Tag Archives: acting

Why You Didn’t Get Cast

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Buster Keaton and Donald O’Connor rehearsing in 1956

A few days ago, I had two conversations almost back-to-back. One was with an experienced and talented actor who believed they were getting the message that their career was over just because they were in a dry spell. The other was with yet another Bay Area actor whose career had stalled the minute they went AEA. While we talked about the many reasons why that happens, this actor said to me, “I want to see if I’m good enough to be an AEA actor.” And my heart just broke because, as someone whose life is always on the other side of the table, I know how seldom casting is purely about who’s “good.” I hate that experienced, talented actors can see whether or not they get cast as a measure of their intrinsic worth as actors.

So here you go, actors of the world. The pure, unvarnished truth about why you didn’t get the role.

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Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart performing Philadelphia Story for Victory Theater, 1942.

1. MOST COMMON: You’re just not right for it. I know this sounds like a massive, shit-eating cliche, but it’s absolutely the truth. A director walks into the room with a character conceptualized in a certain way, and is looking for the person whose type or energy matches the character. The truly amazingly badass Leslie Martinson of TheatreWorks taught me this years ago, when I was first starting out: Every conceptualized character has thirteen adjectives that describe them. Every actor has thirteen adjectives that describe them. Casting is about finding the best match. I pass over actors I flat-out adore all the time because the fit isn’t right. For example, a director might have Orlando conceptualized as a man in his 20s with a gentle, soft-spoken energy, while your audition presents a man in his 30s with a bright, aggressive energy. While your audition might be fantastic, you’re not going to be that director’s Orlando.

2. Your skillset isn’t developed. This is the second most common, and the one people like to think of as “not good enough.” That way of thinking is total bullshit. How do I know? Because year after year, I see actors grow and develop. I see actors go from maaaaybe having the skills to handle a small supporting role to being ready to carry a play in one season. Either they took a class that unlocked something, or worked with a director who stretched them, or went on a spiritual quest in the New Mexico desert, or had mind-blowing sex with Ian McKellen, whatever. But I see it happen all the time, because dedicated actors are constantly working on their skillset.

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Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, and Joe Melia rehearsing Too True to be Good at the RSC in 1975.

3. The role was precast. Some directors are superstitious and will read people for roles that are already cast. It’s unfortunately common for actors to commit to roles that they later bail on (a better-paying gig, a family emergency, a medical situation), and if you auditioned other actors for that role, you have some go-to options. One casting director told me she was so superstitious that she didn’t get rid of the casting data for a show until it CLOSED. On the flip side, lots of theatres are upfront about which roles are precast. Don’t let that necessarily discourage you. You may want to consider coming in for a show where your dream role is precast– you may end up playing that role after all.

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Claudia McNeil in A Raisin in the Sun, 1959

4. The role went to someone they’ve worked with before. This is incredibly common. You know an actor’s work, you have a shared language, you understand how to work together. A known quantity is less of a risk, even if the known quantity didn’t crush the callback like you did. The director knows from past experience that the other actor can give them what the work needs.

5. You’ve had a history of behaving unprofessionally. Luckily, this one is extremely rare, but it does occasionally happen. Violating your contract (coming consistently late or no-showing to rehearsals or shows, for example), treating fellow actors or crew disrespectfully, making unreasonable demands (such as demanding the theatre violate their contract with the playwright so you can change something in the script despite the fact that the playwright declined to allow the change, or demanding the day off during tech because it’s your one year dating anniversary), deciding closing night is the time for GAGS! and IMPROV!, badmouthing the show on social media (“This play is going to be total shit!”). Although I’ve seen every one of these examples firsthand, they are, as I’ve said, pretty rare. The converse, happily, is MUCH more likely to be true– that we take a chance on an actor unknown to us because someone at another theatre is raving about how awesome they are. And believe me, I’m not trying to imply that this doesn’t happen in the opposite direction. I know plenty of directors treat actors in unconscionable ways. But that’s an entirely different blog post. My point is that, in any theatre community, companies share personnel. While we don’t necessarily go out of our way to share that kind of information, the Literary Manager at one theatre is directing a show at another theatre. The actor at one theatre is the Artistic Director at another theatre. What happens in Vegas, so to speak, does not stay in Vegas. But be happy that the converse is also true and much, much more common– we’re raving about how wonderful you are to our friends at other companies. I’ve sent many a “heads up” email to directors to let them know that an actor new to them and about to audition for them is someone I’ve worked with and believe in.

6. Conflicts. You may have been the best person for the role, but since you’re planning to be in Oklahoma for Baton Twirling Nationals during tech, they’re going to go with someone else.

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7. You tanked the audition. Oh, man, this one is a heartbreaker, and I see it all the time. It’s one of the reasons I tell my students that the best way to cast is to see as many plays as possible so you’re seeing actors in their natural habitat. Auditions are weird little creatures, artificial and forced. However, if we want to open our theatres to new people and new communities (and we do), we’re stuck with open auditions. Like standardized testing, which only measures how good you are at standardized tests, auditions often measure how well you audition and little else. While callbacks are theoretically meant to correct for that, you don’t always make it to the callback to show them. I’ve seen plenty of actors give me a crap audition and then give a beautiful performance in someone else’s play. They had a bad day, or memorized a new monologue they thought would be “better” for the role the day before, or were too nervous. There are a million reasons why a great actor would tank an audition. Don’t let it discourage you. Take an audition class or work with a coach if this is a common problem for you. Do what you need to do. But KEEP TRYING. Invite artistic directors and casting directors to see your work. Don’t give up! You won’t tank them all.

And that’s my main piece of advice: Don’t give up. If this is your dream, persevere! Nothing is insurmountable. FALL DOWN SEVEN TIMES, GET UP EIGHT.

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The Politics of Accents

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This guy.

While I could write plenty about nonsense like Asian actors being asked to do “the accent” in their audition for “Prostitute #3” and “Kung Fu Master Criminal,” or Black actors being asked for a more “urban” accent or audition piece, I’m actually heading in the opposite direction.

There’s a “Shakespeare accent” that American actors are taught to use, or sometimes just pick up on their own through exposure. I’ve seen plenty of teachers throughout the years refer to this as “RP,” “Standard American,” or “Mid-Atlantic” (not to be confused with the actual accent of people in that region– more on that later). The terminology is confused and not always accurate. “RP” stands for “received pronunciation,” which is in actuality a British dialect considered “proper,” and “Standard American” refers to an accent that uses a harder final R than these actors are being taught. But the accuracy of the terminology is not the point.

We all know that accent. It’s slightly faux-British, posh, and its main feature as practiced seems to be the dropped R.

We know from the study of OP (“Original Pronunciation”) that the British accent of Shakespeare’s day was actually nothing like this “Shakespeare” accent American actors use, or than British RP for that matter. Check out this comparison between RP and OP. So why do we teach actors to speak in these faux-British tones? Why do actors adopt this fabricated accent when they do Shakespeare?

The answer can’t be “because the text suggests it,” or “the text sounds better that way due to the way it’s written.” A notable part of OP is its harder final R. This entirely contrived  “Shakespeare accent” is most notable for its soft R. In fact, that’s its main (and often sole) feature as practiced across American stages. So “because Shakespeare” cannot be the answer.

What *IS* the answer? We know that what’s often called the “Mid-Atlantic” accent, popular in pre-1960 America, was a deliberate, acquired marker of wealthy white privilege, and was therefore cultivated by people looking for upward mobility and acceptance in the upper classes of America, or by actors whose careers would be built on playing upper-class roles. In 2013, we still use a version of it to denote “posh” or “privileged” in popular culture– look for it in films, cartoons, video games. It’s everywhere.

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There are some teachers out there now teaching an accent they call “Classical American,” as in, American accents for use in classical theatre.  “Classical American” is a reverse-engineered accent that labels and codifies the semi-British “Shakespeare accent” that has evolved from (and is still sometimes labeled as) Mid-Atlantic or RP. There’s a book originally published in 2005 flogging “Classical American” as “an intermediate option between well-pronounced Neutral American and Standard British. It builds upon Neutral American, blending additional rhythmic and sound elements, which result in more formal or heightened speech without sounding British to an American ear” (emphasis mine). Precisely. I’ve heard this accent referred to innumerable times as “formal,” “heightened,” and “elevated.”

“Formal.” “Heightened.” “Elevated.” “Formal” has long been code for “posh.” But what’s being heightened here? What are we “elevating” when we drop our American accent and move to a semi-demi-faux British accent? CLASS.  That’s what’s being heightened. The appearance of privilege. Poshness.

The “Shakespeare accent” has nothing to do with acting Shakespeare and EVERYTHING to do with acting “posh.”

Those of us in the theatre talk a good game about how Shakespeare is for everyone, and whine a great deal when our audiences are less diverse in race or age than we’d like. Although we have a long way to go, we’re slowly getting better at looking to ourselves for problems with racial diversity in our audiences, but we epic fail with looking to ourselves for problems with age diversity in our audiences, generally blaming lack of swarms of twenty-two year-olds at our productions on their boorishness and lack of interest in “culture.”

