If Meghan Markle never returns to acting, Paton Ashbrook could be the one to pass the torch to. In the world of satire, lookalikes go a Hell of a long way such as James LeGros being a dead ringer for Brad Pitt when he played an actor named Chad for Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion. Paton’s 29th birthday is tomorrow. Four months ago, she appeared in four episodes of House of Cards. The long and short of this article is that it’s best to appreciate her tweets after reading her old Facebook posts (or “notes” rather). The four posts that I’ve posted were a four-part 2012 epic titled My Juilliard Audition (a.k.a. The Final 40 Callback Weekend). The first post was dated Tuesday, March 27 whereas the rest were dated April 18. If you’re familiar with my site, you will know that it showcases my editing as much as my writing. Case in point…
I went to the regional audition in San Francisco, which runs a little differently than the auditions in NYC. I drove up Friday, alternating driving with my boyfriend who was going up for his audition for Yale. I remember Tim half asleep next to me, singing along to Ingrid Michaelson (especially Sort Of, the song I chose to sing for my audition), and having a sense of otherworldliness. I felt isolated in my little car and excited about what was coming, but there was a cool patience that’s difficult to explain. I never got nervous. I looked at what was about to happen as just another possibility, which is very different from how I looked at the audition for Juilliard back when I was 17. I was a bundle of fear, nerves, and insecurity back then— definitely not ready, and so negative. I literally would explain myself to others by saying: “Oh I’m just auditioning for the experience, it’s not like I’ll ever actually get in.”
So of course, I didn’t. But this time, there was none of that. I really felt like an adult. My audition was scheduled for 2:30 (the afternoon session), so I got to catch up on some much needed sleep, did some yoga, and had a little oatmeal. Tried to maintain the mentality of this being just another audition. I got to the building REALLY early; the auditions were in the Zellerbach Rehearsal Hall in the city, very familiar to where I auditioned 6 years prior, but in a slightly different area of the building. I was one of the first ones there for the afternoon session and checked in with Kathy Hood right away. She was the same as I remembered her, and still very kind. A running theme with Juilliard, I’ve found. She said she recognized my headshot and in the back of my head I thought she may just be remembering me at the age of 17, but I shrugged it off.
As more actors trickled in, the room started collecting that electric energy of nerves and I wished I had remembered my headphones to drown out the nervous loud chatter from some high school students. I was extremely grateful that my first monologue’s character was a violinist and that I was sitting next to a rehearsal space for an orchestra. I went over to a door where I could hear their music more clearly and closed my eyes, just letting myself use the music. We eventually were all called in to The Space (which was HUGE). Richard Feldman made his speech about the day and how it was going to go. We all sat around, smiling, listening intently to his advice and soothing message: “We just want to see your work. If you aren’t called back, it does not mean we don’t think you’re talented. You are auditioning us as much as we are auditioning you.”
Rebecca Guy then led us all in a quick physical and vocal warm-up. Then we were sent out into the hall again. The way they work the auditions is that they split us into groups per hour, then put us in a certain order within that hour. At the end of each hour. they post the list of names or no names of those who are being asked to return for the callback at 6:30 p.m. Luckily, I was in the first group, but last in my group — I was very grateful that I didn’t have to stand around and wait for the results very long. If your name’s not on that list, you’re not being considered for admission. Suddenly, I was on deck. I started to focus on what I was about to do. I wasn’t trying to force myself to do anything or be anyone else. I had worked my @ss off on all four of my monologues for the past month, and felt like I was ready.
Then another auditionee who hadn’t gone yet, and couldn’t have been older than 18, walked by and said: “Are you about to go?”
I nodded and smiled. He then said: “I noticed you in the warm-up. You really stand out, like you have a spark. You’re gonna do great, you’re definitely getting called back.”
I said that was very kind and thanked him. He went off. Normally, I might’ve been a bit peeved that someone would say something pretty distracting like that that right before I’m supposed to go into the room, but I didn’t for some reason. I really was deeply flattered, and it gave me a little boost of confidence. The excitement I had became a subtle hum in my gut after that; like it settled me down; and there I was, walking into the room. I introduced myself. Before I could tell them my pieces and get set up, Richard stops me.
“We saw you back in 2006, didn’t we.” He didn’t really ask this as a question.
