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My Thoughts on Casting

A wise man once told me “directing is just correcting the mistakes you made when you cast the show.” This fits neatly into an observation I made early on in my career: there are many directors who are amazing at the nuts and bolts of directing. My own directing mentor, David Feldshuh, is a perfect example. He can take the most boring, pedestrian dialogue and make it come alive through technique. His scenes are layered, intricate, and sophisticated. Then there are those directors who don’t seem to understand the first thing about how to actually direct a scene, but they have the uncanny knack for placing exactly the right people in the roles, and their shows are good. My wife and I had an experience like this in an amateur production of No Time for Sergeants at the Sierra Madre Playhouse: the director, a perfectly nice lady, basically got the cast together and read through the scenes. We were largely left to our own devices when it came to blocking, tempo, and character choices. However, the show was still watchable because she had exactly the right people in the roles. It’s my experience that very few directors have both talents, because I think they use opposite parts of the directing brain.

One hemisphere, if you will, seems caught up in, as Henry James called it, “carving order out of chaos.” It seeks to control the scene directly through technique. This sort of director tends to come to the scene very (some might even say overly) prepared. Those of us who studied directing in school tend to fall into this category.

The other hemisphere is the “touchy-feely” center, the sort that likes to watch the scene evolve. This type of director likes to see what the actors come up with and work with that, rather than impose something upon them. Obviously this approach has its advantages, among them the contented actor, who tends to feel very connected to the work and “in-tune” with the rhythms and pace established. Of course, this is because the foundation of the work is based upon their own personal rhythms and pace, and this is also the greatest weakness of this approach: you rarely get something that no one expects. You never tend to push an actor to stretch themselves and discover something new.

Of course, I am vain enough to think that I have a good amount of both approaches, and this is what has made me stand out as a director. Some directors see casting as a chore; I consider it a sacred privilege that I rarely surrender without a good deal of trust involved. I think something that has given me a sense of perspective is the fact that I am an actor and I am constantly frustrated by short-sighted casters who need you to walk into the room and be exactly what they are looking for. I saw this all the time in college: directors who would rather typecast someone rather than allow them to process the role. The trouble with that approach is, if you need a ditzy blonde, then you’ve got to deal with a ditzy actress in your cast. If you need a raw young man from the wrong side of the tracks, you get that to deal with. I would rather cast an actor who wasn’t exactly the role, but understood the craft of imagining themselves in the part and knew the process of becoming that person. I get challenged all the time on cosmetics: “isn’t she too old for that role?” “Shouldn’t they have the same color hair if they’re going to be sisters?” “He is too short to play opposite her.” The most incredible performance of The Glass Menagerie that I have ever seen (and I have seen many; it’s my favorite play) was in college. A black actress was cast in the role of Amanda, which at first felt very incongruous. However, after she spoke for thirty seconds, you forgot what race she was; she became Amanda Wingfield and everyone just accepted it. Traditional Japanese acting tradition ignores real-life concerns completely; the most skilled and talented actors play the most difficult roles. One of the most moving pieces of theater I have ever witnessed was an elderly Japanese man doing a scene as Juliet. Even though it was obvious that he wasn’t a fourteen year old girl, he captured something that I have never seen another Juliet capture; he became Juliet in a deep, profound way. The Japanese refer to as the yugen, or flower of the role, and only a truly skilled actor can achieve it.

Of course, you can’t leave everything to actors. Anyone who has ever tried to paint or write knows how intimidating the blank page/canvas can be. There is nothing more frustrating to me as an actor than walking in to a rehearsal and feeling like I’ve prepared the scene more thoroughly than the director. So, as a director, I prepare, but I try to allow enough space for actor input to keep people invested in the work; I suppose you’d need to talk to the actors I’ve directed in order to ascertain my efficacy.

So, when it comes down to the casting of a piece, I consider myself pretty adept, particularly when I have a more limited pool to work with. I find myself in a rather unique position with the casting of Regrets Only: apparently word has gotten out and there are quite a few actors who are interested in the show. On the one hand, I am thrilled that it’s already creating a buzz. On the other, I really hope to avoid as many hard feelings among my friends as I can. Santa Barbara is too small a community, in many ways. Everyone not only knows everyone, but everyone went to high school with everyone’s brother, everyone dated someone who someone used to know, and everyone’s done shows with everyone else.

One odd consequence of this tightness is that there are rarely auditions for anything. People tend to assume they know everyone in town, and they simply call up the people they want for their show. In my opinion, this cuts out a very important part of the process: a window for the chaos of the universe to peek through and drop off surprises. Every single show I have ever been involved with has a ridiculous feeling of destiny about it, as if the gods themselves have come together to assemble the cast and crew. You sweat and sweat for weeks of preparations, wondering if the right people will show up, and they do. Or, they don’t, but someone has a cousin in town for the exact run of the show who will fill in. The show wants to happen, and so it warps time and space in order to make it so.