Maybe the way we frame Shakespeare is to blame for the homogeneity of its audiences. When people talk about Shakespeare as “lofty poetry,” it makes me cringe. Not because they’re wrong– there’s certainly enough lofty poetry in Shakespeare to keep your lofty poetry needs happy for quite some time before you have to turn to Blake or Donne– but because Shakespeare ON STAGE is less about poetry as such and all about stories– rich, passionate, violent, emotional, heart-ripping stories at that. Shakespeare uses poetry to tell stories, and he will drop the poetry or jack up its rhythmic demands in a hot second to make an emotional point. The poetry is in service to the stories. These stories tell all the secrets of the human heart, and we continue to frame them in popular culture as staid and boring “high culture,” as if Shakespeare is medicine that you must take because it’s good for you rather than ZOMG THESE PLAYS ARE AWESOME.

Part of sequestering Shakespeare into the special, rarefied, and (most importantly) exclusive domain of “high culture” is this pretend, contrived, completely non-regional “Shakespeare” accent; an accent created solely and specifically to denote “upper class.”

This accent is part of the mythology that Shakespeare is “high class” art for the privileged. If we as directors or audience demand that Shakespeare actors adopt an accent that was created specifically to signal “rich and white” and still signals that to this day in popular culture, what are we saying about Shakespeare?

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I know an exceptional Black actor with enormous range who was told by one of his college professors (also a Black man) that he would never be able to do Shakespeare because of his “Black accent.” Of course he was wrong. Apart from this particular actor’s massive flexibility, the professor’s own experience as an actor was decades ago, and this is the 21st century in the Bay Area, where that kind of thinking is thankfully now on the wane. However, there are still too many directors out there who will absolutely refuse to cast a Black actor– or ANY actor– who does not adopt the upper class white accent our culture has come to associate with Shakespeare, and too many universities and training programs that teach that as NORMAL. At general auditions for my company last spring, I had a batch of diverse, newly-hatched college grads all from the same Bay Area university (not the same one I discuss above, depressingly) whose actors, each and every one, came in doing the “Shakespeare accent.” I almost wrote to the department. I probably should have. But even more depressingly, there are plenty of teachers and directors who still think that’s necessary.

Let me just say: Balderdash.

BECAUSE we know that Shakespeare’s plays were written for an accent nothing like this contrived “Shakespeare accent,” but an accent no one anywhere today would mistake for “posh,” and BECAUSE we know that Shakespeare’s plays are the greatest plays ever written in the English language and tell all the secrets of the human heart, and therefore belong to everyone, and BECAUSE we recognize that more diversity of all types on our stages and in our audiences is a good thing, and BECAUSE this is almost 2014, FFS, I RESOLVE:

THE DEATH OF THE SHAKESPEARE ACCENT IS AT HAND.

Listen, if that’s how you really talk, then I have no problem with you using that accent when you do Shakespeare. In fact, that’s my entire point. YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH JUST AS YOU ARE for Shakespeare. Your body, your voice, just as they are, are worthy carriers of these stories, whether your speech is “posh” or straight outta Compton. Talk like you talk. YOU ARE WORTHY OF SHAKESPEARE, just as you are.

And directors? Please stop. Just stop. These stories are yours to tell. You don’t need to overlay fake poshness to prove you’re worthy to enter the club. You’re already worthy.

These stories are part of the human literary heritage. They already belong to you. They’re about you, whoever you are. It’s time to liberate these plays from the mythology of exclusivity.

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High School Yellowface

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I’m not posting pictures of the actual minors in the show. Instead I’m choosing to post pictures from America’s vast yellowface past. This keeps the kids’ identities confidential while also providing some cultural context.

Someone I know recently posted some pictures of her son’s high school performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Of course I’m stoked that the kids are doing Shakespeare instead of Grease or One Direction: The Musical or whatever. And I definitely understand the impulse to want to set these plays in a fanciful place and time, especially if you have hundreds of hours of free parental labor and thousands of dollars at your disposal. I’m not a huge fan of randomly chosen settings, like Love’s Labour’s Lost in an 18th century brothel or King Lear on the Death Star (although I might have to give that last one some serious thought). But I understand the impulse, even if I do not agree with it.

The problem with this play is that it’s set in “Ming Dynasty China.”

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I’ve written about race in casting before (this and this). But I’ve been thinking about this issue all day, for two reasons: One, the fact that this is educational theatre; and two, that half the kids in the cast are Asian American, but the faculty director is white.

There’s a reason theatre education belongs in schools. It teaches kids about the challenges and joys of creating art collaboratively. It helps kids learn how to extract meaning from text in very concrete ways. It teaches kids how to work under an utterly unforgiving deadline. It teaches kids about the massive, gorgeous, messy pile of dramatic literature available to us in the 21st century, which are all windows open to different places, times, experiences, and points of view. Theatre education is a life-changing, mind-expanding experience.

This is precisely why this is so disappointing to me. These kids are being taught that it’s acceptable for white people to play characters of color. It’s nowhere near acceptable in the professional world, where a mistake like that can create national controversy. If you don’t have an all-Asian cast at your disposal, you shouldn’t be doing a play set in Ming Dynasty China, and to place high school kids into such a situation is to do them a huge disservice. There’s a reason why I’m not posting pictures of these kids. This is not their fault, and I’m not holding them up to global mockery. It’s easy to say, “What does it matter? It’s just high school theatre.” If that’s the case, then what does ANY educational activity matter? Why not blow it all off and let them all play CoD: Ghosts instead of reading Catcher in the Rye or doing those calculus problems? I guarantee you that the skills theatre kids are learning are more likely to be useful to them in their future day-to-day lives as adults than calculus will be. If you believe education is important, then it follows that teaching kids that something highly controversial and racially problematic is just fine is shockingly irresponsible. Either education matters or it does not.

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Midsummer is a play people love to set in various places, and it can be quite successfully done that way. Bindlestiff Studio in San Francisco did an all-Filipino Midsummer using Filipino folklore tropes, with Tagalog-speaking mechanicals that was so fantastic I saw it TWICE. Which is insane, since I rarely get out of my own theatre. But this was a Filipino production, headed by a Filipino director, with an all-Filipino cast, at a Filipino theatre. This was about taking ownership of a classic story, coming from a deep, authentic positionality. A white director setting Midsummer in Ming Dynasty China with a half-white cast is not the same (especially when that cast are all teenagers working under an adult authority figure who makes the bulk of the creative decisions). It doesn’t have a deep message that comes from the center of Chinese or Chinese American culture. Instead, it’s a white director using a non-white culture as WINDOW DRESSING. And no matter how much research was done, or how many accurate renderings of period costumes or sets there were, this was using a culture as decoration, not marginalized people telling a story from within that cultural positionality. It’s deeply problematic.

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When I first started discussing this issue, I was told that half the cast is Asian, some of the techs are Asian, and the faculty choreographer is Asian. I was told that the Asian families coming to see their kids in the show weren’t complaining about the yellowface (out loud). I was told that the performances weren’t “stereotypical,” and that someone was playing traditional Chinese music during the show. I was told that the casting was “multicultural.” These were all held up to me as reasons it’s OK for white kids to play people of color. I actually gave it some thought. After all, the kids were in traditional Beijing Opera makeup, not actual yellowface . . .  did that matter? And I wondered for a bit if the presence of Asians working on the show changed the equation at all.

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Oh, right. No, it doesn’t. Not even an Asian director makes a difference in the ensuing controversy apart from: “He should have known better.”

It’s just not acceptable for white people in America to play people of color at all. Race has meaning. And although I suppose it could be argued that a half-white cast isn’t as egregious as a fully-white cast, or one wherein all the leads are white, race still carries narrative that cannot be erased. The meaning of a white person playing an Asian person is culturally problematic in profound, complex ways attached to a lengthy history of appropriation, erasure, and oppression. It’s a common misconception that “multicultural casting” means that white people should be able to play characters of color because we cast people of color in roles originally written for white actors. To pretentiously quote my own damn article that I linked to above (see, now you don’t have to click on it):

Using a white actor as [a character of color] has a very different impact on the narrative than casting a person of color in a traditionally white role. It erases the physical presence of the person of color and substitutes it with blackface/yellowface, imperialism and cultural appropriation. The West has a long history of casting white actors in racist portrayals of people of color, of appropriating the narratives of people of color and reshaping them through a white lens, and of shutting artists of color out of positions of importance. An American audience viewing a white person portraying a person of color will be reminded of all of these, and of blackface, of yellowface, of the history of racism with which we still struggle. These are all present in any production wherein a white actor is cast as a person of color because they are so palpably present within our culture. Again, race is always part of the narrative.

Maybe it’ll change some day, and we will be so many hundreds of years past the issues that make yellowface culturally unacceptable that it truly will not matter any longer, because race will no longer carry the same narratives it does now. Perhaps it’ll carry new, better narratives, less painful, less difficult. But that day is not today, and both yellowface and whitewashing remain culturally unacceptable.

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I’m not going to reveal the location of this production, and I won’t approve any comments that do, because at its heart, this is about protecting those kids. They should be taught right from wrong, and yellowface is wrong, just as all whitewashing is wrong. In our current cultural context, it’s never OK for a white person to play a person of color, even in a high school. ESPECIALLY in a high school. And claiming that it’s OK because there are Asians in the room is like the guy who says “My Black friend LOVES my racist jokes.” Whether it’s true or not, the jokes are still racist, and there is a much larger cultural context to consider.

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Stop Complaining that Young People Don’t Like Shakespeare

Janette Penley and Will Hand in Lauren Gunderson's Toil and Trouble. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2012.

Jeanette Penley and Will Hand in Lauren Gunderson’s Toil and Trouble. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2012.

