The Pleasures, Perils, and Pitfalls of Casting a Season

Article by Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold – Reproduced from Broadway World, April 28, 2015

Maine State Music Theatre Finds Its Talent for Summer 2015

finale curtstephWhen the audience thinks of casting for a Broadway musical, they conjure up the image of a darkened auditorium, an artist onstage peering into the glare and hearing Zach’s voice from out of the void with its curt dismissal, “Thank you.” Since its smash opening on Broadway in 1975 A Chorus Line has come to embody in poetic terms the uphill struggles of countless artists who toil every day on stage and off in pursuit of the métier they love. The rituals of auditioning and casting calls are integral to the life of an actor or theatre director, and each year they are played out in countless theatres large and small across the country, a crucial part of the puzzle that goes into shaping a successful season.

BWW had the opportunity to catch up with Brunswick ‘s Maine State Music Theatre’s Artistic Director, Curt Dale Clark, and Managing Director, Stephanie Dupal, just returned from their casting junket in New York and Tennessee, where they saw some 2400 aspirants, these in addition to another six hundred in local auditions and by video submission to fill seventy-three slots for their summer 2015 season consisting of four main stage shows. Together and in consultation with the shows’ directors, Clark and Dupal carefully weigh the many factors that go into putting together the pieces of the complicated casting puzzle, hoping to find not only the best talent, but also to satisfy all the other demands of their Equity contract as a member of the Council of Resident Stock Theatres. It is a process that requires compromise and commitment.

“Curt is amazing!” Dupal enthuses. Clark , who played Zach at MSMT’s revival of A Chorus Line in 2012 spearheads the casting process. “He is so kind and generous to everyone who comes into the room, whether we are talking about the ones with the most talent or the least. He makes them all feel good about themselves.”

Perhaps this is because Clark understands both sides of the equation, having come to his present artistic directorship post from a highly successful career as a singer, dancer, actor – he still takes on a few roles a year –and having run a casting company in partnership with his spouse, director Marc Robin, in Chicago for a time. Whatever the recipe, he and Dupal seem to have gotten it right, given the smashing success of the past couple seasons and the excitement about the upcoming summer which features The Full Monty, Sister Act, The Music Man, and Young Frankenstein, as well as productions of Shrek 2 and Fame.

The pair talks about the preparation they do during the year before auditions begin in March. “As we travel to conferences and see something a director does, we think about bringing it to Maine,” Dupal says, citing this season’s Young Frankenstein, which they saw in Lancaster, PA, at the Fulton Theatre, as an example. “I had seen the show before and not really liked it, but Marc’s [Robin] production was so well done and moved so quickly, I said to Curt that we should do it!”

Clark adds that sometimes a show suggests itself by virtue of an actor or director with whom they have worked before. “Our audiences fall in love with certain performers. They crave seeing them onstage, and we get letters of request. When we can make that a reality – such as when we brought Charis Leos back to do Mama Rose in Gypsy, that inspires us to mount the show.” As for directors, Clark notes that they have to find creative people who can work within the very difficult constraints of their short rehearsal schedules. “I explain how our schedule works when I hire the directors, but sometimes they get here, and they seem surprised and upset.”

Dupal explains, “Our rehearsal schedule is complicated because we have resident contract actors rehearsing one show and performing in another at night, so the director may only have some actors for two hours a day for eight days. The director has to come prepared with the framework of the entire show or they won’t be able to do it in the time allotted.”

Clark adds that this season’s two directors, Donna Drake and Marc Robin, who have worked frequently at MSMT, understand the regimen and come with everything mapped out in their heads. “There aren’t a great many people who can do that; you have to be able to see the big picture in your head.”

Seeing the big picture – envisioning an actor onstage in a role – is something Clark and Dupal have gotten very good at doing in the short time allotted to an audition. “Curt and I see thousands, and we have to make quick decisions about whether we need to see them again for callbacks,” says Dupal. And though they had help in New York this year with pianist Sam Bagala, who will be the Music Director for Young Frankenstein, and though Drake and Robin came in for the callbacks, the ultimate choices fell to Clark and Dupal.

