The young man was ready to freak out. Somebody had just told him that a photographer wanted to take pictures during his audition at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Pasadena.
No way, he said. This thing was supposed to be private, just between him and associate director of instruction Lisle Wilson.
"I know you're nervous," Wilson said reassuringly. "That's normal."
"Is it?" snapped the young man, contemplating the photographer, with the frozen stare of deer trapped in the headlights of a truck.
Wilson, in the midst of an afternoon of auditions last Saturday for candidates for admission to the prestigious Pasadena acting school, sent the young man up to the stage to recite a couple of prepared monologues.
The theatrical audition is "a monster unto itself," acknowledges Wilson, a well-traveled actor who has appeared in movies, television sitcoms and plays. For the novice, it can be like peeling away a layer or two of skin and standing exposed to probing eyes.
For the camera-shy young man, it was too late. The youthful auditioner's equilibrium had been shattered. He plodded up the steps to the academy's proscenium stage, moving in a heavy-limbed gallows walk.
He collapsed into a chair, crossed his legs and fidgeted with his socks. He began the monologue--a passage from Neil Simon's "Brighton Beach Memoirs"--then he leaned forward, groping for a forgotten line. He slumped despondently.
Wilson made him try a "cold reading," a recitation from a script that he had not seen before. The young man sat down again, reciting the lines with the script held tightly in front of him with both hands, like a shield.
It was painful. Afterward, out of Wilson's earshot, the young man confessed that the whole experience had been like nothing he had ever been through before.
"It's scary how your brain can just stop," he said. "I had the monologues down so good. But your brain just goes click, like somebody hit you over the head."
Facing the vast open spaces of an empty theater, people have been known to freeze, gasp for air, fall down or--if their theatrical instincts are working--use their nervousness to give a performance an extra edge.
"It's one of the most unnatural things a person can do," said Wilson, who graduated from the New York branch of the school in 1966. "But it's the only way to get the part."
More than artists in other media, Wilson said, actors put themselves on the line. "You cannot separate yourself from your art, the way a writer or a painter can," he said. "Your physical reality is up there."
The 104-year-old Academy of Dramatic Arts, which has been operating in California for 10 years, tries to give its students the skills to "center themselves, to know how to set up a private space and how to attack the material," Wilson said.
The acting profession is more competitive than ever. "In order to get five lines on 'Knots Landing,' they want to see you do Hamlet," he said.
On this afternoon, the academy wasn't looking for actors to fill particular parts, but for talent--raw, instinctive acting ability that could be shaped. Although the school, based in New York, has produced its share of stars--Robert Redford, Jason Robards, Spencer Tracy--it has developed a reputation mostly for turning out competent working actors.
In his auditions, Wilson has to cut through some rough spots. Dena White, a Pasadena City College student from Indiana, tried a monologue from "A Streetcar Named Desire," as the fragile Blanche DuBois recounting the discovery that a boyfriend was gay.
White, 22, said friends had told her that she should try acting because she had "the look."
"It is sort of a meat market out there," Wilson conceded, "and you're a product."
A thin woman with a large green bow in her red hair, White stood center stage with her arms crossed, as if she were trying to keep herself warm in a frigid wind. Her monologue was hurried, almost dispassionate, but sincere. Wilson decided to give her a chance.
"She's got something quirky and interesting about her," he said later.
James Guymon, 22, an Orange County musician with some experience in community theaters, tried a couple of monologues, tripping over his lines, losing his way a few times. "I'm very nervous," he confessed.
Brandon Alvarez, 20, a warehouse worker from Walnut, gave it his all as a Bible-pounding preacher and as a young man recounting a sexual experience, but Wilson remained unconvinced.
"Acting is more than just getting up and reading the lines," Alvarez said.
"Right," Wilson said. "You have to take a script and break it down, figure out a character's motivation."
Finally, Danielle Lamar, 39, who owns a San Diego plant nursery, came in. She had been taking a few acting courses, she said, adding, "I just haven't seemed to find my niche in life."
On the stage, she flung her arms wide in delight. "I've never been on a stage before," she said.
Wilson gave her a script for a cold reading. Her monologue described a character's trip to a veterinarian's office with a longtime pet dog. The dog, it turns out, is too ill to return home and the character must have him destroyed. Lamar's voice tightened as she spoke, and she looked at the ceiling, tears welling out of her eyes.
Wilson was impressed.
"I was at the vet's this week," Lamar said.
A natural? Wilson isn't sure. People in their 30s and 40s, he said later, often find it difficult to be uninhibited.
"All of a sudden (in acting school), they have to let down and get silly again," he said.
The afternoon had been an "average" one, as far as Wilson was concerned. White and Lamar were in; he'd have to think about the others. "What they did today wouldn't get them into any play," he said. "They all need training."