Monday, October 12, 2015

An Open Letter To Meg Rosoff

Dear Meg Rosoff,

You have totally missed the point. 

I wish I didn't feel compelled to write you this. It has been a long day for me - I started by making a pot of turkey chocolate chili, then attended a preview for Perfect Arrangement, the off-Broadway show I'm directing, then hosted a meeting for my theater company, where I served aforementioned turkey chili. I would much rather be reading about my friends' outrage on Facebook  about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's project to translate the Bard's 39 plays, or playing board games online, or watching Attack on Titan.  But when someone is so off the mark in a such a public and egregious manner, it demands correction. It is National Coming Out Day, for god's sake.

The heart of the matter is that everyone deserves to have the experience of reading about themselves.  Yes, of course, you don't have to be a woman in an unhappy marriage in turn-of-the-century Russia who commits suicide by jumping in front of a moving train to appreciate Anna Karenina.

But if you've never had the experience of seeing and reading yourself in a story, you start feeling like your story isn't worth telling. Which isn't that far from feeling like your life isn't as important as those other lives you keep reading about.

Yes, a great story transports you. A great story makes you empathize and sympathize with people and situations you've never imagined.  I would never follow the advice of three witches and kill the king of Scotland to assume his throne. But yes, in a great production of the unmentionable play, I totally get why Mackers has done it all.  

But still, am I wrong for wanting to see queer characters? Armenian protagonists? Non-Israeli Jews? About-to-be-forty-year-olds who have dedicated their lives to the not-for-profit arts and only sometimes regret it?

This is why diversity in story-tellers is so important: so that diverse stories are told authentically.

“Books do not have a job,” you write, then follow up with, “Books are to teach kids about the world.” But isn't that a job? Why do you feel like your definition of a book's job is more valid than someone else's? And since queer black boys exist in the world, wouldn't it behoove a non-queer, non-black boy to read about that character's perspective to learn about the world?

Any attempt to define what books can do is reductive, because books can do anything and everything.

This isn't an "or". This is an "and." Books can teach about the world AND expose us to infinite perspective and character, AND change the world, AND help me get through my rehearsal process, as all 1400 pages of N. K. Jemisin's beautiful Inheritance Trilogy just did. Let books be everything.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

What I've Learned About Auditions or, A Love Letter to NY Actors

 What I've Learned About Auditions or, A Love Letter to NY Actors

The first time I cast a show using a full, professional audition process was about ten years ago. As I sat in the room with the casting director, the reader, and the artistic director, I suddenly realized that I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I had sat in on auditions before, mostly for directors whom I was assisting, but that was just a spattering of understudies. I had no idea how much I was supposed to work the actors, if I could interrupt them before they were done with the side, or even how to choose a good side, for that matter.  I didn’t know anything.

I’ve been through this process a many times since then, for off-Broadway, regional and off-off Broadway theaters.  This is a post for directors (about what I’ve learned) and for actors (about what I’ve observed). 

(From L to R): Producers Mark Johannes and Amy Danis of MARS Theatricals, moi, playwright Topher Payne, Producer Dan Shaheen, Michelle Bossy, and Casting Director Stephanie Klapper. 


1.     Use ten-minute slots

Be civilized.  Five minutes just isn’t enough time, because an audition isn’t just about the actor  showing you what work s/he has done. It’s about you working with the actor, and the only way you’ll have enough time to do that is if you use ten-minute slots and if you…

2.     Choose short sides.

Seriously, you know in the first 30 seconds if the actor and the role are the right fit. Don’t waste their time preparing ten pages. If you need to see ten pages, you’re a horrible director.  Besides, short sides allow you time to work with the actors, which leads me to….


3.     Work with the actor

Any actor worth their salt, as was EVERY SINGLE ACTOR that I saw this week, comes to the audition prepared, focused, intelligent and rehearsed.  They worked on their sides, looked great, got up that morning, put their audition outfit together and traveled to studio in horrible humidity from all over the city, and sometimes further. One actor (to whom we made an offer) commuted down from the Berkshires  for both the audition and the callback a few days later.  Treat every actor as if they’re traveled that far. 