Once upon a time, I was ALL ABOUT the new plays. I wrote my dissertation on appropriating and subverting canonical narratives around gender, sexuality, and race in theatre by young artists.  I helped found a theatre, the one I head today, whose initial stated goals were all about new plays for an under-40 audience. New plays by emerging playwrights were going to be my life, and, for the most part, they are. I’m hip deep in the new plays community, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Alyssa Bostwick in the PR shot for Impact's 2002 production of Scab, by Sheila Callaghan. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Alyssa Bostwick in the PR shot for Impact’s 2002 production of Scab, by Sheila Callaghan. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Even though we were focused primarily on new plays, early on at Impact we started talking about what an Impact Shakespeare would look like. We all loved Shakespeare and we wanted to be able to convey that to our audience, who we believed felt alienated from his work solely due to how it was framed and staged. Founding Artistic Director Josh Costello was very focused on the story of Prince Hal as being analogous to the stories of many young people– working very hard to live up to the scorn and underestimation of the older generation, but able to throw down when the need arose. We began to develop a script that took a little of Richard 2, a lot of Henry 4 Part 1, and a little of Henry 4 Part 2. I was slotted to direct, and we went forward with our first Impact Shakespeare: Henry IV: The Impact Remix. This was 2002.

Falstaff and the tavern dwellers surround Prince Hal in our production of Henry IV: The Impact Remix. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Falstaff and the tavern dwellers surround Prince Hal in our production of Henry IV: The Impact Remix. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

It was how we always did things back then, and still do now: We did something we thought *we* would want to see. Honestly, I wasn’t sure how people would take it. I have a theory about Shakespeare: Because there were no period costumes or period sets as such in the Renaissance, making Shakespeare’s mise en scene essentially contemporary, and because no matter where or when the plays are set, they’re riddled with contemporary references, the plays are written to be staged in a manner contemporaneous to the audience viewing them, and are at their most effective in that staging. I’m not saying that your 1887 staging of Merchant is crap– I’m saying that a period setting adds an additional roadblock to the audience finding a point of entry into the play, and I believe the plays are at their most effective when as many roadblocks as possible are removed.

Our Hamlet PR shot by Cheshire Isaacs. That's Patrick Alparone, Cole Alexander Smith, and me. That shutter speed was crazy slow, so my back was killing me holding this pose. Cheshire said I bitched more than anyone he's ever shot except Olympia Dukakis. 2005.

Our Hamlet PR shot by Cheshire Isaacs. That’s Patrick Alparone, Cole Alexander Smith, and me. 2005.

Whenever I talk about this, there are always plenty of angry remarks from people who consider themselves “purists” and believe the plays need to be staged in some kind of period. But I maintain that I’m a purist– I’m preserving Shakespeare’s intent. He staged his work with contemporary sets, costumes, props, music, acting style and conventions. I’m doing precisely the same thing. I’d also like to point out that almost none of these “purists” are staging these plays anything like they were originally staged– in Renaissance dress, with Renaissance accents, Renaissance acting styles (as far as we can reconstruct them), all-male casts with ingenues played by underage boys, Renaissance set and props, Renaissance music played live. Such an experience, while historically exciting and thoroughly badass, is prohibitively expensive, not to mention problematic for other reasons– staging lark and nightingale with a young man and an underage boy in drag could get you arrested now.

In my experience, most “purists” are pleased enough when a play is set in any period of the past, as long as it isn’t contemporary. However, a production set in 1887 is no different than one set in 2013 as far as difference from Renaissance norms goes. In fact, in many ways, we’re closer to the earthy Renaissance in taste and customs than the (at least publicly) prudish Victorians. A production of Lear set in 768 BCE makes very little sense within the context of the play’s narrative (for one thing, the play assumes the main characters can read and write), references, and language, even though the play is ostensibly set then, in Britain’s pagan prehistoric past. Lear is set in 8th century BCE Britain in name only, and the culture of 2013 is much closer to the English Renaissance, where the play’s social structure, references, and narratives were originally located, than prehistoric Britain’s is. So unless they’re advocating for a full-on Renaissance reconstruction, “purists” have no leg whatsoever on which to stand when bitching about modern-dress productions. Let’s leave them aside to work on their production of Coriolanus in Napoleonic dress and move on.

Macbeth. Harold Reid, Skyler Cooper, Pete Caslavka, and Casey Jackson. Photo by Kevin Berne. 2003.

Macbeth. Harold Reid, Skyler Cooper, Pete Caslavka, and Casey Jackson. Photo by Kevin Berne. 2003.

Henry IV: The Impact Remix was an enormous success for us, and was a life-changing event for me personally. I had approached this play with respect, love, and admiration, but without reverence. I believed that my main duty was to tell this story in a way my audience would find exciting and emotionally powerful. It was life-changing for me because it was the first time someone said this to me:

“I hated Shakespeare until I saw this play.”

Jonah McClellan in what will eventually be our Troilus and Cressida poster image. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Jonah McClellan in what will eventually be our Troilus and Cressida poster image. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

I’m in the middle of rehearsals for Troilus and Cressida, so, counting that and Henry, I’ve directed 10 plays by Shakespeare at Impact, along with one other classic play (Tis Pity She’s a Whore by John Ford). Every single time we’ve done one of these, at least one person, usually many people, and almost all under 40, say the same thing: “I hated Shakespeare until I saw this play.”

Romeo and Juliet. Pictured: Joseph Mason, Mike Delaney, Reggie White, Jonah McClellan, and Seth Thygesen. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2011.

Romeo and Juliet. Pictured: Joseph Mason, Mike Delaney, Reggie White, Jonah McClellan, and Seth Thygesen. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2011.

Am I just a genius director who wields my personal genius to create once-in-a-lifetime Shakespeare experiences? Hahaha no. Not at all. I’m a solid director, but I’m no standout genius. I don’t have LORTs scrambling to fly me out to lay down some King Lear on them. I don’t have some kind of cult following. I’m just a regular director.

The heart of my point here is that ANYONE can do what I do.

It’s exhausting to listen to person after person after person bemoan how few young people like Shakespeare. They blame it on their lack of culture and general boorishness. They blame it on the language. They blame it on the internet, iphones, and video games. They blame it on hip hop. They lay the blame everywhere but where it lies: In boring, lifeless productions.

All of these off-base theories result in “solutions” that are ultimately, of course, unsuccessful. They result in things like that abomination, No Fear Shakespeare. They result in a massively unpopular Romeo and Juliet with “updated” language that was provided as a “translation” of the Shakespeare by Julian Fellowes. “I can do that because I had a very expensive education, I went to Cambridge,” says Fellowes. They result in poorly conceptualized productions that cram popular markers of “youth” such as hip hop or live feed cameras into the production without any regard to the storytelling or any attention paid to the acting style.

But here’s the thing: You don’t need ANY OF THAT to get young people to like your Shakespeare production. A stiff, formal production that doesn’t know what it’s about and privileges poetry over storytelling is not going to be compelling just because you used a hip hop soundtrack or “multimedia” or let people tweet during the show.

I get asked all the time how I get so many young people into our Shakespeares. And again, I want to reiterate that I’m no genius by a longshot, which I think is key to my point that ANYONE can do what I do. The trick is wanting to.

Carlos Martinez and Vince Rodriguez in Titus Andronicus. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2012.

Carlos Martinez and Vince Rodriguez in Titus Andronicus. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2012.

Here’s what I do. Use it or ignore it as you will, but this is the answer to “How do you get so many young people to see Shakespeare?”

I refuse to allow my actors to put on fake British accents or use RP. If you’re actually British, fine. My point is: use the accent you use everywhere else in your life. I don’t scan in rehearsal unless I absolutely have to, and you’d be amazed at how little that is. Unless your actors have deep experience with scansion, it results in stiff, formal dialogue that becomes rote recitation of poetry and loses all sense of storytelling, especially if you make your actors scan all their lines on the first day. I love codes as much as the next nerd, but it’s just not productive if what you’re trying to produce is relevant, passionate, narrative-based storytelling in a six week rehearsal period.

“Talk like you talk; act like you act” is what I tell my actors. “You’re modern people with access to heightened language. Approach this in the same way you’d approach Sarah Ruhl.” When I edit, I privilege narrative over poetry. I find contemporary analogues for every character and situation and stage to that. Staging and costuming provide context that takes care of the language barrier. I approach the  plays as if they’re living, relevant stories that tell all the secrets of the human heart in glorious, heart-stopping language instead of historical artifacts or holy writ. Most importantly, I approach the plays as if they’re both FOR and ABOUT the people sitting in my audience.

One of my favorite moments as a director. This group of high school students came to see my Titus. They all brought spoons with them and held them up when the pie came out. I collared them after the show for this picture.

One of my favorite moments as a director. This group of high school students came to see my Titus Andronicus. They all brought spoons with them and held them up when the pie came out. I collared them after the show for this picture.

It’s not difficult. In fact, it seems to me to be a lot easier than forcing actors into some kind of separate “SHAKESPEARE” space instead of allowing them to just fucking act like they would in any other play. This is part of the reason why I’m mystified by classes in “Acting Shakespeare.” There’s no such thing, or there shouldn’t be. It’s all just ACTING. There’s no need to get precious about it. Shakespeare’s just about the least precious playwright who ever wrote in English. Are these plays the best things ever written in the English language? YES. Do any of the characters know that? NO. Othello has no idea he’s one of the most important characters ever written. All he knows is that his heart is breaking.

