Building the Play: Auditions

January 9th, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

I think the highlight of my bearing witness to auditions came several years ago when a very attractive student actor at CSU performed a pole dance / strip routine for my play Only Sing for Me. Unfortunately, we were not able to cast her as my play required no women. The cheap thrill remains, though.

The auditions at CPT were quite a bit more professional and much more reserved. Alongside Beth Wood, Associate Artistic Director at CPT, two of the directors sat at a long front table covered with note pads, binders, scripts, head shots and actor’s cvs. Behind this front table, on chairs rising toward the back of the James Levin space, sat the playwrights, stage managers, and various others, including Mike Geither who is running the NEOMFA portion of the festival.

Auditions were run in one hour blocks with between 5-8 actors in an hour. An actor would come in, led by Lindsay Carter, Festival Production Manager. The actor would go to the main table, deposit his or her head shot and cv, engage in brief chit-chat, and then go out into the space. He or she would say the piece they would be performing and then go. If there was interest, a director would ask him/her to do it again with some variation: louder and farther back (projecting), softer with greater nuance, in a different enunciation or accent. Sometimes, an actor would be asked to do a bit from Shakespeare (i.e. they had two pieces prepared–contemporary and Shakespearean). Interestingly, I learned that whenever there are auditions schools with acting programs send students to practice auditioning, so on one night several students came through.

It was a machine. Actors were processed through quickly, orderly, decisions were made. I was appalled at how quickly I adapted to the attitude. I was shocked, in retrospect, at how quickly I came to view actors according to specific attributes that the play required, and not as people at all. I believe the human mind is easily conditioned to systematic modes of thought: that the brain’s approach to things is easily conditioned, in this way, to chilling itself to emotion and becoming clinical. The danger of this mode of thinking is historically documented and is not a direction I intend to go with this blog entry, but I note the attitude nonetheless.

Geither advised me that the key attribute to look for in an actor was the willingness and ability to respond to the director. So, above I mentioned the director might ask an actor to do their piece again in a certain way; this is when you see how the actor responds and how well. Regardless, here are some excerpts from my own notes on the audition to get a sense of what I was discussing above:

Forced emotion. Not a good sense of delivery. Tense and constricted.

Good comic sense. Good delivery. Good shifts: speed up and slow down. Dynamic. Good smile. Confident.

Good eye contact. Strong presence. Good delivery. Good timing: funny.

Pretty convincing emotionally for a short audition piece. Direction? Takes it. Don’t know how well she projects. Seemed to do well, but would she hold up? Expressive. Did increase volume.

And so on…

On one night there were 14 auditions. Something similar on the other, I think. My play is the only play with women, so my play had the pick for the four actresses I needed. For the men, it was a bit tougher. All three plays have men and there weren’t many men auditioning to begin with. This led to some “negotiations” amongst the directors about who got which actor, etc. This conversation was almost as interesting as the auditions.

Brian asked me my opinion on some of the characters, my main character Aisa, for instance, who really must carry the show; and another prominent character: Harry Collins. Other than that, I felt that the casting was Brian’s decision, and Brian is working with a vision of types that I can only watch develop.

This is a point, as well, where it is important to comment on the vision of the playwright as the play is written, versus the reality of the play as it is produced. When the play is written it is staged, produced, and run in the mind of the playwright. Unfortunately, that is a production that will never be visible–or if it is, the technology that will make it possible is far, far away from where I’m sitting in time. This reality means that there will automatically be a disconnect between the vision of the playwright as the play is written, and the auditioned/staged reality of the production.

One benefit of Geither’s effort to get playwrights in productions at CSU is that I confronted the disconnect between my imagined version of the play and the real production many years ago. Consequently, I have moved beyond the superficial assumptions about what my characters would “look like” or “be like” in reality to realize that they will emerge through the writing.

After two days, Brian and I came away nearly fully cast. There were two holes in the play that were filled within the following week. What followed is the scheduling of rehearsals, calendars, contact sheets, etc.

Moving on next to the first production meeting.

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