On Casting

I was sitting there thinking, “that might be, in twenty five years of making plays, the best actor I’ve ever worked with and the last performance I saw him in may have been one of the best performances I’ve ever seen on stage. Also, I know him – I know he’s an incredibly hard-working guy and an absolute joy to be around both inside and outside rehearsal.” And then I thought to myself, “but he doesn’t really seem right for this play…”

How does that happen?

I spent twenty years or so doubling up as an actor while I was writing music and producing, and the audition process, for me, is too complicated a monster to fully explain. My problems with authority, combined with my hostility at being spot-adjudicated, certainly added to the confusion, but I walked in to most auditions feeling like I was everyone’s second choice.

Fortunately, what this meant is that I got cast all the time. Very often there are five or six people making the decision, and I was always the guy they could all live with. I might have been on the top of the list for the music director (and that was probably because I could sight-read and she wouldn’t have to teach me any music) but the rest of those in charge would have me a solid two, right behind the guy they were in love with. But everyone was in love with someone else.

Oh, I hated it. Very often, when someone was doing a good “auditioning” job, I would just do my best to disappear, watching that person Make Choices and Project Empathy or whatever. For me, I always loved rehearsals, I loved the complicated backstories and the actual work of building a relationship with the other people in the cast. And I always thought that I was either clearly way better than everyone else auditioning… or I was completely out-classed. I can tell you, I’m really, really glad I didn’t have to audition this past week for our show.

This round of auditions was humbling. And I’m talking about US, a group of people who had always arrogantly assumed that we would get to this point one day. But to be here now was actually breath-taking. We all kinda looked at each other every once in a while, with that look on our face of “*ALL* of these people want to do *OUR* play? THAT IS TOO AWESOME!!!!”

Fortunately, we had an anchor. Rebecca Comtois, for whom the part in the play was intended, is an actor of enormous subtlety and pathos, who can tear the heart right out of a scene. My next blog will be all about “Infectious Opportunity”, a masterwork by James Comtois going up at the Brick, and his sister gives a searing self-unaware performance as a young girl in love with her teacher. She is the lynch-pin in “Viral”, so fortunately we had her at callbacks to see how people bounced off of her.

Ten years ago, when we started producing, we had a cattle call for one role. We got hundreds and hundreds of headshots from Backstage and Dramalogue (or whatever it was) and we rented a space and did monologue auditions. We narrowed it down to a large handful of women, and then we were left with three. To be honest, we ended up with the only three actors, out of hundreds and hundreds, who were capable enough actors to handle the material. We had to decide between the only three women who were good enough to be acting in an off-off Broadway show.

Fast forward ten years, and we sent out emails to our very favorite actors, and then emails to five or six of our very favorite artistic directors, asking them to send us their favorite actors. For me, it was a thrill, because I didn’t sit in on the initial auditions, I got to sit outside with the actors…

One by one, they came in, and my eyes lit up. Every single person who came in, I had either just seen them in something fantastic, or I had just seen them in TWO things that were fantastic. Matthew Trumbull was sitting across from me for ten minutes before I realized that, not only was he in the afore-mentioned “Infectious Opportunity”, but he was also in Glee Club which I just wrote about. Tarrantino Smith had just *killed* me in both Universal Robots *and* in After Darwin…

It was a thrill for me, and I couldn’t quite figure out why the rest of the team had a mixed look in their eyes – a look of exhilaration combined with a kind of shell-shocked fear. And that’s when it occurred to me – We can’t use all these people. There’s only one show, right now, we’re not building a Rep Company or anything. We’re not doing Quilters, we’ve only got ONE WOMAN’S PART TO CAST.

So, now I wish I could go back to Sean At Twenty Five, and explain to him that the people you’re auditioning for aren’t there to judge you. They are desperate to celebrate you. They want you to kill them with how good you are, they are stretching their minds to include you in the play from the minute you walk in to the room.

And, once you get to the point of callbacks, they’re just looking at chemistry and combinations. If Jack and Jill both fall down the hill, then aren’t they probably the same height? It’s questions like that. Does that guy look like that other guy’s brother? Do they both look like they’re thirty instead of forty five? If this guy walks in and takes over the stage, is that good or is it bad?

There aren’t any right answers, and nobody ever agrees. In our company, we promise to leave decisions in the hands of those who’ve been hired to make those decisions… and then we totally do passive aggressive hassling. It’s so funny, we have very, very firm lines, like the script is Mac’s and we don’t mess with it, the rehearsal space is Jordana’s and nobody screws with that… but where the production lines are fuzzy, we squirm and twist and prod and guilt-trip like a 50 year old sewing group angling for the best rocking chair and more lemonade.

This is the first time we’ve ever been in this position, where no decision was a wrong one. Once it boiled down to making offers, we knew that this group was perfect *together*, but that the talent level of the people outside the group was as astonishing. As much as you might think you deserve to be in a position like this, it’s really humbling when it happens, and you just feel dizzyingly lucky.