Saturday, October 23, 2010

Auditioning: the lesser of all evils.

The job of narrowing down over 300 submissions for theGathering, our new company, has been nerve-wracking.  Generally speaking, after awhile, I just skipped all the TV and film credits on the resumes and looked for the theatre experience.  And of course, looked to see if the actor was physically in the ball park of what we're seeking.  Not surprisingly, the younger actors flooded the Actor's Access notice.  Older, firmly established actors, are reluctant to submit to a non-paying gig.  I know I am.

Having said that, I'm pretty happy with the 80 some actors we narrowed it down to.  And I'm sure we'll have actors simply show up that didn't bother to confirm and we'll also have actors that did confirm and for one reason or another, not attend.  Personally, I always try and confirm and if, at the last second, I can't make it, I'll reply again and say so.  But again, for a non-paying gig, some probably won't even do that.

But that's okay.  We'll make do. 

There will the three of us in the room today; myself, Jim, and Larry Cedar (who's directing my newest play, The Promise).  Angie has stepped up to the plate admirably and volunteered to keep the whole enterprise running smoothly.  Which is good, because as a former casting director for over twenty years, she has more experience at this sort of thing than the rest of us combined.  She is constantly reminding me, "No chit chat, just see them and move on.  You can chit chat at the callbacks."  She knows me well and she knows that I'll probably do everything possible to put the actors at ease including pleasant chit chat.  As a casting director, she is used to whipping the actors out the door like a herd of lathered, wild horses.

Jimmy, computer wizard that he is, has made a remarkable, little booklet that will be in the lobby outlining our mission statement, advisory board and founding producing directors.  There will be three of them in the lobby to be perused while actors are waiting to come in a do their thing.  I saw it last night and it's just terrific.

I'm taking a small table in for us to have in front of us and a thermos full of Armenian coffee to keep me from zoning off after dozens of monologues.  I've always maintained to my students that decisions are usually made about callbacks within the first ten seconds of entering the room anyway.  But courtesy demands we give them at least a minute to do their thing.

In the audition notice there was one tricky fact we had to diplomatically navigate around: in Bachelor's Graveyard, personally my favorite play I've ever written, one character has to strip down to his undies in the final moments of the play.  It is unavoidable to the plot.  So I said that very clearly in the breakdowns for that character.  I don't know if that helped or hindered the amount of submissions. 

Both in NY and Chicago I've found myself on 'the other side of the table' many times.  It is always an education and it has helped me in my own auditions throughout my career.  The main thing I've learned is the people behind the table are unabashedly on the side of the actor.  They  WANT  to be away.  The WANT the actor to be brilliant.  It makes their job a lot easier.  And it has helped me a lot throughout the years knowing that.  It keeps me from thinking of them as 'the enemy.'

I remember once, years ago, auditioning hundreds of actors for a couple of roles in a play called 'The Relative Importance of Jeri,' a really fine play by Jim Uhls, who later went on to write 'Fight Club.'  My close friend and, not incidentally, the best director with whom I ever worked, Jeff Wood,  and I were in the room with a couple of other people.  I was just there as an advisor of sorts because my play, Golden Eggs, was also being mounted in tandem with Uhls' play.  I think that was the first time I was ever on 'the other side of the table.'  In any event, we saw some good people.  Really good actors.  We also saw some undeniable whack jobs.  One guy started bouncing around like a gorilla at one point and threatened to leap on the table in front of us.  In fact, I think Jeff even actually got up and moved back a step or two, much like David Letterman did years ago when that strange actor from 'Back to the Future' started doing karate kicks during the interview. 

Another actress started simulating a very loud and realistic orgasm during her monologue.  While kinda fun to watch, it was still a little disconcerting.  Although it did command the conversation later that night at dinner as we flipped though all the resumes.  That's the thing about sex scenes...whatever the actor or actress is doing in a sex scene, I've always thought, is a pretty good barometer of what they actually do in bed.  I mean, they have to get their inspiration from somewhere, right?  But I digress.

Another guy, I remember, did a really fine monologue for us, very smart, underplayed, intense, quite nice.  And as he left the room said casually over his shoulder, "Fuck all of you."

So auditions can be enlightening.  I still think they are the worst possible way to cast a play, yet there aren't really any alternatives.  They are the lesser of all evils.  Ideally, I'd like to see every single actor in a play, actually in front of an audience, under fire, in the midst of real combat, and make my decision that way.  Of course, that's impossible.  Another thing I've noticed over the years is that very often the reading you get in the room is exactly the same reading you'll get on opening night.  And there's simply no way of predicting that.  So I try to keep a keen eye out for actors that possibly don't audition well but indicate a hidden level of explosive talent.  After all, Robert DeNiro was a notoriously bad auditioner.  The stuff of lore.  He is dyslexic and doesn't read well.  And Brando simply came to audions early in his career and made up monologues on the spot.  In one famous and often re-enacted audition for the lauded and snooty Lunts, he stared at the dark theatre for a long time and then finally said, "Hickory, Dickory Dock, the mouse ran up the clock.  There are people fucking starving in India right now, you pricks."  And walked off stage.  He didn't get the role.

So I'm looking forward to the day.  Undoubtedly we'll get some stories from it.  My concern is, Jimmy and I have a terrible tendency to make each other laugh over the stupidist things.  It's one reason we had so much trouble working together onstage long ago.  We just start giggling over shit that only we find funny.  So, I'll probably try not to look at him too much today during the proceedings.

Tomorrow we'll have the callbacks and the actors selected will be reading scenes from the plays.  We'll give the sides as they leave the room to avoid having to make dozens of phone calls tonight.  Also, Angie and I are having dinner with a group of Missouri friends tonight so I don't have time for that anyway.

One of my favorite audition stories.  Guy comes in, gives his name, pauses importantly, finally starts:  "I'll be playing Gloucester from Richard III...another solemn pause...NOW IS THE SUMMER...stops...pause...I'll come in again.  Leaves the room, shuts the door and walks back in.  Pause.  I'll be playing Gloucester from Richard III...NOW IS THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT..."

See you tomorrow.