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One of the first images that spring forth when people think of actors is glamorous red carpet award shows filled with pampered stars whose pictures fill supermarket checkout magazines. Many assume a glamorous life of public attention, steady work, and colossal paychecks. But the reality of the average actor’s life is starkly different, especially in the world of live theatre. There are extremely few overnight successes. Most actors toil for years before getting any high-profile acting jobs. Auditioning more than they work, they can face constant rejection from casting agents, directors, and producers. Most have studied for a long time to hone their skills, and even after establishing themselves, many continue to take classes or meet with coaches to keep their instincts sharp. Since lucrative acting jobs are hard to find and usually offer no permanent financial security, most actors have to support themselves through other work. This is where the cliché of the “actor/waiter” originates; it is one of the few jobs where you can alter your hours to attend auditions.
So why become an actor when most other occupations offer more stable living conditions? Most will tell you no other medium offers the same rush of emotion and immediate connection with the audience. Simply put, they would not be happy doing anything else. Even those who have enjoyed success in film and television often return to the stage to practice their first love. Braving audiences and critics in professional theatre still remains the ultimate test of an actor’s ability and courage.
The 2003 production of The Pillowman (featuring Adam Godley and David Tennant). Intensely emotional scenes like this one must be duplicated by actors night after night. Photo © Robbie Jack/Corbis.
A Brief History of Acting TheoryBefore we delve into the particulars of how an actor approaches a role, reflect on this question: is the actor a craftsman or an artist? You could consider them craftsmen in the sense that they use a set of skills to build a character onstage; they do it by interpreting the lines set forth by the playwright in a manner that will ring truthfully to an audience. Although many of us might have little to say in matters of art, we are all critics of human behavior—we all know emotional truth when presented to us.
At the same time, you could call the actor an artist because he applies creativity and imagination to this interpretation, transcending the words on the page to create something highly individual. Ultimately, no two actors can play
a character exactly the same way.
No matter how you label it, acting is a paradoxical activity. Actors must explore the emotional world of the character, but at the same time they must meet a set of technical demands such as
articulating and projecting their words so they can be understood by an audience, applying a voice and physicality appropriate for their character, following proscribed movements dictated by the director, adjusting to the response of the audience, and dealing with any mishaps that might occur (missing props, actors forgetting lines, etc.). This balancing act, what one critic called a “special gift for double-consciousness,” is one of the skills that separate merely competent actors from great ones.
Schools throughout the world offer classes in acting, but there is no singular way to teach it. All acting teachers are, in some way, disciples of other teachers who have struggled with the same questions—when creating a character, what should get the most emphasis, technique or emotion? Should the actor truly feel the emotions of his character, or can they be somehow simulated by physical means? When playing the same character night after night, how personally invested must you be in your performance to give the appearance of truth?
We turn to the originators of Western theatre, the ancient Greeks, to find the first opinion on the emotion vs. technique debate. In Aristotle’s Poetics, he suggests that when writing plays, playwrights should become actors because “they are most persuasive and affecting who are under the influence of actual passion” because the audience shares “the agitation of those who appear to be truly agitated—the anger of those who appear to be truly angry.” This idea that actors must actually feel and not just feign the emotions of their character was adopted by the Romans, whose powerful empire conquered the Greeks and imported their theatre. Although the Romans enjoyed plays among their pastimes and some actors were celebrated, the social status of the actor was at an all-time low.
Acting was left to slaves and noncitizens, which is probably why we do
not find debates on the subject during this period.
Performance was discussed, however, by the practitioners of public speaking. This was the last phase of education for men of ancient Rome; they needed the ability to argue and persuade to enter public life in politics, administration, or law. To speak well was the hallmark of a powerful Roman citizen. The most notable teacher of what we call the rhetorical tradition of performance was a teacher named Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (35–100 CE) known as Quintilian. He ran a school of oratory and produced an influential twelve-volume textbook on the subject. In it, he begins by echoing Aristotle’s opinion that the effective player must first feel the emotions present in a speech. He then introduces the idea that after feeling these emotions, they can be “impersonated” later. But how? Quintilian’s highly detailed writings offered advice such as the following:
Wonder is best expressed as follows: the hand turns slightly upwards and the fingers are brought in to the palm, one after the other, beginning with the little finger; the hand is then opened and turned round by a reversal of this motion.
This notion that physical movements such as gestures can simulate true emotion would linger for centuries as Quintilian’s work was periodically forgotten and rediscovered. Still, to put his writing in context, there was no understanding of the complexities of the circulatory system or psychology. The belief was that our bodies were giant containers of four fluids or humors—blood, yellow and black bile, and phlegm. It was thought that our behaviors were affected by any imbalance in the composition of these components. It was also assumed that if you simulated emotions (called “passions”) through proscribed movements but went too far in their execution, the result would be a poisoned body.
