Having made it through my twenties and into my thirties, I find myself reflecting more often on the mysterious path that has led to here, and now. With time passing, it continues to become clearer that there are particular events that really blew the possibilities wide open and allowed whole worlds to open up for me down the line. Somehow the gained perspective makes it a little easier to track entire sequences down to their roots.
The beginning of one of the most influential domino effects in my life started when Steve Glaudini offered me my first professional job in theater. It couldn't have come at a better time, as I was in the midst of great upheaval in my college life, and was striving to "be taken seriously as an actor." I feel embarrassed just writing those words now, for a whole litany of reasons, but they are completely true.
I was in my third year of the musical theater program at UC Irvine, still working to shed a bit of the Van Wilder identity I so intently built my freshman year. My professors had convinced me to cut my hair off and were grooming me to be a leading man. I was taking multiple voice lessons and dance classes each week, and really busting my balls to become a better performer when I was jilted (my opinion at the time) by the faculty, not being cast in the spring musical, Urinetown. I then took the new chip on my shoulder down on an audition in San Diego for Moonlight Amphitheater's summer season.
It should be noted here that I am a TERRIBLE auditioner...just the worst. In fact, if I weren't so damn bad at it, The Kloons might not exist. But, (I'd say fortunately at this point) they have always terrified me and I usually walk into them a jittery mess unable to speak like a normal human or shake the heavy self-consciousness necessary to deliver a strong performance.
While I can't recall exactly how the first audition went in San Diego, I can remember being called back for West Side Story and being absolutely thrilled. It was a show I had done once before at my local community theater the summer before college, so I felt some confidence going in for it again.
I remember driving down in my truck for the callback, both excited and terrified as we were going to start with a dance call. When it comes to musical theater, I was always an actor first, singer second and dancer last. I am what they call, "a strong mover." But by the grace of All That Is, that day I gave the best dance audition I have ever given in my life.
I was inspired by the choreographer, the incredible Carlos Mendoza, as he insisted that we were not dancing, we were fighting. Each move was to be treated like an attack...and I really went for it. To the point that my friends from school, including UC Irvine's darling and future Broadway star, Quinn Van Antwerp (a man whose shadow I begrudgingly lived in), came up to me afterwards with astounded faces as if to say, "where the fuck did that come from?"
To this day, that is one of only two dance calls I've ever survived, making it through the cuts onto the next round of callbacks. I was elated, filled with incredible confidence knowing that the toughest challenge was behind me. Next we were asked to read scenes in groups, over and over again as they mixed us up. I can recall feeling an explosive energy in my body, and truly channeling it into each delivery. They kept reading me and I could feel the creative team watching me closely...I was at least in the running.
The director, Mr. Steve Glaudini, then asked if I would come to the piano and sing through "Gee Officer Krupke," the comedic song sung by the character Action in the second act. Luckily for me, I knew it well, having played the role back home in Roseville. They had me sing though it a couple times, and I was giving them a full performance, almost completely memorized. I recall Steve giving me a look that nearly said, "You've got the job, kid."
About a week later I was hiking in my socks in Yosemite with my two best buddies, Greg and Nik, up the Nevada Falls trail. I had been wearing my dad's hiking shoes, but they had given me blisters, so I decided to climb up the rocky terrain without them, gingerly placing each foot like a cautious, wobbly baby deer. We reached the top and were resting in the sunshine, gazing out across the valley when my old flip phone mysteriously started ringing. I couldn't believe I had service, but picked up the phone to be told that I had been cast as Action in West Side Story...and in that moment, I knew that everything was going to be okay. I was standing in one of the most beautiful corners of the planet, with my two best friends, and had been given my first chance to do what I had been dreaming of for a long time.
More specifically, I remember while on that trip I was struggling to reconcile my various desires. My mind was occupied with questions regarding the balance between working on my craft to build a career, maintaining my dear friendships, and wanting to get the fuck out and see the world. Suddenly I felt an affirmation from the universe that all of those things would be possible. (Little did I know then just how literally those pieces would come together down the line.)
