In For A Penny: Accepting New Membership

Charles Lewis III, on long term goals and short term contributions.

teen-movie-token-black-guy-copy

“What is true of creed is no less true of nationality. There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism.”
– Theodore Roosevelt, Address to the Knights of Columbus (1915)

Now that the cat’s outta the bag, I thought about following up Meg, Tonya, & Stuart’s recent entry with my own reminiscence about what the ‘Pub has meant to me and what I think will happen when it’s gone. I’m going to hold off on that for three specific reasons: 1 – with a few more months to go, it hasn’t actually ended yet; 2 – I wrote a good-bye piece the first time the ‘Pub “died”, and the new one I’m thinking of shouldn’t be repetitive (which it won’t – I’ve already started it and it’s a bit heartbreaking); and 3 – I’ve also been thinking about just precisely how the ‘Pub has made a positive change for the Bay Area theatre scene.

Specifically, I’m thinking about the ‘Pub’s inconspicuous sibling, the Olympians Festival. We held auditions for the latter last week, and are officially cast as of three days ago. As usual, it was an embarrassment of local acting riches. As we pored over more than 100 headshots, resumes, and scheduling calendars, several of us noted just how diverse was this year’s talent pool. I’m pretty sure no year of the fest has been 100% White (especially since I’ve been acting in it since its first year), but there was a noticeable uptick in the number of Black, Latina, and Trans actors auditioning this time. (So much so with the latter that a gender-specific direction had to be modified halfway through auditions.) And yes, we were all delighted by this.

Yet we’d have been remiss not to mention how we wished for it be even more diverse and to see such casting all over the Bay Area. I’ve mentioned before in this column that I once had to use an Indian actor in my play because there were no young Black actors auditioning; well, this year there were still no (young) Black male actors auditioning. I’ve done lots of work with the SF Opera, whose technical crew has recently added lots of younger members, many of them women and people of color. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been as much diversity with the faces on-stage, much of it quite noticeable (at age 35, I may be the youngest regular supernumerary and one of the few Black faces).

Yes, yes, it’s that “diversity problem” we all notice and lament, but none of us seem to know how to solve. It’s the sort of thing that makes powerful people declare “There’s no talent in the Bay Area” as they walk past the very folks who just want an opportunity to prove themselves.

By why is it so damn hard to connect talented folks with the people who need them most? One of this year’s Olympians writers mentioned having a difficult time casting for a recent production because the role required a young Black actor to play a Gay character. He said he was unable to find an actor comfortable with the physical affection needed. I understand both sides of that. The first time I had to kiss a guy on stage, it was the result of the director insisting on it and me being caught off-guard before I could object. In hindsight, I’m glad I did it, but I understand the hesitation of a young Black actor – most likely from a Christian household – not wanting to be seen that way in front of friends and family.

On the other hand, I think of all the young Black actors who already have the fearlessness I had to work on to get. I also frequently find myself frustrated with the Black actors I know who are incredibly talented and fearless, save for one area: they won’t leave the comfort zone of Black theatre. I know this because I’m constantly egging them on to audition for Olympians, see shows at Theater Pub, and just get to know the good folks who put on shows at The EXIT and The Flight Deck. Contrary to popular belief, the dearth of noticeable Black actors in the Bay Area theatre scene isn’t entirely the result of them “go[ing] equity so quickly” (What work do you think they did before they went equity?), nor is it solely a result of them migrating out of the pricey Bay Area (if that’s not true for ALL people, it’s not true for just Black people). Part of the blame also lies at the feet of Black actors not wanting to take the leap outside the Black theatre bubble.

And I understand why. Black theatre offers them something they rarely get outside of it: substantive roles. Why would a Black actor audition for a company that only casts him in a play where he only appears in two scenes, when a Black theatre would likely make him the lead? Why would a Black actress settle for constantly being cast as, at best, the best friend of the young ingénue when a Black theatre would make her the love interest? Why would anyone want to be a company’s token attempt to make their diversity quota when they can just work with a company full of people with similar backgrounds, experiences… and complexions? Even if that company has a notoriously dodgy reputation.

Theatre Bay Area’s 2013 exposé of the Berkeley Black Rep

Theatre Bay Area’s 2013 exposé of the Berkeley Black Rep

I’ve also seen this with Latinx actors who only wanted to work with companies like Campo Santo (whose work was great) and LGBTQ actors who only audition for New Conservatory or Theatre Rhino. It doesn’t mean those theatres should stop putting on shows with these talented performers, but I really wish I didn’t have to go to a specifically themed theatre to find these folks.

At this point you’re probably wondering what this look at the greater Bay Area theatre scene has to do specifically with Theater Pub or Olympians. Simple: exposure. The great thing about Theater Pub performances being free (though the people who donate find a special place in Heaven) is that anyone can show up, and everyone has. Both the show performed and the networking afterward have connected talented folks who may never have even seen one other through regular channels. So many recent grads have gotten their names out through Olympians that I personally think of it as a rite of passage (but that’s just me). These methods work. These methods have been adopted by other local theatre companies. These are valid, legitimate ways to create diversity.

But, at the same time, it’s also up to the people begging for those opportunities to not expect them to simply fall out of the sky. I say that not as a criticism, but from personal experience. Just as I encourage non-PoC to take in shows at Af-Am Shakes, so too do I encourage PoC (and women, LGBTQ, and other such performers) to take that one step forward to getting yourselves seen.

At the very least, you can say you took a chance.

Charles Lewis III will be directing two shows – one of which he wrote – for this year’s SF Olympians Fest. He hopes you’ll come see both of them, as well as the final four Theater Pub shows.