This is where decorum came into play. Modulating your performance to avoid any excess was considered a great skill, especially when you switched quickly from one emotion to another. The most famous example of this dictum comes from Hamlet. In William Shakespeare’s play, the title character gives thorough instructions to an actor he has hired to perform a play he has written:
A statue of Quintilian in Calahorra, La Rioja, Spain.
Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief [I would prefer] the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus; but use all gently: for in the very torrent, tempest, and—as I may say—whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.
Not only could Hamlet’s advice be considered a demand for a natural delivery of the lines, it could also be a thought of as a plea for personal safety.
By the eighteenth century, new ideas in physiology shifted to the notion that the body was a kind of natural machine. Under stress, it was thought this machine would generate emotions that could be catalogued by observation, much like a zoologist dividing animals into genus and species. Many actors would write about observing “nature” to create their
characters, suggesting that a universal code of emotions existed. If you could discover the correct set of movements, supposedly any emotion could be represented.
One theorist who took this idea to an extreme was François Delsarte (1811–1871). Until the late nineteenth century, no systematic means of training stage actors existed in the Western theatre tradition. An actor’s early career was a process of trial and error or an apprenticeship with a veteran actor where he was often encouraged to imitate the master’s style. Delsarte, a French singer and actor studying at the Paris Conservatory, experienced this bias toward imitation. After four different teachers corrected his delivery of a single line in four different ways, a frustrated
Delsarte decided to do his own scientific study of how people moved and reacted. After observations in parks, cafés, hospital wards, churches, and even mortuaries, the result of Delsarte’s research was what he called his “Science of Applied Aesthetics.” The positioning and movement of every part of the body and head was broken down into an extensive list, with a description of the corresponding emotion accompanying each item. For example, various combinations of eye and eyebrow movement could indicate disdain, moroseness, firmness, or indifference. Different movements of the head could suggest abandon, pride, or sensuality, and certain arm and hand positions could indicate acceptance, horror, or desire. Delsarte wanted an emotional connection to the words to accompany his physical system. However, the bastardized popular version taught by enthusiasts made his system a victim of its own success. In Europe and the United States, “Delsarte clubs” sprang up where simply posing and freezing was presented as artistic entertainment.
Photo of François Delsarte taken by Étienne Carjat in 1864. Courtesy of Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
In video games such as The Sims, the Delsartian idea is still alive—all characters have the same animation to represent emotions such as sadness and anger. However, the idea that physical poses can represent a finite number of emotional states is now out of favor in theatrical circles. Some anthropologists even disagree as to whether emotions are biologically universal. They hold that many emotional definitions such as happiness, sadness, and fear are shaped by the culture in which people live. A notable exception is clinical psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman, who claims that everybody’s facial muscles are involuntarily activated in exactly the same way when feeling certain emotions. According to Ekman, these “microexpressions” last for a fraction of a second and can be useful in detecting deception, an idea that formed the basis for the 2009 television crime drama Lie to Me.
The Stanislavsky RevolutionOne person who was determined to overturn mechanical and unrealistic performance styles was the Russian actor and director Konstantine Stanislavsky. His ongoing “system” of techniques would go on to revolutionize twentieth-century acting. Today, most Western training is based, wholly or in part, on his innovations.
Born in 1863, Konstantine Sergeyevich Alekseyev was the second of nine children. His father was a wealthy textile manufacturer who liked theatre, opera, circus, and ballet. In order to entertain guests with his children’s performances, he converted a room in their country house into a theatre and eventually, a family theatre troupe was born. However, instead of embracing the amateur nature of their efforts, a fourteen-yearold Konstantine kept notebooks filled with serious questions about the
acting process. He would spend hours in front of a mirror practicing his role and agonizing over his costumes. In his twenties, he became determined to pursue a theatrical career but was concerned about his family’s reputation. Therefore, he adopted the stage name Stanislavsky and appeared in risqué amateur shows in Moscow until his parents showed up at one of his performances. His father demanded that if he was to be an actor, he should work with professionals and apply himself to reputable material.
In 1888, Stanislavsky formed and financed a group called the Society of Art and Literature. Rejecting the “star system,” where prominent actors received much attention when preparing a production while actors with small parts received almost no direction, the society strove for a sense of ensemble. Stanislavsky was a strong believer in the adage “There are no small parts, only small actors,” and every actor on stage was expected to have an inner life. For Stanislavsky the director, his highly detailed productions received positive attention, but as an actor, he continued to struggle to find truth in his own performances. In 1897, he came under the notice of Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, a critic and playwright, who requested a meeting. After an eighteen-hour conversation, the two men decided to create a new professional troupe that would overturn the artificiality of Russian theatre. It came to be known as the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT).