..to be continued.

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A Brave Move

The title of this posting refers not to myself, but rather to my theatrical parents, Dave and Susie Couch, proprietors of the Circle Bar B Dinner Theatre and some of the few people I know with the brass cajones to run a for-profit theater. No grants, no school tours, no fundraisers; it’s capitalism and theater in their most elemental form. They have a 40-year tradition of subscribers and selling out houses that’s hard to find fault with. It’s a simple recipe: bring people three and a half miles up the coast into a forested canyon nook where a horse and guest ranch has been operating since the Depression. Feed them a meal that gives their palate a welcoming bear hug (as only perfectly prepared tri-tip can do), then sit them down and enact a play for them, preferably a fast-paced comedy or a rollocking musical. For forty years, the theater has been the worst-kept local secret around, a summer tradition for many a Santa Barbarian with a taste for the performing arts done California style. Rustic, yes, but don’t let the humble surroundings fool you: this little theater has some pretty incredible things going on: it’s the only local theater that casts almost exclusively local talent, it’s the only non-equity house in town that actually pays its actors, and they’ve done more local, regional and even West Coast premieres over the past ten years than any other theater within a hundred miles.

Anyone who has enjoyed any sort of sustained theatrical success will “complain” of the same thing: you become beholden to your own success. In Dave and Susie’s case, they are always somewhat bound by what their constituents expect to see. As much as they might admire David Mamet or Martin McDonough, they’re not producing their plays any time soon. This is a place that people feel comfortable bringing their children and their parents to, and it just wouldn’t do to betray that trust. This is also a theater that heavily depends upon groups of senior citizens bussing up from Long Beach, Orange County and Pasadena, and the last thing they want to see is something political, or something that challenges long-held traditional values.

Enter No Regrets, a recent play by Paul Rudnick (playwright of Jeffrey and I Hate Hamlet) that deals with some very funny characters dealing with the real issue of gay marriage: meaning not whether gay people should or shouldn’t get married, but how we as Americans can sleep at night after we look people in the face and tell them that they shouldn’t have the same fundamental rights as anyone else, despite the fact that the people we are disenfranchising so cavalierly over a theological trifle are our employees, our relatives, our best friends. It deals with this issue not with thundering monologues or misty-eyed moments of betrayal, but rather by introducing us to characters who are flawed, yet lovable, and setting these characters into a situation that pits them against one another. It’s fast, funny, and moving. I loved it from the first time I read it, and I was thrilled when Susie asked me to direct it at the Circle Bar B.

However, there quickly arose a problem: it turns out many folks, especially if they are a large number of senior citizens schlepping in from some of the more conservative parts of California, don’t care to see theater that challenges they way they may regard traditional marriage. Once the play was announced, the cancellations started. It pains me that my family stands to suffer financially because of a brave artistic choice they made. I would also love the opportunity to widen the audience of the theater a bit. Thus, I have decided to mount a guerrilla marketing campaign to get the word out to the appropriate demographic that yes, this play is going on. It’s a regional premiere and it’s hilarious and moving and it’s a real statement being made by creative people in our community who stand to suffer the consequences of making that statement. It’s a choice that should be supported by those who believe strongly in marriage equality.

Rehearsals begin in April, and the show opens in June. If anyone who reads this knows anyone with any sort of media pull, please contact me. I want as many people as possible to know about this in advance, so that we can generate a tide of support that will, at the least, cancel out whatever negative impact the less tolerant portion of the audience will have on the bottom line. Who knows? If there is actually a net positive effect, it could embolden the theater to do more shows like this.

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Vaulting Ambition

As you may have read in the About page, based on my current situation, I have decided that I need a Master’s degree. This decision is based on a few different factors:

1) I would like to know more about certain aspects of theater and teaching methods in order to be a better teacher;

2) I would like to have more gravitas with some of the parents I have to deal with;

3) I would like to have more flexibility if and when I need to seek another job;

4) I would really feel like a slacker if my wife completes an MBA and a PhD before I do any postgrad work at all.

After some research, I have decided that CWU’s Summer Institute for Theater Arts is the way to go – the classes sound awesome, the price is right, and there isn’t a ridiculous amount of “research” involved. After doing some number crunching, I have determined that my first summer, including three days of travel each way, food, 37 nights of lodging, books, tuition and fees will be about $7,350. The program consists of three summers, followed by a project that I need to fly someone down to see (at my expense, of course). For those of you keeping score at home, that means I can theoretically earn an MA for somewhere in the neighborhood of $25,000. Not what I call cheap, but also not exorbitant, either.

Hello, Mr. Fafsa!


