IT HAPPENED TO ME: Tommy Wiseau Directed Me in a Live Version of "The Room"

He decided to turn his movie, which has become a notoriously awful cult classic, into a play, and in a moment of questionable judgment, I auditioned.
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Katie Buenneke
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He decided to turn his movie, which has become a notoriously awful cult classic, into a play, and in a moment of questionable judgment, I auditioned.

I don’t know much about cult movies. Well, that’s not entirely true — I don’t know much about most cult movies, but I know a hell of a lot about one cult movie. It’s called The Room, and it can be shoddily summarized as an exploration of a love triangle gone horribly wrong.

The Room is a piece of work, in every sense of that phrase. The movie is the most notable progeny of director/writer/actor/possible alien life-form Tommy Wiseau, and it’s semi-autobiographical, I suppose. And I’ve lived the movie, quite literally.

In 2011, Tommy decided that it was time to turn his magnum opus into a live play, with his sights set on Broadway. He enlisted the help of some good folks at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland, and The Room: The Play/Live Reading was born. The performance dates were set for June 10 and 11, and a Craigslist post went up in late May, looking for actors to audition.

I was home in D.C. for the summer, waiting for my summer job at a theater camp to start, and looking for acting gigs. I’d heard of The Room and how magnificently awful it was when I was rushing the film fraternity at my college. I hadn’t gotten into Delta Kappa Alpha that semester, but I was planning on rushing again in the fall, and figured that being a part of this might be a good “in.” So in a moment of questionable judgment, I went to the audition on June 9.

The audition, which was the day before “opening night,” turned out to be our only rehearsal. Knowing that a red dress plays prominently into the plot of the show, I purposefully wore a blue dress to the audition, and was thus cast as Michelle, the best friend of the lead character. (I’ve never been more relieved to not play the lead in anything.) 

[Photo by Mark Federman]

[Photo by Mark Federman]

Describing the rehearsal process — if it can even be called be called that — as odd, doesn’t come close to doing it justice, so here are a few anecdotes about how it worked:

  • Casting was done solely according to the color of the clothing you wore to the audition. The girl who wore red was cast as Lisa, the main character (who wears a red dress that Tommy’s character later humps).
  • Tommy sent two couples (consisting of complete strangers) out into the hall with a scene that involves erotic chocolate feeding and lots of making out. My partner, Will, and I were the second couple to do the scene. We watched the duo before us, and I looked on apprehensively as Tommy yelled that they needed to stop “Mickey Mouse acting!” (Tommy-slang for pantomime). When it was our turn, I steeled myself, and went all-out for the make out parts. Tommy was delighted, I was embarrassed, Will was a total gentleman, and Tommy decided to include that scene in the play twice so both couples could perform the scene in the final version.
  • The script we were working with was a typed-out version of the movie. I don’t think it would have been possible for us to work with the movie script, as I’m not entirely sure that there was a script for the movie. It was split more or less down the middle into two acts, like a traditional play.
  • We never rehearsed the second act. However, Tommy decided that Will and I needed to rehearse the making-out scene in front of him multiple times. That may have been the only scene that was rehearsed more than once.
  • The other male lead, Mark, was to be played by Greg Sestero, who’d played the role in the movie. However, Greg wasn’t flying in until Friday (opening night), so we skipped all of the scenes with him in them.
  • Tommy only works in multiples of two or five. Everything was two minutes, five minutes, or 10 minutes — no other integers allowed. Also, when Tommy wanted us to speak louder, he’d yell “Higher pitch!” Needless to say, this led to considerable confusion among the cast; we weren’t sure if he wanted us to sound (but not act) like Mickey Mouse.

Opening night eventually happened, and no one was prepared in the slightest. Since I was under the impression that it was a “staged reading,” I brought my script onstage with me for a scene in the (never-rehearsed) second act. Taylor, who played Lisa, and I ad-libbed for a seemingly endless 90 seconds after Tommy missed his cue. He finally stormed onstage, grabbed my script out of my hands, and threw it into the audience, where it was fought over like an errant baseball by gleeful fanboys.

Another weird thing about the whole experience: The Room, like any other cult classic movie, has its own set of callbacks and traditions associated with it, like throwing spoons at the screen, or heckling the actors. I’d never seen the movie with other people, just at home by myself before the audition, so I wasn’t expecting the audience to be quite as . . . interactive as they were. 

Imagine performing a show where the audience is made up of Stadler and Waldorf from The Muppets, but instead of throwing produce at you, you’re dodging plastic spoons mid-scene. For the most part, the audience loved us in a hate-watching kind of way, but they were saying mean things about us like we couldn’t hear them, like we weren’t in the room — like they were watching a movie.

The whole thing was a blur, and not just for me. On Sunday, we had a cast dinner. Everyone was allowed to bring a guest, and as I walked in to the all-you-can-eat Indian buffet with my friend, Tommy shook my hand like I was another guest at the dinner — not someone he’d been working with more than six hours a day, for the past three days.

[Photo by William Hayes Cromartie]

[Photo by William Hayes Cromartie]

Given that I now live and work in Los Angeles, you’d think this incident would have served as a primer for what to expect in “Hollyweird,” but I can honestly say that out of all the shows I’ve been in and sets I’ve worked on, nothing will be stranger than “working” with Tommy Wiseau on the second incarnation of The Room. I imagine our experience was pretty similar to the making of the movie — while we were all at different places on the spectrum of amateur to professional, we were all trying to do our best, at least at first, despite having to kowtow to this glorified toddler who wielded all the power. 

Eventually, though, we realized the futility of our efforts to try and be good, and we gave in to the campy fun of the story. And that’s what it was — surreal, campy fun.