Postcard of Stanislavsky performing the role of Gayev in The Cherry Orchard, 1922. He also directed the production.
The entrance to the Moscow Art Theatre, where visitors are greeted by a photo of playwright Anton Chekhov. Photo by Pablo Sanchez.
The first great success of this new theatre was The Seagull by Anton Chekhov. A doctor and short story writer, Chekhov pioneered a new kind of play that had none of the heroes and villains found in the melodramas of the time. Instead, his characters are flawed human beings struggling for personal happiness. Despite his complaints that Stanislavsky’s direction of The Seagull was too serious and theatrical, Chekhov allowed him to produce his subsequent plays, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard. Engaging with this new style of writing led Stanislavsky to consider a new approach—creating a role from the inside out rather than the false external physical means he had always relied upon.
Eventually, Stanislavsky’s concerns about his own acting reached a crisis point. At the time, it was common for theatres to present plays in repertory, that is, showing the same plays in rotation for a number of years. Over time, it was easy for a part to feel lifeless. Stanislavsky believed his work was still full of bad theatrical habits and tricks and was desperate to save his roles from what he called “spiritual petrification.” What made his situation worse was that the other actors felt his situation
too common to be a concern. Reflecting on the performances of his past, Stanislavsky realized that when he played the same role for a period of time, his most inspired performances came when he entered something he called “the creative mood” or “creative state of mind.” He wondered if there were systematic, technical means by which to make it appear and began to develop a series of exercises.
Years later, while directing nonrealistic drama, he began to put new ideas about this creative mood into practice during rehearsals and studio acting classes held at the MAT. Although the actors resisted at first, his approach soon became adopted as the theatre’s primary training method. From 1909 until his death in 1938, he continued to develop his system, often with the help of other members of the MAT. Hundreds of exercises were tried, rejected, or refined. Stanislavsky never stopped experimenting and scolded his pupils who published details about his early methods. Nevertheless, successful international MAT tours elevated Stanislavsky’s notoriety, and many actors became intensely curious about these new techniques. Soon, Russian actors who emigrated began teaching early versions of the system, creating a false impression of a fixed set of rules instead of the provisional nature he wished to convey.
The culmination of his views on actor-training, An Actor’s Work on Himself, did not appear in print until 1938. In the American edition, the material was divided into three books, translated as An Actor Prepares (1936), Building a Character (1948), and Creating a Role (1961), which was created from his notes. All took the form of the fictitious diary of an actor reporting his experiences of being taught by a teacher much like Stanislavsky.
The features of his early system centered on ways to inspire relaxation, concentration, naïveté, and imagination. Relaxation was meant to address muscular tension, which Stanislavsky believed blocked emotional truth and physical expression. Exercises in concentration developed an actor’s ability to focus on objects and sensations, allowing the actor to direct the focus away from the audience. Naïveté and imagination improvisations were meant to produce a childlike state that would allow actors to believe in the imaginary circumstances of the play.
What would later become the most controversial technique was called affective memory. It was designed to produce emotional states appropriate to a scene; actors were asked to recall details about a strong emotional
moment in their lives such as fear, sadness, anger, love, or joy. Emotions were not meant to be accessed directly. Instead, actors would recall sensory details about the people and places involved. Although this method was at the heart of Stanislavsky’s program for some time, he later would consider it only as a last resort.
What eventually displaced affective memory in his system was an approach he called the method of physical actions. Stanislavsky believed that the link between the mind and body is inseparable. Therefore, if an actor pursued an action, the emotional life connected to that action would follow. Based on the given circumstances of the play, the actor would decide what his character wanted in the play overall (the superobjective) and then what he wanted in each scene (objective). All actions onstage would be in the service of these objectives. Acting would now be action-based rather than driven by emotion. Instead of trying to stir emotional states or copying the observed emotions of others, Stanislavsky would ask actors to practice what he called “the magic if.” Actors would ask themselves: “What would I do if I were this character? What actions would I take to reach my objectives?” Unfortunately, these later developments were not as widely disseminated. As used today, the label “method acting” applies to American teachers such as Lee Strasberg who emphasized affective memory techniques.
