interesting insights into the flavor of various cities. The price of fuel was also auspicious: “Gas was still under $3 a gallon when we went in October ’07,” Jaspers recalls. “I don’t know if we could make that same trip now.”
“The trip gave us something really specific and concrete to work toward while we were leaving school,” says Jaspers. Meeting face-to-face with artistic directors, casting directors and associates on their home turf was a unique experience. Plus, the self-initiated auditions were tailored to highlight Jaspers and Zempel’s talents. “Auditioning together was great because we could do a scene [from Proof],” Zempel says. The presentation itself was only about six or seven minutes long, but it was often followed by a post-performance private tour of the theatre and chitchat. The 27 auditions provided a much needed boost of self-assurance (not to mention useful practice) for the green actors, whose prior tryouts had been mostly for Brooklyn College students and faculty. Auditioning for a variety of professionals around the country “made my confidence go way up,” Zempel relates. Most encouraging were the actual jobs that came out of this strategy. Jaspers performed in The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? at the Bay Theatre Company in Maryland and Zempel is currently wrapping up Love’s Labour’s Lost at Milwaukee Shakespeare in Wisconsin (and has been blogging about it on the theatre’s website). An added benefit? Reconnecting with friends and family, seeing the country, and experiencing live theatre. In total, the two actors saw 10 productions they wouldn’t have otherwise seen.
“It just got exhausting,” Zempel sighs. In the penultimate week of the trip the duo arrived in San Jose, Calif., where the weather was hot and sticky and Jaspers had grown weary of driving. “It can be hard to look good for an audition when you’re living out of a suitcase!” Zempel adds. It’s worth noting the two did not get appointments with everyone. “There were a few theatres in Chicago and San Francisco that basically said, ‘We really only hire local actors,’” Jaspers says. Also, some theatres simply didn’t have anything in the upcoming season for them. “One artistic director pulled us aside and said, “We’re using a lot of older actors this season…but check in next year!” Zempel recalls.
The cost of the trip required some sacrifice. “Without Bret’s car I don’t know how we could have done this,” Zempel says. Even with free and economical accommodations (the pair only stayed in a hotel twice), Jaspers took on extra work and Zempel dipped into savings in order to afford the five-week audition odyssey. Explaining the idea to non-theatregoers was also a bit taxing. “When we came back some people asked, ‘So where’d ya’ get hired?’” Jaspers says with a slight eye-roll. The actors expect, more realistically, that the full benefits of the trip will take time to emerge.
Following up. Many of the theatre artists with whom Zempel and Jaspers met told them to stay in touch. So the two have been sending postcards and e-mails to remain on the theatres’ radars. “In a couple of weeks we’re getting together with some friends and doing a day-trip to Hartford, Conn., for an open call,” Jaspers says. On the road again.
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