Friday, June 3, 2011

How Does Barksdale Approach Casting

Posted by Bruce Miller
It's been fun and interesting to read the recent casting discussions on Dave's blog. Thanks, Brother Timberline. In hopes that people will understand the institutional objectives that I have established at Barksdale Theatre, in close association with our Board, staff and leading independent artists, I'd like to comment here on a few points raised about Barksdale's casting decisions.

I've done some rough, quick figuring from home. Please forgive me if I'm off by one or two. During the season that is about to conclude, Barksdale employed 80 actors in its nine mainstage productions. Eleven of the 80 actors live out-of-town. Sixty-nine of the 80 call Greater Richmond their home. I believe this is an appropriate ratio. Our commitment always has been, and will be for the remainder of my tenure, to Central Virginia's professional acting community.

Of the 11 who came from out-of-town, three used to be locals. Michelle Lookadoo (White Christmas) began her career at Barksdale. Kathy Halenda (White Christmas) and Ben Houghton (White Christmas) grew up here. We love bringing outstanding working professionals back to town.

Another two of the 11 (Patricia Duran and Ricardo Melendez - both in Legacy of Light - pictured to the left) were cast because of their talent, to be sure, but also because we have a commitment through our Hispanic Theatre Project to cast Latino actors in at least one production per year. We believe that if Richmond theatre in general is to increase attendance from Central Virginia's Latino community (the fastest growing segment of our population), theatres must begin allowing Latino audiences to "see themselves on stage." I mean in no way to marginalize the amazing talents of Tricia and Ricardo, both of whom I greatly admire. Nonetheless, I'm proud of our commitment to Latino audiences.

The remaining 6 of the 11 are Kevin Earley, Andrea Rivette, Freddie Kimmel, and Darrell Joe in White Christmas; Jeff McCarthy (pictured above and to the right with Harriet Harris and Stephen Sondheim in last season's Sweeney Todd at Barrington Stage Company) and Rachel Abrams in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

Honestly, we think of Rachel as a local, even though she's based in D. C. She has strong Richmond connections. She's starred with us in Into the Woods, Guys and Dolls and Annie.

Darrell Joe was recruited because we were seeking an African American male ensemble member with GREAT triple threat skills, and, based on who showed up at extensive Richmond auditions, we had to go out-of-town to find a dancer/singer at Darrell's level.

That leaves four actors out of 80--Kevin (pictured to the right starring on Broadway in Tale of Two Cities), Andrea, Freddie and Jeff--who we honestly can talk about when we discuss Barksdale's "bringing in actors with Broadway credits to help sell tickets." I'm paraphrasing from one of the points raised by a commenter to Dave's blog.

In each instance, these actors were cast because the powers-that-be (that includes the directors and me) thought they were the best artists for the roles. Also, as an institution, we have a commitment to bringing in Broadway actors, for four reasons, in this order of importance:

1 We believe their unique talents will enhance each show. Barksdale's mission statement states that we will create national caliber productions. We take this responsibility seriously. We are not exactly like every other theatre in town, each of which has its own mission. We believe our Broadway guest artists help us create national caliber work.

2 Despite what a couple folks say in comments on Dave's blog, Richmond audiences want to see Broadway performers in our shows, along with our best local artists. We've paid for lots of focus groups where we sat on one side of the mirror and Central Virginia's theatregoers sat on the other. Over and over again, we heard Jane and John Q Ticketbuyer talk about the allure of "Broadway" performers. In his comments on Dave's blog, Frank Creasy is absolutely right when he suggests that Barksdale's biggest competition is the Broadway series. We are proactively and strategically trying to address that competition by featuring wonderfully talented Broadway stars in our shows.

3 We believe a major regional theatre has a responsibility to provide its best local performers the opportunity to work side-by-side with major national talents. If you're a young professional theatre artist beginning your career in Richmond, having the opportunity to explore work in larger markets is a good thing, not a bad thing, even when it means moving on. And those opportunities are enhanced if you have resume credits in shows that featured nationally-known talents like Kevin, Andrea, Freddie, Jeff and Michelle (pictured to the left and above starring on Broadway in The Little Mermaid). And don't get me started on networking.

