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A Culture of Trust

It all started with John Wilkes Booth. That’s what Uta Hagen suggests in her book A Challenge for the Actor. The mistrust for actors all started when an actor used a bullet to break the ultimate fourth wall. Actually, I would guess it started before Booth. Maybe in the Middle Ages with the creation of liturgical/vernacular drama, but certainly somewhere between the honored heyday of Homer and rapscallion commedia street performers whose tipping hats reminded their audience of beggars. Still it’s safe to assume Lincoln’s actor assassin didn’t elevate the actor’s status. A fair generalization might be—in the eyes of those with stable occupations—that actors historically are vagabonds, agitators, vain, not the brightest of breeds, and (the old standard) deceitful. We get paid to lie. And if we do it extraordinarily well, so well that if the lie seems truer than truth, then we’re hailed as great at what we do. Great at what we do but not great humans to be trusted with political opinions and societal points of view, and certainly not great enough to be hired without an extensive series of tests (auditions) designed to prove the actor is the right fit for the part.

If a playwright or producer is looking for a director, they do their research. They see the director’s work, seek out references, and/or sit down and have tea with a number of directors to find one their vision can commingle with. They do not ask the director to direct two minutes of the play to prove she knows what she’s doing. Nor should they. They respect and, better yet, trust the director. The same cannot be said for the actor.

I believe actors (and all theatre practitioners) should be treated with the same respect and trust we tender the director.

Some would argue respect should be earned. Fair enough. One of the great things about the kind of career I’ve created for myself (with the help of many) is I get to work in a variety of different theatrical environments and with a wonderful assortment of performing artists. I’ve been in ensemble plays by other playwrights, acted in my own plays with actors I’ve cast, done the midnight show and the midday matinee. I’ve worked in the circus, strip club, LORT, street, museum, opera house, basement bar/sex club, and ethical society. And from this experience I’ve come to believe that, in terms of rehearsal process, actors help perpetuate the cliché that they are the laziest of the performing artists (I think they’re the hardest workers when it comes to sustaining a single performance over a long run, though so few of them ever get that opportunity).

In the eyes of those with stable occupations, actors historically are vagabonds, agitators, vain, not the brightest of breeds and (the old standard) deceitful

In my play The Lily’s Revenge the third act is dance theatre. Its premiere in New York, at the HERE Arts Center, was my first time working with a group of dancers (as opposed to actors who move or musical theatre performers). They flabbergasted me. They were so… professional. I’d show up twenty minutes early to have quiet time before rehearsal and they’d already be warmed up, focused, and privately working on their roles (I want to write a full-length dance theatre play because I love working with that level of professionalism). I had to ask myself why all these actors I’ve worked with, whether paid appropriately or not, and regardless of the status of the venue, show up late, rarely remember their blocking from the day before, and wait until tech week to get off book. Why aren’t they as disciplined as the dancers? I have a couple theories.

Several actors stand and pose wearing colorful tutus, wigs, and makeup as an audience watches.
The bride (Marisa Fratto) and her flower girls in the Dream Ballet. Photo by Gretjen Helene

The first has to do with the misuse (and overuse) of naturalism. This misuse asks the actor to be the character, not play the character. As an actor, whenever I’ve gotten to play roles far from my own personality or body type (usually roles I’ve written for myself to play), I couldn’t possibly be lackadaisical and pull it off. I’m guessing it was similar with actors from ancient Greece who had to play multiple roles, including roles different from their own being, in each production. Primarily in casting nowadays, we look for an actor to be the right fit for the part, which is just laziness on the parts of the director, playwright, producer, and casting director. Where do trust, process, and craft come in? Isn’t it a joy to see the work an actor has put into playing the role (even if that work is so good it’s barely perceivable)? I love watching an actor play a role. Do they have to actually be the role? Some would argue, in this market and culture where failure is not celebrated, yes. There is no room for trust, experimentation, or play. But, in my experience, it is almost always more exciting, engaging, and revelatory to see an actor who is wholly miscast triumph in his role.

To be clear, I’m not attacking naturalism. This does not preclude the method actor from doing method work in naturalism, or from sacrificing ego and disappearing into the role, but rather it gives them more opportunities to stretch themselves while allowing those who prefer traditional theatrical styles and techniques (such as commedia, mask work, etc.) the same opportunity. If actors have to stretch themselves, they work harder and, as a result, their craft (and our collective theatremaking craft) gets better. It’s worth the risk. Witnessing someone stand in front of a group of people and brave failure is one of the reasons people come to the theatre. It works in tandem with the storytelling and is a major ingredient in what makes the actor/performing arts honorable. In the last century, it seems to me, we’ve created a lazy system and asked our actors to adapt to it. And, for the most part, they have.