Everything Is Already Something: Realistic TBA Conference Panel Ideas

Allison Page is clearly looking forward to the TBA conference on Monday.

Berkeley Frappe: Which Theatre Companies Have The Best Snacks

We Hired Only Local Actors for One Year & Our Theater Didn’t Burn to the Ground

The Sarah Rule: How to Produce Plays by Women (But Only if They’re Written by Sarah Ruhl)

How to Take a Selfie Good Enough to Use as a Headshot for Twelve Years

Getting Cast as a Woman Over 40 Without Playing Someone’s Stepmother

Set Designs You Can Repurpose Until They Collapse During a Performance of Man of La Mancha

Faces to Make During Board Meetings When You Want to Perish But Cannot

Audition Waist Trainers: A Roundtable Discussion

Creative Ways to Swear in Front of the Kid Playing Oliver Twist When Nancy Forgets Her Line Again

Pros & Cons: Pretending to be a Man to Get Ahead as an Actor

Fight Choreographers Wrestling Each Other for 90 Minutes

Improvising a Monologue Because You’re Too Lazy to Memorize Even One More Thing, Please God, Please

How to Watch ‘The Bachelor’ During Rehearsal Without the SM Noticing

Do Blondes Really Have More Fun (Playing Girlfriends of the Protagonist)?

Group Nap

Playwright Complaint Circle

Moving From San Francisco to New York to Get Cast in San Francisco

Producing David Mamet Over & Over & Over Again, A Guide

Stage Managing a Show You Hate with People You Hate

How to Perform on a Stage 400 Times Smaller Than This One:

Empty Theater Stage

Empty Theater Stage — Image by © Chase Swift/CORBIS

Showmances: How to End Them…Maybe, But Probably Not

How to Use a Toaster as a Light Board After Yours Gets Stolen for the 9th Time

Payment Negotiation for Actors: Get Two Beers Instead of One for a Three Year Run

Shakespeare for Dummies: Can You Get an Actual Dummy to Replace an Actor in Midsummer Night’s Dream to Save Cash? Yes, You Can.

5 Sexiest Theatre Companies Shut Down This Year Due to Lack of Funding, Hear From the Weeping Artistic Directors Themselves!

Getting Board Members to Stop Asking if You Can Tap Into the Popularity of ‘The Walking Dead’

Can You Get Away With Casting This White Male as Tiger Lily? (THIS IS A TEST)

Stage Manager & Director Speed Dating: Watch 45 Directors Fight Over 3 SMs

Costume Designing on a $6 Budget

Are You Ready to Set Every Show in the Apocalypse?

Allison Page is a writer/actor/director in San Francisco. She’ll be looking for snacks at the TBA Conference and live tweeting it all @allisonlynnpage.

Theater Around The Bay: The Audition and Casting Process (Emilio Rodriguez, Janet Bentley)

Part Two of Peter Hsieh’s interview with some of his favorite directors.

Last Time I interviewed Lana Russell and Stuart Bousel about the casting and audition process in regards to new works; here is part two with Emilio Rodriguez and Janet Bentley. I met Emilio while we were at the University of California, Irvine and the pleasure of working with him a year ago when he directed my play Interstate at the Detroit Fringe Festival. I met Janet when she directed the New York premiere of Interstate at T. Schreiber Studio theater. I had a great time working with both these theatre makers and they continue to be at the helm of new works in their respective art communities.

My play Interstate as directed by Janet Bentley.

My play Interstate as directed by Janet Bentley.

Tell us about your experience with new works. What do you enjoy about them? Why is it important to support that avenue of theatre?

Rodriguez: My love of new works didn’t really happen until I started writing. This is why I agree with Paula Vogel, that we need to encourage more people to write; because it changes the way one goes to the theatre and their investment in it.
Now, I not only write and direct new plays but I also curate several new play festivals. I am always excited when I open a new script. There is a spectrum of reactions I can have based on the writing. My favorite is finding something that makes me feel like the wind got knocked out of me. That moment where time stops for a second as you absorb the ending line or stage direction. The beauty of reading new works is that I do not have a cap on how many times I’ll feel that in my lifetime because there will always be more plays to read.

To me, new plays are just as exciting as new music. It’s counterintuitive to me that people will break the internet to buy Beyonce’s newest CD and stand outside in the pouring rain to wait for Best Buy to release Taylor Swift’s newest CD, but when a new play is produced, there is this skepticism; it’s as if everyone is waiting for the new work to have approval of the Pulitzer or a Tony. We need new work. We need new voices. Society is constantly evolving, so our stories need to change with us, just as our music does.

Emilio Rodriguez. Doesn’t want to hear Viola’s Ring monologue anymore.

Emilio Rodriguez. Doesn’t want to hear Viola’s Ring monologue anymore.

Bentley: I started my work in theatre, like most people, in acting. I was raised by an acting teacher who taught me everything I needed to know about The Method and I remember desperately loving text analysis for the actor when I was in my undergrad. Writing character biographies felt like a collaboration with my deepest self and the playwright and that always excited me. When I was accepted into the Iowa Playwright’s Workshop, I was introduced to the exciting process of working alongside living writers of various backgrounds and I was even more charged by the process because I could work together with these writers using active empathy in action – a most satisfying step beyond the silent investigation of works codified by a published final draft and/or the long since deceased and absent writer whose voice had been interpreted many times.

While many theatres often select the “tried and true” classic and/or contemporary well-known play or musical because they are financially looking for a “safe bet”, I am dedicated to the pursuit of new voices, new stories, and new perspectives to support and fulfill into new works because I feel that this is the only way to progress as a species.

