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Talent Pool 

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Seventy young Chicago actors, male and female, gathered recently in a sweltering, humid room for final callbacks. They were told to take their clothes off and were made to do things no director had ever demanded of them before. They had to take a dive just to be considered for the job. If they could stay afloat, they might have a chance. An actor's life is a hard one.

The show they were auditioning for was The Frogs, Stephen Sondheim's rarely-done musical version of Aristophanes' comedy, which has been kicking around since at least 405 BC. Pegasus Players, the company producing The Frogs, has made a habit in the last few years of staging similarly rare Sondheim musicals. Last year's Pacific Overtures was set, in the words of one of Sondheim's lyrics, "in the middle of the sea." The Frogs, more modestly, is set in the middle of a swimming pool. While lead roles include Dionysus, Pluto, and George Bernard Shaw, the chorus is called upon to play a variety of characters, including "a splash of Frogs."

With a script adapted by the late Burt Shevelove, The Frogs was first presented in 1974 by the Yale Repertory Theater in Yale's exhibition pool, with a chorus of swimming actors that included Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, and Christopher Durang. Since then it's been done a couple of times, but only on regular stages; Pegasus, which is housed at Truman College and has access to the school's swimming pool, is giving The Frogs its first "wet production" since its premiere, according to a company spokesperson.

The 70 performers, assembled at what was truly a sink-or-swim final callback, had already gone through the usual winnowing process--singing, monologues, and line readings from the script. Two hundred and fifty people had shown up for tryouts--an exceptionally high number under any circumstances, much less for a show with such particular requirements. Now, clad in bathing suits, the finalists hung out in and around the pool.

"It was an audition like I had never been to before," Brian McLaughlin, one of the hopefuls, said later. "It's pretty unnerving to have to be in a bathing suit in front of everybody else that's auditioning. You're feeling very vulnerable anyway. In the locker room there was a lot of reluctance to taking off your clothes and going out in a bathing suit. People may do it in summer, on the beach, but an audition is unnerving enough, having to show who you are--doing it practically nude just adds to the vulnerability."

Some of the finalists huddled along the sides of the pool, nervous and uncomfortable in the high humidity; others, determined to face down their nervousness, jumped in the water to swim, splash, and play "Marco Polo" water tag. Meanwhile, the administrative and creative team, all clothed, got ready for the final screening.

"I'm always looking for interesting people," said Victoria Bussert, the show's director. "I'm watching for life experience, for basically interesting human beings. Then, of course, I have to see who can stay afloat."

As Bussert perched on a racer's block at the end of the pool, her eyes scanning the young men and women in the water, the choreographer, Janet Louer, called the performers together and explained what was happening.

"You're going to line up in small groups," she said, "and jump into the water, one at a time, your most creative jump." People laughed self-consciously. "Do anything you want, the crazier the better," said Louer, sensing the uneasiness and putting on her best nonchalant air. "Then, when everyone's in, you're going to backstroke the length of the pool while singing 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat.' That's so we can see who can sing and stay afloat. Also, it's really important to keep your spacing," she advised. The stage manager called out six names, and six people walked to the edge of the pool and lined up.

Being first at any audition is hard enough; how would this go?

"Ready? Go!"

From left to right, one by one, the actors jumped in the pool, making silly faces and twisting into odd positions. The others, watching, applauded and cheered--a show of camaraderie that continued throughout the evening.

"OK ready? Here we go." And the six started backstroking while singing the familiar melody--each in his own key and at his own pace, each racing to be first at the other end of the pool. The cacophony bounced off the tile walls, and everyone giggled at the sheer mess.

Jeff Lewis, the show's musical director, who also has a lifesaving certificate, stepped over to try to clean things up. "This isn't a race," Lewis said. "You have to keep your line steady." He set a moderately slow tempo and a mid-range key. "Let's do it all together, next group."

Team after team stepped up, jumped in, and swam the length of the pool while singing--and each time, their voices jumped erratically ahead of the slow beat Lewis was trying vainly to keep with his hands. The mid-range key was stifling to some actors used to showing off their voices--a problem one young woman solved by improvising a high harmony.

Director Bussert sat at poolside taking notes. With her was set designer Russ Borski. "He's judging the bodies," explained producer Arlene Crewdson. "The bodies are part of the set, after all. You know, Jeff Lewis has been taking weight training ever since we decided to do this show."

Borski and Bussert were also gauging the look and the acoustics of the room in relation to the singers. "I want to eliminate the preconceptions of a theater," said Bussert. "We're saying, 'Here is a space, let's see what it does.'" The audience will be seated in the gallery above the pool, but about 30 folding chairs will be set up as "wet seats" for audience members who want to get closer to the action.

Meanwhile, everyone was concerned about the sticky, wet warmth of the room--for themselves and for future audiences. Sondheim was aware of the situation. One of his lyrics is:

Please, dont fart

There's very little air and this is art.

"Thank you all for coming," said Bussert when the last team had attempted its sing-and-stroke combo. "We're going to let some of you go now. It doesn't mean you're not in the show, necessarily; it just means we've seen all we need to see." The dripping auditioners smiled and nodded politely. Nobody ever believes that line.

The stage manager stepped forward and read about 40 names--people who were to stay.

As the others headed for the locker rooms, those remaining jumped back in the pool. The feeling was playful. "So many callbacks I've been to are so competitive," said one, "but this is just fun. Every show should do this."

Louer, donning a bathing cap, stepped into the water to teach a synchronized swimming routine. It was water ballet time.

"Splash, splash, crawl," Bussert called out while demonstrating the moves. "Splash, splash, crawl. Then stroke, over, stroke, over." Everyone repeated her moves--evoking, very roughly, an Esther Williams number--while Bussert watched to see who the best learners were. Then Louer revolved in the water, dragging her right arm rhythmically to create a small circular wave. "This arm's sculling," she said. Everybody followed her lead; the earlier high-spirited chatter had given way to silent concentration. The only sound in the room was a gentle splashing in unison.

"Now somersault," Louer said, and flipped underwater. A moment later, one leg shot up, breaking the water in a graceful ballet extension. "Now you try it."

Everybody flipped over and sank. Raggedly, one leg after another popped up through the water, like timber from a shipwreck. "Fine, let's do the whole thing."

The swimmers formed small teams, which went through the water-ballet routine one after another. By the last group, the combination was looking pretty graceful. Even Esther would have given them at least an "A" for effort.

One last test: specialty dives. "You can do anything you want," Bussert told them. People were gathering to show their best from the high board. But as the first young-fellow made his way to the board's edge, a young security guard walked by. "Time to leave," he said brusquely.

"I thought we were here until 10:30," Crewdson protested, looking at her watch as a vexed look crossed Bussert's face. "I made arrangements to close up at 10:15," the guard said firmly. "We have to close up the locker rooms."

The uneasy Olympian alliance of art and athletics was over.

"Let's go back to our area," shrugged Crewdson, waving people toward the hallway that led toward the theater, and the auditioners scooted for the locker rooms.

Louer hung around for a minute picking up her things, then, dripping and shivering in her bathing suit, padded barefoot up to Crewdson. "I need to get into my clothes," she said, looking imploringly at the guard.

He was implacable. "Sorry, the pool is closed."

"Come on," said Crewdson. "You can use the ladies' room in our area." And Louer darted. down the hall, pressing her clothes and towel wetly to her, leaving a trail of water on the floor.

Sondheim had a lyric for this situation, too:

Please, don't swim

The theater is a temple, not a gym.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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