“Yes, you did.” I said, smiling and wondering what was next. Then he just said “Great” and asked me what I was doing for them today. I told them, got settled and began. They didn’t ask me for anymore monologues when I was done, but they did ask me to sing my song. I asked if they wanted to hear a ballad or something more belty and powerful. They looked at each other, and she said ballad. It went alright, but I did feel like I was performing it a bit. When I was done, Rebecca then asked me to take a seat, sing it as if I were completely alone in my house and this was only for me…and I did. I felt like it went well, said thank you, and walked out.
I was very glad that they laughed at my Shakespeare piece, because I’m sure they’ve seen the monologue about 5,000 times, so it was encouraging that at least it didn’t bore them. I didn’t know what to think. I tried not to think anything as I waited the next five minutes for that list to be posted. Finally when Kathy walked down the hall, we all gathered around her. She said how grateful she was that we came and that they really appreciate our time. I had the thought suddenly that no one was being called back, that she was about to post a blank sheet (which I’ve seen happen). She then said if our name is on the list to come see her immediately for more information about the callback. My chest felt an ache I didn’t like, but she finally taped the paper on the wall and walked away. There were TWO names, and wait…yep, I was on it! My eyes seemed to struggle with that, but it definitely had my name. I smiled, walked over to Kathy who immediately hugged me and said: “Congratulations!”
I was given a sheet of paper with some questions on it and was asked to return at 6:30. With nowhere else to go, I just stayed in the building. There was a room with some vending machines and tables that I sought sanctuary in, where I could smile as wide as I’d like without affecting any of the other auditioners. Though, when I got my stuff out of the waiting hall, that 18 year old boy saw me and said: “I knew it. I should be a talent scout.”
There I sat for the next 2 hours or so and worked on those essay questions, which were: what did I think my greatest strength was as an actor, my greatest weakness, and then to describe a theatrical event that affected me. I elaborated obviously, but long answer short, I said my strength is my honesty, and my weakness is balancing the reality with filling the room, especially with classical text. I tend to make classical text almost too contemporary because I want to speak it and feel it as naturally as possible, but the most exciting theatre I’ve seen is when someone has that honesty and vulnerability while still retaining the probing heightened quality that the language needs. Like John Barton says, it’s all about balance.
The previous night, I saw my cousin perform in her school’s (UC Berkeley) performance of The Vagina Monologues, for which she had written an original piece and was supposed to perform. This brilliant young woman has a disability that can’t help but affect many things in her life, one of the main issues being how people perceive someone in a wheelchair. She revealed things about herself powerfully and confidently, that we probably would have never understood had it not been for that piece. My own perception of her changed then and I could only imagine the affect she had on everyone else. To me, that’s what theatre is about. You can’t look away from what’s happening in front of you, even if you want to.
6:30 p.m. rolls around and I meet the other 5 individuals called back for the evening (which is more than usual, I found out). They were all fantastic and it was such a pleasure playing with all of them. Kathy talked to us first and told us what they now needed in admissions since we were then being considered for the final callbacks in NYC. Missing documents, new documents and whatnot. Then we all headed into The Space again. We were told that the worst was over. We had already impressed them, so we didn’t need to worry about doing that anymore. Now it’s just about letting them see how you work. For the next half hour, we did a lot of improvisational exercises where we were talked through our imaginations. There was a total lack of “performing” or trying to show anyone up. Everyone was extremely supportive and free enough to build on what we were all giving each other.
One of my favorite exercises we did was going around in a circle and saying a noun with a gesture. We all had to memorize each word and the gesture that goes with it, and the order they went in. The sequence started to flow together, one move into the other, and then we were asked to pretend like we’re doing a play. We split off around the “stage” and Richard would call out our name when it was our turn to go. Then we started to work off each other. Each gesture would evolve. We basically began to communicate with only those 6 random words and their gestures. We were herded back into the hall after being told they would be asking us to do certain monologues or work in the room, and to not read into how long or how quickly it takes, being that it would be different for all of us. Though they knew we probably would. This time, Kathy was in the room with Richard and Rebecca. We went in the order we were seen that day, so I was 2nd to last.
