A conversation between Acting Marketing Director Syche Phillips, Associate Artistic Director Leslie Martinson, and NWF Casting Director Jeffrey Lo, in early June 2017:
Syche: The 2017 New Works Festival is nigh! So tell me, how is casting the New Works Festival different from casting anything else in the season?
Leslie: Casting for the Festival is completely different than casting for the mainstage because we don’t audition.
Syche: So you’re drawing from just a pool of people you already know?
Leslie: Not entirely. We have what we call the “shopping list conversation” with the director and the authors to find out what they’re looking for. We ask them a lot of questions about tone and style, because unlike with a published, established play, what’s on the page isn’t complete. You can’t draw the casting information we need from the page.
Jeffrey: Often we’ll ask them, If the piece has had other readings or workshops, what was something useful from the casting in those? What are useful traits other actors have brought in?
Syche: So like, “She has a sense of innocence?”
Leslie: Yes, or they’ll say, “Last time we had so-and-so play this role, and he was really tough and scary. So we’re interested in having someone less scary play this role.” Or someone scarier. It gives us character attributes and actor energy to work for.
Jeffrey: Sometimes it’s not who’s best for the part. It’s about what the playwright is interested in exploring. So they might say, “I wonder if this play works with an actor who is not sexy. Does it still work? Let’s try that.” By nature, the Festival is workshopping for the playwright, and we’re not trying to lock in a version.
Leslie: So we can ask a lot of “what if” questions.
Syche: So the casting provides another level of development to the trial and error process.
Leslie: Yes. Then we look at the pool of people we know, as you said, or, if there’s something specific they’re looking for, we’ll reach out to new people based on recommendations. And then we do what we call “pitches” back to the creatives. These are documents that include the headshot and resumes of our proposed actors, but also show shots, casual shots, any video we can find of people…it gives the creatives a sense of their personal energy.
Syche: What do you do when you’re casting a NWF reading, but you don’t yet have a director locked down? Is it just a conversation with the creatives?
Leslie: Yes. And then we hope the director is happy! The other thing that’s different about the Festival than a mainstage show is that you need actors who are super quick. All actors are smart; you can’t be a professional actor without being smart. But some actors have a longer process, where they go away and stew on it, or do their own research.
Syche: And there’s not really time for that here.
Leslie: Nope. We need smart people who will make bold choices right out of the gate, and who are willing to abandon those choices when the play takes a 180-degree turn from there, or if their character completely changes. We also do try to make sure the creatives have someone here that they know. It’s hard to come out here to a theatre company you may not already know, and show your vulnerable, in-process work to strangers. So if the creatives have an actor or two who has already been involved, or who they at least know, we do try to make that happen. We love it when that person is someone we also know, because then we can also say, “Oh well, if he’s playing the husband, you’re going to love her as the wife.”
Jeffrey: We’ve had plays in the past that were written for specific actors, and we’ve been able to bring in those actors, which is cool. We also had a play a couple years ago, featuring two couples, and the director and the playwright were looking specifically for local actors who knew each other and already had chemistry, but did not know the director and playwright.
Leslie: There’s some translation between playwright and director and casting, to figure out what the actors need to bring to the table.
Jeffrey: But the important thing is, it’s not about featuring the actors. It’s all in service of the play.
Leslie: There’s something fun in the Festival, in that some of the special skills you may need in an actor onstage can be accomplished through stage directions in a reading. You can state, “He dances an amazing hip hop solo,” and that’s how we’ll do it in the reading. Or in Man and Beast (TW NWF 2015), one of the characters frequently speaks Greek.
Syche: That’s just what came into my mind, was that exact example. Did the actor actually speak Greek?
Leslie: She learned how to pronounce it for the reading.
Syche: But it wasn’t a special skill on her resume.
Leslie: No, no. And it wasn’t necessary for casting.
Syche: Well, it sounded great.
Leslie: See? Super smart, super game actors. They’ll often go and learn the things even if you say, Oh, don’t worry about that.
Jeffrey: Another example of that “magic” of staged readings is my play Waiting for Next. We’re doing an open rehearsal for it during the Festival, with a small audience. I’ve had multiple readings of it, and it’s so easy for me to say “And now there’s a transition, and it’s six years later, and they’re wearing tuxedos.” But now Leslie, as the director, will say, “Hold up, how does the director solve that?” And we have to figure out what we’re looking at.
Syche: What’s the normal amount of rehearsal before the first performance of a Festival reading?
Leslie: The straight plays sometimes perform on Day 2, usually Day 3. The musicals usually perform on Day 4 or 5.
The first day of rehearsal is always interesting, especially for directors who are used to doing their own casting. It’s the first day everyone’s all together, and I usually check in at the end of the day, just to make sure everybody fell in love with each other. Occasionally we’ll have the cast all together, but the specific roles played by each person haven’t quite been nailed down. In Something Wicked This Way Comes (TW NWF 2016), there were two actors cast as the two character men, and until the first day of rehearsal there was a question of which actor would be which character.
Syche: For a lot of theatre companies, summer is their downtime. But for us, summer is the opposite of downtime. But it’s my favorite time of year—it’s the only time you see all the departments in the same meetings having conversations working toward the same thing. The rest of the year, the admin team meets, and the production team meets, and the departments meet individually…but during the summer we have full staff NWF meetings. It’s like a smaller scale version of the mainstage year, but it happens much faster. It feels very fulfilling in a creative way. Do you guys feel the same way?
Leslie: Yes, casting the Festival is fun in a different way from the mainstage season, because it’s so direct. The creatives say, “We need a person to do XYZ,” and then we say, “Here is that person.” And then the show happens. It feels direct and streamlined.
Syche: It condenses everything into a few months.
Leslie: Well, it condenses the timeframe, but not the scale of the whole thing. You still have to choose a season, contact the creatives, get the bios, get the headshots, get the Equity contracts—
Jeffrey: Same number of flights to pick up, same amount of own-of-town housing to figure out—
Leslie: It’s not a miniature season…it’s just a much faster season.
Jeffrey: What I enjoy about casting the Festival, the vibe of getting all these actors in here, is that it feels the way many of us started in theatre. Once you get to a professional level of theatre, you learn how far in advance you have to plan, how much money is involved, how many rules there are. And there are still rules and money, but with the Festival the vibe is, “These people wrote a play, it’s not done yet, but let’s get some actors and an audience and see what happens.” It’s like how Kelley describes Popcorn [TW’s very first play, a world premiere in 1970]. It’s creative and passionate and there’s talent and excitement and you just put everyone into a room and…see what comes of it all.
Syche: If you guys are good, I think that’s a perfect place to end.
Leslie: Sounds good. Okay Jeffrey, let’s go cast the Festival.
Learn more about—or buy tickets to!—the 2017 New Works Festival.