I also couldn't wait to return to school and let my professors know that while they may not have deemed me talented enough for their little show, AN ACTUAL PROFESSIONAL THEATER DID, SO THERE!
Fast forward to the summer and first week of rehearsal. I was in perhaps the best shape of my life, driven and ready to work. We started by learning "the dance at the gym" and as a newcomer I was thoroughly intimidated, particularly by the fierce dancer who was eating red bell peppers like apples and knew EVERYONE. Her name was Anna Schnaitter and she would later become one of my dearest friends...we'd eventually go to Burning Man together and live as roommates in NYC for two years, but at the time I was petrified to be seen dancing next to her.
The first couple weeks were tough. I got homesick for the first time since leaving for college, and flew back for the Fourth of July to stay with my family as I had no one in San Diego to hang out with. I was one of the few cast members not housed in the dorms and I've always been a bit slow to integrate into new communities. I tend to watch before trying to interject myself, and I was struggling to find points of connection with what felt like an established group.
I think Steve sensed that I needed a little help, and he soon invited me to have drinks with him and Carlos after rehearsal. He asked me how I felt things in the show were going, and welcomed me to genuinely open up about my own life. I felt honored to be spending personal time with both of them and I was eager to make friends with two men I immediately respected.
This made a huge difference in my show experience as I felt completely accepted by Steve and Carlos, which built my confidence in rehearsals and helped me begin to connect with the rest of the cast. I was putting in crazy hours on the choreography, practicing whenever I had the chance, and building a tremendous backstory for my character. The fact that Steve had given me this chance, made me want to make him proud. I wanted to deliver a stellar performance in my supporting role, and let him know that I was someone he could count on.
I arrived at the theater hours early every night to stretch, go through the numbers and would spend the 30 minutes before curtain listening to Tool and System of a Down, just like I used to do before water polo games in high school. By the time the show started my blood was pumping with fire, I was angry and hated everything...in a good way. I. WAS. A. SERIOUS. ACTOR. But again, this dedication was not unique to me.
Getting to work for Steve was a gift. His commitment to telling the story was paramount, and the entire cast was all-in on his vision. Everyone was putting in the hours, and we worked together like a family to get every beat perfect. Ironically, a show that documents social division was put forth by a cast completely united. This was greatly thanks to Steve's passion for the piece and his confident ability to get things done at the best of his ability. He was pulling unbelievable performances out of everyone. To this day I can remember moments on stage with those beautiful humans where it was so clearly not a show, but a story that was living through our beings. I was, and am in this moment nearly ten years later, incredibly honored to have been a part of it, and it simply would not have happened were it not for Steve taking a chance on a kid he'd never met before.
To this day, getting to work on that show, with those people, is one of the highlights of my life. The thrill of performing in it is still bouncing around the files of my mind, and I can feel excitement bubbling up right now as I think about it.
But there is a lot more to my profound gratitude for Steve Glaudini than feeling nostalgic about what was a thoroughly enjoyed period of my life. And although the experience did open up the opportunity to work at Moonlight Amphitheater again a year later, the greatest gift Steve gave me was yet to come.
When I moved to New York City on a whim after college, one of the first and most persistent struggles was my lack of community. Between that and the grueling audition experience it was easy to be overwhelmed by self-doubt. (Shit, I don't audition anymore, I have a community and self-doubt is still a bitch.)
Luckily for me, every time Steve came to town I would get a text. He would make it a point to spend time together, inviting me out to see shows with him and his friends, or just sitting down to dinner to talk about how things were going. He introduced me to so many people, making sure that I was meeting many of his wildly successful friends in the Broadway community. This made the dream feel so much more tangible, I was meeting people who had done it, and they were so kind and supportive.