I got to know more about everyone else auditioning in this time. A lot of them were already called back for Yale and NYU grad programs (there were only two of us going for the BFA). One woman, who was Canadian and 29 years old had gotten called back by every school (NYU, ACT, and more) except for Yale. I was really impressed with everyone and their maturity. When I went in the room they asked me to do my classical piece again (they laughed again, yay!), then to come and sit in front of them. They asked me to cold read, I mean ICE-cold read, a block of text without performing it, just to read out loud to them. I found out later they had a lot of people do this, still not exactly sure why. I was describing a beach scene of some sort. It was rich language, but nothing scary at all. They eventually stopped me and Richard said what I wrote about my cousin was amazing. I said: “I know, she completely blew us away.”
“When did you see this?” he asked.
“It’s so funny, I actually saw it last night!” I laughed, and they laughed with me.
“Well, then that’s perfect!” he said.
“Wow,” Rebecca chimed in. Then I elaborated even more on what I wrote about, and the importance of that in theatre, and the whole point of why I do what I do. it just started to fall out of me. Richard would chime in agreement, everyone was nodding and smiling. It felt very easy and laid back. I was able to be myself and didn’t have to think about what I thought they wanted to hear. Because, I was auditioning them too, right? So then I brought up one of my favorite aspects of their curriculum, the collaboration with the Playwrights Program. They get to do readings and workshops with these talented writers of the future. That is probably the most exciting thing about the division I could express. Richard filled me in on more details about how it all works, and I was so thrilled at how it is all put together. That was the ending to what I realized was the interview portion of my callback.
I thanked them and walked out. I had to wait for a minute so they could confer on whether or not they needed to see me do anything else, but Kathy just came out and said I was free to go. Every step of the way through this process, I never felt like I was being judged; I just felt like I was being seen. I knew that I would fit right in to this Juilliard universe and I hoped they saw that in me too. I went home and bit all the skin around my fingernails off for a week until I got the Callback Notification email. I screamed, but luckily I was on my lunch break, so I didn’t scare everyone at work. I had a month to go before the Final 40 Callback Weekend in NYC!
I spent the next month working on all of my pieces even though I was only asked to bring back my classical piece (they seemed to like that one, eh?) and my song. I also spent time making sure my monologue and song together were exactly 3 minutes, or they’d have to stop me. There I was on the plane ride over, and I had everything in order. My extra recommendation letter was received, financial aid application and FAFSA filled out, my high school and AMDA transcripts made it to them. All was set. I had begun interviewing myself like they could, asking the huge questions I thought I would get, but never did: “Why are you going back to school?” or “Why Juilliard?”
I looked at this weekend like I won the lottery and the prize was an intensive at Juilliard for 2 days. I just wanted to work my @ss off and get as much out of the brief training as possible, so even if I didn’t get accepted, those two days would have taught me an incredible amount. I also started thinking about the realities of this situation. I’ve created a pretty comfortable life for myself over here, I’ve been able to support myself at a day job full of actors (who were absolutely giddy when I told them I was called back) who let me go off and audition or work if I need to. I have a lovely apartment full of furniture I bought just a few months ago, my own little car, a loving boyfriend who drives me crazy sometimes but makes me really taste life, a beta fish… I was going to give a lot of that up by doing this.
If I got in, it would be a sign that this is indeed the direction I supposed to go in; if I didn’t, I’m just meant to keep plugging away out here in Los Angeles. I realized I would be okay either way; the universe takes care of you. I checked into my tiny European hotel room in the Theatre District, just a few blocks south of the Lincoln Center, and promptly began to force myself to go to sleep after having a shower (even though it was only 7pm my time). I set about 6 alarms for myself in the morning, taking no chances that I’d be late to registration. Of course I got there early, so I bought a chai and looked at this building that I passed by almost every day for 3 years, with very new eyes. I could barely eat anything at the breakfast. I think I had a couple slices of melon, but I wasn’t the only one… most everyone pecked at the spread like birds.
All the actors were exuberant and willing to meet everyone. I’m usually quite socially awkward in big groups of people, but I found myself able to relax and ask where people were from, where they’re coming from in their lives. I found out there were 40 Americans called back and then 6 international students, so it was technically the final 46. I also was told that they had seen more people for the initial callback than they ever had (157). Out of the 6 people at the initial callback in San Francisco, 4 were called back! Me, Brian, Eric, and Rebecca were reunited! It felt great to know some others there, even though we really barely knew each other. But we were there at the start of each other’s journeys. We were also given stickers with our first names on them, as well as what group letter we were in (I was ‘A’), as we would be split and moved around with other groups for each class block.