If we’re going to go out of our way to teach “Acting Shakespeare,” then what we should be teaching is how to step away from the idea that it’s any different than any other play that uses heightened language. It should be a detox class more than anything else. You’re discovering the language as you say it; it’s the only way you can express what you need to say, focus on your objectives rather than the poetry or states, make your characters real, complex people. Make sure you know the meaning of every single thing that comes out of your mouth, and why you’re saying it. You know: acting.

Marissa Keltie as Desemona and Skyler Cooper as Othello. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2004.

Marissa Keltie as Desdemona and Skyler Cooper as Othello. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2004.

If you get out of the way, you can give young people the opportunity to love Shakespeare. You have to allow them, though, to love it on their own terms. You’re never going to force someone to love something exactly the same way that you do. Once you hook someone on Shakespeare, it’s a lifelong addiction, and the plays will change for them as they progress through their various life stages. When I first read R&J at 14, I identified strongly with Juliet and was crushing hard on Mercutio– my very first literary crush. Now, as a mother of two teenage sons, the character who resonates the most for me is the nurse, the only person in the entire play who truly loves Juliet for who she is, and therefore the person with the most to lose.

Jon Nagel as Lord Capulet, Bernadette Quattrone as the Nurse, and Luisa Frasconi as Juliet. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2011.

Jon Nagel as Lord Capulet, Bernadette Quattrone as the Nurse, and Luisa Frasconi as Juliet. Ara Glenn-Johanson in the background as Lady Cap. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2011.

I don’t think I have the one definitive answer to what under-40 audiences will like in their Shakespeare. This modern, story-focused approach has worked really well for us, and I’ve seen stiff, scansion-focused, stand-and-declaim productions fail with younger audiences time after time. That’s really all I’ve got for you. I have no doubt that there are directors out there who are working on genius approaches that will excite younger audiences in ways I’ve only dreamed about, approaches that are neither of the two above. All I can say is what I’ve seen fail, and what has worked for me.

If your taste differs, that’s fine. If you want a very poetry-focused, static Shakespeare set in some distant period, that’s great. But don’t bemoan the fact that younger people aren’t flocking to something made to YOUR TASTE.

Tim Redmond as Oberon and Pete Caslavka as Puck. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2009.

Tim Redmond as Oberon and Pete Caslavka as Puck. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2009.

I want to address one last thing before I head off to the grocery store while the I WILL MURDER YOU WITH MY RIVERSIDE comments roll in (probs not going to approve those, guys). We get a sizable chunk of OVER-40 people in our audiences as well. Modern stagings won’t push your subscribers out the door. Some of my favorite audience members are retirees. We used to have a group from a local retirement community that regularly came to see our shows and loved what we did. I adored them. They all had a deep knowledge of Shakespeare and honored me with the best discussions after the show. Older people are given the shaft as audience members these days. Everyone complains about them and no one seems to value them. I *LOVE* having them in our space. They’re smart, sophisticated viewers who have been seeing shows since before we were born, and have insights and opinions well worth listening to. People who look down on older audience members don’t know what they’re missing. And bear in mind that 75 isn’t what it used to be– that 75-year-old woman in your front row was in her 20s, naked, at Dionysus in 69. So don’t judge.

Marilet Martinez as Mercutio with Miyuki Bierlein as Balthasar underneath. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2011.

Marilet Martinez as Mercutio with Miyuki Bierlein as Balthasar underneath. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2011.

But honestly, I don’t think younger people like Shakespeare or hate Shakespeare or are indifferent to Shakespeare in any sizably different proportions than any other demographic. The issue is that we believe that young people SHOULD like Shakespeare, because it’s “good for them,” but we are much more likely to leave older people and their tastes alone. There’s no question that the average American middle-aged man would rather watch football or porn (especially in Utah— high five, Mormons) than Shakespeare. However, we don’t, by and large, bemoan the fact that that football-loving, porn-watching BYU facilities manager doesn’t like Shakespeare in the same way that we bemoan the fact that those football-loving, porn-watching BYU students don’t. For some reason, their disinterest is posited by the culture as dire, while the facilities manager’s disinterest is seen as his due– just his taste.

Dennis Yen as Adam and Miyaka Cochrane as Orlando. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2013.

Dennis Yen as Adam and Miyaka Cochrane as Orlando. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. 2013.

I wouldn’t worry about young people not loving Shakespeare. Shakespeare is unstoppable. Those stories and that language contain an irrepressible power and beauty, and there are plenty of young people who will find them, especially if you don’t hide them behind a screen of fake accents and stiff delivery. Let them breathe. They will reward you.

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What Theatre is For

Arisa Bega in Monica Byrne's What Every Girl Should Know at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Arisa Bega in Monica Byrne’s What Every Girl Should Know at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what theatre is and why we do it. It sounds like an easy thing to think about until you actually start thinking about it.

Someone I know recently referred to himself as a “provocateur” in how he creates his art, and that it’s not enough for him to just “do theatre.” I’ve known quite a few people who see themselves primarily as something along those lines– trying to “awaken” people, or provide some kind of “transformative experience.” And I think those can be laudable goals, to a certain extent. But what does it mean to “just do theatre”? Is being a “provocateur” more than “just doing theatre”?

I’m not sure if the “provocateur” approach can be, ultimately, a successful starting point all on its own.  Provoke them to do what? Rush Limbaugh and Anne Coulter are two of the best provocateurs in the game. So are middle-schoolers. Provoking people isn’t a laudable goal in and of itself. Awakening people to what? Transforming them from what to what? This is unspecific language that is ultimately self-serving, focusing more on our personal importance to the process than on the work itself. That’s not to say artists aren’t important– that bears repeating, especially now as our importance to culture is under constant attack– but that, if our goals are audience-focused, we’re going to need to think more deeply about what we’re doing.

Dennis Yen, Mike Delaney, and Seth Thygesen in Twelfth Night at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Dennis Yen, Mike Delaney, and Seth Thygesen in Twelfth Night at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

In the ensuing discussion with the “provocateur,” we both discovered that he meant so much more than what that word implies. He meant something for which there is no single word. He wants to engage his audience’s hearts, minds, souls, and bodies. He wants to reach down past the dross of the everyday and into a place of deeper meaning, deeper connection. And now we’re getting somewhere.

This type of engagement is about communion; it creates community. It’s one of the deepest, oldest human impulses. Hell, it’s a primate impulse. Be with me. See me. Hear me. Know me. Share this experience with me.

Chris Quintos in Joshua Conkel's The Chalk Boy at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Chris Quintos in Joshua Conkel’s The Chalk Boy at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

I’ve had hundreds of discussions with hundreds of theatremakers, and when you dig deep enough, it all hits this same foundation: engagement, communion. How do we accomplish this communion? How do we, in the context of what we do as theatre artists, engage others in a way that creates communion?

Anyone who tells you that what we now call “audience engagement” is the pathway to this is just completely wrong. It *can* be, but just providing ways for your audience to interact with your work will not mean they’re automatically engaged with it in a meaningful way. Anyone can write on a wall, stand on a stage, sing a song, or tweet while being bored out of their minds and wishing they were at home playing Mass Effect. The techniques we use to “engage” audiences will not, in and of themselves, work. They can be very powerful, and they can be boring as all fuck.

How we make “audience engagement” techniques work is the same way we make theatre work: narrative. We’re storytellers.

Luisa Frasconi and Maria Giere Marquis in Joshua Conkel's The Chalk Boy at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Luisa Frasconi and Maria Giere Marquis in Joshua Conkel’s The Chalk Boy at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

When I say “narrative,” I don’t mean any one kind of narrative. A narrative doesn’t have to be linear. It doesn’t have to be traditionally structured in any way. Theatre is a narrative art form, and if you create an “audience engagement experience” without any kind of compelling narrative, you’re not going to successfully engage them.

While some people are quick to denigrate the term “storyteller” because it doesn’t sound important to them, theatre is, at its heart, about stories. How we choose to tell those stories differs from artist to artist and genre to genre, but the human brain understands the world through narrative. It’s why religion is conveyed primarily through narrative. Narrative and poetry are how we convey all the mysteries of our existence; narrative and poetry are how we convey all the secrets of the human heart. To be a storyteller is to be both the keeper of and the maker of our culture– past, present, and future. HOW you choose to tell those stories is up to you. But we’re all storytellers in this art.

In theatre, “poetry” can be what we usually mean by the word– unexpected juxtapositions of language that create an insightful, emotional impact– but we also have the luxury of creating it in the physical world– movement, sound, sets, lights, costumes, props, the bodies of the actors, the way those bodies tell the story being told. Poetry works in service to the narrative. It illuminates it or cracks it open or reframes it or explains it or even problematizes it (Shakespeare in particular loves that last one).

Mike Delaney in Lauren Gunderson's Toil and Trouble at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshrie Isaacs.

Mike Delaney in Lauren Gunderson’s Toil and Trouble at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

We start with something we want to say– a story we want to tell– and then we decide how we need to tell that story. The audience comes in the door and sits with us while we tell the story in the way we need to tell it. Maybe they participate in the telling; maybe not. But we– like an old woman sitting at a paleolithic campfire and every other storyteller in between that woman and us– create a world, open that world, and throw it like a blanket around our audience. Be in this world with me, feel its joy, its pain, its magic.