4 Barksdale is Central Virginia's resident professional theatre. Because of our strong audience and contributions bases, which have been developed through decades of hard work and strategic planning, we have the unique opportunity and responsibility to put Richmond theatre on the national map. I believe that it benefits every company in town if the national theatre community begins to recognize Richmond as a "theatre town." Due to the size of our metro area, this is not an easy task. We are working hard to gain the national attention that we believe Richmond deserves. Bringing in national stars is one part of our strategic efforts to gain national attention. One of Dave's anonymous commenters groused that Richmond audiences don't know who Jeff McCarthy is. I somewhat disagree, but I understand the point. Please let me add this, the national theatre community definitely knows who Jeff McCarthy is. They also know Kevin Earley, Andrea Rivette, Michelle Lookadoo and Freddie Kimmel. And they are impressed that Richmond theatre in general is beginning to attract performers of this caliber.

For each and every role that was filled by a national professional who was brought in from out of town, we had local auditions. GREAT people auditioned. In the opinions of the directors, choreographers and music directors in charge, the pros brought in from out of town were more suited to the roles than the local auditionees. Had these directors been blown away by the local auditionees, we would NOT have brought someone in from out-of-town.

Casting is a subjective process, and people will always have differences of opinions about casting decisions. My intention here is not to "defend" casting choices, but to make our institutional motivations clear. This is what you can expect from Barksdale theatre, God willing, for the next five years.

Having said that, let me add that nothing is ever carved in stone. All of us always welcome and listen to your input, be it supportive or constructively critical. Thanks.

In a future post, I'll discuss pre-casting vs open auditions.

--Bruce Miller


Anonymous said...

We all love you here in the Richmond theatre community--truly. That said, I honestly do believe that there are some in the community (a large number, actually) who DO feel that you tend to favor and precast one particular actor in town. I need not mention their name because EVERYONE knows who I am speaking of. Is this person talented? Without question. Should they be HANDED 2-3 leading roles per year without auditioning? No. Being "Richmond's favorite actor" comes a little easier when you are in Bruce Miller's back pocket. Why not let said person get in line with all the actors and fight for the part? Who knows, maybe someone else in line will surprise you! Just two cents to add to the pot.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, I'm with anonymous. I'd add that often actors are cast who are quite talented, but sometimes these folks were not necessarily the best choice for the part. I understand wanting to use an actor who is "tried and true" to a point, but when said actor is completely inappropriate to the character (significantly too young/too old, for example), then it takes me out of the moment and I cannot enjoy the production as much as I'd like.

Anonymous said...


It sounds like you know some of these other actors, yes? Tell them this isn't high school theater. Bruce isn't a drama teacher who needs to be fair to all the kids. It's a professional theater community where roles are earned, not given. Scotty is rare talent, and if you and/or your actor friends want what he has, it is up to you/them to step up and take it. What's the alternative? Bruce says, "No, I'm not going to give Scotty this role, I have to do playground rules and give all the kids a chance?" Until someone else becomes the best, Scotty gets the roles.

I'll go one further: Bruce using the best talent in town makes the community stronger as a whole. It keeps the best talent in Richmond. It gives the audiences the strongest performers. And, if you have the least drive and determination, it will make you work harder.

Besides, what is to be gained from Scotty auditioning? You do that with actors whose work you don't know. You know what you're getting with Scotty, and it's a fantastic product. Name a role you think he has done badly in the last five years. Can you? Nope. That's why he doesn't audition.

eraserhead said...

Bruce, thank you for explaining your methods and the rationale behind them. I look forward to your pre-casting post.

I must admit that I am more sympathetic to the first two anonymous posters than #3. I don't know much about the best actor in Richmond except that he's terrific. I wonder why he hasn't gone on to a larger stage and I wonder how many would-be leading men leave Richmond because he is such a lock on leading roles at the leading theatre in the area.

Andrea Rivette said...

As far as handing a role over to someone, etc. I just have to say..when someone builds a reputation as someone directors and producers WANT to work with and have back..that's a wonderful thing for the actor. Is it FAIR? It's how show biz works. The person you're referring to who doesn't have to audition? There are many actors in NYC and on Broadway right now who are "HANDED" roles based on their body of work and talent. They aren't handed anything in my opinion and they are working constantly at maintaining a good relationship with the theater/producer/director. This is how show biz works out in the real world. The actor who is being handed roles has earned that right by being the right person for the job, talented and wonderful to work with. Bruce and Phil love to bring that person back! Those lists are very short and very hard to get on in this business.
That's just my opinion and I know that Bruce is wonderful. I'd be proud to be in his back pocket any day! =)
best wishes to Barksdale, Bruce and Phil...