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The Artist’s Journey: John Ahlin - La Jolla Playhouse Blog

The Artist’s Journey: John Ahlin

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Each week, The Artist’s Journey will provide an insider look at the creation of a production, from first rehearsal to opening night, through the eyes of one of the show’s key players.

John Ahlin is playing “Angus MacLeod” in the world premiere-comedy A Dram of Drummhicit. Some of his credits include Waiting for Godot, Journey’s End (2007 Tony Award Best Revival), The Lieutenant of Inishmore, Voices in the Dark (directed by Christopher Ashley), One Mo’ Time, Whoopee! and Macbeth.

John Ahlin

Part One: Landing the Role

Three different people, including the Continental Airlines ticket agent, remarked to me how little I was bringing to San Diego. I don’t need much; I could probably get by with just a tent, groceries and a library card, but gazing out over the country from seat 27F, I ruminated about what I do for a living, and how I don’t need a big box of tools. Acting is simply impersonating people … imitating humans. All an actor has is his own being. All his tools are inside himself and these tools include some very old fashioned things: hard work, honesty, integrity, tenacity, reputation, gratitude, and my favorite: imagination.

But this blog isn’t going to go all sappy and Kumbaya about how wonderful and touchy-feely acting is. After 35 years I know well a career in theatre is arduous and irregular … often it is a chaotic dash from one unknown to another. And it was the typical life-upending phone call from my agent that led to me taking Flight 1726 out of Newark. “A Dram of what?” I asked. She couldn’t pronounce it either but told me I had an audition via videotape for La Jolla Playhouse’s production of A Dram of Drummhicit. I immediately got the actor’s version of an ice cream headache. If I got the role I’d have to turn down two other jobs I had lined up, and several other personal conflicts made it a very difficult to schedule an audition. But then I read the script. It was the most wonderfully funny and intriguing play I can remember reading. It was a chance to originate a role in a world premiere, co-written by the renowned Arthur Kopit at La Jolla Playhouse, known among actors as the most dynamic regional theater in the country, devoted to creating new amazing works. And with Christopher Ashley directing, for whom I had worked on three previous occasions, I knew that another actor’s tool – reputation – would figure prominently. The character of Angus was ideal for me and the audition was even was across the street. It was all seemingly too good to be true…one big cosmic theatre tease to set me up for crunching disappointment, but an actor should cherish opportunity and I told my agent to accept the audition.

Auditioning is something designed by that guy who invented the nine rings of Hell. Actors spend countless hours working up auditions, and then you go and sit in a waiting room with 15 other people who look just like you, making inane small talk. You can taste the tension. And the success rate for most auditioners is usually one click above futile. I liken auditioning to stepping up to a dartboard and having to throw, stone cold, a bull’s-eye on one shot. The only solution is to practice and be good at darts. So I employed tenacity, and spent many days preparing my Dram audition. Knowing that video auditions are particularly unforgiving, I plied initiative as well, remembering the kind of directing notes Chris Ashley would give me in our previous shows and adjusting my performance accordingly. After a near sleepless night of preemptively cursing whatever fate was in charge of the silly reason why I would not get this part I was so perfect for, I ambled across the street to the casting office and within three minutes it was over. The video was shot by an assistant who merely said “good,” and out I went, back to the real world. I had lived those nine pages of audition material for a week, spending days speaking with a Scottish accent and all I had was “good” to hang my hat on. A cruel part of acting is the anguishing wait for that phone call. And I waited…and waited. With every passing minute the silent phone was a ringing condemnation. After 10 agonizing days went by I then applied the actor’s least effective tool: reverse psychology. I officially gave up. And I was back to square one, muttering to myself “oh well” as if it never happened, when it came … the call, the offer and the chance to go to San Diego. In a nanosecond I told my agent “yes,” and I think it was the first time I ever accepted a play whose title I couldn’t pronounce.