And through that ritual of storytelling– whether we’re creating a traditional, linear narrative or an experimental, non-linear movement piece, or anything in between— we’re attempting to engage, to create communion. When we’re successful, when we achieve that (because of course we don’t always, and we have to make room for failure if we ever wish to succeed), that engagement, that communion, can be provocative, transformative, or awakening. It can raise political consciousness. It can create an emotional journey. It can change minds, heal hearts, elevate souls. It can do ANYTHING, because a group of people fully engaged in a narrative is one of the singlemost immensely powerful tools available to the human experience.

Jonathon Brooks in Cameron McNary's Of Dice and Men. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Jonathon Brooks in Cameron McNary’s Of Dice and Men. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

There’s a wealth of information about the neurology of storytelling– how the human brain experiences narrative and is enriched by it is especially interesting. Our brains see the world, and other humans, as a collection of narratives. When we say we’re “storytellers,” we’re saying we engage other humans through the deepest, most primitive, most mysterious means possible. We’re talking soul to soul when we tell stories. What binary is to computers, narrative is to humans.

And this is what I think theatre is for: gathering a group of people to enter into a world wherein a story can be created, shared, and fully experienced in real, physical space and time by both creators and audience. Our stories contain all the mysteries of our existence, all the secrets of our hearts, all our hopes and fears and dreams and longing and joy and pain and everything that makes us who we are, who we were, who we fear becoming, who we want to be, what we dream we can be, at the deepest, most meaningful level our brains can comprehend.

So don’t shy away from the term “storyteller.” It’s one of the most meaningful labels we have for ourselves as theatremakers. It contains within it everything we’re trying to do with audience engagement, everything we’re trying to do when we say we want to “take risks” or “provide a transformative experience.” Everything we are and everything we will be are made of narrative. Theatre is the most powerful expression of the intensely human magic that is narrative.

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What Actors Aren’t Telling You

Recently I posted on The Book of Faces that I was considering writing a post about audition tips for theatres, and I was deluged with responses from actors: horror stories, pet peeves, constant annoyances, along with gratitude for moments of kindness, special consideration, and respect. I had comments both publicly, on the post itself, and privately, in messages and emails, by the tankful.  Actors shared with me their ups and downs about the entire process, not just auditions, and it was quite an education. Going through them all, one thing stuck out to me immediately: No one is telling anyone else the truth about any of these things.

This is where I always come in, right? My brother likes to call this “career-limiting behavior.”

Career limiting behavior. Part of JD Hancock's awesome Stormtroopers series.

Career limiting behavior. Part of JD Hancock’s awesome Stormtroopers series.

So here you go. The things actors are thinking but don’t ever tell you.

Note: I invented exactly none of this. Everything you see below comes directly from the actors themselves. And while I’m certain there will be actors who disagree (“What? I LOVE having to come in for 6 callbacks for a show that pays $250.”), I only included issues mentioned by multiple actors.

Also: This is for producers and directors, and I include myself in that (obviously). I’m in no way perfect and make mistakes all the time, so don’t think I’m castigating you from on high. I am but the messenger. I have many posts with advice for actors (this one, also this one, here’s another one, yet one more), so don’t worry– I’m an equal opportunity meddler.

AUDITIONS:

Directors, we need to be realistic about callbacks. If you’re directing for a LORT and have big AEA contracts to give out, yes, you are entitled to three callbacks. If you’re working for a small theatre paying a $500 stipend for the whole shebang, you can bring the same actor back to see the same people once. You get a second callback if it’s significantly different from the first in the material covered or in the approach to it, or if the actors are there to be seen by different people (for example, a dance callback on a different day than the vocal callback). However, if you’re asking actors to come in for a second or third callback to do basically the same things for the same people they saw in the initial audition and first callback, some actors are starting to think you just don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t know what you want, or both. They start to wonder if working with you will be a good experience. You might want to address with actors specifically why you need to see them do the same stuff over again. Maybe having to articulate it will help you understand what the issue is, and might even guide you to making your decision without additional callbacks.

Another oft-cited problem with auditions in general and callbacks in particular is poor organization. This takes two forms: Disrespect for the actor’s time and disrespect for the actor’s preparation. When our callbacks are poorly organized, we run behind and end up making actors wait– sometimes even for hours– past their slot. Actors have time commitments just like anyone else– they need to get to work or pick their kids up from school or meet friends for dinner. If you told them they’d be there from 7-7:30PM and they’re still there at 9PM, you blew it. But wait! All is not lost! Did you apologize profusely for blowing it, or did you act like an entitled jerk? A sincere apology goes a LONG way.

Disrespect for the actor’s preparation often stems from running out of time. If you ask an actor to prep five sides, that’s a HELL OF A LOT OF SIDES. Actors will spend a significant chunk of time prepping that massive callback for you. If they get into the space and only get through 1 and 1/2 of those sides before you send them on their way, they are not happy. So be realistic about the amount of time you’ll need for each audition and the amount of material you’re giving each actor to prep. And again, a sincere apology when you blow it really goes a long way. Let’s face it: We all blow it sometimes.

bob.ross

Another pet peeve actors have about auditions is when directors ask them to perform material they haven’t been asked to prep. Again, a sincere apology goes a long way here, and there are always exceptions. An actor’s not going to get cross with you if you call him in to read for a small role and decide on the fly to have him read for the lead. But actors WILL get cross with you if you ask them to perform “something” from a show you see on their resume (“You mean the one I did five years ago? In college?”). Another pet peeve of actors is when directors ask for outlandish adjustments, such as asking them to perform the monologue they just did for you, but this time as a spider. If you know you’ll want actors to do improv work or extreme, unusual adjustments, tell them in advance. If you decide on the fly you want to see something unusual, be cool about it and understand that you’re asking a lot.

Cold reads are so problematic I’ve given them their own post. Send your sides out in advance.

What actors love about your audition: Being treated with respect and kindness. Free snacks (a simple bowl of mini Reese’s peanut butter cups was mentioned as an especially nice touch). Available water, bathrooms, and seating.  Directors who pay attention during the monologue rather than text or eat. Directors who respond to an actor after the audition either way. An offer is always nice, but a timely release is appreciated as well, as difficult as they are to send.

We’re auditioning for the actor as much as the actor is auditioning for us. Think of it as a blind date.

Your blind date is less likely to end in happily ever after if you text through the whole thing.

Your blind date is less likely to end in happily ever after if you text through the whole thing.

REHEARSALS:

Directors, you should probably know that a lot of actors don’t want to pretend their characters are animals, especially experienced actors who already have their own character creation processes developed over years of trial and error. Being forced to choose an animal seems twee to many actors. It works for some, but not (from what I’m hearing) most.

guinea-pig---tan

“Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York. Squeak.”

The most popular complaint, though, was time-related. “Mind if we stay late tonight?” I’m hearing that directors ask actors to stay late in the middle of rehearsal, or even at the end. The actors who pointed this out as a pet peeve fell into two basic categories: people who use public transportation and people who have early morning jobs. If you hold actors until 11:30, it makes it difficult for them to get home using public transportation (in the Bay Area, at least. Sigh.). Actors who have early morning jobs are already stealing from sleep to be at your rehearsal and are not at all excited about going in to work tomorrow on 4 hours of sleep, especially since you’ve scheduled another rehearsal that next night. No one wants to be the one who has to say, “Yes, I mind.”

Another issue is lack of concern for safety. This includes things like refusing to bring in a fight director and making untrained actors stage their own fights; making an actor perform blocking they feel is unsafe; making actors wear a restrictive costume that makes them feel unsafe (such as restricting vision). I’ve already blogged about why you need to hire a fight director. Otherwise, we need to remember to listen carefully and respectfully to actors when they tell us they feel uncomfortable or unsafe, and check in with actors when we’re asking them to do things that might be difficult or uncomfortable.  And actors, if you’re reading this, please be honest with us. Lying to directors about your comfort level serves no one.

Lack of respect and hostile work environment. Just because you’re the director does not mean you can yell at an actor until she cries. You can’t throw fits, scream at your tech people, call your staff names, or make racist. anti-Semitic, or misogynistic comments. Learning how to direct by watching movies about directors is ill-advised. I understand there’s cultural support for bad behavior by directors (the auteur being SUCH A GENIUS that he is allowed to be horrible to everyone around him) but it’s actually not OK. Producers: WHY WHY WHY do you hire these people? There are brilliant directors all over. Give someone else a chance. You really don’t need to allow someone to treat your people poorly.

WATCH ME! IT'S SO SIMPLE! GIVE ME THE PLAYBACK!

WATCH ME! IT’S SO SIMPLE! GIVE ME THE PLAYBACK!

What actors love about your rehearsal process: Respect. Being treated as collaborators. Having a clean, safe rehearsal space with bathrooms and nearby, easily accessible places to get food and beverages. Having a detailed rehearsal schedule sent out in advance.

DURING PERFORMANCES AND AFTER:

Refusing to do maintenance. Yeah, you kind of have to make sure the laundry gets done, props get repaired or replaced, etc. It’s not the actor’s job to do any of that. It’s our job as producers.

That's what I get for doing another blood show . . .

That’s what I get for doing another blood show . . .

Refusing to honor contracts. I’m not going into details here, but I’ve personally seen contract violations of both AEA and non-AEA contracts, in addition to the people who added this to their list of pet peeves. Honor your agreements.

What actors love about performances and after: Being allowed to use PR shots for their websites; producers who are accessible and approachable; a reasonable comp policy (no one expects 100 comps, but no one expects zero either); staying in touch after the show closes; recommending an actor to other companies; being paid on time with a check that doesn’t bounce.

