Actors sometimes talk about “selling a situation” – conveying a scene so convincingly that the audience “buys” it. As the public-school teacher Laurie in Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline, Tasha Lawrence thought deeply about how to put across the second of her two scenes.
“Laurie has just come into the teachers’ lounge after having experienced an incredibly scary event in her classroom,” Lawrence told me in the women’s dressing room before an evening performance. “She’s still on ten. I really struggled in rehearsal because I didn’t want to come on and just yell for five minutes – nobody wants to listen to somebody yell for five minutes.” But, Lawrence added, “the more we worked on the scene the more I realized that it needed to live in a very intense place. Once I committed to that, the scene became exciting to do every night. You jump onto the beam and you stay on that beam until the lights go out.” This excitement, Lawrence added, helps make Pipeline “an incredibly delicious play for me to do.”
Lawrence, who grew up in Hudson, Quebec, which is 37 miles west of downtown Montreal, is engaged in a second kind of selling. She is a professional auctioneer.
“My father got his auctioneering license in the 1950s and he’s had car auctions across Canada and one in the States,” Lawrence explained. “Both my brothers are auctioneers and my sister’s an auctioneer as well.” Lawrence had long told her father that she would learn the profession, and finally made good on the promise about eight years ago. “A girlfriend of mine from my hometown – she’s a real-estate agent – wanted to go to Reppert School of Auctioneering, in Indiana. It’s a three-week intensive, 13 hours a day. She asked, ‘Will you come with me?’ and I said yes.”
Lawrence had an advantage at the start of the schooling. “Most students had never done any public speaking, but I had that part taken care of.” It also helped that she had, in her acting training, developed her affinity with language. “At auctioneering school, they teach you skills involving phrases, and ask you to come up with your own chant. Mine is, ‘I’m bid, whaddya give.’”
Lawrence has never done car auctions (“they’re terrifying”) or livestock auctions (“they use the most beautiful sing-song chant”). She has done auctioneering for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and she raises money every year for the fire department in her Canadian hometown. None of that experience much mattered, however, when she once auditioned to play an auctioneer on a TV show. “It was for an art auction, so the cadence was much slower. The casting director said, ‘Speed it up a little.’ So I did my chant and he goes, ‘No, that’s not what an auctioneer sounds like.’” She added, deadpan, “Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.”
If Lawrence acquired part of her inheritance as a public performer from her auctioneer father, she received a gift from her mother, too. “When I was about 12, she took me to New York and we saw the original Broadway production of Dreamgirls. It was a religious experience, a total epiphany. I was in awe. I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ I didn’t know at that point that I couldn’t sing my way out of a paper bag.”
After Dreamgirls, Lawrence spent her teenage years performing in plays “and just waiting until I could move to New York.” Her list of professional credits in the city is wide-ranging, but Pipeline is clearly a highlight. “It’s such an important play,” she said, “and I want everybody to see it.” She added: “I’ve had so many educators come up to me and say how thankful they are for it. And all I do is hug them.”
Lawrence herself is grateful for the multi-faceted nature of Laurie. “It’s so interesting that Dominique has chosen a middle-aged white woman to be the voice of indignation and knowledge about the public-school system. I have come to see Laurie as a positive person. She’s not bitching about the system in general. She is talking about specific problems, like the need to address mental-health issues. She has been teaching for 30 years. You don’t do that day-in and day-out if you don’t have some optimism.”
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com.