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.
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.
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).
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).
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).
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.
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)
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.