Every Hero Needs A Sidekick
I've been touring around North America with the Broadway National tour of The Book Of Mormon for 6 months now, and I'm finally getting around to writing my first blog post. It's been something I've been wanting to do throughout this journey, and I'm certainly hoping I can keep up with it. So- hold me accountable!
I figured the best place to start my first post is to not necessarily relive how my last 6 months have been, but instead to tell you about the journey of what it took to finally land such a dream job. And let me forewarn you, it was quite a lengthy and emotional process, years in the making.
Let's go back to the first time I auditioned for The Book of Mormon (BoM). It was the end of 2012 in San Diego. The show was still fairly new, having just opened on Broadway the year before, but I knew so much about it already. I had listened to the Original Broadway Cast soundtrack over and over, laughing every time, and of course introducing it to as many friends as I could get to listen. I knew there was this role, THE role (in my opinion), in the show that many would say (have said, and continue to say... we'll touch more on that later) that I am perfect for. Elder Cunningham. The comedic character role. Though this time, this comedic character role wasn't just the sidekick at the butt of the leads jokes. How could I not notice and fall in love with such a role in musical theatre? So I email requesting an audition appointment, receiving confirmation of a date and time, and with that, my first audition for BoM is scheduled. It's important to note that I don't normally tell people about auditions I go on. I don't see the point in advertising doing my job every day, and that's exactly what auditioning is; a job. However, I did tell my mom about this one. I was excited! I remember she was super excited about this audition and saying "I have a really good feeling about this. I just do." I shrugged it off. "Sometimes she can just be so biased because I'm her son," I thought. Now the audition... I walk in, nervous of course, and, to be completely honest, ill-prepared. What makes the nerves worse, was the casting director who couldn't have seemed to care less that I was in the room. Sure, I could have been more prepared with the material, but what kind of energy was I supposed to give him when I'm not even sure he could tell you the color of my eyes because I'm pretty positive he never actually looked at me. I left, pretty downtrodden.
I had a bad taste in my mouth regarding the show after that audition. I mean, I loved the show, nothing was going to change that. But I couldn't get that feeling of worthlessness out of my mind when I thought about the show, that audition. Us actors carry a lot of rejection and criticism with us on a daily basis. I try to be reasonable and level headed in that regards, but this one affected me differently. For the next couple years, and even more so, whenever anyone would generously say, "You would be so great in The Book of Mormon!" or "Have you been in for Mormon? You'd be perfect!" or "How are you not Elder Cunningham yet?!" I would become annoyed. "Tell that to the casting director who clearly had no desire to acknowledge my presence when I auditioned for it."- my usual response. Annoyance then turned into something more. Remember how earlier I described Elder Cunningham as the comedic character role? Well, let's dissect this for a moment. In many musicals, plays, even tv and movies, the "comedic character role" is often the sidekick, played by or at least described as "overweight, unattractive, gross, slob, etc." And yes, there is a lyric in one of the songs where the Ugandan ensemble sings the line "Listen to that FAT WHITE GUY." Suddenly, the way I had felt in that audition room; unwanted, undesirable, worthless, was affecting me outside of the audition room. It was affecting me in every day. So, instead of feeling annoyed by friends' genuine compliment, I suddenly started to become offended. "You would be so great in The Book of Mormon!" ... "Have you been in for Mormon? You'd be perfect!" ... "How are you not Elder Cunningham yet?!"... Quickly, though never outwardly, "I get it! I'm the FAT character actor! Thanks!!" I would think to myself, only to present a forceful smile on the outside. Self damaging, I know.
So when another opportunity came along to audition for BoM, this time in 2015, and with the same casting director, you could imagine the energy I brought into the room. I had already dismissed myself before even saying "Hello." Needless to say, of course nothing came of that audition appointment. Except more self loathing on my end. Later that year however, I finally got to see The Book of Mormon for the first time live on stage. I won the lottery with another friend at The San Diego Civic Center, and fell even more in love with the show. How could it be EVEN funnier than I already knew it was?! And not just a piece of comedic genius, but so touching and thought provoking?! I'm pretty sure I felt even more defeated after seeing the show. Upset with myself for not giving my best in the previous auditions, and upset with how I was perceiving myself and my worth.
A few years would pass before I would audition for BoM again. Luckily, a lot of growth had also occurred. I had a mentor and wonderful friend look at me and say "why are you standing in your own way?!" which sparked a huge fire inside me. I was more hungry to achieve my dreams than ever. I landed an incredible agent who fed that fire in so many ways. And even more importantly, I started to know what it meant to love yourself. To trust yourself. And to appreciate what you have to offer.
So in January of 2018, when my amazing agent and friend sent me an email to put together a video audition for Book of Mormon, I didn't have the same feelings of unworthiness and self hated as I had years prior, but I did wonder if I was even what the show wanted.
