Friday, February 13, 2009

The Impertinence of Blogging Earnest – Auditions

For the next few weeks through the beginning of April, visitors to will have access to my thoughts as I direct a production for Civic Theatre of Greater Lafayette. Once a week, I will tell readers how auditions, rehearsals, production meetings and other elements are progressing for Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest.

The cast list was released by Civic Theatre and appears on this blog, but the process that concluded with that list took longer than the two nights auditions were held.

The first step was scheduling, which involved counting backward from the show's opening. Usually Civic productions have five weeks of rehearsal, followed by tech week when crew members are added. Some directors hold auditions seven weeks before their shows open, cast during the week and schedule a read through – the first time the cast goes through the entire script as a group – the first night of rehearsals, usually a Sunday. I added another week for Earnest because I want the cast to have the scripts all to themselves for a full week between the read through and the next rehearsal. The extra week to investigate characters, explore relationships and become familiar with the lines should be a boon.

Auditions were scheduled for February 8 and 9 in the historic Monon Depot Theatre. I need to thank Scott Haan and the cast and crew of The Man Who Came to Dinner. They were so gracious when they finished their Sunday matinee and allowed me and Assistant Director Cameron Johnston to roost in the theatre while a handful of volunteers patrolled the lobby half an hour later.

Before audition dates were publicized, a decision about the format of the auditions was made. To know if actors could handle Wilde's language, I asked them to be prepared to read from the script. Two sets of "sides" were created – multiple copies of scenes from the script. One set included scenes from the beginning of the play, the other had scenes toward the end. By reading the earlier scene immediately followed by the later scene, actors had to pull off a range of emotions in only a few moments. I once heard someone say, "Cast for the third act" – make sure actors can deliver the goods at the play's climax. This method allowed me to do that.

Before auditions were held, Steven Koehler showed how to use the theatre's digital camera and printer so headshots of all actors could be taken and stored. Audition forms were created and these were taken to the Monon Depot lobby each night at 5:30 p.m. in preparation for the 6 p.m. start.

Both nights several people helped with auditions. Brian Carless, the stage manager, accompanied actors into and out of the theatre. Laura Hale, Bailey Rosa, Beth Grimes and Brent Wick gave actors the proper forms, answered questions, took photos and kept everything running smoothly. Melanie R. Buchanan, the producer, recruited them and their talents. I am grateful to all of them, especially because there were walk-ins on both nights and auditions extended to 9 p.m. – one hour later than scheduled – both evenings. They went above and beyond what was asked.

Thirty-eight actors auditioned for nine roles in The Importance of Being Earnest. How does a director choose which combination will work best? Good question. I wish there were a logical formula that allows directors to know 100 percent that their choices are the best ones. There isn't.

After each audition, Brian gave Cameron and me time to discuss what we had seen and heard from the actor. How did the actor handle the language? Was he expressing some emotion, or did his voice seem flat? Did she listen to a suggestion we made and incorporate it into the audition? Was the actor able to take on a surprise easily – reading the second scene from later in the play – and could the actor portray the emotion in that scene confidently?

Cameron was invaluable because after an audition we could ask each other, "What did we just see?" It's nice to confirm what just took place, or to see something afresh from a different perspective. Brian also had insightful comments to make about the actors. I think we agreed about what we had seen and heard more often than we did not.

Casting began when I asked, "Who had the best audition overall, regardless of the character?" Some actors clearly had prepared, knew the entire play and knew how they wanted to portray a character during their brief time in the theatre. These actors were rewarded by being cast. When there were multiple actors who did quality work but all auditioned for the same role, it became a matter of who had a take on the character that seemed to mesh best with another actor's take on a different character. It was difficult to go from 38 actors to nine.

When the first-choice list is created for any production, I think a director worries a bit if all actors will accept their roles. Some actors don't. When I called to ask if they would accept their roles, all nine did and many were audibly happy (stunned? surprised?). That is the high point of the audition process: delivering good news.

The low point? Telling a group of immensely talented, fully engaged actors that they haven't been cast. No matter how much you stress the positives before delivering the negative, it is painful to tell someone who is hopeful about being part of a cast that they aren't. It is painful to think they may choose never to audition again because they are discouraged by the result of this audition. It is painful to hear the subdued voice, thanking you for the call, followed by the dial tone.

I love and hate auditions. They lift you up and they tear you down, they're joyous and they're heartbreaking – and not just for actors. About all that can be said at the end of the audition process is that it is done and the work begins.

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