We will not make our processes as magical as Batman riding a robot unicorn, BUT WE CAN TRY, DAMMIT.

We will not make our processes as magical as Batman riding a robot unicorn, BUT WE CAN TRY, DAMMIT.

Of course we all screw up from time to time. I’m no exception. I make 12 mistakes every day before breakfast. The overriding message I’m getting, though, is not that actors expect you to be perfect, but that they want to be treated with respect and dignity, and are happy to forgive you if you apologize sincerely for your mistakes.

Also of course, every actor is different. What one actor finds odious is perfectly fine for another actor. Talk to your actors and listen to what they have to say. Do your best to create an environment where your actors aren’t afraid to come to you with issues. Ask questions. Use your actor friends as a resource if you’re unsure. Communication is key.

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Why Cold Readings Are Almost Always Useless

My Troilus and Cressida auditions

My Troilus and Cressida auditions

I’ve been steadily working on a post about auditions for directors and producers (what drives actors crazy, what they love, what works, what doesn’t) and I keep getting hung up on specific issues that end up taking on lives of their own. The homogeneity of the women on our stages was the first one, and now this. Eventually I’ll have a post for you (PINKY SWEAR) but I think we all need for it to be less than 38,000 words long, so I’m breaking these larger issues out into posts of their own.

So, cold reads, amirite? They’re almost always completely useless. Let me count the ways.

1. The information a cold read gives you is beside the point. When you hold an audition, especially a callback, you’re attempting to obtain a specific set of answers to a specific set of questions about an actor. Chiefest among them are how the actor makes choices, shapes narrative, engages with scene partners, handles the language, physicalizes choices, and takes direction. You need to know how the actor inhabits the character for which she’s auditioning. You need to see her make emotional and physical choices within that, and make thoughtful adjustments to those choices. You need to see what her style is– does her approach to the material fit with your own well enough to ensure a productive rehearsal process? An actor who has not had adequate time to prepare will be able to show you almost none of that, because that work is complex and takes time– which is why we have a rehearsal process instead of just having actors memorize the script on their own and show up to tech to get their blocking. We expect actors to come into rehearsal prepped, and it’s without a doubt that auditions, as artificial as they are, will provide you with the most accurate information about how your actor will rehearse (and, therefore, perform) if they can replicate as closely as possible the conditions of rehearsal.

A cold read is a completely different experience than either rehearsal or performance in almost all cases. What a cold read shows you is whether an actor can make choices QUICKLY and how adept the actor is at reading aloud. While either of those skills can be useful in some very limited situations (soap opera acting and voice over work spring to mind), they are of limited use in casting your production of, say, Hamlet or Eurydice, where creating a space for the actor to show you her talent, skill, and craft will be of much better use than seeing how good she is at pulling something out of her ass on the spot that will be, of necessity, superficial.

In case you needed any more evidence that cold reading skills are only loosely related (at BEST) to acting skills, I am an EXCELLENT cold reader and LOVE to cold read. Ahem. ‘Nuff said.

OK, I'm not THAT bad.

OK, I’m not THAT bad.

2. An actor who lacks the time to prepare is an actor glued to the script. Of course no one expects an actor to come into callbacks with the sides memorized, but a prepared actor is an actor whose head isn’t constantly buried in his script. If he’s unfamiliar with the lines, the basic narrative of the scene, or the emotional narrative of the character for which he’s auditioning, he’ll be unable to connect with his scene partners as his head will be glued to his script trying to piece together what comes next and what he’s going to do about it. If being able to engage scene partners is an important skill to you (SPOILER ALERT: it is), then you want that kid’s head out of his script as much as possible. Giving him the opportunity to look it over in advance is the way to do that.

3. Dyslexic actors are more common than you think. While many mildly dyslexic actors have found ways to work around a cold read situation, you’d be surprised at how often incredibly talented actors are so severely dyslexic they have to turn down your callback because you can’t be arsed to send sides in advance. When I posted about this on facebook, I was deluged with grateful responses.

“I’m literally crying as I type this. You have no idea how many auditions I have had to turn down because I didn’t want to look like an idiot, stumbling over words, and sounding them out in front of the auditors.”

“Many dyslexics are incredibly expressive and artistic people, which is what makes them such brilliant performers. I am one of these people. Thank you so much for seeing us in a world that often doesn’t.”

“Yes! Thank you. I have this issue so frequently.”

Personally, I learned firsthand how useless cold read auditions were years ago when I worked with an incredibly talented actor who was so severely dyslexic he could not read aloud at all. However, he was almost always the most talented actor in the room. People can succeed if you give them the tools they need to succeed, and all a severely dyslexic person needs is a little time.

If I could just have a few more minutes with the script . . . No?

If I could just have a few more minutes with the script . . . No?

4. When is a cold read audition appropriate? If you’re directing a film or TV show wherein you know the actors will be receiving new pages regularly and will need to be able to prep and perform those pages almost immediately, a cold read audition is a useful tool in addition to an audition that allows for more in-depth work. Similarly, many commercials and music videos require on-the-spot preparation. (Not that you need six hours of rehearsal to prep a 30 second Valtrex ad or the character “Hot Girl Dancing near Lamborghini.”) If you’re directing a play and cold read skills are required as part of the performance, such as an audience engagement piece where the actors perform material the audience has written on the spot, you’ll want information about an actor’s cold reading skills.

"Thank GOD for my RADA training or I'd never be able to get through this"

“Thank GOD for my RADA training or I’d never be able to get through this”

You might be able to get the information you need from a cold reading if you’re not the kind of director who is focused on in-depth work with actors. There are some directors who are more visually-focused, storytelling through visual imagery rather than focused on storytelling through acting and the actors’ emotional narratives, and for those directors, simply seeing an actor talk and move through space may be enough. If you’re not going to do in-depth acting work, there’s no need to see how the actor approaches in-depth acting work, right? So a cold read, which by necessity cannot ever be in-depth, could give you the information you require.

actorprepares

 

But for the rest of us, the information we get from a cold reading is just beside the point of the information we need to make informed casting choices, and marginalizes severely dyslexic actors (whose numbers are much greater than you think) to boot. So eliminate cold reading auditions unless you really need to test the actor’s cold reading skills specifically. You’ll get better information AND be more inclusive.

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How to Look Cooler Than You Are

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Cheshire’s basic poster image for the world premiere of The Fisherman’s Wife, by Steve Yockey.

 

You know what I hear ALL the time? “Your posters are amazing.” “Your production shots are incredible.” “Your flyers are gorgeous.” I KNOW. You know why?

Cheshire Isaacs, that’s why.

 

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Another Cheshire poster image. I directed this show, and he captured its feel perfectly with this image.

 

Apart from being Impact’s Managing Director, my partner in crime, and my theatre husband (you can ask Cheshire and my real life husband about how I can’t keep track of who I told what to. Magical), Cheshire is Impact’s Graphics Overlord. If you’ve ever seen an Impact poster, image, or photograph and loved it, you have Cheshire to thank.

 

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So why am I telling you all this? Because, kittens, Cheshire is leaving his job as Art Director at Berkeley Rep and going freelance. Need an amazing poster? A kickass logo? Exceptional, attention-grabbing PR shots or production photos? New headshots? BAM. He’s your hookup, no question. (He’s San Francisco Bay Area-based, so photography will have to be within a reasonable distance unless you have a TARDIS.)

 

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Cheshire’s basic image for Cameron McNary’s Of Dice and Men. My real life husband painted the mini to match the actor playing the paladin, Jonathon Brooks.

 

Cheshire has been making me look cooler than I am for years now, and now he can make YOU look cooler than YOU ARE. And if you’re already extremely cool, well, his work will make you EVEN COOLER.

 

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Cheshire’s image for Prince Gomolvilas and Brandon Patton’s last installment of Jukebox Stories

 

I have a lot of his poster images here, but fewer of his PR and production shots, because I have tons of his shots all over the blog.  Click around and check it out. His shots are incredible.

So check out his stuff and drop him a line when you need some amazing art, OK?

 

One of Cheshire's PR shots for Impact's Titus Andronicus. Mark McDonald, Reggie White, Anna Ishida, Michael Garrett McDonald, and Joe Loper pictured.

One of Cheshire’s PR shots for Impact’s Titus Andronicus. Mark McDonald, Reggie White, Anna Ishida, Michael Garrett McDonald, and Joe Loper pictured.

One of the PR shots Cheshire took for my Romeo and Juliet. You can see how the poster and PR shot match in tone and feel.

One of the PR shots Cheshire took for my Romeo and Juliet. You can see how the poster and PR shot match in tone and feel. Joseph Mason, Mike Delaney, Reggie White, and Jonah McClellan, with Seth Thygesen as the corpse.

Stacz Sadowski in a production shot from Cameron McNary's Of Dice and Men, of course by Cheshire.

Stacz Sadowski in a production shot from Cameron McNary’s Of Dice and Men, of course by Cheshire.

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Cheshire’s art for Impact’s production of Lauren Yee’s Ching Chong Chinaman is now the cover art for the published version, available from Samuel French. This isn’t the only Cheshire Isaacs theatre poster that eventually became the book cover.