I put together the video, and to be quite honest, felt really great about what I had accomplished. I could see and feel a different energy within myself compared to how I presented myself in the auditions before. I hoped it would translate to casting as well as it was translating to me. It's important to note that at this point, it was no longer the same casting director for the show, which between you and I, I couldn't have been more thrilled about! Not only did it feel like a fresh slate, but the bad taste in my mouth about the previous auditions, weren't present. A bit of time had passed, and I didn't hear anything back about the video. But honestly, I didn't necessarily think much about it. I put it out, I was proud of what I put together, my agent was proud of what I put together, and that was that. I had her in my corner and on my team, sending me out for as many projects that she could. I was moving forward with my career, and I didn't have time to dwell on a video submission.
Then in November 2018, I receive an email from my agent for an audition appointment, in person at a studio in Los Angeles, for, you guessed it, The Book of Mormon. I'm going to be honest, I was less than thrilled. My first thoughts were "No. They clearly don't want me! I've been in so many times. They have my video! I can't put myself through this again! Besides, I've lost weight, and proudly so!" Luckily for those toxic thoughts, I had an excuse to not attend anyway. I was in tech and previews for a show at The Globe, a highly respected regional theatre that I had worked so hard to get into. Thankfully, my agent doesn't accept no for an answer, especially when she knows the life changing possibilities that are not just at stake, but within reach. Her exact words were "They were really hoping to see you in person... and you are SO RIGHT FOR IT!" I had to suppress my normal toxic thoughts of "I get it, I'm the FAT character actor." I love and respect Nicole too much to allow myself to think such thoughts in response to her knowledge.
So, I figured it out! I was able to be excused from portions of rehearsals, and quickly found out that I had more people in my court and on my side than I knew. Now, I had the challenge of putting my mind and thoughts in the right place. I knew I loved this show, I knew I loved this character, I knew I could DO this... but I had a lot of sorting out to do within my mind, and figuring out how to channel the toxic thoughts I had associated with this role. So I did some deep thinking. This is how it went:
Jon, lets look at the roles you have most recently played within the last year.
Malcolm - The Full Monty
Patsy - Spamalot
Igor - Young Frankenstein
None of them have to do with your size or looks and are all mostly character, sidekick roles. And what is the most common trait of them all? Well, they're the heart of each of those shows. Cunningham is the heart of The Book of Mormon. THAT is why "you are SO RIGHT FOR THIS." It has nothing to do with how you look, it has everything to do with what YOU, JON, BRING to a role, to a character.
At that moment, everything clicked for me. Suddenly, I couldn't wait to get into the room and audition for this role once again. I felt more prepared, mentally, than ever, for any audition I've attended.
I had to make a couple trips from San Diego to LA and back for the appointments and callbacks I was asked to attend. Again having to ask to be excused for portions of the rehearsals I was presently in, feeling more and more encouraged by more and more respected colleagues. The final night I was driving to LA before the final callback appointment the next morning, I remember looking at myself in the rear view mirror and saying "You got this. This isn't yours to go in and ask for, it's yours to take. You've worked so hard to get here, and all you have to do is go in there and show them that you ARE their choice. This is yours." Alone in my car, I remembered how I had previously felt about auditioning for the show in years passed, and acknowledged what a different place I was in, and the growth that had occurred. Now, I know this is going to sound incredibly cheesy and made up, but, I find it important to mention that right after I had this little pep talk with myself, as I continued to make the nighttime drive to LA, I saw a shooting star streak across the sky. If you know me, you know I love that fantastical kind of magic, so, without hesitation, I spoke a wish into existence. "I want this. I'm READY for this. I've worked HARD for this. I'm ready."
I went in the next morning for the casting director, the associate director, and the producer. Taking in every note, adjustment, and intention that was given to me, but more importantly, took in every moment. I stayed present, open to be molded into what they want, and bared my soul for their taking. I left the room, got into my car, and laughed, and maybe cried. No matter what would happen, I kept thinking about the growth within me. It was a victory for me regardless of what happened from this point on. However, I had this feeling come over me that I had never really felt after an audition before. Something within me said "capture this moment. You're going to want it." So, I took this selfie on November 17, 2018, a year ago from writing this post...
Fast forward a couple months, and I ended up being flown to NYC for more callbacks and an almost week long work session that they call "bootcamp." An interesting fact to present here, is the day I found out I was being flown to the bootcamp, was an exact year from when I submitted my video audition. I found this pretty serendipitous! So while attending the bootcamp, I kept my mentality of showing them, and most importantly myself, that I AM what they want and need. I finished the week, again feeling great about how I presented myself, and left the city, thankful for such an opportunity and hoping for more. Well, if you're reading this, you probably know the outcome at this point! I started rehearsals for the National Tour of The Book of Mormon in May of 2019. That makes 7 years of an audition process from the first time I walked into an audition room with this material, to the moment I learned that I would be joining this company.
I'm not presenting this process in order to fish for praise or accolades. I wanted to share this story to show what social media often doesn't show. The tough part of the journey. The parts that bring out the demons of self destruction. The parts that bring out the tears, frustration, doubt, and self loathing. More than that, I wanted to share that when you cast those aside, and trust yourself, trust your support system, and trust the hard work you put in, it truly can lead to an incredible, much more appreciated outcome for any journey. Also to show you how Mom's are usually correct! (even if a few years early)! This particular journey taught me not just to love myself and what I have to offer, it showed me that I sure can make a pretty great sidekick to my very own hero.