Even if you don’t think they’re going to get a call back, they might be right for something else you work on.  You might learn something about the part or the role.  They’ve traveled all that way.  See what they can do. And show them what you want. They’re not just auditioning for you – the actor you want might get a conflicting offer, and then they’ll have to choose which project they’re going to work on. How you treat them in the rehearsal room might be an important factor. You’re auditioning for them, too.

4.     Be present

I was exhausted after my week of auditions, they same way I would’ve been after a week of rehearsals. That’s actually a great way to think about auditions: as a series of short rehearsals.  Like rehearsals, they require you to be present so that you can respond to the choices the actor is making. The director is an audience of one. Be the kind of audience member you would like to attend one of your own shows: present, kind, and easily delight-able.

And if you think the actor isn’t reading for the right role, ask them if they mind taking a few minutes to look at a different side. This happens even with a great casting director, and don’t be scared about asking them to look at a different part (another one of our offers is out to an actress who was game enough to read for someone else with no notice). Be especially sensitive if you’re asking the actor to read for a part that’s smaller, or older. But ultimately, I think actors would rather read for a role that they actually had a shot of getting.


5.     Don’t call someone back you don’t think you’re going to cast

Don’t waste their time because they’re your friend, or you think they’re cute, or you saw them in a show a few years ago and they were amazing and even though they’re not right for this part, wouldn’t it be fun to spend a few more minutes with them?  You are taking hours out of this actor’s life. Don’t do it in vain.

6.     Tell them what you want to see

You’ve called them back for a reason, right? Tell them why – tell them what you and the people in the room responded to, and tell them what you’d still like to see. It shouldn’t be mysterious or enigmatic. You have an idea about the part, they’re bringing something that you’ve responded to.  Identify the space between those things and let them show you what they can do.


7.     Email your friends when you know you’re not going to cast them

I described auditioning to my husband like this, “Imagine interviewing twenty of your best friends for a job for which they’re over-qualified, then not being able to hire most of them because there are only three slots.”  He looked horrified. That’s what we have to go through.

Your relationship with your actor friends has to be strong enough to withstand that kind of pressure, and it’s your job to make it as easy as possible. Reach out to them. Tell them they were wonderful. Thank them for coming in.  As the director, you job is to see as many brilliant actors as you can, so that your show has as many options as possible.  As a friend your job is to thank your friends for making that possible.

Your friends will thank you, and write you back, and be so kind that you’ll be amazed.  And if one of them sends you a drunken email at 2AM berating you for not casting them, let it go and tell them you love them. Be a lover, not a fighter.

In many ways, I think, this post is a love letter to the pavement-pounding actors of New York.  Actors are New York’s best and brightest, one of this city’s most potent natural resource.  I could’ve cast my show three times over from the people we saw.  And actors, how do you get off-book so quickly?  I don’t just mean sort of off-book.  I mean like totally and 100% off-book.  And how do you take adjustments and change your performance just like that?  It’s really amazing. You’re really amazing. You are the greatest subsidizers of art in this country.

Bless you all.

p.s.  And please comment - there is so much mystery around the auditioning process, and one of my goals in this post was to blow that open, and get a dialogue going about what you like in auditions, what you don't.  Talk to me!

Monday, April 6, 2015

I Should've Brought Tissues: Wendy Wasserstein's Former Typist Reflects on THE HEIDI CHRONICLES

I Should've Brought Tissues

In retrospect, it was stupid of me not to bring tissues.  I can't guarantee that you'll have the profoundly cathartic experience I did at the revival of The Heidi Chronicles on Broadway, since you probably didn't have a day job as Wendy Wasserstein's typist for the last five years of her life.  But it would really be a pity for you to miss this A-class production of this brilliant play.  Do yourself a favor and go.  It's special.  And Pam MacKinnon's direction is firm, clear, specific and light-handed: exactly the touch that Wendy's plays need.

Heidi starts funny and light and a bit odd.  And it does feel dated at first, and not just because the first scene is set in the late '60s.  But the amazing thing about theater is that it acts like a time machine: we, today, have a perspective on the '60s, '70s and '80s, just as the audience did that first watched Heidi in 1988.  It might not be the same perspective as that original audience, but the play educates and triangulates now much in the way it did then, I imagine.