What are some of the challenges of casting new works, especially for a festival or evening of multiple plays?

Bentley: Since festivals of new works are often bravely put up by organizations that may or may not have funding to pay the actors, the first challenge is to casting good actors willing to work for free/practically nothing. Of course, I have been working on building a network of smart, collaborative actors who are willing to donate their time to the promotion of new work. I often look for new play development-specific entries on actors’ resumes when casting because this does help me with my decisions. (On that note, I always advocate for some kind of stipend for actors whenever possible because everyone’s work should receive some kind of gesture of thanks).

Janet Bentley. Don’t ‘Sharon Stone’ her at auditions.

Janet Bentley. Don’t ‘Sharon Stone’ her at auditions.

Rodriguez: I try to do auditions for most of the festivals I manage, but this inevitably leads to a few stand out actors who all of the directors want to cast. Because of time constraints, our actors can only commit to so many shows which means that directors often have to compromise on casting. This changes the chemistry between the actors and sometimes the ideal actor that a director fought for doesn’t give the same performance when cast opposite another actor. This is why I sometimes think it’s better to not do auditions for festivals. If all of the directors are comfortable casting on their own, as was the case with the Detroit Fringe festival this year, then I skip the audition process.

There are a lot of people for and against pre-casting. There are a lot of practical reasons it is done (i.e. Writer/ Director had a specific actor in mind), but a lot of people bring up the arguments against it as well. What are your thoughts on pre-casting, and as producer/directors what would you say to Directors and actors in regards to this?

Rodriguez: When I was primarily an actor, I was adamantly against pre-casting. I felt it was unfair to never be given a shot. I just wanted to be seen and have an unbiased opportunity to share my craft. Now that I work more as a playwright and director, I have changed my mind. To me the most important thing is that the best person is cast, whether I find them or they find me. I think it is important that people have the chance to be seen, but also, in order to best honor the playwright, I believe that seeking out talent in advance is sometimes necessary. I try not to precast but I do need to make sure I can cast properly. I usually hold an audition, but I also ask actors who I’m strongly considering for the parts to audition so that I have options if I don’t find the appropriate new talent at the audition. I hope that’s a fair compromise because I do see the validity in both sides of the argument.

Bentley: I think that having people in mind is a natural, inevitable part of the process, but officially pre-casting is a “safe-guard” that can seriously stifle my favorite part of directing: being surprised and inspired by actors. There have been two instances when pre-casting proved to be unwise: once I had someone in mind for the role of Baal, I precast him, and then he moved to Chicago before the show so I held auditions. I saw an actor that I never thought would work and he surprised me – the role brought something out of him that was dying to get out and I was relieved that the other actor had actually left town. The other time, an actress was precast in a short play by the artistic director and though she delivered a decent performance in the end, I was haunted by the audition of another actress who just nailed it. (Yes, they actually made me hold auditions for the role in order to “keep up appearances” – something I would implore other artistic directors never to enforce on their directors).

On the flip side of this: when playwrights write something for a specific actor, this is a different sort of animal. I have a number of actors whose unique qualities are so inspiring that I am entertaining a couple of playwrights with the idea of writing something for these actors (also, I sympathize greatly with the predicament of some actors who are often passed over because they are so unique and specific a type that there are either no roles for them or no directors creative enough to embrace an unconventional interpretation of the production).

Pre-casting. This is the girl.

Pre-casting. This is the girl.

What are some things actors do that make you want to cast them, conversely what are some of the things they do that make you not want to cast them?

Rodriguez: I love working with actors who will try anything and make it work. The skeptical actors, the ones who say “I feel like my character wouldn’t do that” are the ones I tend not to work with again. That’s actually my least favorite phrase and usually a red flag for me in the rehearsal process. I think it’s great that they have a sense of their character, but when they negate choices too early it makes their characters one dimensional. In my opinion, whether it’s a new work or a published script, every character needs to do something unexpected or “out of character” at least once in the play. If an actor truly feels like my direction or my dialogue is detrimental to the performance, we can settle that after they give me a good, fully-committed stab at it.

Bentley: Things that get you cast: being prepared, making choices, being in the moment, punctuality, flexibility, helpfulness, openness, hunger for the process, and courtesy. Conversely, if the actor hasn’t worked on the material and at least googled for definitions and pronunciations, if s/he doesn’t take an adjustment, if s/he is late, or if any of these examples of disregard for the process, I am not interested in casting such an actor.

The minute you walk into the building, you’re “onstage”. If you come to a studio and there is a production SM/audition monitor receiving you and handing you paperwork, which is the beginning of your audition. If you are rude to her/him, the casting directors, etc, will know about it. If you are courteous, organized, and awesome, we will know. If you are to audition with a reader and the scene calls for touching, don’t just touch the reader. Smile, introduce yourself, and politely ask if it is okay to touch their hand or shoulder and accept their answer.

If you are performing a monologue, most audition books warn against using the casting directors and say to find an eye-line above their heads. However, if the text suggests a direct address to the audience, ask the casting directors what their preference is.
What you wear: Example: if you are auditioning for Doubt, don’t buy a nun or priest’s costume and wear it to the audition. Wear something that suggests the tone of the characters like black and white. If you do feel compelled to put on a veil, check what kind of nun you’re going out for before depicting the wrong order (Sisters of Charity wore bonnets and a certain kind of dress similar to their founder in the 19th century so do the research before making the assumption that Sister Aloysis looks like she’s about to sing “Climb Every Mountain”). If you’re going out for the perfect housewife, don’t dress like a 1970s punk. If you’re going out for a slick lawyer, don’t dress like a plumber. Why am I saying this? These things have happened! Neutral and professional is best: darker colors on the feet and pants or skirt / lighter on top. You don’t want the casting directors staring at your feet.

