Reality Bites

On my first paid acting gig, I earned £50 for a full day working on a “TV pilot”. It sounded exciting – six characters living in trendy Hoxton. We’d be filming all day. Sure £50 wasn’t a lot, but there was the hope that future work, at Equity rates, would be forthcoming.

Unfortunately, when I turned up I realized we were being paid to do the writer/director’s work for him. He had no script, no plot – just the idea for some characters based on his friends. He wanted us to improvise as these “characters” all day. I wondered if we’d get paid wages for writing as well as acting. He didn’t even have the characters flushed out beyond a two-sentence description.

He was some rich guy that invented a technology for creating customized jeans and apparently he now had some money to burn. I had to give him credit, at least he was paying the actors something, but it seemed wrong somehow for us to do all the creative work for him in exchange for less money than a house cleaner’s wages.

So I spent the day dealing with a loud actor whose idea of improvising was to make lewd remarks to the female characters and laugh at his own jokes, and other actors who ranged from befuddled to obnoxious.

After this experience, I was a bit skeptical when my agent told me that she had an audition lined up for another show. But I checked the details she’d emailed to me. This one was for real. It was already commissioned by Channel 4 and it was being produced by Endemol. I re-read the e-mail. This could be it – THE break.

I got up early on the day of the audition and did a little warm up at home. I tried to get in the right mental state. I visualized.

I was greeted at Conway Hall by two production assistants: one who gave me a contract to look over and showed me to the craft services table, and one who sat behind a desk, looking trendy.

I was trying to mentally prepare, but I had to take care of business so I read through the contract. The audition was going to be filmed (standard) and I had to agree that they could use any of it in the final broadcast. (Was this going to be like American Idol?) For the use of my audition material, I had to agree that £1 was fair and equitable pay. Yes, right there in the contract I had to agree that the value of my time was £1 per day. I’m sure I could earn more begging on a street corner. In fact, I could probably just find more on the sidewalk if I looked around for a few hours. But that’s not as glamorous as auditioning for Channel 4.

Furthermore, they would not disclose anything about the show: the name, the genre, the format. It was “highly unique” and had “never been done”. Everything’s been done. But what could I do? Here I had a chance to audition for what could be a big break, not to mention a real paying gig.

I walked into the audition room. It was a large theatre space. All the chairs had been cleared out, making the stage look like a gymnasium with a stage. The audition panel sat behind a big, long desk, Flashdance style. The event was being filmed by two cameras at different angles. The panel asked me some questions then had me do a few improv exercises. They laughed at first (a good thing) but mid-way through I was sure I’d misunderstood the instructions and I basically threw a theatrical air ball. I hoped for mercy.

“Am I supposed to keep going,” I asked. I wasn’t sure if they were going to call scene or if I should carry on ad infinitum. I noticed a third camera aiming down from the catwalk. Great.

There was an afternoon group session as well. I felt I really redeemed myself and performed better than most, but in my gut I knew it wouldn’t be enough.

For weeks, I was haunted by images of my horrible audition being used in ads for the show, like the American Idol parade of idiots. They could slice and dice my audition in editing and make it look even worse! I’d have to ask all my friends to keep their TVs off for a week…or plan a last-minute group holiday – to somewhere remote – and invite everyone I knew.

When the show finally aired, I was relieved they didn’t use anyone’s audition material. I was not disappointed about not getting the gig, as the show was a horrible reality show where the actors trick the “real” people into thinking they’ve gone into space. The show, like the contract, was laughable – and not in a good way.

I never did get my £1.