Now and again, I like to share True Tales from Madge, stories from the many lifetimes I’ve stuffed into this one. Consider them “snapshots from the life of a woman of substance.” I found this review in my files this morning and it took me back…
In 1997 I was pursuing an MFA degree in acting, but I eventually left the program. Watching reality competition shows, it’s interesting looking back at that group of 8 who ended up as a group of 5. We shall call it ‘Project Upstage.’
The cold hard truth is that acting is a highly competitive industry. There are far more eager actors than there are paying roles. Add to that the fact that actors have big personalities and bigger egos, it’s a Darwinian survival of the fittest reality. Auditioning can be a brutal soul crushing experience. You can not believe the stunning insults that are freely slung by insensitive casting people to auditioning actors. You have to get thick skinned very quickly if you want to survive.
What I didn’t know going in was that this MFA acting program was collapsing and the person in charge had a history of pitting students against each other. I was played, big time, and it was all very disappointing to say the least. I had worked so hard and sacrificed so much to get my undergraduate degree in theater. My dream was to get my MFA, join a repertory theater company and teach acting at the college level. It wasn’t a lofty aspiration and I’m quite sure it would have happened if things had turned out a little differently.
Still, hindsight is 20/20. Looking back, I should have fought harder.
It began with a trip to Chicago with my friend Michele Cox, an amazing actress, writer and director. We started out in the suburbs at her brother’s house, but relocated downtown to be closer to the auditions. We ended up staying at the hotel where they filmed pivotal scenes from the films Eight Men Out and The Untouchables. It was an amazing, strange, surreal Art Deco era hotel with an elevator that arbitrarily opened on random floors regardless of what buttons you pressed. Everything about those few days was a blur.
Once we got settled in downtown we both hit the ground running, frantically racing all over the city from one scheduled audition to the next. In a series of strange spaces in hotels all over downtown Chicago I earnestly performed monologues from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile. The highlights included auditioning for one of the directors who had led one of the first workshop productions of Steve Martin’s play. A ma zing. The low light was auditioning for a highly prestigious theater company from San Francisco. The interviewers were eating their lunch and barely paying attention while I acted my ass off. My amazing performances, heartfelt and loving executed, were returned with glazed expressions. The awkward silence was accented by random chewing and sipping sounds. A deadpan, “Thank you.” This translated to, “Ugh,” (chew, chew, swallow,) “Don’t call us, we won’t call you.” Apparently, the sandwiches were far more compelling than my monologues.
Upon returning home, I received offers from two graduate MFA programs. One was in Denver and the other in Pittsburgh. It was a difficult decision, as the company in Colorado was extremely prestigious and part of a working repertory company. Unfortunately, the offer and the cost of living didn’t add up. I knew there would be no time for working outside of the program and I didn’t know how I could make the numbers work. The offer from the school in Pittsburgh made more sense financially, and it included an opportunity to spend summers performing with a world renowned Shakespearean repertory company.
I chose Pittsburgh. It wasn’t until after I got there that I realized it was not the better choice. The small group of MFA students included four women and four men. It was a highly dysfunctional group. Though I made some friends, there was a lot of drama created by the person running the program, probably deflecting attention away from what was happening behind the scenes. I had a long and miserable first semester. Then came the stunning realization that the opportunity to spend the summer with the Shakespearean theater company was not actually on the table. It was a carrot on a stick to get us to sign on to the program. Not a tasty carrot after all. After that awful first semester, I made the painful and difficult decision to leave the program. Not long after, I discovered it was imploding.
Still, the PhD directors all liked and respected me, so I was well cast in the first season and allowed by some minor miracle to perform in the shows after leaving the program. The last show I did in Pittsburgh was written and directed by a PhD directing student named Bruce Cohen. It was a darkly Freudian yet farcical combination of two one-act plays titillatingly staged at a local topless bar. Yup, I have performed on stage at a girlie bar in skimpy costumes, so I checked that off of my bucket list. Above is a review from the show. By some miracle for which I can only take some credit and hand the rest to fate, I’ve always been well reviewed. The play was a joy to perform and the cast was exceptional. It was a wonderful end to my time in Pittsburgh.
I followed that with a summer in repertory at the Texas Shakespeare Festival and then my life took a totally different turn, which led me to my current career. I don’t regret my choices even for a moment. Had I not gone to school in Pittsburgh and stepped into a funky little shop across from the Carnegie Museum in search of crimp beads, I would never had met my husband, gotten married and had our amazing daughter. She is, by far, my best creation.
I pine for the stage and I fully intend to get back to acting and singing once my daughter is in college. Looking for a classically trained actress and professional vocalist with an ‘instinct for farce’ and a commanding stage presence? I’m open to offers…
Stay tuned for more True Tales from Madge!