Harlequin Romance

Once upon a time, here in New York City, there was a gloriously decrepit rehearsal studio in Times Square called the Harlequin Studios. You won’t find it today – it was demolished a little over a decade ago – but it enjoyed a good decades-long run as the cheapest and sleaziest rental space in the city, and probably on the eastern seaboard. The floors buckled, the ceilings were cracked. The vending machine in the lobby was stacked with brands of candies which had been discontinued some time before I was born. They used a fifties-style accounting book to rent rooms even as smart phones were first coming onto the market, and the cramped studios they rented had red and orange carpeting mounted on the wood-paneled walls, as if a 1960s car dealership had mated with a nineteenth century brothel.

Recently, a friend of mine and I were swapping stories about the bad old days of Harlequin, as folks like us are wont to do. She spoke about auditioning for a non-union Shakespeare tour there, one for which the director had instructed the actors to be as physical as possible only to then book the tiniest of audition rooms, leaving the performers without room to so much as outstretch their arms. This director, sitting in this tiny sleazy room, didn’t so much as look at my friend during this audition (despite not having much of anything else to look at). Instead she started a timer, placed it in full view of my friend, stared at it the entire time, and growled a curt dismissal when its duration had come to its end.

I couldn’t help but smile in rueful recognition. I’ve had countless auditions of much the same variety, especially in my misspent younger days. And beyond auditions, plenty of encounters with that sort of gruff, sour, often vindictive theater “professional.” Inevitably, if somebody is going to do something to profoundly undermine your confidence as a performer – be it through a rude dismissal, a strident declaration that you’re not really an actor if your headshot isn’t stapled just so, or the classic threat that “you’ll never work in this town again” – it will be somebody like that. And it will be in a seedy place not unlike the long lost Harlequin. And the first time you hear something like that – indeed, the first several times, especially if you’re the sort of performer who actually takes what you’re doing seriously – it’s deeply shaking and troubling.

But I’m telling this story of long-ago auditions and run-down facilities for a reason. The moral of this particular story is that the people who feel the need to belittle and bully and make these sorts of threats are precisely the sort of people who conduct crappy auditions in Harlequin studios. People who are truly successful, or indeed just happy in their work at whatever level they happen to be, have no interest in tormenting actors in such a fashion. They have too much other stuff to do, too many projects they care about to waste their effort. Even if they are subjected to the worst audition imaginable, they smile and say thank you and move on with their life, because they care about the things happening in their life. It’s only resentment, the extremes of disappointment and self-loathing, that ever cause people to lash out at others.

Harlequin is gone, and a part of me is saddened by this, because as a rite of passage a performer should audition in the most run-down studio imaginable at least once in their life. Just don’t let yourself live there.

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