Generations of teachers continue to build upon or refi Stanislavsky’s work with their own exercises and imagery to produce desired results. Some even defi themselves in opposition to his approach, proof of its continued importance. Today, you can fi a host of training techniques for body and voice that have been created for actors or adapted from other disciplines to help performers broaden their skills as well as prepare and sustain a role. Examples include two Stanislavsky protégés, Michael Chekhov and Vsevelod Meyerhold, who developed their own unique ac-
tor training techniques. In the fi of movement and body awareness, Rudolf Laban, Frederick Matthias Alexander, and Moshé Feldenkrais have had a great infl For vocal training, important
innovators include Kristin Linklater, Arthur Lessac, Catherine Fitzmaurice, and Cicely Berry. Today, actors are usually exposed to a variety of different methods, eager to fi the best tools to realize human truth on the stage and elsewhere.
Reading Plays Like an Actor
Although most of us will not become professional actors, there is still a great value in reading a play like one. Seeing a play through an actor’s eyes helps to build a greater, more nuanced understanding of a dramatic text. Actors treat each character they play like a riddle to be solved based on clues provided by the playwright. Here are some places to start:
Name: Begin with the character’s name by looking up its etymology. Is it accurate or ironic? Take the character of Blanche DuBois from Tennessee Williams’s play, A Streetcar Named Desire. Derived from the French word blanc, meaning white, the name eventually came to mean fair or pure. In the play, Blanche, a former schoolteacher, has come to New Orleans to visit her sister Stella (derived from the Latin meaning “star”) because she is trying to leave behind her troubled past. Later, it is revealed that she was fired for having an affair with a student and was ejected from a hotel for numerous encounters with men. But her name is not entirely ironic. The related word “blanch” also means to lose color, and as the play progresses, she is revealed as someone who has lost her former wealth, beauty, and energy.
Past: Before the move toward realism, characters in melodramas were either good or bad, heroes or villains. However, with the influence of thinkers such as Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud, the idea that we are shaped by our environment as well as our past took hold. Now it is not unusual for actors to construct a backstory for their characters based on the text. In doing so, they can gain insight into why specific choices are made throughout the play.
Language: Language is a quick way to divine a character’s nature. Is profanity used in every sentence, only in extreme circumstances, or not at all? Do they use short blunt sentences or poetic language
with an extensive vocabulary? Word choice and use or misuse of grammar can tell us volumes about their background and how they relate to the world.
Stage directions: Pay special attention to the stage directions associated with a character, separate from his or her words. Car dealers have a saying, “Buyers are liars,” meaning customers often misrepresent their true feelings when trying to get a good deal. The same could be said for most characters in a play. As in real life, we want what we want, but we often do not openly say what we want. For example, a man could state his unconditional love to a woman, but if he slowly inches toward the exit during a scene, we could have reason to doubt his sincerity. Frequently, we find out what a character truly wants toward the end of a scene. This is because they must become more direct since they have used up all of their other tactics.
References: What does the character say about herself? At the same time, what do other characters say about her? Sometimes there is a great disparity between our conception of ourselves and true reality.
Objective: Ultimately, all of the factors above may influence the answer to the most important puzzle—what does the character want in each scene? Choosing a character’s objective profoundly changes a performance and colors the reading of every line.
Of all of the collaborators who create live theatre, the stage director’s contribution may be the least visible and least understood. The playwright’s words can be heard or read. The producer raises and spends money. Designers create costumes, scenery, lights, and sound. Actors create a direct and immediate relationship with the spectators. All of these are easily visible and apprehended as separate components. The title of director sounds important. But what exactly does he or she do?
Simply put, the director is the “captain” of the collaborative team,
responsible for all artistic aspects of the production. He is the person who makes sure that all of the pieces are put together to make a coherent, effective, and entertaining artistic whole. Above all, the director provides the overall artistic vision for the production, organizing and leading the entire collaborative process to ensure that the production is artistically unified according to this vision. In this capacity, the director stands in for the audience throughout the preparation and rehearsal of the production; he is the spectator’s eye.
If the playwright is the author of the words on the page, we can consider the director as the author of the production. He does not “author” its pieces, but rather uses them to “write” the staged production. While some directors are more authoritarian than others, the best encourage the full creative powers of all of the artists involved. The collaborative director leads, coaches, encourages, cajoles, and mentors, but trusts and respects the artistic processes of each of the teammates. The collaborative director does not force results, but guides the process according to his or her vision for the production.
In practical terms, the director’s main functions can be broken down as follows:
1. Interpreting the script and developing a vision or concept for the production.
2. Working with the design team to develop the visual, oral, and spatial world of the production.
3. Casting the actors.
4. Rehearsing the actors.
5. Integrating all of the elements into a unified whole.
The Development of the Modern DirectorDirecting as a completely separate function is a relatively recent development in the history of the theatre. In all theatrical traditions, someone has usually been on hand to supervise the process of preparing a play for performance, running rehearsals, and coordinating the various elements that make up the theatrical event. Often the playwright or a leading actor carried out these tasks. Rehearsals were often short and cursory. Even when a person was specifically designated as being in charge, his or her duties were much more executive than artistic.
