Essays, Practice, Opinions

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It all started with John Wilkes Booth. That’s what Uta Hagen suggests in her book A Challenge For The Actor. The mistrust for actors all started when an actor used a bullet to break the ultimate fourth wall. Actually, I would guess it started before Booth. Maybe in the Middle Ages with the creation of liturgical/vernacular drama, but certainly somewhere between the honored heyday of Homer and rapscallion commedia street-performers whose tipping hats reminded their audience of beggars (if someone knows a more accurate and/or detailed history, please post it/link it below). Still it’s safe to assume Lincoln’s actor assassin didn’t elevate the actor’s status. A fair generalization might be—in the eyes of those with stable occupations, actors historically are vagabonds, agitators, vain, not the brightest of breeds and (the old standard) deceitful. We get paid to lie. And if we do it extraordinarily well, so well that if the lie seems truer than truth, then we’re hailed as great at what we do. Great at what we do but not great humans to be trusted with political opinions and societal points of view, and certainly not great enough to be hired without an extensive series of tests (auditions) designed to prove the actor is the right fit for the part.

If a playwright or producer is looking for a director, they do their research. They see the director’s work, seek out references, and/or sit down and have tea with a number of directors to find one their vision can commingle with. They do not ask the director to direct two minutes of the play to prove she knows what she’s doing. Nor should they.  They respect and, better yet, trust the director. The same cannot be said for the actor.

I believe actors (and all theater practitioners) should be treated with the same respect and trust we tender the director.

Some would argue respect should be earned. Fair enough. One of the great things about the kind of career I’ve created for myself (with the help of many) is I get to work in a variety of different theatrical environments and with a wonderful assortment of performing artists. I’ve been in ensemble plays by other playwrights, acted in my own plays with actors I’ve cast, done the midnight show, and the midday matinee. I’ve worked in the circus, the strip club, the LORT, the street, museum, opera house, basement bar/sex-club, and ethical society. And from this experience I’ve come to believe that, in terms of rehearsal process, actors help perpetuate the cliché that they are the laziest of the performing artists (I think they’re the hardest workers when it comes to sustaining a single performance over a long run, though so few of them ever get that opportunity).

In my play The Lily’s Revenge the third act is dance theater. Its premiere in New York, at the HERE Arts Center, was my first time working with a group of dancers (as opposed to actors who move or musical theater performers). They flabbergasted me.  They were so… professional. I’d show up twenty minutes early to have quiet time before rehearsal and they’d already be warmed up, focused, and privately working on their roles (I want to write a full-length dance theater play because I love working with that level of professionalism). I had to ask myself why all these actors I’ve worked with, whether paid appropriately or not, and regardless of the status of the venue, show up late, rarely remember their blocking from the day before, and wait until tech week to get off book. Why aren’t they as disciplined as the dancers? I have a couple theories.

The first has to do with the misuse (and overuse) of naturalism. This misuse asks the actor to be the character not play the character. As an actor, whenever I’ve gotten to play roles far from my own personality or body type (usually roles I’ve written for myself to play), I couldn’t possibly be lackadaisical and pull it off. I’m guessing it was similar with actors from ancient Greece who had to play multiple roles, including roles different from their own being, in each production. Primarily in casting nowadays, we look for an actor to be the right fit for the part, which is just laziness on the parts of the director, playwright, producer, and casting director. Where do trust, process, and craft come in? Isn’t it a joy to see the work an actor has put into playing the role (even if that work is so good it’s barely perceivable)? I love watching an actor play a role. Do they have to actually be the role? Some would argue, in this market and culture where failure is not celebrated, yes. There is no room for trust, experimentation, or play. But, in my experience, it is almost always more exciting, engaging, and relevatory to see an actor who is wholly miscast triumph in his role. To be clear, I’m not attacking naturalism. This does not preclude the method actor from doing method work in naturalism, or from sacraficing ego and disappearing into the role, but rather it gives them more opportunities to stretch themselves while allowing those who prefer traditional theatrical styles and techniques (such as commedia, mask work, etc.) the same opportunity. If actors have to stretch themselves, they work harder and as a result, their craft (and our collective theater-making craft) gets better. It’s worth the risk. Witnessing someone stand in front of a group of people and brave failure is one of the reasons people come to the theater. It works in tandem with the storytelling and is a major ingredient in what makes the actor/performing arts honorable. In the last century, it seems to me, we’ve created a lazy system and asked our actors to adapt to it. And, for the most part, they have.

As a playwright I understand the stakes. Usually your play has one shot at having any kind of chance to have a life beyond its first production, and so the impulse is to cast as close to the bone as possible. It’s hard enough to make a play work in the first place without having to incorporate the process of others. But theater is, arguably, the most collaborative art form there is and, as a wise man once said, if you’re not willing to allow your vision to change, you probably shouldn’t be working in the theater. Treat the actor as a partner in this process. Allow them to serve your play with their craft, not their ability at being appropriately cast. Cast good actors and let them do their job. My experience has been the play has an equal if not a better chance at prospering as a result.

