Behind The Table

June 2014

I’m in pre-production on a pilot for a new web-series. And this means that I am in the middle of the Casting Process. We have a great project; a strong script and already have a wonderful team. And now it is my job to support the project and the team with the best cast possible.

This article is about some of my observations from ‘behind the table’. You know the table, the one that the producers, writers, casting director and others hover behind while eager and dedicated actors display their talents.

I love the casting process. It’s like speed dating. We have just a few minutes to make a quick impression (the actor) or assessment (the director) and then it’s over. But the casting process is also the beginning of new relationships. So we all need to be on our toes. And I know that I am looking for something special way beyond each actor’s ability to interpret a role, read dialogue, or bring emotion to the scene. I’m looking for the characters, in the raw.

The Entrance

audition 1It’s interesting to observe how actors enter a room. Some actors come gliding in with confidence and a sense of purpose. Others come in fumbling with their picture and resume and the sides as if they were caught totally off guard. And others arrive almost apologetically as if they aren’t sure they are supposed to be there. And then there are those who come in arrogantly, doing us a favor, taking time out of their busy day.

I make notes of these entrances and quickly begin to see that the entrance often predicts the quality of the audition. Not always, but often. And I also noticed that I am immediately making an assessment of the actor just by how he/she enters the room.

The Questions.

Asking an actor whether or not he/she has any questions before the reading seems to be pretty standard procedure. And there were a variety of responses from, “No, I’m fine” (I like that one) to the occasional long rambling monologue that seems to contain all the research and preparation the actor has done, which will eventually lead to a question (Not my favorite by a long shot). About 50% had no questions and the questions we did hear were mostly about facts or details of the character that were not clear in the scene. No questions about how I would want them to play the scene (my least favorite question).

The Reading.

This is why we are here and I know it is best if we can get to it as quickly as possible. One of our producers reads with the actors (she’s very good) and as I’m watching I can tell within moments if the actor has training, experience or is a novice. I can feel the confidence, or the uncertainty, or even insecurity. It is not something that they can hide. And now I am focused on the choices they made looking for something unexpected, new, fresh, or original.

After the Reading.

This is where my techniques depart radically from most directors. Most directors, as I have learned from actors and other directors, will make a comment about the reading and will ask for an adjustment in the performance. They may even give a result they are seeking and ask the actors to deliver that particular performance.

For some reason, in the over 40 years that I have been directing, I have never been comfortable with that approach. First, because, quite honestly, I’m not sure what I want. Or at least I am not sure enough to be able to state it that specifically. And, second, I have always been aware of how ineffective ‘result direcitng’ is and what a huge burden it puts on the actor. And even if the actor does give me the result I’ve requested, I know it’s not going to be authentic, genuine, or organic, from deep in the soul of the character. It’s just not possible under these conditions. So I choose to not talk to the actor at all. There’s no comment on the first reading and no special requests for the second. What I do is immediately connect with the character.

Let’s say that an actor is reading for the role of William. Right after the first reading is over I’ll say something like, “William, that didn’t go very well, did it?” Now, understand, I’m not referring to the audition, because quite frankly – William is not in an audition. William is in a moment in his life, in a scene with his wife. William just ended a moment with his wife (the scene) where he wasn’t able to explain himself sufficiently to her satisfaction. So when I say, “That didn’t go well” I am referring to William’s failed attempt to appease his wife.

A Key Moment.

audition 2This moment is one of the most critical moments in the audition. First of all, the actor is usually caught off guard. And as I continue to question William about the trouble he is in with his wife – discussing his motives, attitude, expectations, etc. – I am watching the actor closely to see how willing or able he is to ‘drop into the character’. This moment is often a more profound revelation of the abilities and range of the actor than the reading itself.

Regardless of experience and training some actors actually resist the opportunity to ‘stay in the character’. I find that ironic because I genuinely believe that all actors want to become the character. But now I am witnessing some actors (only a few, but still significant) fighting to get back to either being the actor or to ‘acting’ and they are pulling away from ‘being’.

One well-known, highly-trained actress with tons of experience began fighting me almost immediately. She kept saying, “Mark, I don’t know why you are asking me all of these questions. Let’s get back to discussing the character.” I was thrilled when I first learned that this esteemed actress was interested in this project and this particular role. But at this moment in the audition I knew that it wouldn’t work. I knew that no matter how ‘right’ she was for the part that I couldn’t work with her because all I would get form her would be a performance, not an authentic, organic character.

The Second Reading.

audition 3At the end of my interrogation of the character I say something along the lines of, “You’re going to get another chance (at the scene) to confront your wife and I suggest you use another tactic if you want it to turn out better than the last time.” Now, this ‘new tactic’ is usually based on something I have just discussed with William such as his wife’s fear of his anger, or maybe how convincing her with kindness has worked in the past, or how (very important) a display of vulnerability is either an asset or a detriment. Now the character (not the actor) has a new intention, a new focus, a new approach and we go immediately into the scene again. There is no result directing, there is only an adjustment from deep within the character.

Sadly, there were a few actors so trapped in either their inexperience or fear that they reverted to a performance identical to the first. But for the most part the results were revealing – truly revealing. Gone was the actor’s plan. Present was the character in full force.

Now the selection process shifts from “who is the best actor?” to “which William do we want?” Each William (as with every character) was drastically different, not just in performance, but in personality, persona.

As I am still in the throes of the casting process I am now facing a delightful dilemma. I have four or five (or more) marvelous choices for each character and I get to build the family that I want.

I’ll be sharing more about this project as we go deeper into pre-production (and the wonderful rehearsal process) and eventually into production.




One response to “Behind The Table”

  1. Muyiwa

    This is really very unveiling. It’s more like putting the horse before the cart rather than the other way round. Unfortunately, (but not intentionally) some members of the casting crew, embark on ‘result directing’.

    Good job Mr Mark

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