By the end, we’d have worked with everyone at some point (this worked really well). We were to wear these stickers on our fronts and backs the entire time. Kinda felt like I was running a marathon…which wasn’t too far from the truth. Throughout the weekend the faculty slipped in and out of our classes and observed us. Honestly, I barely noticed them. After breakfast, we were guided into the McClelland Theatre for an intro where James Houghton gave us all a warm welcome. We then, one by one (faculty, students, even some parents), stood and introduced ourselves. We then went into a room for our physical warm-up led by the wonderful and joyous Darryl Quinton…and it kicked our @sses. We found out he accidentally started 20 minutes early, so our warm-up became about 45 minutes long. We were all hot messes by the end of it, but it was really fun. Then Kate Wilson led us in a vocal warm-up. Let me tell you, I love this lady. That is all.
Next, we were split into two groups (A & B as one group, C & D as the other) where one group was to perform their monologues and songs for the faculty while the other was participating in Q&A with a panel of administrators, students, and alumni. Then we’d switch. I got a weird feeling at this point that I was going to be performing for the entire faculty first. Maybe it comes from a lifetime of having a last name near the top of the alphabet. Sure enough, I was called up first while the rest of A & B were sent to the waiting room. There were current drama students guiding us along throughout the 2 days. They were all different types: short, tall, skinny, stocky, black, white — the only thing they all had in common was that genuine kindness that I’d noticed from all the faculty I’d met. A part of me wondered, can this be real? Can they all actually be these kind of people? In these 2 days, I felt like I was in a separate universe, it wasn’t even like I was in New York. This was it’s own world, entirely.
So I went in and did the deed! First! I was myself as much as possible, but I can’t deny this was the only time I felt a little nervous. I just didn’t want to let them down. My monologue went well. Really glad I worked on it for as long as I did, and my song was smooth too. That was it! Bam. Over. Done. Now all I had to do was take whatever was handed to me and throw myself into it completely…and boy, I did. After everyone went, we had a very informative panel where we were reminded that Juilliard doesn’t just train artists, they train people. So this whole kindness thing isn’t an accident. It’s what goes along with being here. Truth be told, it WAS infectious! Or maybe everyone called back was naturally like that too. Probably. 🙂 Our stomachs were growling the entire time because none of us ate enough at breakfast, and our 45 minute warm-up on top of our nerves made our insides gnaw at each other. We RAN to lunch.
They then combined group A with C. We had Theatre Games with Frank Deal first which was a BLAST. There was something quite stand-up-comedian-esque about him. He was great at encouraging us to play and not worry about making mistakes. One exercise in particular informed me how much of my personal life can bleed into my work; it was quite the show stopper for me. Recently, I found out my ex is dating a friend of mine, and I’m not gonna lie, it made me feel betrayed on a few levels. So apparently the energy I radiate when focusing on love for someone right now makes the other person feel like they betrayed me. Go figure. Ohhh acting, you and your psychological revelations. Next we had Acting with Richard Feldman. He led us on a similar exploration in our imaginations at first, similar to what Frank did, as well as what we did at the first callbacks.
Then we paired up and he gave us each a location that we had to define with our partner, all the objects around us and what we could see, etc., then we interacted with the environment and each other. Next he gave us relationships (my partner and I were ex-lovers), THEN he gave us what they call neutral scenes. It was very limited, simple text, written so it could mean anything. It became clear how this scene would play between my partner and I, and we had to interact with the short script memorized in front of everyone, while continuing to interact with our environment. This went particularly well for me. I felt like I was having an argument I’ve had with everyone I’ve ever been with, so I connected quickly and strongly to the text. My partner, Tom, was lovely to work with. It was very easy to just react to what he was giving me.
Next was dinner! I got to know a few more actors very well and felt really good vibes with everyone. Then we got on a bus to go see Katori Hall’s (a graduate of the Juilliard Playwright Program) Hurt Village with three Juilliard grads in it at the Signature Center. It was AMAZING. Blew everyone away. Inspired me. Shocked me. You name it. If you’re in NYC, you GOTTA go see it. We got back to Juilliard at about 11:30pm and I ran back to my hotel, showered, and passed out with a smile on my face. The next morning at breakfast, we were told, again, to eat lightly because we had movement with Moni Yakim first. Banana and half a bagel it is. This time, groups A & D were combined. Moni’s class was intense, to say the least. I LOVED it. When something physical can kick my Bikram yoga-obsessed @ss, I am thrilled.