Most historians locate the emergence of the modern theatre director with the rise of realism in the late nineteenth century. This took place in the context of rapidly changing social and artistic norms. However, some of the changes (both social and theatrical) associated with the birth of modern directing had been evolving for some time. Beginning in the eighteenth century, powerful actor-managers such as Britain’s David Garrick (1717–1779) effected great changes in production and acting styles, calling for longer and more thorough rehearsals and greater attention to detail in all aspects of production. But for most actor-managers, the primary concern was to use plays as vehicles for their talents, not to faithfully execute the playwright’s intentions. They were actors first and objective interpreters second.
When pressed, most historians will name Georg II, the Duke of the German state of Saxe-Meiningen (1826–1914), and his collaborator Ludwig Chronek as the originators of modern directing. Unlike the actormanagers, Saxe-Meiningen and Chronek neither wrote nor acted in the
productions they created, but supervised the proceedings from the viewpoint of the audience. They were meticulous in their preparations, and each production was the result of a strong artistic vision. Beginning with their tours of Europe in the 1870s, the Meiningen players became famous for their historical accuracy and attention to detail. They were particularly lauded for the intricacy and realism of their crowd scenes.
In the late nineteenth century, great social changes blasted conventions and inspired great changes in art, including theatre. While the Meiningen players performed mostly classics and heroic melodramas, a new form of drama arrived in Europe. Developing from a concern with social issues, this new drama sought to portray the truth of human behavior and interaction. It came to be known as realism and its first great dramatists were the Norwegian Henrik Ibsen and the Russian Anton Chekhov. Inspired by the work of Saxe-Meiningen and motivated to create new theatrical methods to bring the plays of Chekhov to life, Russian actor/director Konstantine Stanislavsky put the actor’s truthfulness at the center of his theatrical practices. He and other directors of realistic drama understood the importance of detail, specificity, and the absence of false notes on the stage.
The Duke of Saxe-Meiningen in 1914.
In Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, first presented in 1604, the Duke of Vienna is disgusted with the moral decay he sees with his people and pretends to take a leave of absence. While in
disguise, he observes how his second-in-command, Lord Angelo, is corrupted by power. Director Ralf Remshardt moved the action to the 1960s Mad Men era in order to make the forces of control and freedom more accessible to a contemporary audience. Executing his concept, set designer Jamie Frank provided a set with a corporate space above and a background of advertising slogans below. The costume design by Erica Bascom provided a sharp divide between the bohemian citizens of Vienna and the suited figures that rule them. Photos by Jamie Frank.
primary creator. The director serves the dramatist and attempts to realize the play as literally as possible. Using this approach, the director retains the time and place exactly as described and follows all stage directions indicated by the playwright as closely as possible.
The translator approach is probably the most common in today’s theatre. The director honors the spirit of the play as received but may depart from many of the specifics. Usually the original dialogue is left intact, but stage directions, the time and place of the action, and many other details may be altered. Productions using this approach are often based on a director’s strong vision of the play. In this way, the production finds its own unique style.
Auteur is a French word meaning “author.” In this approach, the script serves as raw material that the director feels free to shape and reshape according to his or her artistic intentions. At its most extreme, this approach uses the play as a jumping-off point, adding, subtracting, and rearranging text at will. Bear in mind that what we have illustrated is a continuum, and that the work of any particular director may be located at any point.
A Process for DirectingAlthough the directing process may widely vary depending on the material and the director’s approach, most directors cover the same bases. The steps in the process, as described next, usually overlap to some degree. For example, the wise director is continuously analyzing the play in response to discoveries made throughout the process.
Analyzing and Interpreting the Play
While the director is ultimately responsible for the interpretation taken by the production, all of the collaborators we are discussing must engage in a close analysis of the script. In order to engage and utilize the creative powers of the design team, many directors involve them in the early stages of interpretation. Therefore, the earliest design meetings comprise a dialogue about the play. The discussion of the text led by the director must include practical questions. What are the given circumstances in this play? What is the play’s central action? What is the main conflict? Which character is the play’s protagonist and what is he or she fighting for? The director must lead a detailed analysis of the play’s structure, the
characters in the play, the play’s language, and the play’s themes. What do we want the audience to go away feeling? What do we want them to go away thinking about? What does the play mean?
The discussion must also cover the play’s genre, mood, and style. What is the world of this play? Is it primarily comic, tragic, dark, or light? Is it primarily realistic, or not? How do the characters fit in this world? This in-depth critical inquiry into the play leads the process into the next steps. Without a firm grasp on the play and a clearly defined creative vision, it will be difficult for the director and his or her team to maintain a steady course.