Oh and please do not Sharon Stone the readers and casting directors. Remember Basic Instinct? Don’t do it.

Head Shot: if you don’t look like your head shot, get new ones.
Resume: Please keep it on one page and make sure it is formatted in a professional way (Google templates for entertainment/actor resumes).

Remember Basic Instinct? Newman does.

Remember Basic Instinct? Newman does.

Monologue you’d be okay never hearing again.

Bentley: Bridal Registry from A…My Name Is Alice, The Tuna monologue from Laughing Wild, Anything from Steel Magnolias, Crimes of the Heart, and Star-Spangled Girl.

Rodriguez: Viola’s ring monologue. I hear it every time I direct a Shakespeare show. For contemporary monologues, there is one about a woman eating her ex-husband’s divorce papers and dipping them in Ketchup. It’s a great monologue, but I’ve heard it done by a phenomenal actress so now every time other people do it, I automatically remember how great the first actress was and I tune out as I reminisce.

Some higher power has made you Supreme Overlord of Theatre. Cast your favorite play with any cast you want.

Rodriguez: This is such a fun question! I really want to direct a new play called The Living Life of the Daughter Mira by Matthew Paul Olmos. My dream cast would be Tony Revolori as Lazaro, Aimee Carrero as Luna/Mira, Gina Rodriguez as Maya, Rosie Perez as Lupe, and Raul Esparza as Efren.

Bentley: A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee with John Noble (Fringe TV Show) as Tobias, Helen Mirren as Agnes, Kristine Sutherland as Edna, Anthony Stewart Head as Harry, and Parker Posey as Julia.

Kristine Sutherland and Anthony Stewart Head. Probably familiar if you watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Kristine Sutherland and Anthony Stewart Head. Probably familiar if you watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Emilio Rodriguez is a theatre artist nomad currently residing in Detroit. His most recent play “Swimming While Drowning” was part of the Activate Midwest Festival and the Latino Theatre Commons Carnaval of New Work. It also earned him a residency with UMS, Djerassi, and the Mitten Lab. As a producer, he has worked on the Detroit Fringe Festival, The Michigan Playwrights Festival at Theatre Nova and The Women’s Play Fest at Two Muses Theatre. Women’s Play Fest at Two Muses; Detroit Free Press on Detroit Fringe.

Janet Bentley is a freelance theatre director, actor, writer, dramaturg, literary manager, composer, sound designer, singer, amateur photographer, and company member for the New York-based Nylon Fusion Theatre Company. Janet holds an MFA in dramaturgy from the University of Iowa and a BA in theatre from the University of South Florida (Tampa). She currently lives in New York, NY. Now Playing: http://www.nylonfusion.org/#!comes-a-faery/c1q11 (Sound and original music)
Updates: https://janeturgy.wordpress.com/theatre/.

Peter Hsieh is a playwright from San Jose, California. Recent credits include his play Interstate at the Detroit Fringe Festival and T. Schreiber Studio, Argus at the San Francisco Olympians Festival, and Maybe at Brooklyn College as part of GI60 2015. Additionally, his works have been produced and developed by Hollywood Fringe Festival, Piney Fork Press, Douglas Morrisson Theatre, NYU Performing Arts Club, Nylon Fusion Collective, Actor’s Company, Brooklyn College, North Park Playwright’s Festival, Viaduct Theatre, SPROUT, San Francisco Theatre Pub, World Premiere Weekend, City Light’s Theater Company, GI60, San Jose Rep’s Emerging Artist Lab, West Valley College, and Fringe of Marin. Peter is a graduate from the University of California, Irvine.

Theater Around The Bay: The Audition and Casting Process (Stuart Bousel, Lana Russell)

Peter Hsieh brings us Part One of a two part interview series taking a director’s eye view of the casting and audition process.

Auditions. Casting. Been there, done that.

Auditions. Casting. Been there, done that.

Before I started seriously writing plays, I was an actor and the thing that baffled me the most, gave me the most palpitations were auditions. Part of what made me so nervous about them was that I didn’t really grow up doing theater and didn’t really have any friends in theater or any connections within a theater community. I also hadn’t the slightest idea about what the casting process was like from the director’s and producer’s stand point and in my ignorance and insecurity, attributed being successfully cast as to having connections, having an impressive resume stretching back twelve years to your stage debut as one of the kids in Children of Eden to your critically acclaimed performance as Romeo in last summer’s production of Romeo and Juliet, or being incredibly talented/having years of training. A few years later I found myself on the other side of the table, as a locally produced, playwright/director with whom people saw potential in and as a result got to take part in auditions and casting for some of my plays and became more familiar with this process that years ago was such a terrifying mystery to me.

Nowadays I rarely take part in auditions but I still have great respect for all the work that goes into auditions and castings from both sides of the table . As I’m writing this article, a lot of plays are being cast or already have been cast, from college productions (a lot of the UC’s have just had theirs cast I believe), to a few upcoming festivals like the San Francisco Olympians Festival, and I find myself thinking back to a younger version of myself worrying about auditions and how much better it would have been if I knew more about the process or if I had a few director friends I could talk to. In this article I talk to two very awesome directors, who go to auditions and are involved in the casting process, directors that I look up to and whose work I deeply admire: Stuart Bousel, the Director of New Work Development at Custom Made Theatre Company, the Executive Director of San Francisco Theater Pub, and the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Olympians Festival, really, a man who needs no introduction in these parts (and on this blog), and who you’ve (if you do theater in San Francisco) probably auditioned for and my friend Lana Russell, a New York based freelance director and the artistic director of Story People Theater Group, whom I met (and auditioned in front of) at UC Irvine where we both matriculated. In addition to talking about the audition and casting process, Stuart and Lana, both involved in producing new works, also addresses what it’s like to work on new plays and how what it is like to cast a new play.