When I directed Blithe Spirit at Syracuse Stage last year, I begged Tim Bond, the artistic director, to let me cut it.  But he insisted against it.  The entertainer in me (the one who learned from Wendy, ironically enough) knew the show could stand to lose around 20 minutes of repetition.  But on opening night, the purist in me loved that our audience listened to the exact same words spoken in the exact same order as its original 1945 audience did.  Theater doesn't just teach about history in content: it does so by form.  Blithe Spirit teaches me about what 1945 audiences enjoyed, just as Heidi teaches me what a late '80s audience had to learn watching a piece that spanned the last thirty years.

Content Over Form

Although the character Heidi certainly has moments of pro-activity, of temper flaring and ego clashing, I think it would be hard to name a more passive protagonist.  Throughout the play, her scene partners (the gay best friend Peter, her on-again/off-again boyfriend Scoop, and her perpetually re-inventing best friend Susan) bulldoze her.  If I stumbled upon an individual scene from this play say, in scene study class, I think I'd be surprised to learn that Heidi is the lead.

Her famous soliloquy breakdown, in the third-to-last scene of the play, is really the breakdown that she's been building up to her entire life.  But in truth, we see that Heidi can only be the active, have a monologue (let alone a breakdown) when she is the only person on stage.  She is a character so used to defining herself as an outsider and as a passive that the only way for her to find the space she needs is for her to be alone.  Without a scene partner.  Isolation is the price of expression.

As a writing feat, it's an incredible thing, to successfully build a story around a passive protagonist.  As a response to the feminist movement, it's an even more astonishing.  Although the play makes it clear when Scoop and Peter bulldoze Heidi on a TV Studio Set (II/2) that men are often the guilty parties here, Susan (who's really Scoop's alter ego) is equally guilty of the same crime in the restaurant one scene later.

 We Both Must Fade

I know that Wendy has a reputation as a boulevard comedienne.  But few writers of that genre crafted plays that spanned 25 years.  I met Wendy on Old Money, generally considered her least successful play, but one that also showed Wendy's desire to experiment with form (it jumped back and forth 80 years over the course of a dinner party thrown in a robber baron mansion on the Upper East Side).  And I can't help but wonder what other experiments in form Wendy might've attempted had she been with us longer.  At least, I hope this production ushers in a Wasserstein Renaissance, full of productions that embrace the possibilities of her texts.

A Story About A Woman Who Got Sad

Wendy once said to me, in that wonderful funny/serious/joking/not-joking way she had, that Heidi was a play about a woman who got sad.  But as someone who'll be turning 40 next year, I feel like I truly relate to Heidi's alienation in a way that I hadn't before.  Yes, it's a story about a woman.  But its universality lies in the profound 40-something sadness you feel when your friends abandon you for their kids and the suburbs, for their partners or professions, to other cities and states and countries.  I recently removed three friends whom I've known for over twenty years from my speed dial because we didn't communicate enough to keep them there for even nostalgic reasons.  I don't know what I would do without the guys I met on the Ramblers soccer team, guys on average 10 years my junior, who haven't yet reached that point in their life that they withdraw.  And that's the story of Heidi: the story of a woman who is about to withdraw in response to the world that has already withdrawn around her, but who finally decides that she can't. 

This post would be remiss without two more things:

First, Bryce Pinkham's performance is, well - this is why we go to the theater, folks.  He'd start talking and I'd start crying.  His scenes with Heidi were sharp, heart-breaking, moving, real.  I've seen him on stage three times in the last two years and each time I feel like he's the best that we've got.  If you know him, tell him I'm a fan.  He's pitch-perfect.

Second, the story of how I scored these tix:  My friends Amy Danis and Mark Johannes, who are MARS Theatricals, were having lunch with Susan Gallin, one of the lead producers of Heidi.  They told her about me.  Then she emailed me and offered me comps.  This is exactly the kind of elegant, classy, random-act-of-kindness thing Wendy herself would've done.  Of course, I was going to find a way to see this show, but it probably would've been from the balcony, and it definitely would've set me back at least one hundred bucks I certainly don't have right now (two hundred to take Rafael, who said, "This is one of the best plays I've ever seen in my life.").  So thanks Amy, Mark and most of all Susan.

And of course, Wendy.  I hear that cackle of your laugh as distinctly as ever.  Especially in the theater.