As a playwright I understand the stakes. Usually your play has one shot at having any kind of chance to have a life beyond its first production, so the impulse is to cast as close to the bone as possible. It’s hard enough to make a play work in the first place without having to incorporate the process of others. But theatre is, arguably, the most collaborative art form there is and, as a wise man once said, if you’re not willing to allow your vision to change, you probably shouldn’t be working in the theatre. Treat the actor as a partner in this process. Allow them to serve your play with their craft, not their ability at being appropriately cast. Cast good actors and let them do their job. My experience has been the play has an equal if not a better chance at prospering as a result.

Here’s another way the system is lazy and helps perpetuate this laziness: the audition.

I often facetiously joke that producers/directors created the tiers of auditions because actors give you syphilis, so they created the casting director, bought a couch, formed a line of actors, and said, “Let us know which ones give you a rash.” Snarky humor aside, I’ve come to believe auditions are not only harmful to the theatre because they foster mistrust, hierarchy, and barriers between artists, as well as diminish process (if you’re casting actors who can play the character from day one why not eliminate the rehearsal period like film and television), but they are also less effective than other forms of casting. I’ve championed actors who were great in the audition room and cast them in my plays only to find they didn’t have the craft to rehearse a play and perform it night after night. Auditions are preparing our actors for auditioning (a much easier job than rehearsing and performing an entire play) when they should be practicing the craft of acting. And we’ve all seen flops where the actors were auditioned. Auditioning does not guarantee you a great production.

But if directors/producers/playwrights stop auditioning how will they know whom to cast? We won’t know. We’ll trust. The way the actor trusts us to be a good fit as a director/producer/playwright. We’ll trust and start to equalize the field by treating actors like the co-creators they are. Of course we can hedge the bet. And we can do it in a more responsible, egalitarian way.

To help me in non-auditioned casting, these are the things I’ve been doing or at least working at doing better: I scout, ask around, try to see more theatre than anyone else I know in a variety of venues, styles, genres, and forms (it’s made me a better director/producer/playwright in the process). When working with casting directors (who, when working without auditions, become more useful and part of the process instead of less), I ask them to let me know when actors we are interested in are in something new (so I can see the range of their abilities). I’ve started planning my productions further in advance so the entire team has time to scout for roles that require specific skills. I sit in on the rehearsals of productions I’m not associated with (this is also making me a better artist). I audit acting classes (especially useful for finding younger, emerging, and trained actors). Above all, I trust. I trust that if I’ve stymied my own laziness, done the groundwork, and chosen an actor who knows her craft and has a good attitude, she’ll serve the play to great effect.

I love watching an actor play a role. Do they have to actually be the role? Some would argue, in this market and culture where failure is not celebrated, yes.

So far I’ve cast four of my ensemble productions without a single audition (including two productions of my large ensemble play—thirty-six cast members—The Lily’s Revenge). Aside from the art itself, it’s the aspect of the productions I’m most proud of. Some incredible things have happened and some mistakes have been made (strangely enough, more incredible things and fewer mistakes than when I cast plays solely from auditions). The biggest lesson has been that when I’ve treated actors as capable from the get-go (before casting them), they work harder. I’m not sure why but I don’t think it’s only gratitude for not having to audition. It could be that actors who’ve gone through many callbacks to win the roles feel they’ve explored their parts enough and so don’t work as openly or as much in the rehearsal period. What I’ve learned is that starting from scratch with actors who weren’t asked to audition created a more fruitful process and resulted in my most successful productions artistically and financially. I can only hypothesize, but it seems like the actors dug in more because we treated them from the start like the professionals they’d already spent their lives proving themselves to be. They went about creating instead of treating the rehearsal process as if the hard part (winning the role) was already complete. The success of my non-auditioned productions and the joy-filled experience of them (the Magic Theatre’s production of The Lily’s Revenge being the most recent and exuberantly gleeful) have convinced me to make auditions the exception rather than the rule.

What I’m suggesting is we respect the artist more or at least as much as the art. In the new play realm, theatres like Arena Stage are doing just that. They are interested in building relationships more than reading blind submissions.