So to the actor who got nervous before their audition, or are thinking about auditioning, to anyone who has ever wondered about the casting process and what transpires after you leave that stage (or room, or wherever your audition takes place), to myself years back when I was auditioning for the first time as a college freshmen who decided to take a shot at theater, this one is for you.

Tell us about your experience with new works. What do you enjoy about them? Why is it important to support that avenue of theatre?

Bousel: I’m a playwright, so I create new work, so of course I think it’s important, but as a director and as an audience member I’m just really into stories- old ones, and new, so an interest in new work development stems from a desire to constantly be creating and listening to, seeing, new stories. Surprise is, to me, one of the key elements of good theater- revelation too- and while I think both of those things can be present in older works, obviously the potential is greater in new work, and it’s important to support new work for the same reasons it’s important to support learning new things or making new friends: it helps us grow as human beings, and we should never stop growing.

Lana Russell. Her workshop production of Gibraltar at UCI was one of the best plays I saw there. I saw A LOT of good plays there.

Lana Russell. Her workshop production of Gibraltar at UCI was one of the best plays I saw there. I saw A LOT of good plays there.

Russell: For me, there is nothing more exciting than getting to be a part of telling a story that has never been told in exactly that way ever before. A playwright creates this raw, beautiful, terrifying thing that has the power and potential to develop into a story so full of life it cannot help but be told. When a new work gets dropped into your hands as a director I truly believe that no matter what is on the page, there is this thrilling possibility of what it could become. Offering support to the playwright in early stages by giving them the space to hear their work aloud, in front of a supportive and inquisitive audience is immensely important. Plays aren’t written to sit in twenty drafts on a google drive, they are being written for people to hear, see, react to and empathize with.

While I’ve always had a passion for new plays, the work really began after moving to New York in 2010. I had the opportunity and great pleasure to work for Primary Stages as their literary assistant for almost three years. So in addition to building a freelance directing career I was reading a bajillion scripts, seeing readings all over the city and assisting in Primary Stages Dorothy Strelsin New American writers group. A literary position was a great fit for me and it allowed me to learn about the wealth of writers constantly putting their work out there in New York and regionally. The writer’s group would meet once a week while the playwrights (all RIDICULOUSLY AMAZING writers) brought in new pages of the play they were working on which would then have a reading at the end of the term. Primary Stages offers such a generous home to their writers and an opportunity for audiences to come and see a work that is brand spanking new. I offered dramaturgical advice and hopefully emotional support in addition to administrative tasks for the group, their reading series and our annual writers retreat in Bennington College. I also have held literary internships and producing fellowships at LCT3 at Lincoln Center and Naked Angels, both companies dedicated to the development and production of new and exciting works.

What are some of the challenges of casting new works, especially for a festival or evening of multiple plays?

Russell: The festival especially had its challenges because instead of producing one new play, there were seven each with its own writer, director and cast. For me, casting for a new play is actually easier than one that has a range of previous productions. It can be more difficult because no previous type has been set for who plays this role but that is what I find most creatively stimulating. For an actor this is a huge opportunity to lend your voice and help create the persona of a brand new character. Readings are also great opportunities to try certain casting ideas and actors out. It sounds silly to say but scheduling is another major challenge. Since so many readings of new plays are unpaid and based on the generous volunteering of time from the actors, casting can get down to the wire and it becomes a game of commitments and getting people in the right place at the right time. Actors, the quicker you respond to an email, the quicker we can cast you.

Stuart Bousel. I owe at least three of my plays being produced to him. For Reals.

Stuart Bousel. I owe at least three of my plays being produced to him. For Reals.

Bousel: The big challenge with casting new work is that many actors are really no different from producers, directors, or audiences, and are just partial to what is familiar, perhaps even slightly distrusting of new work. Ask an actor what roles they want to play and they all have a list, which is understandable, they’ve grown up reading and seeing shows they want to be a part of themselves, but I wish I heard more actors say, “A role that hasn’t been written yet” or “A role I don’t know”. The right actors get super excited when they come across something they haven’t gotten to do before and nobody else has either, and they recognize it as the opportunity it is: to really be part of the creation of that character, because they absolutely will be, all roles are influenced by the actor who originates them. But it definitely takes a creative, smart actor who is willing to do that, and many artists, like many audiences, play it safe when push comes to shove, or can just have a hard time seeing how an opportunity they didn’t anticipate is still an opportunity.

There are a lot of people for and against pre-casting. There are a lot of practical reasons it is done (i.e. Writer/ Director had a specific actor in mind), but a lot of people bring up the arguments against it as well. What are your thoughts on pre-casting, and as producer/directors what would you say to Directors and actors in regards to this?

Bousel: I think it really depends on the role and the production. As a playwright, I have written roles for certain actors and I’ve never regretted that. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s almost always an interesting result. That said, all roles should be able to be played by someone other than the person they were originally written for (assuming they were) so obviously pre-casting is going to postpone that test at least until a second production. Generally speaking, I think it’s okay though for a director to go into a production with some sense of what they want, so long as they remain open to having their mind changed. And so long as they haven’t promised a role to an actor ahead of time. Telling someone they have a role and then taking it away for purely “I found someone I like more” reasons is not at all classy and yes, I’ve done it, and so I’m speaking from experience when I say you just end up feeling like a giant douche bag when you do that- and it’s cause you are. Go into auditions with all the ideas in the world- but save the promises until you’re ready to make a real offer.