The Production Concept
The exploration of these questions leads the director to an interpretation, vision, or concept. The concept is often articulated in terms of an overriding metaphor. It can be articulated in the form of a verbal phrase (“a chess game” for Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Christopher Hampton), a painting or picture (Munch’s “The Scream” for Marisol by Jose Rivera), or even a physical object (an early typewriter for Machinal by Sophie Treadwell). Concept metaphors can be augmented by verbal descriptions of the world of the play, by a picture or series of pictures, by sounds and music, or by a combination of these elements. However the concept is expressed, it needs to be vivid, motivating, and clear enough to put the whole team on the same page. The concept statement should also communicate the director’s approach along the faithful-translator-auteur continuum, and determine such questions as the time and place of the action.
Working with Designers
Next, armed with the production concept, the designers explore the fundamental questions that will help the team develop the visual, aural, and spatial world of the play. These questions are based on the fundamental elements of design—color, texture, line, shape, mass, and rhythm. The members of the team also discuss practical and technical considerations—how many doors are needed, whether the radio needs to work, or how much movement the costumes allow. At each subsequent meeting, these artists present their written or visualized ideas to the director and to the other designers. The designs for the production thus develop as a give and take among the whole creative group.
Good casting is vital to the production’s success and will make the director’s job in rehearsal smooth and productive. Conversely, mistakes in casting can irretrievably harm a show. Therefore, it is imperative that the director have a firm grasp of the characters’ personalities, their physical characteristics, and how they interrelate. The director should have a strong image of the characters but also remain open to what the actors who audition have to offer.
These are examples of headshots, representative photos that actors give to casting agents and directors. A résumé listing is attached to the back showing acting experience and special skills.
Who do you see in your mind’s eye when you see words like CEO, police captain, thug, nurse, judge, mother, or leader of a criminal empire? Casting can force us to confront the cultural baggage we carry, which may include stereotypes about race, gender, age, or body type. For a long time, there was an assumption in the industry that, unless otherwise indicated, all parts were given to white male actors. Today, many theatre directors practice what is called nontraditional casting. The Actors’ Equity Association, the labor union for theatrical performers, defines it as “the casting of ethnic minority and female actors in roles where race, ethnicity, or sex is not germane.” Every day, character descriptions called breakdowns are distributed to the casting industry so they can put forth actors for auditions. Many will include the instruction “Please Submit Actors of All Ethnicities.” However, some actors still complain that there is an understanding that words such as urban, all-American, and sassy best friend are euphemisms for specific ethnicities.
The following are real breakdowns from various professional productions:
[LENNIE SMALL] Late 20s to late 30s, Latino, Filipino or Caucasian. A large, kind, childlike man. He has a mental disability, perhaps from an early childhood injury, which has left him emotionally immature, unable to control his enthusiasm and unable to control his anger. He is often forgetful, but has great joy for life, and is tremendously loyal to George. Physically large and extremely strong, he depends upon George for guidance and protection.
[LUCIA] (age 25–35) Leading role. Ideally Chinese-American, but would consider women of other ethnicities with same qualities: an emergency room physician at start. Strong and sensitive, principled. Very attractive. Loses her fiancé in the 9/11 attacks. Becomes a doctor at Bagram Air Force Base, Afghanistan. Witnesses torture. Becomes a whistle-blower.
[ANTIGONE] (20) An outsider. Scrawny, pensive, passionate, and full of pride. Regal despite her age and stature. Disinterested in her appearance and the expected functions of a princess, but innately mesmerizing and powerful.
[OGUN SIZE] Male actor, African American, late 20s. An auto mechanic; he is the more solid older brother of Oshoosi. His name comes from “war” and “iron” and he has the toughness and resilience of an everyday warrior.
[ROSAMUND] Late 20s, the quintessence of Midwestern charm, beauty, and privilege. She is enchanting and possesses an irresistible laugh. Yet well concealed under the surface is a woman of psychological instability.
[ELOYT CHASE] Caucasian, 5′7″ and taller. Male, 35–45, 1930s period piece. Actor must be sophisticated, highly intelligent. Exceedingly charming, he has an acidic wit that he brandishes regardless of the situation. Think George Clooney, Cary Grant, Daniel Craig, Ralph Fiennes, Rex Harrison, Laurence Olivier.
[IAGO] Late 20s–40s. Any ethnicity. Role requires signifi experience with classical text. Othello’s ensign, a military veteran from Venice. Obsessive, relentless, bold, and ingenious in his efforts to manipulate and deceive the other characters, particularly Othello.
