If they can make it there...

...they'll be one in 25,000. Daniel Jeffries meets Carla, Susan, Richard and Liz, four of New York's ever-hopeful, ever-desperate thesps at the bi-annual Broadway open auditions
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In New York, Back Stage is a bible to aspiring stars. The weekly paper lists casting calls for Broadway, movies and television. The latest edition has a special section on "temping". It's not three days as Carol Channing's replacement in the revival of Hello, Dolly! It's typing and secretarial work, the upmarket staples of unemployed actors tired of waiting tables. When the profession's own casting paper suggests a dictation course, it's a sure sign that jobs are scarce.

"Many people still dream of making it in New York," says Tony Nicosia, director of the audition department at the Actors Equity Association, the American union for stage actors. The AEA has 36,000 members, and 18,000 live in and around New York. The annual unemployment rate is between 60 and 70 per cent. "New York is a talent magnet and a huge dark pit. There are lots of talented people who come here and just disappear."

At 6am on a Thursday morning, more than 200 aspiring actors are camped around the offices of Actors Equity. Some look perky and ready for stardom. Others look ready to throw in the towel and take one of those secretarial courses. Union rules compel the big Broadway shows to hold auditions every six months. They represent a two-minute chance to get a part in Sunset Boulevard or Phantom of the Opera. "That's about all you get," says Carla Thomas who, at 23, has been auditioning for five years. "They let me sing between 10 and 15 bars, and that's after about five hours of waiting. It's not so bad today. I've stood out here when it's been below zero and I couldn't sing because my throat got so cold."

The actors come driven by the dream and by those who made the big break. "About 40 per cent of actors in work on stage and in the movies got their part through an open casting call," says Tony Nicosia. "Actors know people who have scored big with an open call and that keeps them going."

Then there's the unknown who nets the big fish out of nowhere. Spike Lee's Clockers has just opened in New York. Its star is Mekhi Phifer. The 20-year-old from Harlem was working night construction jobs when his cousin yanked him from sleep one morning. The cousin had heard Lee was holding an open casting call and the two dashed downtown, stopping only to pick up publicity shots from a Woolworth's photo-booth. "I realised I had no portfolio to show," says Phifer. "All I had was $4, which is just what the photos cost."

Before Phifer got to see Spike Lee, a casting associate picked him out of the queue and the rest is the first chapter of a Hollywood biography that by this Christmas will include three movies and a TV special. The Actors Equity Association and the Screen Actors Guild estimate there are more than 20,000 union actors in the city without jobs. Their task is made more difficult by new rules which open many auditions to non-union actors who have logged enough hours on stage. This group swells the pool to around 25,000 hungry thespians.

"To make it here, you have to get a plan," say Susan Levin, standing about 30 minutes from the start of the queue. "I don't just concentrate on the big shows. I audition in New York for regional shows as well. I've played Maria in The Sound of Music, once in New Jersey and once in Lake Placid. That's a good way of getting stage time and improving your CV." Levin has no need of an acting career to eat, she says she has a "wonderful" job teaching literature at a local college. "I can't stop doing this," she says. "Every time I walk past a theatre marquee, I know one day I could have my name up there. When I do get a part, it's such a buzz; that's the feeling which stays with you through the cold mornings."

Tony Nicosia agrees. Looking out his window at the queue snaking round the block, he admires the persistence of New York actors, although he accepts their dedication is pathological. "Once you've been bitten by the acting bug, you'll make every sacrifice to succeed." Back in the queue, several hopefuls are spitting venom at their favourite target - the casting director. "So many of them are just mean," says Richard Bradshaw who arrived at 4.40am to ensure an early audition, when the director is still fresh. "If you get in late, the CD is often crabby and negative. They just don't want to see you - they've had enough. I say it's their fault; they could hold auditions over several days, but they cram everybody into one and often you just see the CD and not the director."

Many casting directors feel they've been press-ganged into the Broadway audition system which only exists because the unions forced the producers' hand. Mandatory auditions have only been part of the Broadway scene since 1988. American Equity defends the system. "I know people get parts through the auditions but I'm not naive enough to think we are the only route the directors use," says Tony Nicosia.The numbers are often overwhelming, as is the pressure. Francis Ford Coppola held an open call for On the Road earlier this year and 5,000 people showed up, while an audition for five dancing parts in Demi Moore's Striptease drew a crowd of more than 250 women. Last week, there were auditions for Chekov's Three Sisters at Manhattan's Looking Glass Theatre. The play is an "Equity Showcase", which, in true Alice in Wonderland style, means four weeks of hard work for no pay. It did, however, draw agents and producers to see aspirants in good roles. It also drew more than 500 hopefuls for 14 parts.

"I would never recommend being an actor," says Liz Trinder, queueing outside Actors Equity. She was at the Chekov auditions, hoping to land the role of Natasha or Olga. She was one of the unlucky ones. "It can be heartbreaking," she says. "It isn't only the constant rejection. The nature of being an actor means turning yourself inside out and, unlike being a musician or a writer, your work is absolutely connected to what you look like." Trinder subsists in the traditional way - waiting tables. Others take a more criminal line, supporting careers by unorthodox means. One actress who has just made it big after years of struggle says her secret was insurance fraud. "My husband and I must have made four of five big claims in the last six years when the parts were thin on the ground," says the actress, who does not want to be named. "It's common among actors. When the going gets tough, sell your car or your furniture to somebody in the Bronx, then say it was stolen. Then make an insurance claim."

At $50 for a 14-hour day, it's not surprising people turn to crime when a New York apartment costs at least $1,000 a month and head shots for a portfolio often cost more than $2,000 if they're done professionally. "They keep coming back though," says Tony Nicosia as the casting queue thins out and lunchtime approaches. "Acting is so subjective - people can be rejected 1,000 times and still think they are the next Katharine Hepburn. Actors feed on rejection; it makes them angry and hurt but they are selling themselves so they think it's the director's misjudgement."

Susan Levin has just had her audition and she's standing on 46th Street in sight of Broadway. "I think I did well," she says. "My regional appearances are beginning to pay off. They get me a more respectful audience from the casting director. I think I'm getting close to landing something big." The lights on the great white way seem to twinkle mischievously as she says this, maybe knowing they have another victim locked forever in their beguiling spell.