Russell: I don’t think there is a director out there (especially one who is also producing) who when planning to do a play doesn’t have some ideas in their head about who could play at least the major roles. In larger institutions, especially on Broadway, star names are many times attached first before the choosing of the actual play, or the play is only produced if there can be at least 1-2 “names” on board. I don’t love this but sadly it is necessary to help with financial instability. Most directors I know have a circle of actors in the back of their minds but I at least always ask other trusted director colleges for recommendations. Sometimes I do an “invited audition” based on recommendations only when something needs to be cast quickly. Yet, the hopeful artist in me also believes in the possibility of finding that right person amidst the crowd when least expecting it. The best thing actors can do to embrace the amount of pre-casting that does occur is to work with and get your name involved with as any circles of art makers as possible. Make it so that when considering a play, your work and reputation for the caliber of work that you do is something producers and directors cannot ignore. More often than not I cast someone based on recommendation or a show I saw them in as opposed to just a cold audition. Also, a good website with a range of material is SO helpful.

What are some things actors do that make you want to cast them, conversely what are some of the things they do that make you not want to cast them?

Russell: The best thing an actor can do is make a choice. Any choice. A bold choice. A choice that you have thought deeply about. This means really knowing the play you have pulled the audition piece from. Also, I love actors who are able to show me who they are in an audition. It sounds so cliché but be yourself, have fun, and have pride and confidence in who you are. The people behind the casting table (at least in my opinion) are not “above you” they aren’t to be feared or make you feel less than. The casting director, director, producer etc. need someone to fill a role the same way that you need a gig. Lastly, be flexible. Be open. And be kind to everyone involved in any creative process. That is what I look for. I don’t want to cast any actor with an ego, someone who is inflexible and cannot play or make adjustments, and as I said before someone who doesn’t make a passionate choice in one direction even if it is the “wrong” direction.

Bousel: I like working with smart people who have a solid sense of who they are, know their boundaries, and are able to politely communicate them, but are also willing to take risks, try something before they shoot it down, collaborate, and contribute to the conversation while we craft a piece together. They need to know we’re in it together- and that “we” means them too. Actors who turn me off are ones who only want to go by the book, so to speak, and say “no” instead of “okay, let’s try it and see”. Actors who are not team players, who think they are above anything or anyone involved in my production, from their fellow actors to the box office people, are also not welcome on my shows. They are always, always, always backstage poison and the damage they cause is never worth whatever talent they possess. I will take a solid, if not “incredible” actor who is friendly, on time, and game, over an exquisite asshole any day. Love your ensemble, not your diva, is my slogan.

Cate Blanchett is smart and makes bold choices. I’m pretty sure of that.

Cate Blanchett is smart and makes bold choices. I’m pretty sure of that.

Monologue you’d be okay never hearing again.

Bousel: None, really, but advice I’d give after seeing hundreds of auditions: never do a song from RENT or TICK TICK BOOM, and never do a monologue where your character is crazy, ranting, or telling a story that isn’t about them.

Russell: Any monologue that is vastly age inappropriate, or any monologue where you play an actor doing a play or even worse a monologue about an audition. Also, I’d love to put a ban to monologue books. Those speeches get overused and as an actor it helps you so much to have an entire play as a tool to understanding your character. A monologue on its own can be way too general.

Some higher power has made you Supreme Overlord of Theatre. Cast your favorite play with any cast you want. I’d do Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love” starring Jessica Chastain as May, Sam Rockwell as Eddie, and Jeff Bridges as the Old Man.

Russell: Peter, do you know Sam Rockwell is in Fool for Love on Broadway right now! Your wish is the theater’s command. OH MAN this is tough. I would have to cross time periods and eras. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, has been and always will be my favorite play. I would keep Marlon Brando as Stanley, though in when she was age appropriate Meryl Streep, (great minds think alike) Jessica Chastain as Stella and again if we could jump to times in their life when they were age appropriate I’ve always wanted a young Robin Williams to take on Mitch.

OMG! My wish is theater’s command. Swag.

OMG! My wish is theater’s command. Swag.

Bousel: I can’t really answer this because I’m about to direct my favorite play, SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION, for the first time in 2016, and I’ve just cast it and I love and am really excited about my cast. So… there you go. I suppose if we’re just playing the Hollywood game, I would really love to see Cate Blanchette and Tilda Swinton cast as rival sister queens in a fantasy epic. I don’t know why this hasn’t happened yet.

Lana, you have a new theater group through which you recently produced a festival of new plays, tell us about it.

RUSSELL: I have a theater company (in development) called Story People Theatre Group. Story People Theatre Group seeks to create bold, imaginative art inspired by the diverse stories of the people around us. We are focused on documenting stories and forming a conversation between an artist and their community. Story People produces the summer Rooftop Readings program where new plays are presented in outdoor spaces (if it’s in Brooklyn where we are located chances are the space is a roof) and following the reading, discussion and intermingle of artists conversation wine and snacks takes place. Additionally, this year we held our first annual “Strangers” New works festival of short plays. This was an open submission process where writers were given the prompt “Strangers”. All seven pieces were presented with simple staging or in a more traditional reading format for the first time in front of enthusiastic audiences. I was thrilled by the range of diverse and unique voices we produced (some of which I directed) and the hope is that these plays continue to have further lives.

Supreme Overlord of Theatre.

Supreme Overlord of Theatre.