[SARA] Mid–late 30s. An Upper West Side mom who can’t quite leave her rock-‘n’-roll wild-child past behind. Vital, sexy, and a little tough. A warm and funny mother and wife; unfussy. But she has a reckless streak, and a yearning for the excitement of her youth. A complicated woman.
[TRACY TURNBLAD] A big fat ball of energy and light who was born to dance. She is compassionate, effervescent, optimistic, and enthusiastic but still spends a good deal of time in detention. She believes
The audition process unfolds in a number of ways, depending on the production and the type of theatre. In many instances such as theatre festivals and academic theatre, actors are sought by a number of directors for a number of different plays. This process might start with an open call, often referred to as a “cattle call.” This is a session in which actors present a prepared monologue or possibly a portion of a song in the case of auditions for musicals. From this pool, directors will choose whom to consider further and will invite them to read for particular roles. Auditions of this nature are referred to as callbacks, where actors perform cold readings from the script, named so because it is unlikely the actor has seen the text prior to auditioning. This is an opportunity to hear and see the actors read together. Because the actors must complement each other, this is also an occasion to experiment with different combinations of actors. Often in professional theatre, there are closed calls, where specific actors are invited to read because they are already known to the director, or because they have been sent by a casting director. Casting directors, working with directly with actors or through actors’ agents, can be useful in trimming the pool of potential performers down to those who will work best for the parts.
What is a casting director?
The casting director is hired by the producer of the project. I read the play. I have discussions with the director and the playwright (if living). I then send out a breakdown of the characters that I am casting and get submissions from agents of actors that they would like me to see. I then make lists using these submissions plus my own ideas. Then auditions are set up . . . we probably have callbacks and then make offers.
How important is physical type?
It differs from role to role. Some roles require very specific physical features . . . others don’t. We are always looking for basically one thing in an actor . . . talent.
What does it mean to act “professionally” in an audition?
Be on time, be friendly, and be prepared. I always give out material in advance. Being prepared means that the actor learned the song or worked on the scene.
What mistakes do actors make in audition situations?
Being late, being unprepared, chatting too much, not chatting enough.
How did you become a casting director?
I learned the business by working for a talent manager. I thought that casting looked interesting and told all the casting directors that I was on the phone with all the time that I was looking. One of them bit.
What qualities should a good casting director possess?
I think what sets casting directors apart is their taste. Their ability to see talent, ability, charisma, training . . . again, hard to define.
How do you define talent?
I’m not sure how to answer that. This is where what we do gets very ephemeral. Many people walk through the door. Some are good.
Some aren’t. Some are special and charismatic, others aren’t. It’s almost impossible to define.
What excites you about being a casting director?
It’s very fulfilling when you become part of the creative process . . . when playwrights and directors actually listen to you and take your advice. And it’s fun getting people work.
How is casting theatre different from casting television or film?
Film and TV is much more corporate. . . . Network execs and studio execs who know nothing about acting have a huge say in the process. Theatre is MUCH more about the art.
What qualities do you think successful actors have in common?
This is a business of flukes and timing and opportunities in addition to being a business of talent and training. I don’t think that all successful actors have anything in common. Some are gorgeous, others aren’t. Some are trained, others aren’t. Some have drive and determination, others fell into success.
Is there one casting situation that has stuck with you over time?
My favorite story is when I was casting a replacement for the original cast of Once on This Island. Ten women were on time, sang what we had asked to prepare, and then danced. As we were wrapping up, one woman who hadn’t showed walked in very late. We said that we would hear her sing. She didn’t even have sheet music with her so she had to sing a cappella. Since she was obviously the best of the bunch, she got the job, which goes to prove that talent always wins out in the end and that this is an unfair business.
The specifics of the rehearsal process and schedule may differ from director to director. They may also differ from production to production depending on the particular demands of the material and the length of the rehearsal period. The essential elements, however, are common to most productions. Although the order and duration of each element may
differ, smart directors understand that, like design, rehearsal is a collaborative process.
Usually a first cast meeting is designed to introduce the actors to each other, to the production staff, and to the script. Presentations by the designers are often a preview of the scenery, costumes, lights, and sound. This is an excellent opportunity to share the production concept with the actors and have a first reading aloud of the script. Additional early rehearsals may be devoted to closely exploring the text, a part of the process known as table work. During this process, actors read their parts aloud, stopping frequently to discuss elements including the meaning of words and lines, poetic and literary devices the playwright has employed, the characters’ objectives, and the play’s dominant themes. This allows the entire cast to arrive at the meaning of the play together in order to better communicate it to the audience.
