Actors lead very challenging lives, especially when they have to audition. An audition combines the worst aspects of a first date, a job interview and a government interrogation. The possibilities for rejection are total and unbearably personal: no, we don’t like the way you look, we think you have no talent, you just fucked up everything, and we don’t want you.
The first time I ever sat behind a table, watching actors audition, I was stunned. I wanted to not only offer every actor whatever role they wanted, but also a million dollars and a car. This was on my first play, which was called Poor Little Lambs, and it was about the Yale Whiffenpoofs, an acapella singing group (and this was years before Glee and Pitch Perfect.) So I got to sit there, watching all of these handsome, wonderfully talented young guys not only read lines from my script, but they sang to me. It was a young gay playwright’s wet dream come true.
I was so frozen that our very kind and understanding casting director, a Scotswoman named Mary Colquohon, took pity on me. After the first ten or so actors had auditioned, she whispered to me that I should probably be taking notes, on the forms which were waiting on the table in front of me.
Mary, who died far too young, was a pure delight, a sort of more upbeat but equally strict, redheaded Mary Poppins. When a thug once cornered Mary in the vestibule of her apartment building, Mary told him, in her very no-nonsense burr, “Oh, put down that knife.” He did, and he ran away. No one messed with Mary.
I should mention that, in my experience, there are two kinds of casting directors. A few are often failed actors or directors, who unleash their bitterness through the pettiest power plays, keeping actors waiting for hours and humiliating them. Most of the casting people I’ve worked with are the opposite: they adore actors, and love discovering new talent, or re-introducing a veteran performer who might not have been considered.
They’re the very best kind of cheerleaders, and they create the most welcoming and stress-free atmosphere possible.
Poor Little Lambs ended up being cast with a terrific batch of young actors, including Kevin Bacon, Blanche Baker, Bronson Pinchot, Albert Macklin and Miles Chapin.
Because Poor Little Lambs was my first play, I didn’t know much about how show business worked. The play was produced by a charming but eccentric man named Richmond Crinkley, and every day he would instigate a huge fight with someone involved with the play, and then he’d announce that the production was cancelled. I would become frantic, and write long, detailed letters begging Richmond to reconsider. Luckily, some tiny sliver of my brain warned me: for your own mental health, it’s good to write those kind of letters, but never send them.
A rule for working with crazy people, in the theater or anywhere else: while they’re erupting, just wait it out. Crazy people usually can’t sustain their madness, and pretty soon they’ll wear themselves out and then they’ll pretend that nothing happened. No, it’s worse than that: they won’t pretend, they will actually never remember how crazy they were. Because that’s what being crazy is all about.
On one of my later plays, I Hate Hamlet, one of the roles called for an extremely innocent ingenue. It was interesting to see how a variety of young New York actresses expressed innocence, wearing everything from frilly, white lace blouses to low-cut, skin-tight white leotards.
As auditions progress, and move into the callback stage, the actors face an even more confounding situation. By that point, the people who aren’t right for any of the roles have been weeded out, so everyone who’s been called back is great. I always want to somehow convince these actors that if they don’t get the part, it’s not because they did anything wrong. The director is creating a balanced group of performers; this person looks like they could be that person’s son, or husband, or boss, and so on.
Stars, as a rule, won’t audition, which is a privilege of stardom. Some stars will, however, “meet.” This means that the star will have a friendly drink, usually at a quiet restaurant, with the project’s director and writer. Everyone tries very hard to pretend that the meeting is not an audition, and sometimes the star is actually auditioning the creative team. Once in while, the director will casually pull a copy of the script out of his or her backpack, and ask if the star might like to read through a scene or two, “just for fun.” Some stars will agree to this, and others won’t. These meetings are exhausting.
Reading actors’ resumes can be helpful. There’s often a section listing the performer’s Special Skills, which can include things like acrobatics or martial arts training or the ability to speak several languages. I treasured one actress’s Special Skills, when she included “Answering the phone.”