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Get It Together and Hire a Fight Director

As many of you know by now, I’ve been teaching at the Berkeley Digital Film Institute since its founding. Many film directors have passed through my classes, and exactly . . . um, carry the two, OK, FOUR PERCENT of them understand when they start my class that staged violence needs a fight director. And before you start congratulating yourself for being in theatre and therefore knowing better, easily half of all stage violence is blocked without a fight director. Maybe more. Here’s why you need to hire a fight director for your film or theatre violence.

Impact's Romeo and Juliet. Seth Thygesen as Benvolio, Marilet Martinez as Mercutio, Michael Garrett McDonald as Romeo. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. Fights by Dave Maier.

Impact’s Romeo and Juliet. Seth Thygesen as Benvolio, Marilet Martinez as Mercutio, Michael Garrett McDonald as Romeo. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. Violence by Dave Maier.

They’re better at it than you are. I know you totally think you can stage that fist fight based on your many viewings of Star Trek TOS, but believe me, you can’t. Or, rather, you CAN; it just won’t be safe or look anywhere near as good as if you had brought in a professional. Here’s the deal: Ideally, you know the look that you want. But the road to get there is not necessarily a straight line. You don’t, for example, set up a stage punch exactly in the same way you’d set up a real punch. It’s not as simple as just not landing your punch. Additionally, every fight has a narrative. Do you know what the story of your fight should be? Do you know how to tell that story clearly? A fight director does. Nothing is more annoying, or pulls you out of a moment faster, than watching badly done violence. It can take a beautifully acted scene and throw it straight down the toilet. You can have all the honesty you want, but if your violence looks cheap and crappy, it’s going to obliterate all that honesty immediately.  So, for the same reason you hire any other designer whose entire job is to know more about their area of design than you do, hire a fight director. It’s the difference between a badass fight and this.

…….or you could just use your phaser. Still: KIRK RULES.

Fight Director Christopher Morrison:

“The fights are integral to the story. A fight happens when the characters run out of language to pursue their objectives and their choices become physical. Block/direct accordingly. Also understand a fight is a DESIGN element. As a director you should understand what KIND of violence you want, how that violence fits into the world of the play/spine of the story, and what tone the violence should be (i.e. cartoon, filmic, epic, comic book, intimate, ‘fake,’ dirty, etc.) and be prepared to speak to your fight lady as you would another designer on the team.”

Christopher Morrison getting thrown by Cara Gilson in Impact's production of Zay Amsbury's The Wake Up Crew. Fights by Christopher Morrison.

Christopher Morrison getting thrown by Cara Gilson in Impact’s production of Zay Amsbury’s The Wake Up Crew. Violence by Christopher Morrison.

They’ll keep you, your actors, and your audience safe. Apart from the obvious first thought– you want the people around you to remain unharmed because you’re not a psychopath– I’m guessing that you, like me, are someone who enjoys staying out of prison and avoiding lawsuits. An excellent way to do that is to hire a professional to stage your fights safely. Fight Director and actor Carla Pantoja:

“I can’t tell you how many stories I have heard or been privy to of actors getting physically injured because someone didn’t use a respectable fight director. Now when I say ‘respectable fight director,’ I mean someone with reasonable and up-to-date training, or even hiring someone in the first place. [Name] shared a story awhile back of a nonunion (sadly, most of these horror stories are peopled with nonunion folk) actor who had her arm broken and dislocated because the director didn’t hire someone and wanted an arm lock that was ‘real’ (ugh, I hate that term used in relationship to theatrical violence– you want ‘real,’ start a fight club). This director demonstrated on her and snapped her arm. She required surgery.

Part of using a respectable and up-to-date fight director is getting the up-to-date knowledge. There are techniques that are outdated. Just like acting, techniques change. “

All fights, no matter how well-choreographed or rehearsed, carry some measure of risk, like everything in life, but the better choreographed and rehearsed they are, the lower that risk is. If you’ve ever lived through an actor getting injured on your stage, knowing you did everything in your power to prevent that is a world of difference from knowing your actor has a puncture wound because you couldn’t be arsed to hire a professional.

And please be prepared to trust that professional and follow his directives. A safe fight will not remain safe if you throw all the fight director’s instructions out the window. Fight Director and actor Andrew Rodgers:

This show is about as bad as it can get for a fight director.  The company called and asked if I’d choreograph the violence and the description of the play didn’t seem so bad.  But then I saw the publicity photos– the sole actress of the production (let’s call her ‘Jenny’) had a knife in her hand in the pictures.  I came to a rehearsal to see what was going on and I discovered that ‘Jenny’ had NO IDEA what safety meant.  The knife she was using was a dulled-down butcher knife, and my heart stopped when she first brought it out.  The blade was dull but it still had a point on it, and she was playing with it like it was a teddy bear– rubbing it on her face, putting it in her mouth, holding it by the blade or with two fingers.  I nearly exploded.  To complicate things, there was no structural, dramatic or narrative reason for the knife to be in the show– the playwright thought it’d be cool and edgy, and he refused to do rewrites until opening week.  I had to explain to ‘Jenny’ that all weapons, dull or not, should be treated as though they are sharp, and that the knife that she was futzing with could actually kill her or another actor.  I thought she had it, then my stage manager called to say she was doing it again.”

I’ve been lucky at my theatre to have worked with many wonderful actors who would never dream of ignoring a fight director’s instructions, but of course we always reinforce that with support from the director, fight captain, and stage manager. Everyone needs to be on board.

Stacz Sadowski and Anna Ishida in Impact's Titus Andronicus. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. Fights by Dave Maier.

Stacz Sadowski and Anna Ishida in Impact’s Titus Andronicus. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. Violence by Dave Maier.

Yes, you can afford it. Carla makes an excellent point that nonunion actors bear the brunt of the foolery of the producers and directors who don’t want to hire a fight director. Why is that? Because the small theatres who work with nonunion actors are always looking for ways to keep costs down. I’m right there with you in the trenches. My company is the smallest of the small. No one at my company draws a salary. But we wouldn’t dream of doing a show with fights without hiring a fight director. We build it into the budget from the start along with every other design element. If I can do it with my microbudget, so can you.

Obviously you want a trained, professional, certified fight director, but can you afford one? YES, dammit. A little research will show you who the big theatres in your area are using. While a small theatre is unlikely to be able to afford the kinds of rates paid by a LORT, perhaps that LORT fight director is willing to work with you on a sliding scale. If not, it’s almost certain she has a highly-trained associate or star student who’s qualified and talented but is early in his career and looking to build his professional resume. Is there an organization in your area that trains fight directors and actor combatants? Is there a university in your area that offers stage combat training? A little sleuthing will reveal who teaches those classes. Don’t just assume that these professionals are out of your price range, even if your price range is $100 and a sixer of Pyramid Hef. YOU NEVER KNOW. No asky, no gety. But don’t skimp. Pay your fight director what every other designer is getting, because that’s what a fight director is: part of your design team.

Carla Pantoja:

“For those who believe it is too expensive to hire a fight director, did you know that most of us are willing to talk about prices? Sure, there are price points I can’t go below due to commute, etc., however, I know people and I will point you in the direction of someone who may be in your price point.”

Bring your fight director into the process in preproduction, not during tech week. Again, a fight director is part of your design team. You should be meeting with your fight director before rehearsals even begin. Even if the violence is nothing but a single punch, talk to your fight director in advance, let her know who the actors are and what skills they have, discuss the fight narrative and style with her, and ask her how much rehearsal time she’ll need and where in the process she needs that time to be. Fight director Alaric Toy:

“The sooner you include the fight director in the show the better. If the fight director can be part of the audition process, even better. That way s/he can get a good idea of each actor’s true performing capability then and there. Listing ‘gymnastics’ and not being able to perform a cartwheel is just bad. I speak from personal experience looking at some actors’ supposed resumes and the reality of their movement capability doesn’t match when I have to choreograph the fight.”

Carla Pantoja:

“Producers, please call us in early to the rehearsal process. I can’t tell you how many calls I get to stage something like R & J two weeks before opening and none of the actors have ever held a weapon. I’m not kidding. You are setting us all up for failure. When you call me the first time INTO TECH! to help stage a fall or a hit and the actor can’t do it fluidly and it looks clunky, it isn’t the fight director or the actor’s fault. I am not a miracle worker; I can’t magically give that actor the time it takes to incorporate the moves into their body. BTW, falls are the hardest things to sell, I have found. They are the hardest thing to get right technically while visually looking convincing. I don’t do these last minute calls anymore, they hurt my soul.”

Reggie White and Cassie Rosenbrock in Titus Andronicus. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. Violence by Dave Maier.

Reggie White and Cassie Rosenbrock in Titus Andronicus. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. Violence by Dave Maier.

What the hell do you mean by a “fight narrative”? Isn’t it just a fight? Ow, even typing that hurt me. This kind of attitude is all too common, and makes as much sense as asking why you should hire a lighting designer, because can’t you just turn the lights on and off yourself?

Andrew Rodgers:

“That is the key to good choreography– thought. The actors MUST be thinking or the fight turns into empty steps.  The fight MUST have a purpose, just like any other scene in the play, otherwise it’s an uncomfortable dance break (and I’m usually a fan of dance breaks.) The actors MUST be processing what the characters are thinking.  It’s the simple things like this that make good combat– not speed or big shiny weapons– although those have their place.  It’s about thought.”

Carla Pantoja:

“I remember one of my mentors, Richard Lane, tell someone: ‘Would you do Oklahoma and not hire a music director? Or would you hire actors to do a play, just give them a script and have them direct themselves?'”

