October 3, 2009

Actors, like all people, come in many different peculiar types, all with their own thoughts, their own ideas.

Unfortunately, many actors have developed their own "shtick" and have arbitrarily decided that's what they're good at, and that's the product they want to sell a director at a casting audition, whether they want it or not. That's a rut to avoid.

Most actors look and sound pretty good when they do their own prepared monologue or song - they should, after all, since they've had unlimited time to practice it. But I'm not really interested in those prepared bits. In the yearly TAL (Theatre Alliance of Louisville) cattle-call auditions, I politely sit through the seemingly neverending parade of prepared bits, but it's when we get each actor alone in our private audition room that I'm looking forward to.

There, we take the actor out of their comfort zone, and ask them to run up and down the emotional scale and show us what they can do in each of those different registers. Show us how you play happy, how you play melancholy, how you play suicidally depressed, how you play a snarling rage. Show us your dynamic emotional range.

Sounds uncomplicated, right? You'd be surprised.

Some look stunned when we ask them to do their monologue again, but this time playing it angry. "But it's not really an angry kind of speech," they say. "It doesn't have to make sense," I reply, "I don't care what words are coming out of your mouth, you can read the phone book in an angry voice for all I care, I just want to hear your angry voice." You'd be surprised how many actors I've encountered in auditions who can't cope with that simple instruction.

One young girl actually looked like she was going to burst into tears, so uncomfortable was she about being asked to scream dialogue in an angry voice. We politely excused her. But another one really got into the idea, and thanked us for the opportunity to let her stretch out and do her monologue in a variety of extreme styles. Still another said she felt great from the cathartic release of it all, which made me start to wonder if there wasn't something to Dr. Arthur Janov's "Primal scream therapy" that John Lennon had been so enamored of.

One actress refused to even try, and said "this is too weird." (Click. Thanks for coming. Next!)

I'm looking for actors who are afraid of nothing. Actors who can follow any instruction. Actors for whom the phrase "too weird" doesn't exist. Actors who aren't afraid to show me a psychotic rage on demand, and then abruptly turn left into childlike giggles of joy when prodded. It's this elasticity that makes a great actor. I don't trust actors who aren't flexible enough to be able to conjure these moods and modes, or at least to try.

One actor said, "Well, I'm not sure I can just do that on demand. I need to take some time and think about things in my life that have made me angry, and then find that within myself and call it up," and other such Stanislavski-inspired nonsense which only leaves me shaking my head. I'm not asking them to actually emote, I'm just asking them to act. I'm reminded of a story that Tippi Hedren told about her first week on the job for filming Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie: she complained to Hitchcock, "How can I possibly be expected to play like I'm disgusted by Sean Connery, when he's so attractive?" After a beat and a glare, Hitchcock muttered: "My dear, that is why it's called acting."

Fortunately, we met some really amazing people at this year's auditions - daring, innovative, creative souls who love a challenge, and who bounce like a tennis ball wherever you throw them. I can't wait to work with these folks in the coming season!

Directors, on the other hand, need to be inflexible in the short term. They have a vision, and it's damned hard to present that vision true to one's ideals with so many unpredictable variables and factors that come with working in live theatre. Every step of the process is like battery acid, eating away at the integrity of the play you wanted to put on. Almost immediately, little things start to accrue that force you to compromise here and there. Like the giant fish in Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea," your original dream is destined to be chipped away at gradually and you're lucky if you can keep any portion of it intact.

But in the end, a Director must have that very same extreme flexibility that I expect from actors. We have probably all heard stories of directors who, when faced with a severe setback or speedbump, just give up and shut down internally, taking the attitude of "fuck it, the show's ruined now as far as I'm concerned, I don't care anymore, let's just all rush through this and get it over with." As a producer, I prefer to work with Directors who can roll with any - and I mean any - changes. As a Director, I'd like to think that if a giant boulder crashed through the roof and landed in the middle of my stage on the day before the show's opening, that I'd be able to shrug and say "Of course we're not cancelling. We'll just write the giant boulder into the script somehow." ("But Mr. Holland, the lighting grid is completely destroyed." "Yep. Here's some money, run to Dollar Tree and get me fifty flashlights, fifty packs of batteries, and all the duct tape you can carry.")

Contact the author at jshpaint@gmail.com.

Jeffrey Scott Holland is the Artistic Director for Catclaw Theatre Company, author of Weird Kentucky on Sterling Press, and painter whose works have been exhibited worldwide. Visit him on the web at jshla.com .