Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Shooting for semi-relevance

I was going to talk about my South Carolina experience today but realized that there were much more relevant things to talk about. Specifically, Joe Pabst has been kind enough to share some of the ample contents of his mind in this space, in response to a post a couple of weeks ago and then again this past week.

Like Joe, I had some reactions to the anonymous poster who I think brings up many good points. So also like Joe, I’ll kick in my two cents in response to a couple of Anon’s assertions.

Anon said: “The same people work over and over at the same theaters, and there's a dearth of fresh blood to keep the heart of Richmond's theater vital.”

Believe me, Anon, there have been times that I have shared this exact sentiment, particularly at a time that I’m seeing a bunch of shows and I’m seeing a lot of the same people in all of them. I understand why it happens and Joe is right to point out that “People like working with people they like.” In any risky venture – and theater can certainly be risky – there’s a very good reason to go with what you know. There are enough variables to juggle already; wondering whether this new actor you’ve brought in has a hidden heroin addiction or will never be less than 30 minutes late for rehearsal are not things a director wants to worry about.

But here are two other elements to bring to that discussion. One is that some of the best surprises I’ve had at the theater involved an actor who I’d seen a dozen times before tackle something that was a true departure and totally nail it. The first distinct time I can remember experiencing this was when I saw Paul Deiss in “Greetings” years ago. More recently, I found Derek Phipps in the current “Guys and Dolls” a bit surprising. In fact, Mr. Phipps has been delightfully adept at avoiding typecasting. All I’m saying is that the same people working over and over again does not have to be boring or redundant if those people are given interesting material that might challenge them and surprise the audience.

Secondly, I have seen a fair amount of fresh young talent in the local scene in the past year or so. And younger and smaller companies like Henley Street, Sycamore Rouge, AART and CAT are pretty regularly giving actors new to the scene a chance to cut their teeth. You also have a young director like Jase Smith who has been able to bring new blood to RTP and the Firehouse. The bigger problem than a dearth of fresh blood in my opinion is the ability to keep the young and ambitious around long enough to fully exploit their talents. For a while there this spring I seemed to receive weekly reports of actors I had enjoyed watching leaving town. I guess it’s inevitable and I guess we’re lucky that U of R and VCU continue to bring new talent into the area. I just hope that enough students decide to hang on here so we continue to have a good supply of seasoned talent around.

Another comment from Anon that caught my attention was: “The average working New York actor will be stronger than the average Richmond actor, simply because of natural selection.” Hmmm… I can kind of see the logic of this statement if you are really talking about across-the-board averages but, in my opinion, I think the average working NYC actor will mostly be better at working the system (i.e., marketing themselves) and not necessarily a stronger performer. There’s really no way to come up with empirical definitive evidence to support either side of the argument on this one, though. It’s a mix of statistical ideas (averages) and completely subjective criteria (“stronger”).

I will offer this one anecdote that is contrary to Anon’s statement. I saw “Diary of Anne Frank” in Richmond with a cast of “average” Richmond actors and then just a couple years later, a Broadway production with a number of “average” NYC actors (including Natalie Portman as Anne). I can say that, in my opinion, across the board the Richmond cast was stronger than the Broadway cast.

OK, enough semi-relevant ramblings. Tomorrow: SC!


Le Synge Bleu said...

absolutely, dave...the average new york working actor may or may not be a talented performer but they are most definitely excellent at working the system. i can think of several examples of prolific actors on the off bwy scene that consistently get work and consistently ruin the show in my opinion. being a working actor in ny does not make you more talented, it makes you a better self marketer. that being said, i do also think that in many cases, the sharp competition forces you to expand out of your comfort zone and grow as a performer.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure there's a "dearth of fresh blood." There's a lack of fresh casting among houses. You'd think that directors could at least PRETEND to be looking for "fresh blood". So many auditions consist of this conversation:

"Oh [insert dir. name here], remember when [insert annoying inside joke here]. I hope this show is just as fun!"

No matter how amazing your audition is, you leave with that sour taste of, "Oh, this... again."

The only time a non-VCU newcomer has a chance in this city is with imported directors. I completely understand that "people want to work with people they like." Of course they do! But how much do you sacrifice by not casting new people with new ideas?

A while ago, Andrew commented that so many actors in Richmond were trained by the same person. No wonder Richmond seems to be stagnant! Stir the damn pot!

Anonymous said...

wow, anon, you have a point to make. But mostly you're coming off as REALLY BITTER. Which(and try to believe me) solves absolutely nothing.

Anonymous said...

I was recently at an audition at one of the bigger theatres in town. Before the auditions began the director made a point to make a speech about this theatres reputation for pre-casting the same people in the same roles. This director said that in their opinion this was 100% not true, it was just that the same people auditioned well over and over again and therefore won the lead roles again and again. Then we watched as new talent and old talent got up and read for various roles. There was a woman from out of town who got up to read for one of the leads. She was without a doubt the person that captured the role. She proved it in three separate readings for the role. There was a buzz about this person in the air from all the actors who were up for the role. At the end of the auditions the director mentioned that there would be a callback. There was no callback. Within the week he had cast someone who he knew instead.

It is a director’s right to cast who they want and pre-cast roles if they want to. It may be frustrating to actors, but there is nothing you can do about it. It can come down to marketing (of course the person with a name will help sell a show) or it can just be because the director knows your work and knows you can do the job.

But as I sat there and listened to this director make the speech justifying their casting, I just couldn’t help but wonder why they felt the need? We are all grown ups and we know the rules (how can you be in the business and NOT know the rules.) And the rules are that there are NO RULES.

All we can do as actors is DO the best we can. The rest is out of our hands.

Anonymous said...

Bitterness aside, the point is a valid one.

Andrew Hamm said...

Believe me, I for one make a strong attempt to hire a mix of familiar and fresh talent. It varies from show to show, of course, depending on cast size, the audition pool, and other factors. But I can state for a fact that when the staff of Richmond Shakes meets to discuss season casting, we talk very specifically about over-using the same actors, and the need for new blood.

Consider 2008:

Measure for Measure: 4 returning actors, 1 new.

As You Like It: 2 returning actors, 3 new.

Compleat Works: All 3 new.

As You Like It (Festival production): 6 returning, 8 new.

Henry IV, Part 2: 8 returning, 8 new.

So please consider those numbers before you make the blanket statement that ALL RICHMOND THEATRES cast the same people over and over.

And here's another option for under-utilized talent: Prepare a better audition. The blanket statement I can make with certainty is that the majority of Richmond actors simply do not prepare well enough for auditions. A lot of the young and unproven talent I see at auditions sabotage themselves with poor choice of material, lack of memorization, lack of practice, bad clothing choices, and general unpreparedness. Lots of people offer audition workshops and classes through the year. Take some.

You can't control how casting directors will view your audition. All you can control is your own preparation. Not enough fresh blood is working hard enough on that, and when you do a poor audition it doesn't just appear that you're inappropriate for the role, it appears that you aren't committed enough to prepare for the work involved. That's the main thing I'm looking for: "Will this person work hard and be pleasant to play with?" Talent comes second to that.