Don’t avoid hiring a fight director because you think your actors don’t have the training to pull off a professional fight. A trained professional fight director will work with your actors’ capabilities.

Carla Pantoja:

“While actors are amazing, we need direction. We need an outside eye to tell us if what we are doing is working. Safety is also nice. Fear is detrimental to our work as actors, not only fear of ‘is this working?’ but fear of being hurt physically.

As a fight director, I am an actor advocate. My job is to help you portray violence in a convincing way in a safe manner, creating a fight with you and for you. A fight you will enjoy to do and can do well within your own abilities. It doesn’t behoove me to make you do a move you physically cannot do, a move you are fearful of, or hold you back if there is a special move you can do that can be highlighted in the fight.

I have sadly worked with too many actors who have been injured and left distrustful of theatrical violence.”

Rehearsing the Hotspur/Hal fight for Impact's Henry IV: The Impact Remix. Violcen by Christopher Morrison.

Rehearsing the Hotspur/Hal fight for Impact’s Henry IV: The Impact Remix. Violence by Christopher Morrison.

FOR THE LOVE OF GOD PLEASE TREAT YOUR WEAPONS LIKE WEAPONS. Never, ever, ever, ever, ever allow an actor to point a gun loaded with blanks at someone, or at himself, and pull the trigger. A blank is not a NOTHING. That noise is made by a violent discharge that can seriously hurt someone. Just because it’s not propelling a bullet through the air does not mean it is a fluffy puppy. (Personally, I use sound cues for gunshots. A sound cue will recreate the sound of the gun in the setting. Is your play set outdoors? In close quarters? Is that gun supposed to be a hunting rifle, a shotgun, a .22? A blank fired in your theatre will always sound like nothing other than a blank fired in your theatre, and yes, all blanks of all sizes and types sound like blanks fired in your theatre, not like a bullet fired in your setting. That is, IF the blank even goes off. I’ve been through far too much “click click click click POP” to rely on blanks. And again, they sound like crap. An excellent sound designer is worth every blank in the world put together.)

A dulled blade is not magically prevented from doing any harm to anyone. It’s still a hunk of metal that can penetrate a squishy human body rather easily.

MORBO LAUGHS AT SQUISHY HUMANS

MORBO LAUGHS AT SQUISHY HUMANS

And NEVER take your weapons out of the theatre unless they’re in some kind of case or containing device. Do you want three uniformed police officers and one plainclothesman charging downstairs into your theatre five minutes before curtain? Then make sure your actor leave his weapon on the prop table when he runs to the bathroom, not shoved down the back of his pants.

(I don’t need to tell you that an actor who plays with the prop weapons backstage is an actor you should NEVER HIRE AGAIN, right? If an actor can’t follow the simple directive of “don’t fuck with dangerous props (or any props, really)” then that lack of concern for professionalism and safety is bound to carry over into other areas of his work.)

All good troopers know to put their weapons back on the prop table when they're off stage, and never touch anyone else's props.

All good troopers know to put their weapons back on the prop table when they’re off stage, and never touch anyone else’s props.

So please hire a fight director. You CAN afford it. A qualified fight director will enormously enhance the quality of your show, keep everyone in your building safe, and open your eyes to new perspectives on work that you may, in many cases, have been turning over in your mind for years. When you finally get your hands on Lear (and by “you,” I mean “me”), a fresh perspective on those scenes you’ve been dreaming about blocking for a decade will not only make the violence better, but will provide fresh insights into the entire piece– narrative, themes, and characters.

Stacz Sadowski and Miyaka Cochrane in Impact's As You Like It. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. Violence by Dave Maier.

Stacz Sadowski and Miyaka Cochrane in Impact’s As You Like It. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs. Violence by Dave Maier.

This piece wouldn’t be complete without a shout out to the fight director Impact Theatre works with– Dave Maier. Dave is brilliant. He and I see eye-to-eye about violence and tend to exacerbate each other’s love for stage combat when we’re working together as director and fight director.  We’ve been known to turn the simple direction “they fight” into scenes that say as much about the characters as the dialogue, maybe more, and that’s something I would never, ever be able to do on my own. Working with Dave is a joy. I learn something every time I work with him, and his ideas about character and narrative are always fantastic.

So hire a fight director. Be safe. Be a better artist. Be awesome.

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Actors: This Is Why We Have Auditions

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A casting call for showgirls, 1920s. This is exactly how I’m running callbacks for Troilus and Cressida.

I love auditions. I always have and I always will. I will happily sit through day-long auditions. I recognize, however, that auditioning is a deeply flawed process with huge limitations.

For that reason, I also hate auditions. Their artificiality makes it difficult to understand how an actor works in a rehearsal and performance process. There’s also a hierarchical feeling to auditions that makes me uncomfortable. I see actors as co-creators rather than as puppets who execute my vision. I think I’m auditioning for them as much as they’re auditioning for me. But the reality is: I have more actors in front of me than I have roles to fill. Some will hear “yes” and some will hear “no,” and I hate that. The fact remains that I must find a way to make decisions about who will populate the plays I direct or produce.

Taylor Mac wrote a great article about casting a couple of years ago, saying that we should completely do away with auditions and instead cast people we get to know through work in the community or working with them directly. This is, of course, a fantastic way to get to know actors– I’d even say the best way. But it’s not something that can replace auditions outright.

I use a combination of both techniques. I cast people without an audition (or bring them straight to callbacks) if they’re someone I’ve worked with before, or someone whose work I’m familiar with. But I just can’t envision completely giving up auditions, because I think, as flawed as they are, they offer something unique to theatremaking that we can’t do without.

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One of the PR shots for my production of Othello at Impact Theatre. Skyler Cooper, my Othello, came in to audition for Macbeth the previous year and blew us away. I had never heard of her as she was new to acting after spending years in the Air Force. Impact’s lesbian Othello was one of the most successful shows we ever did, and I would never have found Skyler were it not for our open auditions. Pictured: Marissa Keltie and Skyler Cooper. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

The New Kid on the Block. Over and over again, I’ve had someone I’ve never heard of before walk into an audition and blow me away. They’re new to the area, recently graduated, or new to acting. Often an open audition is the only chance they have to break into a new market. This is especially true for actors who are traditionally marginalized. If you’re not getting cast, I have no way to get to know your work unless I hold an open audition. An open audition allows actors who have no other pathway access to directors, casting directors, and artistic directors. I think preserving that access is crucial.

Growth and development. Yesterday we had our first day of season auditions, and no less than three actors I’ve seen multiple times before gave auditions that almost knocked me out of my seat. Three actors showed up with auditions that were leaps and bounds better than anything I’d ever seen them do before. One did a piece outside of what one of my directors had considered her type, based on the pieces and shows he’d seen her do previously, and changed his entire conception of her abilities. There’s a special kind of joy in watching an actor develop over the years. I’ve seen actors go from green, timid, and wobbly recent graduates to powerhouses in just a few years. I’ve seen powerhouse recent graduates mature into wider and wider ranges and abilities. I’ve seen mid-career actors push through to new levels, mature into new types, discover new approaches. It’s deeply satisfying to see, and it’s something we might not see outside of auditions. If I “know” what your type, range, and abilities are, I might not prioritize coming to see your show in favor of seeing a show stacked with actors I don’t know. I can only see so many shows, so I have to pick and choose. Additionally, you might get cast consistently as a certain type, but have the ability to push out of that range into something new. An audition will give you the opportunity to show us that.

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Impact resident actor Mike Delaney in the world premiere of Toil and Trouble by Lauren Gunderson, directed by Josh Costello. Mike auditioned for a show I was directing at CSU East Bay years ago. Now he’s a core member of my company. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Actors as co-creators. When you do an audition monologue, theoretically, at least, this is material you’ve chosen for yourself, performed with choices you’ve made. The choices you make show me something about who you are. I want to work with people who bring something special to the table, who have interesting things to offer as co-creators of the work. When I go to see a show, often I have no way of knowing which choices you’ve made and which choices the director’s made, and that balance is going to differ depending on who the director is, how s/he works, what kind of relationship the director has with that particular actor, what kind of relationship that actor has with the director’s concept, etc. There are a huge number of variables that affect how deeply an actor is directed in any given production.

An actor came in to auditions yesterday doing a piece from a show he had performed, directed by someone I know very well. While he was a skilled performer, his piece looked, smelled, and tasted like the director. All I could see was the director. He came recommended by another actor whose opinion I trust, so I’ll call him back, specifically to see who he is as an actor. His audition just didn’t answer that question for me.

I’m not just looking for actors; I’m looking for collaborators. I don’t want minions; I want accomplices. I’m auditioning people so I can see both what their skills are and what kinds of choices they make.

Change Our Minds. Every so often, I think I know what I want for a certain character, and then an actor shows up who changes my concept completely. I had a short list of actors I was considering for a particular role in the show I’m directing this fall, and an actor I’d never seen before came to auditions yesterday and changed my mind. In the middle of his monologue I suddenly realized that I wanted something completely different for the character. I could see him as the character, and it brought a different context and more depth to the role than I had previously considered. Now he’s my frontrunner for the role. 24 hours ago, I had never heard of him.

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Chris Quintos in Impact’s production of The Chalk Boy by Joshua Conkel, directed by Ben Randle. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Despite their drawbacks, auditions are a very useful tool. I have a love/hate relationship with them, but I’ll continue to rely on them.

P.S. I have some articles about audition tips you can check out here and here, and some casting advice for actors here.

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