About 18 months after I had moved to NYC, a friend let me know about a gig in Sarasota, Florida that he couldn't do, but they were looking for a tenor and was I interested? I immediately said "YES!" and he forwarded my information on to the choreographer and director, David Engel and Larry Raben. As luck would have it, they are two of Steve's dearest friends and saw on my resume that I had worked for him. Thanks solely to his recommendation, I got the job without auditioning and flew down to Florida a few days later.
This time in Florida was invaluable for me, and another of my most cherished time capsules. I remember feeling like I was getting a taste of the retired life as I would wake up to go the gym before playing 18 holes of golf, then head to do the show and cap off the night drinking at a sports bar and hanging out on the beach. It was truly perfect.
I LOVED working with David and Larry, who also now hold an incredibly special place in my heart. They too were extraordinarily supportive as I was just starting to build my career. It was another vote of confidence that encouraged me to keep moving forward.
But while I was in Florida, I started to dread going back to New York to walk back and forth between auditions, waiting to be seen all day. Something about that approach felt inherently flawed. I started to look at it in terms of how one builds value. The fact that I was willing to wait five or more hours just to spend 30 seconds in an audition room was a way of telling casting directors, "Hi, I'm Mitch. My time and I are not very valuable." The fact that there were thousands of other actors doing this daily only cemented the point in my mind.
I was still spending a little time paying attention to the Pick Up Artist world and a video I watched made a significant impression on me. The teacher hammered home this idea about waiting for opportunities to happen versus creating opportunities for yourself. Suddenly it was clear that I needed to start doing just that. Around this time I had been exchanging emails with Greg, who was living out of his backpack in South America. He let me know that after years of traveling the world, he wanted to come to New York and be an actor.
I remember being thrilled that he wanted to come join me in the city, but also let him know that being an actor was a real drag, the daily auditions were a nightmare and if we wanted to be something other than two white guys trying to be actors, we needed to create a reason for people to pay attention to us. This was the real genesis of The Kloons. Greg and I would fly emails back and forth, cranked up on coffee as we imagined what we would create together. Months later I'd move back to the city, and within a week of him joining me, we got a camera and started filming.
I share all of that to say that the time in Florida was what allowed me the space to really think about what I was doing, what I wanted to do and inspired me to find a new way to play the game in New York. Again, this opportunity never would have come to fruition if it were not for Steve.
And as important as this experience was, it is still not the most beneficial gift I've received from Steve. It is not even that through knowing him I have met some of my favorite humans on the planet who are now lifelong friends.
It is that during one of the most vulnerable times in my life, walking without direction or confidence through the streets of Manhattan wondering if I was ever going to get my foot in the door, wrestling with the constant fear of failure...whenever it got really dark and I felt sure I should give up, I had one reason not to. There was one man, a successful and well-respected professional in the industry who thought I had what it took. And that was reason enough not to quit.
I cannot tell you how often in my first few years in New York this awareness pulled me through. It is so crucial in any young person's life to have a champion, to have someone pushing you along. And though Steve and I weren't in constant contact, his choice to hire me and to invest in my well-being became the buoy that got me through periods of immense self-doubt. It was my external proof that I was not crazy for thinking I ought to pursue this career. And that is a gift that I will never be able to repay.
While my "career" has not gone exactly as I thought it might, it has been infinitely more rewarding than I ever imagined it to be. The experience of creating The Kloons with Greg and Nik has been...well beyond words. And I am deeply aware of the role Steve Glaudini has played in allowing it to happen.
As alluded to, one of my intentions in creating The Kloons was that it might land me more roles in the future. I would be lying if I said I don't hope to at some point work on stage again, and in my heart of hearts, I'd prefer it to be for Steve. I can't say if or when that might happen, but it would be a dream come true to do so. Because now ten years later, I can see so clearly that working on West Side Story with him was IT. There was no bigger production, or better job, it wasn't a stepping stone to the next thing. That was IT.