The really exciting thing about this particular festival is that the plays are incredibly new, performed or read for the first time in front of an audience and openly embrace that they are in the first stage of a developmental process. There is no pressure for perfection, just an opportunity to listen, craft, think and question. Story People will continue its programming next summer 2016 with a soon to be announced full length play, devising workshop and the usual summer programming of Rooftop Readings and hopefully another “Strangers” style festival. Story People is always in search of new collaborators so if you consider yourself an artist or storyteller of any kind please get in touch!

Sadly a website is in development and is not up yet so please get a hold of us at storypeopletheatregroup@gmail.com or Lana at lanarosalind@gmail.com.

Tune in Next Week for Part Two where I ask the same questions to more awesome directors/producers.

Stuart Bousel is the Director of New Work Development at Custom Made Theatre Company, the Executive Director of San Francisco Theater Pub, and the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Olympians Festival, which opens on November 5th this year (www.sfolympians.com). He is also a playwright, and his play Pastorella is currently nominated for OUTSTANDING WORLD PREMIERE at this year’s TBA Awards, while his play Gone Dark is set to open at Otherworld Theatre Company in Chicago on Halloween.

Lana Russell is a New York based freelance director and the artistic director of Story People Theater Group. Selected credits include: The Offer by Bella Poynton (Sam French OOB Festival Finalist) Cloud Tectonics by Jose Rivera, (New School for Drama), The Coming World by Christopher Shinn (Under St. Marks), Pizza Man by Darlene Craviotto (Red Room Theater) and Gibraltar by Octavio Solis (Nixon Theater). Assistant directing: The Model Apartment and Poor Behavior (Evan Cabnet, Primary Stages.) Lana is a member of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab and pursuing an MFA in Directing at The New School for Drama, 2017.

Peter Hsieh is a playwright from San Jose, California. Recent credits include his play Interstate at the Detroit Fringe Festival and T. Schreiber Studio, Argus at the San Francisco Olympians Festival, and Maybe at Brooklyn College as part of GI60 2015. Additionally, his works have been produced and developed by Hollywood Fringe Festival, Piney Fork Press, Douglas Morrisson Theatre, NYU Performing Arts Club, Nylon Fusion Collective, Actor’s Company, Brooklyn College, North Park Playwright’s Festival, Viaduct Theatre, SPROUT, San Francisco Theatre Pub, World Premiere Weekend, City Light’s Theater Company, GI60, San Jose Rep’s Emerging Artist Lab, West Valley College, and Fringe of Marin. Peter is a graduate from the University of California, Irvine.

Everything Is Already Something Week 59: Haiku for Auditions

Allison Page brings poetry to the audition process.

Monologues are dumb
Wait you want me to cold read
I miss monologues

Oh please don’t make me
Reading with him is torture
Give me the tall one

Sixty five actors
Hot stuffy hallway of sweat
Rabid dogs who read

To be or not to—
Oh god I forgot the rest
To be or not to—

Don’t make me watch them
I’ll just sign people in k
I can’t take it man

I wore extensions
I totally look 13
Cast me now I’m teen

Don’t let them see fear
Show your teeth for aggression
I hope it’s working

Oh no not this guy
Summer of ’13 he saw
I tripped into poop

To be or not to—
I think I got it this time
Or not to pee — damn

Did not dress to move
Swing dancing in pencil skirt
Fetch me a seamstress

It’s Spanish oh boy
Uh no habla espanol
Si si si si si

Scene calls for kissing
Who kisses at auditions
He wouldn’t—mmmfffff

To be or not to—
Oh god am I wearing pants
—That is the pants—shit

Oh great she’s here blech
Might as well give it to her
Shiny hair kill me

To be or not to be—
Nailing it so hard right now
THAT IS THE QUESTION

They’re releasing me
They must know they’re casting me
Or the opposite

Allison Page is an actor/writer/person. You can catch her as Bunny Watson in THE DESK SET at the EXIT Theater now through July 25th!

Everything Is Already Something Week 49: When Women Aren’t Even Writing For Women

This morning I went through the numbers at the company for which I am one of two Creative Directors. Not finances – it’s a major LOL if you think I have anything to do with that. But the breakdown of who we work with. (We’ll come back around to why I was looking at this in a minute.)

Actors:
17 Women, 9 Men

Writers:
19 Women, 11 Men

Some of these people do double duty, so figuring that in we have:
31 Women, 18 Men

We have one director who isn’t from either of those groups:
1 Man

And two stage managers:
1 Man, 1 Woman

For an actual total of:
32 Women, 20 Men

That’s pretty great, if you’re looking at it from a “BUT ARE THERE AS MANY WOMEN AS MEN?!” perspective. Though we weren’t out in search of having a female dominated sketch comedy company. That’s just what happened. Those are just the people who passed through our doors, whom we liked a lot and thought were funny and fun to work with and displayed the varied set of skills which make someone good at this crap. In the five years I’ve been with this crazy group of humans, there have always been really amazingly talented women – both performers and writers. But sadly, that doesn’t always equal the varied types of roles for women that you might think it would. It does SOMETIMES. We’re not that shitty. But it seems as though it gets away from us. I say us because I am just as guilty of immediately writing a role for a man as my cohorts (regardless of their gender).

Be the Lisa Loopner you wish to see in the world.

Be the Lisa Loopner you wish to see in the world.

Right now, I’m directing our set for SF Sketchfest – admittedly one of my favorite shows of the year, every year. And as I was putting together the sketches to use for that show, a sad-pants theme started to arise: almost all of the crazy, kooky, wacky character parts were for men. I’ve been doing some cross gender casting out of necessity, which is fine. I’m happy to do that. But my real wish is that we would write more over the top characters who are PURPOSELY women – as opposed to having a woman play a part written for a man (regardless of whether they choose to play the part as a woman or as a man). We tend to have six person casts – three men and three women, but sometimes having enough juicy stuff for the women to dig into without cross gender casting can be next to impossible.