“We hold the final decision because on a resident stock contract we have to make sure we have actors who can go into more than one show,” Clark explains. “It makes for some difficult decisions, but our company couldn’t exist without this type of Equity contract in terms of the money its saves us.”

“So sometimes it becomes a negotiation,” Dupal remarks. “Something may seem critical for the director, but won’t work for us in terms of a through line or in balancing the importance of the two roles the actor might play. So sometimes we have to ask the director to – -“

“Acquiesce,” Clark supplies the word finishing the sentence in a manner that suggests the teamwork between the two administrators.

“Fortunately, we work with some great people who are able to compromise, but every once in a while . . .” Dupal trails off, then continues, “we have to become referees in the situation.”

“Or dictators,” Clark smiles.

This season’s roster includes two actors performing in all four shows, another two in three shows, and the majority in two of the four main stage productions. But performing in multiple shows is not the only practical concern to be considered. Housing for a resident troupe is an on-going issue. Dupal notes that MSMT has lost twelve beds this summer due to rentals no longer available, and were it not for the recent acquisition (through a generous anonymous donor) of Clancy House, a four bedroom-two apartment house that has been tastefully renovated, their numbers might be even more pressing. “We don’t have the luxury of just casting the best person in the role; we need to cast the best person we can house and who may fit into more than one show,” Dupal sums up the constraints.

To that end, MSMT always conducts local auditions prior to going to New York and to the Southeastern Theatre Conference. “We just go in and see what the talent pool is here in Maine. If we find someone local who can fill a spot, we are grateful because we don’t have to house that person,” Clark says. “We usually find the youth we need and often the character actors, though rarely the dancers.”

A large-scale show like the upcoming season’s The Music Man makes additional demands. “It is huge!” Clark sighs. “I always start with wanting something to be the best it can be; then after that I consider the reality of its happening that way. Currently my brain is at a cast of forty-three, not including the high school band. It is going to be an extravaganza, something the audience will grab hold of and celebrate, but it will be a tremendous strain on the staff. But we will get through it and be proud of it in the end.”

So given the practical considerations and artistic desires, how do Clark and Dupal go about the process of finding their talent? At the SETC they sat through some seven hundred one and one-half minute auditions, watching, making notes, and ultimately calling back only thirteen. In New York City, where they moved their audition location to Pearl Studios, 500 Eighth Avenue, “a bustling studio building which gave actors a chance to audition for more than one gig in the same locale” and changed their order so that the non-equity-intern auditions took place on the day before callbacks, thereby enabling the directors to be present, they auditioned 2400 more. “The overall quality is truly remarkable,” Clark asserts.

And what are they looking for when a young professional comes into the room to perform? “I think that’s impossible to articulate,” Clark replies. I got pretty good at the process when Marc and I had our casting company, but then I went back to being an actor and not thinking about it. With that many actors coming to audition, it is easy to go numb, but when a spark comes into the room, your whole body perks up. You just know it.”

“It’s more than voice or dancing. It’s the presence. After seeing so many, this one actor pulls you into his/her performance,” Dupal adds. “Occasionally, we can be wrong in that a performance doesn’t live up to the audition, but usually not.”

“And if we are, it is often because the sustainability wasn’t there,” Clark explains. “This is hard work you have to be able to do eight times a week.” Clark says that he tries not to look at an actor’s resume until after the audition, though “he may occasionally “cheat if time is running short. It’s a trick I learned from Marc [Robin], and I feel strongly about it. You should not let the resume tell you what you are about to see. If you look at it after the performance, it becomes a tool to enforce a decision rather than using the resume to create a decision.”

“Occasionally, a resume can raise red flags,” Dupal says. She uses the example of an actor whose resume consists of single shows scattered around.

Clark picks up the theme: “There is usually a reason an actor does something somewhere only once and doesn’t get asked back. At MSMT we need people who play well in the sandbox together because they are going to eat, sleep, and breathe with each other for twenty-three hours a day for as long as they are here. We need good people. One of the things this company has always stood for is that it is a fun place to work. People love coming here. Our pay scale is not what others offer, but they get to be in Maine for the summer; our audience is very loving, and we do good work. Most people want to come back.”

