Recently, a fellow director bemoaned the turnout at her auditions for a local community theater’s production of RENT. I’ve written before and likely will again about there being too much theater in the Land of Cleve, so much that theaters not only routinely fight over audience “share,” but also over actors. And there are a lot of actors here. A lot.
I asked what the problem was, and she replied that only one or two “types” turned up, a finite pool from which to cast. My response? “Makeup. Costumes.”
Evidently this answer offended her, because she spat, “Trannies,” and walked away.
Since when must one be a transvestite to play one onstage? When did theater become reality TV? I’ve long seen the trend of theaters to do fewer plays with older actors, because older actors have trouble remembering lines. My comment, “Costumes? Makeup?” often elicits the same response as that recent conversation. When I was looking to cast one of my plays, specifically a 60+ character, I contacted an acting prof colleague and asked whether she was teaching her kids how to play age. The answer I received was so gently desperate – something about just trying to get them to understand diction and why it’s important – that I slunk quietly away and found a 50-year-old willing to play 65, to brave the possibility that others would then think she was 65.
In 2010, I attended a production of ARSENIC AND OLD LACE at Great Lakes Theater Festival. I didn’t know the company in its current incarnation, having been away for 33 years. During intermission, I looked and looked at the lobby display of actors’ headshots for the woman playing Martha Brewster. The characterization was pitch-perfect in body and voice, a completely believable, tottery old maid. No headshot even remotely resembled that character and I didn’t have my program in hand to match actor with role. I learned later that it was the not-even-middle-aged Laura Perrotta. Now, that’s theater. Rare, but I’m relieved to say that it still exists.
Another, more recent experience, I attended a closed reading of a colleague’s new play, one about college-aged kids. During the ensuing discussion, one of the very fine young actors, a recent Northwestern grad, alluded to the play’s numerous small scenes which included characters present, past, and imaginary, as being “cinematic.” My comment? That I’m an old fart, but in my day, we called that “theatrical.” The willing suspension of disbelief was our stock-in-trade, not a disappeared commodity.
So many people are writing (but not wrighting) plays, these days, and those plays are topical, sometimes interesting, and could – at least most of the ones I’ve read, heard, and seen, and that’s a lot – be TV shows or movies. “Theatricality” now seems to mean “hellishly technological, expensive, and dangerous.” Only in the realm of TYA does theatrical magic remain in the forefront.
Why is theater trying to compete with recorded media? Why is theater trying to BE media? Why not go back to what it does best, and only it can do: the making of magic? And to that end, why not routinely train actors to act roles that don’t look like or sound like the actor, to use their voices and bodies to disappear into their roles?