Yes, women can be Vice Presidents too.

Yes, women can be Vice Presidents too.

In some sort of strategy to combat something or other – I started writing some characters with no gender at all. Actually, I wrote a whole sketch with only non-gendered characters in it, and it’s one of the best I’ve ever written. I doubt that means anything, but it is interesting. (They ended up being played by 3 men and 3 women, I think.) And the idea of casting someone purely out of their fit for the role, and not due to their male or female identity is a good one, to me. It leaves a bunch of things open for interpretation, and I like that.

Our company is about to have possibly the craziest year we’ve ever had, with a brand new production happening every month. And, as my preamble for the kickoff meeting for our inaugural show in that schedule (actually called SEX BATTLE…so that’s pretty funny) states: This is a year of risk-taking for us. For all of us. Not just in the quantity of our content, but in the quality, style, and variety of our content. I’m challenging myself to be better at these things this year, and I’m going to pose that challenge to the rest of my cohorts as well.

Cookie Fleck knows what's up.

Cookie Fleck knows what’s up.

We have all these magnificently talented, energetic, creative women going to bat for us, and if we don’t give them the material they deserve, it’s no one’s fault but our own. We haven’t been total failures at it, but we’re not where we should be. And thankfully, with all these shows happening, we have 12 chances to try to get it right.

SEX BATTLE actually cannot have this problem – we’re dividing up writers and actors into two teams (chicks and dudes) and each team will create the same amount of sketches on the same topics (Politics, Love, an Impressions Speed Round and many others) so the only way they can fail at parity in my eyes is if somehow the ladies only write sketches where the other ladies have to play men. But I don’t think that’ll happen.

I anticipate at least one Hillary Clinton impression.

Allison Page is an actor/writer/creative director at Killing My Lobster. You can catch the Sketchfest show she’s directing January 27th at the Eureka Theater.

Cowan Palace: Casting Makes Me Itchy

…and scratching it makes it worse.

Ashley Cowan brings you this blog.

Ashley Cowan brings you this blog.

Casting is the worst. Yes, I know I have tendency to say a lot of stuff is the worst but sometimes, putting a cast together can be tricky. If you’ve been in the Bay Area theater scene for more than a minute, I’m sure you have a story of some casting nightmare. Either as an actor, director, writer, producer, WHATEVER, we’ve all been there at some point.

Yet even as I sit down to put this blog together, my heart starts to race and I get itchy. (I have a bad habit of breaking out into hives when I’m uncomfortable or nervous. Sexy, right?) Because I don’t want to go publicly airing all my theatrical horror stories out and about! This is a small community and I want to be able to work again!

It never seems like the right time to be honest with these types of experiences. They’re better saved for tipsy parties and whispered secrets in the back. Or passive aggressive blog entries and tears in dream journals. But when we can’t openly talk about these things as they’re unfolding, how do they have any chance to improve?

I’m sorry, guys. I think we can do better! This can be a brutal business and I think there’s some room for improvement. In my experience, too often across a range of theatre companies, I’ve found an unfortunate lack of communication throughout a production’s development. Maybe it’s just one too many callbacks because the “right” people weren’t there during an earlier audition or perhaps it’s hearing that the producer loves you but the director wanted to go for someone with a different look. Sometimes casting can really put the “itch” in bitch (am I right?!). And even once your group is set and you high five those involved, the production process and run can be a whole different beast.

Okay. Calm down, Ashley. No one wants to work with a Debbie Downer (waaaaahh waaaahhh). You have to understand that I come from a place of love. If I didn’t want to be here, I wouldn’t be. I love being involved in as many capacities as possible. I’ve been fortunate enough to wear a few different hats during my time in this community. And I love hats. But each one certainly comes with its own set of challenges.

I’ve directed pieces and made strong casting choices that the writer did not envision. I’ve written work and seen it played by characters I didn’t expect. As an actor, I’ve watched writers undermine a director’s creative power by interjecting themselves deep into the rehearsal process. I’ve observed directors ignore a playwright’s opinion in lieu of their own. And I’ve struggled to honor the true intent of the play without the right guidance. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.

One thing about San Francisco these days is that there’s lots of new stuff being done. Which means, often, the writer is very much a part of the production process. And while I haven’t had a ton of plays produced here, I still tend to have a hard time letting the grasp around my words go and allowing someone else to come in and direct them. Often, when I’m writing, I’m envisioning very specific details that don’t always come across in my stage directions or character descriptions. So when a director and I don’t see eye to eye on who should play a role, it opens up an interesting discussion. Who should get the final say? At what point does a writer have to step back and allow their story to come to life through the collaboration of others? Who ultimately takes ownership for the words once they’ve been sent out into the world?

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Like anything else, I suppose it’s a delicate balance. We all (hopefully) want what’s best for the show. Our communication could be stronger. We need to be able to talk about these weaknesses and struggles for the sake of the art. Roles need to be defined and agreed upon. Writers need to trust their words and their directors, actors need to be confident to take risks and strong enough to stick to the text, and producers need to encourage these types of instincts and conversations.

When I’m not being Debbie Downer, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by words gaining new input and vision. I’ve witnessed the positive effects of a strong collaboration matched by earnest communication. And I like being a part of something with purpose. While casting and putting a show on its feet may never be the easiest thing in the world, we can each strive to be more aware of our place and how we can best move forward together. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to find some Calamine lotion.