It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Let He Who is Without Sin …

Dave Sikula on the callback.

I had a callback for a show Tuesday night. It wasn’t really a “callback,” since I didn’t audition for the show in the first place (getting a free callback is one of the perks of being a member of a company). But it was a callback for pretty much everyone else there.

The callback is one of my least favorite aspects of the theatre. On the production side, it’s an organizational pain in the neck. I need to comb through the script and find excerpts that will give the actor enough to play with, but that aren’t too long (two or three minutes is the maximum). They also need to show me aspects of a character that I hope to see conveyed by the actor. Then I need to work out how many actors to call back at all. In my younger and more foolish days (“Ah, youth, youth!” – “The Sea Gull,” Anton Chekhov), I’d call back any actor who seemed interesting immediately, with the consequence that, at the callback, I’d have, like, 40 actors to see – which is way, way, way too many. Ideally, I’d like to have two or three choices for each major role. In most cases, that’s pretty manageable – but when you consider that I’ll want to match up actors and see them in different combinations, the results become arithmetically astronomical. It’s easier to pick big group scenes; that is, I can see more people in a shorter amount of time, but then I’m never sure if I’m seeing what people can do. (Actor pro tip: Make bold choices. Even if a director doesn’t see something for you in the role s/he has you reading for, it may spark them to think of you in another part – sometimes a much better one.)

Nowadays, unless an actor is absolutely dazzling or perfect for a role, I won’t call them back on the spot. I wait until I’ve seen everyone, and then make the call. And that’s not to mention the “courtesy callback,” which I employ when the actor is a friend of mine or the producer or someone else on the production staff, and to not call them back might either be a bad idea politically or interpreted as unfriendly. And, of course, there are people with whose work I’m already familiar enough to not need an audition; I just tell them “I know what you can do; just come to the callback.” (Famous last words …)

So, I’ve got my sides – which I finally started to send to actors in advance, telling them exactly what I’m looking for (which saves time in the callback; not having to explain what I’m looking for to each actor as they come in,) and I’ve got the number of actors I want to see, but now I have to schedule them. My primary concerns at a callback are that I give an actor enough of a scene that I can see what they can really do with it, and that I don’t waste peoples’ time. They’re going to have to sit around, regardless, but I want to minimize that idle time. So I try to arrange a schedule that will allow me to read people in smaller groups.

Inevitably, though, that planning will go awry since I’ll want to read different people in different combinations. Meaning, I want to read Actor A with Actress B and Actor C. But I don’t want to read B with C, so do I call A and B or A and C first? And if I want to read both A and B with D, how do I call them? A and B? A and C? A, B, and D? It’s tiring.

I strive to get the whole thing done in three hours, but sometimes it takes four or more – and even then, there’s no guarantee that I’ll get everything I want, which means another round of callbacks – and depending on the roles I haven’t cast, I may need to call back another bunch of people. I mean, if I’m trying to cast Mr. Smith, and have called three people for that, I need to read them with the four candidates for Mrs. Smith. Then, if I have a really strong candidate for Mrs. Smith after all that, but no really good Mr. Smith, I’ll need to call different actors for Mr. Smith, and maybe all the Mrs. Smith candidates, because one of them might have better chemistry with a good Mr. Smith than the original “strong candidate.” On the other hand, my Mrs. Smith may be good enough that I don’t want to give her up and will forego calling the other possibles.

Sound confusing and exhausting? It is.

And, after working all of that out and going through the entire process and coming up with a good potential cast, I’ll need to sit down and look at schedules and conflicts, and see if the actors I want have enough availability or flexibility in their own schedules that they can rehearse as much as I need them to (five to six weeks with a play; six to seven with a musical) – or if they’ll accept a lesser role than they wanted.

And this is just for plays. When it comes to musicals, it’s even worse because not only do I generally need more people, I need to have the called-back actors sing and dance, and, on top of that, I have to have the actors I want to play leads or secondary roles read scenes. Scenes in musicals aren’t very long, so I have more to look for in less time. Usually in the case of a musical, I have to rely on the judgments of the choreographer and the musical director to determine if most of the actors (meaning, not the principals) will be able to handle the score and the dance moves they have in mind. I’ll listen to the actors sing and watch them dance, but for the nuts and bolts of things, will have to outsource the knowledge to collaborators.

And you wonder why directors look frazzled during the audition process?

Now, consider the equation from the other side of the table. As an actor, I’ll get a call or an email from someone connected with the production that, based on either an audition or from their having seem my past work, they want me to come to a callback. Sometimes I get the sides in advance, sometimes I see them only at the callback itself. (Of course, there’s also a chance that I know the play well enough or own the script that I won’t need sides.) This process differs from director to director, but when I send the sides, I include notes about what it is I’m looking for in each scene. I won’t be specific (“I need this really loud and slow”), but will try to convey the mood I’m looking for (“In this scene, he’s got to express for his anger and how he needs to make sure she understands” or “It’s their first meeting and they immediately fall in love, but the audience shouldn’t get that at the beginning”); I’m trusting the actor to interpret that general tone in the way they know best. If I know they can get the general stuff, I can hone in on the specifics during rehearsal.

But I digress …

So, I may or may not have an idea of what the director wants, but regardless, it’s up to me to deliver the material to the best of my ability – and in the most appropriate and interesting way. I show up to the theatre, and may or may not have to sit around for a while. Just as I do, the director has worked out a schedule that s/he feels will give him or her the best use of both their time and that of the actors. Which means that, even if I’ve been called at 7:00, I may sit around until 8:00. I may read only once or a number of times. It’s up to the director. If I give them what they’re looking for, I may be done early, or s/he may want to see me with someone else to verify that what they saw will work with someone else. Or they may see that what I’ve given them isn’t what they’re looking for (especially in the context of what other actors are doing), and I get an early evening. Or that this actor’s energy might play nicely off of that actor’s lack thereof. Or that the chemistry that this couple showed can repeat itself in another scene. (Years ago, I did a callback for a play called “Boy Meets Girl,” a Hollywood farce from the 30s that is one of my favorites. I did a scene with another actor that was brilliant and got us both the roles we wanted – and the scene never went that well again, either in rehearsal or performance.)

I thought this particular callback went pretty well. In looking at the script, I had the idea to approach it simply and non-theatrically; to just tell a story in as spontaneous a manner as I could muster (and, yes, I realize that may belie the advice I gave above about “being bold;” though, in this case, I thought taking the approach I took was a bold one, in that I tried less acting and more just being in the moment – which is darn hard, and something I don’t do a lot). I have no idea if that’s what the director wanted, but I felt it was the most appropriate way to deliver the speeches (which involved a lot of narration and just talking to the audience).

That’s all I could do, though; deliver the words in what I felt was the best way. If I could do that, I’ve done all I can and will feel good whether I get the part or not – and if I do, there’ll be one helluva lot of lines to memorize (and you know how I am about learning lines …). But it’s out of my hands. It’s all up to the director now.

To tell the truth, I’m not sure which position I’d rather be in, at this point. As a director, I get the chance to hire actors who are good and with whom I’ll be lucky enough to work. As an actor, I still get to work with great people, but will have the additional treat of having people notice my work as I do it.

While I’m not in this for the glory (or the money; anyone who’s in it for either is a sucker), but it’s nice to do work that is fulfilling and satisfying, and then get acknowledged publicly for it. I’m not self-effacing enough to do without that.