By Robert Hurwitt in the San Francisco Chronicle
“I don’t believe this,” the little girl says, with the exasperated indignation of a citizen of the world. “What do you mean the doctor only treats domestic animals? You mean dogs and cats have more rights than wild animals do? That’s — that’s so unfair! It’s prejudice, that’s what it is! What makes a guinea pig more important than a squirrel?”
Even the presumably jaded directors at Hillbarn Theatre’s general season auditions Wednesday sat up and took notice. No sooner had 10-year-old Emily Mannion launched into her “Chipmunk Emergency” monologue than the auditorium seemed to light up. Smiles broadened as she stood up for the rights of chipmunks in the veterinarian’s office, got other waiting pet owners (unseen, except through her acting) to let her go first and rued having run over the tiny rodent with her bike (“I’ll probably hear that noise in my sleep for the rest of my life”).
As well as she did, and as experienced as she already is — “I started in first grade,” she later told a reporter in the lobby — Mannion is no shoe-in for the prize role of Scout in Hillbarn’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” next spring. Wednesday was only the first of four days of auditions for Hillbarn’s next season. Mannion has been in “Funny Girl” and “White Christmas” with Hillbarn, but there’ll be more potential Scouts to come.
As Wednesday’s stint moved into its third hour, 8-year-old Piper Sperske was lining up with the next batch to audition, looking at “Mockingbird” and/or possibly “Fiddler on the Roof.” She’d appeared in the San Francisco Opera’s “Show Boat,” the one with Bill Irwin, whom she remembered from “Elmo’s World” on “Sesame Street.” “We only met him at the cast party,” she says, “but he always said ‘hi’ to me backstage.”
Hillbarn is a far cry from the Opera. A nondescript building, even by Foster City standards, the 179-seat theater sits on a broad suburban thoroughfare with the roar of Highway 92 traffic just outside its back doors. At 75 (next season), Hillbarn can claim to be the second-oldest community theater in San Mateo County, behind the almost 85-year-old Palo Alto Players. Hillbarn does six shows a year and is one of the relatively few that produce both plays and musicals, and the even fewer — the only one in its county nowadays — that hire Actors Equity (the actors and stage managers union) guest artists for some shows.
Most of those waiting in the lobby Wednesday — scanning scores, chatting, breathing rhythmically to calm their nerves — were adults. It was a school night, after all. There were many more women, of all ages, than men, though presumably enough of the latter will show up to fill the necessary roles in “Fiddler,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “The Odd Couple,” “The Last Five Years,” “Sweet Charity” and “Mockingbird.”
Waiting inside were Executive Artistic Director Dan Demers; Managing Director Amanda Roccuzzo; stage manager Danielle Santana Combs; and directors Erica Wyman, Dennis Lickteig and, making her directorial debut, Dawn L. Troupe, a notable performer with TheatreWorks and other professional companies — rarely tipping their hands, no matter how deft or inept the performer. All of those with scores had the advantage of conferring first with pianist Sam Cisneros, whose careful consideration of their other needs seemed a calming influence before they approached the painted X on the stage.
“He’s the best,” says Vanessa Alvarez, a veteran of many South Bay shows (“I average four to five a year” — at Hillbarn, Los Altos Stage, Cabrillo Stage) and, therefore, auditions. “Whenever I see Sam behind the piano, I know I’m in good hands.”
A graduate of San Jose State University, Alvarez says she’s been on the South Bay audition circuit “a little over 10 years.” And no, singing for a scattered few people taking notes in an otherwise empty auditorium doesn’t make her nervous.
“I love doing it,” she says. “I always view it as my time. It’s your three minutes. It’s what you chose to show yourself and your talents off the best that you can. When it’s callbacks, that’s when I get nervous.”
One wonders if the directors share her enthusiasm about the process. After the first two dozen, they greet each new performer with the same air of polite anticipation, while Santana Combs passes out her or his head shot and resume. But there are probably that many more to come this evening alone. At times, the process seems like a protracted lesson in how many ways to mess up a song: The woman who attacks a tune with a large, bright personality and an impossibly small voice. The man with a lovely baritone and strong projection who swallows every third word of the lyrics. The men and women who haven’t been told to avoid their gratingly shrill falsettos. The good voices that can’t seem to stay on tune.
Alvarez was one of a few who lit up what had been a fairly desultory, if earnest, proceeding at first — selling a wry “I Love You Because” and channeling Ethel Merman on “Arthur in the Afternoon.” Amanda Farbstein was another, nailing her number from “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” Currently playing Persephone in FaultLine Theater’s “Trailer Park Gods” at PianoFight, Farbstein, has been busily auditioning for everything from San Francisco Shakespeare to “Beach Blanket Babylon,” working on the early steps of building a career.
A Peninsula native, Farbstein has only been working the local audition circuit since she finished college and graduated from the two-year Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts program last May. But she’s been in Bay Area showbiz since she was younger than even Mannion or Sperske. Her parents met while working in a musical at Broadway by the Bay, she says. “And I did my first show there when I was 8 weeks old, carried onstage in a basket.”