Dupal elaborates: “We don’t have a star system salary or even a star dressing room or housing. Thanks to our company manager, Kathi Kacinski, who takes such good care of everyone, we offer them work and a great time in Maine.”

So having devoted the past two months to filling the roster for their fifty-seventh season, is the process now complete? Clark chuckles and points to a stack of color-coded folders several inches high containing resumes on his desk. “There are still some gaps to be filled, but we have lots of options.” Sometimes old connections come into play. He gives an example of how in the time between audition and callback several of their picks for the role of Curtis in Sister Act had already signed other contracts. But then he thought of Kingsley Leggs, who had played the role on Broadway and on the national tour of the musical and with whom he had worked long ago in Chicago in a play about Jackie Robinson. “We formed a bond during that show, and then we lost touch. Kingsley went on to New York and became a huge star. I found him on Facebook and sent him a message, and amazingly he was not working just at the moment! I told him we couldn’t offer Broadway money, but we were in Maine in the summer.” And there have been other such experiences such as the the eleventh hour casting of Jarid Faubel for Adam Pontipee in last summer’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. “We just hadn’t found anyone at auditions, and we kept getting agent submissions. I thought Jarid looked too young in his picture, and I had to be convinced he was going to be right for the part. Boy, did we make the right choice!” Clark affirms.

Asked what their deadline is to have everything finalized, Dupal replies mischievously, but truthfully, “ Opening Night? Actually, we say that until the show closes we are not officially cast. Anything can happen in the interim.” She tells the story of some tense recent moments when one of the male strippers in The Full Monty, a shared production with the Fulton Theatre that opened in Lancaster April 23, had emergency gallbladder surgery and had to be replaced at last minute. “That could be happening to us,” she says ruefully. And, indeed, it has more than once, the most notable example last season when Eric Stretch broke his heel a few days before the opening of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and was replaced by Carson Twitchell, a young Los Angeles-based actor who had worked with director-choreographer Patti Colombo before. “The dance captain and all the partner dancers gave up a ton of time to make the show happen. They rehearsed into the wee hours of the morning,” she recalls.

“And we all lost a great deal of sleep. It was insanely stressful for everyone. The general public sees a show that seems perfect and they think it must be easy; they don’t usually know how much goes on behind the scenes and beforehand,” Clark says.

Yet recognizing the pitfalls possible in putting together any season and armed with both caution and creative contingency plans, Clark and Dupal feel they have assembled a very talented ensemble for summer 2015. “As a kid in rural Illinois,” Clark recalls, “I rarely got to see the level of professional theatre that this community has in a resource like MSMT. Our audiences can come here all summer to watch these remarkably talented artists and our interns can learn so much from these professionals. It’s so inspiring to see these kids learn from the union professionals about the discipline of theatre and for the professionals to share the infectious spirit of these kids. It’s all about the heart they put into their work.”

Dupal continues the theme of heart: “ It is amazing to have these incredibly talented Broadway actors come to audition for you. They only get a few minutes each. You know they all want to be hired; you know you are going to disappoint so many amazingly gifted, lovely people, and that can be mentally exhausting for us and for them. We have all had the job interview where we hoped we’d get the job and then we didn’t. Of the 3000 people we saw this pre-season, only seventy-three got hired. It is heartbreaking! And we know they are not doing it for a paycheck. They do it because they love it. We all do.”

Clark nods in agreement and indicates again the stacks of resumes on his desk. “Luckily, there are so many talented people. I guarantee that before we open some of our current casting will change, but it is great to have this insurance,” he says indicating the folders prioritized as backups. He seems sanguine about the possibility. “I firmly believe that the people in the room the day we start are those who are supposed to be there. I am the best example of that. I am sitting here today because I was cast in Beauty and the Beast, and I was definitely not the first person chosen, probably not the second either. But here I am. I believe that is what was meant to be.”

If recent seasons are any yardstick by which to measure this philosophy, one can only concur and celebrate not only the Fates, but also the skill and wisdom of MSMT’s savvy leadership.

 

 

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