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Endless auditions, rare callbacks, working for pennies. Welcome to a New York actor's life. But Christine Herzog insists she's not leaving.
At 10:15 a.m., Christine Herzog steps into Studio B at the audition center above 46th Street and Broadway. The room is bare, except for a classroom-style clock and a long table, around which sit four casting directors.
Ms. Herzog has just seconds to convince the four that she was a former secret agent from Nazi Germany - and that she despises her mother.
The vibrant, 5 ft., 3 in., former dancer admits she's a little nervous and flashes a wide smile. Then she takes a deep breath and visibly transforms herself.
"I hated everything about her," she seethes in her guise as Anna from Ron Elisha's play "Two." "I hated her because she had allowed herself to be turned into a pitiful groveling nothing," she gasps, staring straight ahead of herself. "She kissed me. She kissed me, and I wiped it off."
"Fair to middlin'," the Virginia-raised actress says of her performance on her way out of the building. "It didn't leave them breathless, and it should have." But, she adds, "I'm not unhappy with it."
The day before, at an open call for "Voodoo Macbeth," "I really hit it," she says.
There's no shortage of performers like Herzog, who go to endless open casting calls hoping for that one break. Open calls, which are the equivalent to walk-ons in college football, give actors who don't have agents a chance to audition. "People who don't have a reputation get a chance to be seen," says Jerry Cole, auditions director for Actors' Equity Association, the union for stage actors and managers.
In New York, some actors attend open casting calls almost daily. This summer, Herzog has averaged a couple of open calls a week, and she has yet to get a callback. The broad-shouldered blonde is new to the city, but not to acting. She's performed everything from "Helen of Troy" to August Strindberg's "Miss Julie" both in Washington, D.C., and overseas. Despite that, Herzog is prepared to wait a couple of years before scoring any stage work in New York. In the meantime, like many actors, she's gotten a job with a temp agency to support herself.
Surprisingly, while unemployment has risen to the highest levels in nine years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment rates for stage actors have remained constant for the past two decades. But still, an actor's chance of working is less than 50 percent in a year; in a week, only 15 percent of members of the actors' union are working, according to Actors' Equity.
So how often are actors discovered from open calls? "There's no way to tell," says Mr. Cole. "Most directors have an idea of what they want, but that doesn't mean the idea can't change."
And the odds aren't quite as steep as, say, winning the lottery. "I hire people all the time from open casting calls," says Victoria Pettibone, casting director at Bernard Telsey Casting. "I take them very seriously," she says, mentioning that she hired Sebastian Arcelus, who played Roger, one of the leads in "Rent," from an open call.
"If you want to and have the ability, you can be a star," says Ellen Jacoby, a casting director in Florida, who has cast several actors from open calls. They are particularly effective for finding kids, fresh talent, and actors with special athletic skills or singing and dancing ability.
At 7:30 on this particular rainy Friday morning, there's already a line of about 40 people waiting for an open casting call for two theater companies in New York.
"It means people are desperate right now," Herzog says. The person at the head of the line probably arrived at 6 a.m.
Thirty minutes later, more than 100 wannabe stars are ushered into Actors' Equity, where they wait quietly to sign up for an audition slot. Once Herzog has secured a morning appointment, she sets off for a cup of black coffee, steering clear of a ladder in the street.
Superstitious? "No," she laughs. "But I don't want anything to fall on my head."
At Dean and DeLuca's, Herzog asks abruptly, "What time is it? We gotta go. I need to calm down a little bit."
Springing up, she marches across Broadway, enters the Actors' Equity building, and opens the restroom marked "dolls," where she deftly applies blush, eyeliner, lipstick, and hairspray.
When Herzog's name is finally called, she and five women walk to a row of seats much as kindergarten students would, in the exact order in which they've been called. The audition monitor, a volunteer in a shimmering purple shawl, gives the guidelines for the casting call: "A contemporary monologue...."
A middle-aged woman in red groans, realizing she's chosen the wrong monologue. "Think fast," Herzog encourages.
New York is still novel for Herzog, who moved here this past spring and acquired an agent, Barbara Andreadis. On a theater tour in Europe earlier this year, she was told she was wasting her talent in D.C. So she returned and announced to her husband of 13 years, "I'm moving to New York."
Herzog's husband, Michael, who works as a software engineer in D.C., supports her acting, though he doesn't always attend her performances, she says.
The first time Herzog had to kiss someone on stage, she recounts, she called her husband to break the news.
"Do I have to come see it?" he asked.
"And by the way," she told him, "I'm kissing a woman." His response? "Well, I'd really rather not see it."
Fortunately for Herzog, her dream is to work on stage and film rather than on television, so she hasn't had to do anything particularly outrageous - such as swim with alligators, do harrowing stunts in stilettos, or eat worms, as she might if she attended an open call for reality shows.
But she has danced on tables. At another audition, she performed a burlesque poem, stripping down to her stockings. "I had a fan," she says. (She got both parts.)
If hired from today's open call, Herzog would earn a stipend of only $600 for four weeks of rehearsal and 16 performances, which is why she is fortunate that her husband has helped her financially. It could be weeks before she finds out whether she's gotten a call-back. And it's not clear whether she'll be paid for her next gig, performing spoofs of '80s songs at a cabaret show in the East Village.
But despite the gloomy outlook, Herzog is the happiest she's ever been. "For me, it's already happening because I'm already into it. If you hold back for that one role to be a star, you're missing so much," she says.
And one thing's for sure. "I'm not leaving," she says of New York. "This is the actor's dream."
Thank you. Next.