Before the actors can start rehearsing the play on its feet, it is necessary to have developed a ground plan. This is a two-dimensional bird’s-eye view of the set with the entrances and exits, furniture, and all of the acting areas mapped out. The acting space can then be taped out well in advance of the completion of the set so that the team has the geography of the space in which to rehearse.
Armed with a fundamental understanding of the play, the production concept, and the ground plan, the actors get on their feet and begin the most time-consuming and intensive phase of the rehearsal process, scene work, exploring the play in smaller units. Using their own processes, the performers collaborate to find the acting values that will most effectively communicate the play’s action. The director’s role in this process is both crucial and sensitive: to confidently lead the actors toward his or her interpretation of the action but at the same time allow the actors to pursue their own creativity. This can be a difficult balance. The collaborative director serves as facilitator and coach, questioning the actors to make choices about given circumstances, relationships, and the wants and needs of the characters. The actors are led to the emotional qualities and line readings that will best communicate character, thought, and action to the audience. Forcing results too early can stifle the actors’ creative powers but in the end, the director is the editor who decides which choices are right for the production and which must be discarded.
While guiding the acting values, the director also manipulates space by creating stage pictures, bodies artfully arranged on the playing space
Director James Lapine speaks with the cast of his play Amour during rehearsal at the Music Box Theatre on Broadway, 2003. Photo © Mark Peterson/Corbis.
to communicate ideas. These pictures are created through blocking (or staging), a term for the movement and placement of the actors on the stage. This is a powerful tool and is the only element entirely under the director’s control. Blocking may come from the play’s stage directions or may be deduced from the dialogue. It can be completely planned by the director, but more often it is developed in collaboration between the actors and the director. Depending on the material, blocking can be realistic or nonrealistic. It must, however, be motivated and believable.
The third element the director shapes is time. He or she does so by exerting influence over the pace and rhythm of the scenes. In the theatre, pacing refers not merely to tempo—how fast or slow the action is moving—but to variations in tempo. A performance that plays at the same speed throughout, even if that speed is fast, will ultimately become tedious and will muddy the story. The director needs to decide which moments need to move quickly, and which need to move more slowly. For example, an early expository scene in which the audience is provided with backstory may need to play slowly enough to be absorbed and understood. On the other hand, a climactic action scene may well move at roaring speed.
In order for directors to tell actors where to move on stage in rehearsals, they must have a shared map to work from. A director might tell an actor originally standing “up left” to cross to “right center,” pause, and then end up “down center.” In order to make the process easier, blocking is given from the actor’s perspective.
Working small units of the play is essential, but it is also essential to get a sense of the whole. Therefore, a director will periodically schedule a run-through. Typically the first of these rehearsals will take place as soon as the blocking is roughed in and the actors are off-book (free from holding the script, though they may call for lines from the stage manager). This first run-through is commonly known as a stumble-through because it is almost always very rough. We may then return to scene work with run-throughs planned regularly until technical rehearsals, the period in which all of the technical elements—lights, sound, scene changes—are introduced and integrated. Before the show opens for an audience, dress rehearsals run the show in full costume with all of the technical elements as though the audience is present.
The major professional theatres may then offer previews. These are performances before audiences with discounted tickets, before the
Color-blind casting is different from nontraditional casting in that it overlooks race entirely as a consideration in casting. Intended to open new opportunities for nonwhite actors, it relies on the suggestive nature of theatre, sometimes at the expense of the playwright’s intentions, historical accuracy, or biological reality. Supporters say it rewards talent and makes audiences focus on the story. Detractors find it jarring and say it harms the suspension of disbelief. This photo of the Trinity Repertory Company’s 2010 production of A Christmas Carol depicts a multiracial Cratchit family observed by an elevated Ebenezer Scrooge. Photo by Mark Turek, www.markturekphotography.com.
official opening of the show. By custom, critics refrain from reviewing during this period, which may last several weeks. Previews give the director, playwright, and, in the case of musicals, the lyricist and composer, the opportunity to fine-tune the show with the benefit of audience response. During the entire process, from the first design meetings through to opening night, the director’s closest partner is the stage manager. This person is responsible for running all activities backstage, for maintaining the prompt book (a copy of the script marked up with all of the blocking, acting notes, and light and sound cues), and for facilitating communication among the entire production team. Once the show opens, the director’s job is done and the stage manager takes control, running the show each evening and ensuring that throughout the run, the production continues the way it was directed.
The stage director employs a unique and complex set of skills. The most important is leadership. The director must be coach and cheerleader, but also must be prepared to make tough decisions. He must be an excellent communicator, know enough about each of the designers’ processes to communicate in their language, and know the acting process inside and out. He must also be an expert in theatre history and dramatic analysis. The director shoulders a huge responsibility for the success of his teammates and the experience of the audience.