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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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