I would go one step further and suggest that theatres not read plays until after they’ve committed to producing them. Instead, get to know artists and their body of work. Specifically for playwrights, theatres should give them a date on the calendar for when their new play will be produced and… trust. If you’ve liked plays they’ve written in the past, chances are they’ll write something you’ll be interested in again and, if not, the production will be over in a couple months but the relationship with the artist may last decades. This isn’t a new way of working. Joe Papp often offered productions to playwrights on the day before the critics came to their current production. He didn’t need to read what they’d come up with. He trusted. Sometimes it didn’t work and sometimes it did, but the same goes for theatres that commit to productions solely from having a developed script in their hands. There is no guarantee for success, so let’s treat our artists like they know what they’re doing and let them do it.

Starting from scratch with actors who weren’t asked to audition, created a more fruitful process and resulted in my most successful productions artistically and financially

I don’t expect auditions (in all their various forms) to become the exception as opposed to the norm any time soon. We’re too entrenched in the industry of them to change quickly. I do hope more producers/directors/playwrights will simply call actors up and ask them out to tea instead of sending an email to a casting director or an agent with a side attached. I think you’ll find it a liberating, humane, and community-building practice. I’ve discovered that with better trust, better art has been made. It may not ultimately be your preference but why not try it. Try casting a production without an audition. Try casting great actors who would need to stretch themselves to play the role. Try it once. If you’re weary, try it on a production for a play with a small cast (less risk), and if you, like me, find it a healthier and more productive process, try it on a production for a play with a large cast. It is my challenge to you. I challenge you to challenge your actors with your trust. Give them an opportunity to work harder. Forgive the actor for their vagabond ways. Forgive their life of lies and bullets.

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Very interesting post. Thanks for writing. As a director, I've long felt uncomfortable in the audition room.

Seven years ago I had the privilege of working with a theatre company in Spain and was impressed by their professionalism, something I had rarely experienced in American theatre. So, the laziness that you wrote about resonated with me. And I think the audition culture has something to do with it - I think many actors spend a great deal more time preparing for auditions than working on the projects they are already a part of. (Or it seems that way in New York). Questions of discipline aside....

In the past four years, I've only held two auditions and they were both set in a workshop format. It's the only way I felt comfortable auditioning actors. It was a necessity because I couldn't cast from performers I knew but it became something (I hope) useful for the actors who were auditioning, regardless of if they were cast. I heard back from several each time remarking how positive the experience was, being able to work in the room with a group of people for an hour, rather than reduce their full scope to two minutes.

Anyway, not to prattle on, but I find reassurance in your thoughts and methods. I believe in the actor as a collaborator and it is SO exciting to me when I can find a new, unexpected role for an actor I've worked with for years.

Here's to the death of auditions!!

This a great article, and I love the comments that others already left: clearly it struck a constructive nerve, and people are responding. Bravo!!!
If I understand Taylor's points correctly, he proposes to replace the "one-night stand" approach to casting with a more long-term relationship ethos: by developing a closer knowledge of the actors' work over time, aren't you in fact developing a more closely-knit theatre-making community?
He also emphasizes the need for that skill that actors should have: the ability to transform him/herself into somebody else. One of my favorite actors has always been Daniel Day-Lewis, and this because in each of his roles he is unrecognizable as Daniel Day-Lewis; something that could not be said of others, like Sean Connery for example. Of course if the actor is particularly good at transforming him/herself, this makes such an actor difficult to market since there is no trait that people will easily recognize from one movie/show to the next. Sean Connery is probably better known than Daniel Day-Lewis: People will go to see a movie with Sean Connery because they already know what they will get, and draw comfort from that; on the other hand, Daniel Day-Lewis will always surprise you. Isn't it a little bit like "fast-food" versus "local cuisine"? One is safe, but in my view predictable and boring (and may potentially clog your arteries), the other is richer in possibilities, including utter disaster unless you already know the cook to be skilled!
Another important (implicit) point made by Taylor touches upon the role of the director: if the director is like a god "manipulating" the material that are the actors, like putty, stone or clay, to shape "his/her" show, then auditioning would be selecting them just like a sculptor chooses and works on his materials, or a painter picks and mixes his colors. Actors then are mere tools in the director's hands. But Taylor stresses the need to put more emphasis on the collaborative aspect of theatre creation: the director may play a coordinating role, but if the creative impulse and work really must come from the actors, they then cannot be passive and must rise to the task of creating the show. It is no longer sufficient to merely show up at the rehearsals, and deliver just enough "acting" to make the director happy, but one must invest oneself into the process to actually produce something that one believes in as an artist. I agree with Taylor that creating a working environment where this is encouraged, is probably the first and most fundamental aspect of the director's "coordinating task."
Such directors are "something to be devoutly wished for" and then may the actors, designers, and writers, surprise their audiences with work that always defies their expectations and stretches their view of the world.