Getting the band back together

Okay, so now it’s time to introduce you to project number one: the day job. As I mentioned in the About page, I teach drama at a local independent school. One of the associated duties with such an illustrious appointment is the undertaking of a musical every spring.

I admit, I had mixed feelings regarding this particular chore when I first started. A little secret: although I did theater all through high school and college, my early influences weren’t Broadway musicals. Actually, that’s not entirely true: one of the seminal experiences I had early on was right after I moved up to Santa Barbara from Los Angeles while I was in high school. One of my favorite television shows at the time was Quantum Leap, where Scott Bakula does the ILM Watusi through time, fixing little problems in people’s lives as he goes. My favorite episode (which, thanks to the miracle of Netflix I have watched about twelve times this past year) is the one where he pops into a working-class actor playing a second-rate tour of Man of La Mancha, which I actually sort of recognized because someone at some point had given me some sheet music from the original score for piano practice. Watching the show, it all seemed completely magical to me – the makeup, the costumes, the music. Then, as I was watching television in Santa Barbara, I saw an advertisement for a production of Man of La Mancha playing at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood, starring Raul Julia and Sheena Easton. I convinced my grandmother to drive me down to Hollywood, which was about a 90 mile trip. She visited with my aunt while I went up to the ticket window and plunked down my own money for the ticket. I sat in the second balcony by myself and fell in love. A few months later, when I met my first girlfriend and fell in love for the first time, she loved the show as well. What can I say? The whole show resonates with me. To this day, if I see a production of Man of La Mancha advertised, I have to see it.

However, aside from this singular, powerful example, my early experiences with theater were very, very non-musical. My high school drama teacher did not get along with my high school chorus teacher, and so rather than Rodgers and Hammerstein, we got John Guare and Lanford Wilson. We did gritty little plays that high schoolers had no business doing. Then when I went to college, I happened to go to a school where the theater and music programs were similarly bifurcated, and I was introduced to Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and Tennessee Williams. Rather than tap dancing I learned dialects. It’s just how I was made.

Now I find myself with the unique opportunity to experience the side of high school that I never knew: the big musical. Of course, I have been somewhat resistant to the whole exercise from the beginning. The school I teach at is tiny: there are fewer than 200 students in the entire high school. The number of kids who have actually had singing and dancing lessons is miniscule, so putting together an entire musical cast is always a challenge. Much to my surprise, we seem to find the right people every year and pull it off. It’s not what I would call easy, but it gets done.

Now, I find myself at the beginning of my yearly journey through the Valley of Uncertainty, staring ahead at the road that stretches to the horizon and asking myself “is there any way in hell this is actually going to happen again?” Luckily, after four years I have learned not to let my mind mess with me too much: I attack the darkness with structure and preparation. First, pick a show.

Since we are a K-12 school there is a lot of pressure for me to do “family-friendly” shows. Of course, the high schoolers want to do Rent. I’ve addressed with problem by alternating between edgier shows and family shows every year. Two years ago we did R&H’s Cinderella. Last year we did Chicago. This year, it’s back to Rodgers and Hammerstein: Once Upon a Mattress. I happened to see the 2006 Tracy Ullman movie over the summer, and realized it would be a perfect vehicle for our lead actress, a graduating senior who has been with me every show I have directed thus far. Another castle set and flagstone floor. Wonderful.

My first challenge is figuring out what to do about the music. I have worked with the same pianist the past three years; however, I’ve been trying to incorporate more kids into the shows to get a broader base of support. I’d love to have a student pit band, but of course that means I don’t use the solo pianist I’ve used the past three years. I love the artistic process of directing, but hate the politics. Next week I have to make a decision and run with it.

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As if there wasn’t enough on my plate…

So, I received word that a Shakespeare workshop I had expressed interest in will be meeting in the latter part of March. Not the most ideal situation, since I will be in the middle of rehearsing two shows at that point, but I think I’m going to make the time.

Of course, there are things I dislike about your average workshop: the way most actors feel the need to perform for one another, the common mistakes most beginning actors make with Shakespeare (hello bad British dialects), etc. However, I am still looking forward to participating, since it’s been awhile since I really worked on Shakespeare as an actor and I could use the time. My wife participated in the first go-around late last year, as well as a few other friends, and I found myself very envious listening to her accounts. Hopefully, come March, it will be your turn to be envious listening to my accounts.

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Under Construction…

This is my attempt to document a particularly fevered year in my career: I am currently slated to direct four shows, begin a program to earn my master’s degree, and help to start an outdoor Shakespeare festival here in the Santa Barbara area, all before the end of summer. I am hoping to not only document my artistic and academic process through these posts, but also comment on theatrical events here in the Santa Barbara, share some ideas about teaching, and possibly even reveal some choice tidbits that come up in the process of being a father to three precocious children and the husband of a woman who has been referred to as the next step in human evolution.