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Building the Play: Auditions

January 9th, 2011 No 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.

Christopher Durang

June 10th, 2011 No comments

The first event I attended here at DG Con was a conversation with Christopher Durang, whose play Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them was at CPT not too long ago.

Durang was a highly engaging story-teller and was fabulous to listen to. For some strange reason, or perhaps not so strange, I was reminded of John Bellairs–perhaps it is the Catholic upbringing and the way it manifests itself in the work.

What follows below are the notes that I took as I listened. I have expanded on some things as I was inspired to do so:

One of the opening questions posed to Durang by host Jim Price was what is it that leads to the mix of serious and the strange in his writing. Durang talked about early influences, including: how to succeed in business w/o even trying; and I Love Lucy. Durang said that he was always attracted to quick paced performances and is not a fan of the real-time nature of drama in the 50s.

Durang wrote his first play @ age 8; and it revolved around the I Love Lucy episode when Lucy has a baby… the family and friends practice… it’s time… then panic when it happens… he loved that.

Durang says that he came from a family that was open to the arts
memoir of johnny durang…? He had his first production in 2nd grade… and he discovered that it was fun.

early musical banned in boston, etc. 13th birthday gypsy… his mother was like gypsy because she would tell everyone about his plays…

The 1st audition process he was involved in included girls from other schools; he was at an all-boys Catholic school; he recalls that the nuns were not happy that the girl (in the show) had to drop a shoulder strap at the end; the show ended w/4 weddings (it was very shakespearean).

Durang attended Delbarton 7 -12; had to work hard at math, not very good at it. Durang remarked that his mother’s divorce lawyer suggested he attend Harvard, where he goes. There he goes through a bout of depression from fresh – junior; not much theater during that time. Part of the depression he attributes the discovery/realization that what he learned during his Catholic upbringing, with regard to God and the universe, is not true.

At Harvard he creates the greatest musical ever sung for which Al Franken auditioned. (mad magazine style spoof of “real” songs)
Gospels in musical comedy terms. “everything’s coming up moses”
He lived in Dunster House. al gore and tommy lee jones were there at the time. The show included 9 apostles (5 women) couldn’t get 12. 2 weekends; good reviews; later uproar… offensive to Catholics…
“pigs trampling in a sanctuary” quote… included this statement in his Yale application.

albert? irish nuns (repressive) vs. italian (violent)
a lot of cabaret stuff
howard stein
william blake/thomas gray met in glass menagerie
& eleanor and franklin roosevelt
2 weekends
graduate newspaper (wrote their own review under a pseudonym — did not give themselves a rave)
life story of mitsy gaynor? gloria steinem…

Durang remarked that from one of his shows there were lines cut … And Durang had to go to whomever cut them–professor, faculty–and say, essentially, sorry, our name is on it, not yours… I don’t remember the context; fully. But this goes to the Holding Our Tongue DG conference in Cleveland, where I first met Gary Garrison; and the issues surrounding the forms that censorship take.

new york
sigorney weaver
so hard to make a living…
wendy wasserstein
taught acting even though he didn’t act
typist at Yale Medical — had to write rejection letters for people’s “donated” bodies because they had too many
got $8K grant from yale
cbs playwriitng?
titanic… (sigorny weaver)
idiots karamozov
lustintania (another ship that sank) das lustintania songer spiel…
sister mary ignatious
vanities — 11pm slot $5 per performance
brecht — eva perone the demon first lady of buenas aires (a ‘fib’ they created)

With regard to the playwriting business today, Durang remarked that he has found the movement to be toward development versus production;
caveat being that he doesn’t know as much now about what’s going on…
teaching with Marsha Norman. Durang finds the atmosphere troublesome
in that, as he recalls when he started out in ’75-’76; there was alot of $ for production of plays (new american plays); now it’s “workshops”; and that if 5 theaters have an interest in a writer all five theaters will do readings of his/her work; the playwright doesn’t get a production and each theater will dramaturge the play and make suggestions and “playwrights lose their play” that way.

Further, Durang finds that dramaturgs tend to subscribe to rules when there are, in fact, no dramaturgy rules. For instance, one dramaturg told him that you “can’t open a play w/ a :30 minute monolog”.

Advice to writers: if you see something you love, try to figure out what it is about it that you love and how you can write something similar to it; additionally, it is important to find people who will give you feedback about the play that YOU want to write.

find your voice:
have them write from “their own stuff”
best plays come from when you’re writing “your stuff”
wrote from a feeling he had (sister marry ignatious) had no idea it would be successful

how long can you not produce before people forget about you: agent: 2 years (laugh)
mother was dying of cancer
the actor’s nightmare… (another play)

don’t hold on to just one play… be prolific…

question: self-censorship (sister mary)
wasn’t mad when he wrote it
did he ever not want to put some stuff in the play–want to hold back
thought everyone would agree with him
rules didn’t make sense to him
no idea people would find it funny
adults performing something children wrote (as funny)
especially with their understanding of the story
jesus crucified, but for children replacing it with a blonde-haired doll, etc.

sex and longing was tough for him because it was so badly received
hasn’t even read the reviews yet
difficult because he couldn’t fix it.

difficulty getting into expository writing classes at Harvard
was having a difficult time at that point in his life
didn’t feel brave enough to go to NY on his own
teacher encouragement was very important

write intuitively, spur of the moment, and when he feels like it/enjoys it

found it important to schedule time and force himself to write and stick with stuff even when he didn’t want to

business of life and laziness keep him from writing…

daniel goldfarb in his class…

betty’s summer vacation
writes improvisationally–so a serial killer appears…

friendliest plays–beyond therapy
best received

depressed to discover that the things he learned in Catholic school weren’t true (part of his depression)
cognitive therapy — positive frame of mind will generate positivity, etc.

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