The Undergroundlings, Danielle Eyre, Fiction & Fish Woman, Sonya Kertész, Painting, 2019

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A blank face that’s trained to look blank is different from a blank face that’s just lacking emotion. If you take, say, an expert poker player and place them next to someone watching a failed sitcom, you will see two entirely different faces. There’s something in the jaw—the minute detail of the person’s teeth touching behind their lips.
The first kind of blankness—the conscious, purposeful blankness—is what I saw as the judges jotted down their notes. They represented the Public Theatre School, so-called despite being known for its privacy and prestige, accepting only the best actors to spend the next four years undergoing their intensive training. The curriculum was kept very hush-hush, but it worked; almost every alumnus had had a successful career on screen or on stage.
When I finished my monologue, my senses returned, and my mind was free to roam. My first thought was that the three judges looked similar, as if they’d been shaped from the same mold. All were white—two women and a man—with dark, tidy hair and dark, tidy clothes. They all looked vaguely familiar. I thought they must be either current or former professors, and all alumni. The school hardly ever hired outside its circle.
After what seemed like an interminable amount of time, they glanced at each other, then at me. They smiled through a layer of sanitization.
“Thank you, Miss Chambers,” the middle woman said. “You may go.”
I swallowed, my throat dry. “Should I wait outside? F-for callbacks?”
Her smile didn’t reach her eyes. “No, that won’t be necessary.”
“Oh, okay.” I reached for my tote bag leaning against the studio wall. “Th-thank you for your t-time.”
I shuffled out the door, my arms wrapped around my bag and bulky coat. My hands weren’t free to wipe the tears forming in my eyes. I tossed my head so my hair covered my face as I crossed the sea of prospective students. I’d seen previous auditionees leave the same way, and I hated that I looked just like them. All quiet tears and averted gazes—and everyone else watching, sure that they were better than that.
Dumping my stuff on the ground by the elevators, I allowed myself time to breathe. I wiped what was left of the tears from my cheeks and closed my eyes. I focused on my breathing, loud and ragged, as if I’d run up a mountain instead of delivered a Shakespearean monologue.
Somewhere between these breaths, I heard a voice.
“What was their problem with you?”
My eyes flew open. She sat on a lone chair in the empty hallway, tapping her foot and squinting in my direction.
“They had several with me,” she continued, bouncing up. “So. What’s wrong with you?”
I paused to gather my words. “I d-don’t think—”
“Oh, it was the stutter, wasn’t it? You know,” she leaned forward, “I heard that once, a student mispronounced a single word in her first-year Shakespeare seminar and was immediately expelled. But that could be just a rumour. You hear all sorts of things about this place. Anyway, they told me to give you this.”
She whipped out a small slip of paper, a magician doing a card trick. It was about the size of a business card.
“Me?”
“Well, they said to give it to anyone who looked like they’d failed miserably. And,” her eyes scanned me from top to bottom, “you fit the bill.”
“Who’s ‘they’?”
“The person who was sitting here before me. They asked me to continue handing these out, because they had somewhere to be. I had nothing better to do, so here I am. And here you are. And this is for you.”
I took the paper from her hand and finally got a good look at it. It read “The Undergroundlings” at the top, and below that was written Fantasia #4.
“What are—these numbers?” I asked.
“Coordinates.”
“For the location of the play. Fantasia #4,” she said, looking off into the distance as if reading the words on a marquee, then turning back to me. “You find the location, you get to see the play.”
“What k-kind of play?”
“How should I know? This is news to me, too.” She must have noticed my frown, because her tone softened. “I’ll be there too, wherever ‘there’ is. My name is Dahlia.” She winked at me, a glint in her eye. “Seven p.m. sharp.” She curtsied, then settled back into her chair.
As I boarded the crowded elevator, I folded the paper into my palm. Dahlia’s voice echoed through my head. What’s wrong with you? I shook the words off and gazed at the card again.
Anything to distract me from the humiliation burning a hole through my stomach.