I was 20 years old. I didn’t yet have a lengthy acting resumé, and my training was spotty at best, though I’d made my professional acting debut earlier that year. I say all of this not to excuse my behavior, but merely to give you a context for what was to transpire.
The University of Detroit Theater Department was holding auditions for its big musical of the year, Once Upon a Mattress. While I knew the show was a musical adaptation of the fairy tale, “The Princess and the Pea,” I didn’t know any details about the show itself. I didn’t even know whether there were any roles in the show that might suit me. I just showed up and figured I’d take my chances.
As is typical at such auditions, there were sheets being handed out that described the main characters. The lead role, Princess Winifred, was clearly not a practical choice for me; this was to be a conventional interpretation of the show. Neither was the role of her beau, Prince Dauntless. I quickly set my sights on the role of The Wizard. It seemed like a nice character part, and even at that young age, I had correctly identified myself as more the character type than the leading man type.
While we were waiting for our names to be called to enter the theater, various groups of us came together and read through the scenes aloud, each of us reading our part of choice. As it happened, I fell in with a fellow I didn’t know at the time, a man who, as it turned out, was one of the leading actors in the U of D company. The first time through, I read the part of The Wizard. Frankly, I had nothin’. I had no idea what to do with the character, and my choices were pretty flat and boring. Then we did the scene again, with this other actor reading The Wizard.
Whoa! The part came to life! He had some really good instincts, some really good ideas about who this character was and how to put him across. He also read the part with a wonderful old man voice that transformed and enhanced every line he spoke. I was stunned. I could see that he was totally on the right track, and that I’d completely missed the boat. Before we could read it through again, our group was called into the theater.
You can probably see what’s coming here. I went up on the stage and completely embraced (by which I mean stole) his interpretation of the character, doing the part utterly differently than the way I’d done it in the lobby. At the time, I felt I had no choice in the matter – it was the interpretation that felt right to me, even if I hadn’t come up with it on my own.
Well… I was cast as The Wizard. That other actor was relegated to the chorus. I was told that he was pretty bummed out at not getting a better role in the big musical of his senior year at U of D. Funny thing – he and I ended up hitting it off quite well. If he hadn’t left Michigan for grad school, we might well have had a long friendship. It pleases me no end that we are now Facebook friends, as I’ve always had an enormous respect for his talents. I don’t think I’ve ever brought up the Mattress audition to him, mostly because I wouldn’t have known quite what to say. Part of me felt like I’d done something of a highly questionable ethical nature, though another part of me reasoned that I’d gotten the role because I’d taken his bit and done it better than he had. In any case, we did work together on another show several years later, only that time, he was playing the title role and I was playing the tiny role.
I can’t offer any definitive pronouncement on the ethical implications of this tale, but I can offer a bit of advice: Should you ever find yourself in a comparable situation, do as your conscience dictates, but don’t expect any kind words of congratulation from the person you’ve borrowed from.