Thank you so much for this article. It's so refreshing to hear a fellow theatre artist eloquently express how limiting casting by "type" is. It's micromanaging, really. This attitude is so myopic and stifling, and also doesn't help people to understand that at the end of the day, we are all people who all share the human experience. Besides, what actor wants to play the same role over and over again? Where's the joy in that?? Hopefully, others will read this and start to consider letting go a little. :)

I LOVE THIS ARTICLE... it echoes my thoughts. Actors become adept at auditions not actually doing plays. The only thing I would add is that actors don't have to be forgiving for a "life of lies"... there is nothing to be forgiven since we are all active participants of the "lie" - the pretend world of a play, from the writer, to the director, to the stage manager, to the designer. Nothing to be forgiven from either side... on the other hand, there is so much more than could be given. Trust is one of those things.

Great article! I use a combination of both techniques. I routinely cast actors whose work I know w/o auditions, and I read actors whose work I don't know/who are new on the scene, which happens a lot in the Bay Area, as of course it does in NYC.

I've met dozens of wonderful actors over the years who were new to the Bay Area (or newly graduated from HS/college/a PTP) through auditions. For example, Skyler Cooper, my amazing butch lesbian Othello, left the Air Force to start acting. She showed up at Macbeth auditions with almost nothing on her resume but I immediately knew she had something special. I might never have found her if I had waited for her to get noticed by other companies or if I hadn't held open auditions. We chose Othello specifically for her the next season, of course without an audition.

I hate auditions, and I think they are the worst way to get to know an actor, but I often get complaints from actors when they find out that this or that role has already been offered to someone without an audition, barring anyone else from auditioning for the role. So I try to strike a balance between straight-up offers and auditions.

Also THIS: "the production will be over in a couple months but the relationship with the artist may last decades." I say this ALL the time, about playwrights, actors, designers, crew. Yes, yes, yes, and thank you.

Love this! We become something like art-by-assembly-line when we forget that actors/designers/directors/etc are co-artists.

I also love the argument for trusting and investing in playwrights rather than auditioning texts- the role of artists in society is not only to make the art (though that is fun, and tangible), it's to be the thinkers who reflect and engage a community in dialogue through art. I feel like that is frequently forgotten, and an awful lot of energy is expended trying to affect what artists think about and how they think it. And that defeats our purpose.

And that all sounds awfully lofty, but I'm sticking with it.

This is a brave and wonderful notion, and surprisingly logical - treat actors like the co-creators they are!

One possible drawback of working this way, however, is that it could lead to another laziness - simply working with known actors. If the audition process goes by the wayside, the director only get to know the working actors, or the ones at the classes that director goes to visit. There ARE great actors who didn't attend Juliard/Yale/NYU... Would those actors fall by the wayside?

One amazing aspect of your proposal would be taking the actor-as-actor-not-character idea even further and embracing race, age, mobility, and gender-blind casting. Some of my favorite experiences in theatre have come watching actors embody a foreign physicality. I'll never forget watching the stunning young half Asian actress Joey Liao as a 50-something white roughneck bouncer and an ancient crazy crow-strokimg witch in a reading of "Kate Crackernuts" or he comination of the 30-something white female Kittson O'Neill as a an angry latino drug-seeker and African-American Tony Russell as an old white Texas oil-man telling us why it's okay for him to use the word "nigger" in Jigsaw Nation. These moments allowed me to hear the language of the play, and hear the characters in their essence, and carried the added bonus of connecting the audience to the actors' artistry, askig us to bring our own imaginations to the front, and shaking up ideas that might have seemed ordinary in regularly cast contexts.

Thanks again for this great idea, and for walking the walk you're talking!

Perfect timing for this piece. I'm meeting with a director tomorrow whose work I don't know yet but who we think seems smart, interesting and most importantly, nice & trustworthy. What better way to start?

Great thoughts. As a dancer, who became an actor, the professionalism is noticed. I'm always early, prepared, ready to go.
I actually had a very similar conversation with an actor in our last production. I do think that the work of the actor is just quieter, more personal, more behind the scenes, and therefore, they are seen as not working.
Dancers have, for the most part had discipline beat into us. We also have a beyond usual respect for our bodies, so we always give ourselves that time to warm-up and focus.
Dance is a culture of discipline. Theatre is not. It's not a bad thing. Just what it is. Not sure what I would say it is a culture of.... The ideal would be collaboration. But it often isn't. Hm.
Thanks for the food for thought!