We were constantly running, freezing, jumping, standing, laying down, sitting up, all as economically as possible. Turning around. Dodging each other. It just went on. There was one point where I was right next to the faculty when he was telling us to lay down as slowly as possible, then froze us midway, so of course I was in the most difficult position possible with screaming abs, but I just told myself not to move a goddamn muscle. Eventually, I got through it, but I was feeling my abs for the next two days. 🙂 Then we got to do some clowning exercises inspired from two masks he showed us. Now this was FUN. I worked on being as open and unselfconscious as possible. I was ridiculous. The way it should be.
Next we had Voice and Speech with Kate Wilson. She’s absolutely brilliant and sooo inspiring because she just glows with her love for what she does. We played with the sounds in a lovely poem, experimented with the text and had glorious discussions about what we noticed each time we tried something different. Then we had a 10 minute break before meeting back in the same room to have a discussion about Hurt Village. We ended up being split into 5 different groups and went to various locations about the school to share our thoughts with each other. Then we were supposed to come back to the main room and one person in our group was supposed to be the representative that brings up all the points we made. Guess who was assigned that task??
I wrote notes furiously as ideas and opinions about the show poured out of everyone in my group. Some really great stuff. I just tried to do it justice. On the walk back to the main room, I kept reading over what I wrote, trying to decipher my handwriting… it was difficult. When it was my group’s turn and I took the floor in a room full of faculty and students alike, I just tried to be as confident as possible and didn’t apologize for anything. I believed in what I was saying and was excited by it, which certainly helped, so by the end of it, I felt pretty good about the presentation. Phew. We stuffed ourselves at lunch, then had a panel discussion with ONLY current drama students, no faculty present, which I was very grateful for. A lot of looming questions were answered, and man, these guys love this school.
All of its challenges, all its gifts, these students really made me start to look at the school from a realistic point of view. What is having a social life like when going here? What DO you have time for? What are some major challenges you’ve faced? etc. It just sold me on the school more. Then we had singing with Deb Lapidus! Everyone was together for this, the whole faculty watched us, took notes on our little pictures they had of us in a booklet, as they were doing the entire weekend. This was a whole different animal though. Maybe it’s because I truly barely noticed them observing us in the classes before, but this time, they were really present. Laughing with us, joking with us, and just laid back. Before that, they were like shadows on the wall. Easy to forget about how we were sort of actors in a zoo.
We started warming up and breathing, then did some voice warm-ups individually. I can imagine how nerve-wracking that would be for a lot of people, I just love singing so I didn’t give a sh!t. For some reason in my head. I kept saying, “You don’t have to be a good singer to go here.” over and over again. My warm-up was shaky; I could see the faculty in front of me look confusedly at each other, probably because I did a decent singing job during my audition, they were like, “What the hell happened? I thought she could sing…”, but, again, didn’t care. Just tried to concentrate on Deb and tell her what I was feeling with my voice at the moment. It got a bit better.
Then she taught us Embraceable You, where we then had to partner up and sing the song to each other, pair by pair. I redeemed myself a bit. I felt pretty vulnerable with my partner, and was able to sing decently, at least. This was so fun, there was such strong camaraderie in the room as these actors took turns stripping down their egos in front of the Juilliard faculty, who was completely supportive. At the end of class, Deb got up and started choking up when telling us: “I’m so proud of all of you. It’s not easy doing what you did today, being that vulnerable up there in front of everyone, and I’m so grateful to all of you. Thank you.”
In the end, all the female faculty and some males were tearing up as well. Guh, it made EVERYONE cry. They finally got me. Moni wrapped us up with some light movement work, centering us, grounding us. Jim came in, said his thank yous, and they sent us off. I hugged every damn applicant who I had grown to know in a very special way, said goodbye and thanked a few of the faculty members left in the room. I walked out of that building bewildered that I was in NYC and that the weekend just happened. I could definitely see myself going there for the next four years, and I wasn’t looking forward to the wait I thought I’d experience. But I didn’t have to wait long. Wednesday morning Kathy called me, and casually asked: “So, how would you like to spend the next four years at Juilliard?” to which I screamed. Again, this time AT work. 🙂 Dreams do come true.