Here’s another way the system is lazy and helps perpetuate this laziness: the audition.

I often facetiously joke that producers/directors created the tiers of auditions because actors give you syphilis; so they created the casting director, bought a couch, formed a line of actors and said, “Let us know which ones give you a rash.” Snarky humor aside, I’ve come to believe auditions are not only harmful to the theater because they foster mistrust, hierarchy, barriers between artists, and diminish process (if you’re casting actors who can play the character from day one why not eliminate the rehearsal period like film and television) but are also less effective than other forms of casting. I’ve championed actors who were great in the audition room, cast them in my plays, only to find they didn’t have the craft to rehearse a play and perform it night after night. Auditions are preparing our actors for auditioning (a much easier job than rehearsing and performing an entire play) when they should be practicing the craft of acting. And we’ve all seen flops where the actors were auditioned. Auditioning does not guarantee you a great production.

But if directors/producers/playwrights stop auditioning how will they know whom to cast? We won’t know. We’ll trust. The way the actor trusts us to be a good fit as a director/producer/playwright. We’ll trust and start to equalize the field by treating actors like the co-creators they are. Of course we can hedge the bet. And we can do it in a more responsible egalitarian way. To help me in non-auditioned casting, these are the things I’ve been doing or at least working at doing better. I scout, ask around, try to see more theater than anyone else I know in a variety of venues, styles, genres, and forms (it’s made me a better director/producer/playwright in the process). When working with casting directors (who, when working without auditions, become more useful and a part of the process instead of less), I ask them to let me know when actors we are interested in are in something new (so I can see the range of their abilities). I’ve started planning my productions further in advance so the entire team has time to scout for roles that require specific skills. I sit in on the rehearsals of productions I’m not associated with (this is also making me a better artist). I audit acting classes (especially useful for finding younger, emerging, and trained actors). Above all, I trust. I trust that if I’ve stymied my own laziness, done the groundwork, and chosen an actor who knows her craft and has a good attitude, she’ll serve the play to great effect.

So far I’ve cast four of my ensemble productions without a single audition (including two productions of my large ensemble play—thirty-six cast members—The Lily’s Revenge). Aside from the art itself, it’s the aspect of the productions I’m most proud of. Some incredible things happened and some mistakes were made (strangely enough, more incredible things and fewer mistakes than when I cast plays solely from auditions). The biggest lesson was when I treat actors as capable from the get-go, (before casting them) they work harder. I’m not sure why but I don’t think it’s only gratitude for not having to audition. It could be that actors who’ve gone through many callbacks to win the roles, feel they’ve explored their parts enough and so don’t work as openly or as much in the rehearsal period. What I learned is that starting from scratch with actors who weren’t asked to audition, created a more fruitful process and resulted in my most successful productions artistically and financially. I can only hypothesize, but it seemed the actors dug in more because we treated them from the start like the professionals they’d already spent their lives proving themselves to be. They went about creating instead of treating the rehearsal process as if the hard part (winning the role) was already complete. The success of my non-auditioned productions and the joy-filled experience of them (The Magic Theater’s production of The Lily’s Revenge being the most recent and exuberantly gleeful) have convinced me to make auditions the exception rather than the rule.

What I’m suggesting is we respect the artist more or at least as much as the art. In the new play realm theaters like Arena Stage are doing just that. They are interested in building relationships more than reading blind submissions (read David Dower's wonderful letter to Hal Brooks for an understanding of what they are doing instead).

I would go one step further and suggest not to read plays until after they've committed to producing them. Instead get to know artists and their body of work.  Give them a date on the calendar for when their new play will be produced and… trust. If you’ve liked plays they’ve written in the past, chances are they’ll write something you’ll be interested in again, and if not, the production will be over in a couple months but the relationship with the artist may last decades. This isn’t a new way of working. Joe Papp often offered productions to playwrights on the day before the critics came to their current production. He didn’t need to read what they’d come up with. He trusted.  Sometimes it didn’t work and sometimes it did, but the same goes for theaters that commit to productions solely from having a developed script in their hands. There is no guarantee for success, so let’s treat our artists like they know what their doing and let them do it.

I don’t expect auditions (in all their various forms) to become the exception as opposed to the norm any time soon. We’re too entrenched in the industry of them to change quickly. I do hope more producers/directors/playwrights will simply call actors up and ask them out to tea instead of sending an email to a casting director or an agent with a side attached. I think you’ll find it a liberating, humane, and community-building practice. I’ve discovered with better trust better art has been made. It may not ultimately be your preference but why not try it. Try casting a production without an audition. Try casting great actors who would need to stretch themselves to play the role. Try it once. If you’re weary, try it on a production for a play with a small cast (less risk) and if you, like me, find it a healthier and more productive process, try it on a production for a play with a large cast. It is my challenge to you. I challenge you to challenge your actors with your trust. Give them an opportunity to work harder. Forgive the actor for their vagabond ways. Forgive their life of lies and bullets.

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