Saturday, June 4, 2011

Why Are Certain Actors Pre-Cast?

Posted by Bruce Miller
A noteworthy comment was posted to the previous blog entry. I appreciate the perspective of the writer and the kind words (not included below). I will definitely take the stated opinion to heart. I also offer some additional perspective of my own.

The comment reads, in part, as follows: "I honestly believe 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 his/her name because EVERYONE knows who I am speaking of. Is this person talented? Without question. Should he/she 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."

To be fair to Joe Inscoe and Scott Wichmann (pictured at the top in Shipwrecked - I'm not sure which one the commenter is referring to, since both fit the bill), let me say that both guys audition regularly at theatres around town, including ours. And sometimes they don't get cast. If anyone incorrectly perceives that either actor thinks he's above the audition process, let me put that idea to rest. Joe and Scott get in line with all the other actors in town all the time.

So the issue is all about the directors and producers doing the casting, not the actors being cast.

I make a thousand decisions a year (in close association with Phil Whiteway, Chase Kniffen and lots of other folks) regarding how to keep Barksdale and Theatre IV artistically and financially sound. Phil Crosby, Larry Gard, Grant Mudge, John Knapp, Carol Piersol, James Ricks, kb saine, Derome Scott Smith, Tom Width, and the good folks at CAT, HAT, SPARC et al do the same regarding their theatres. All of us have the responsibility to keep our nonprofit companies afloat.

When a director and I precast Joe or Scott, it is because we know they will turn in terrific performances. I also know their names in ads will help sell tickets. Again, I've heard a lot of ticket buyers talk on the other side of that one-way mirror, and the names Joe Inscoe and Scott Wichmann are spoken with regularity.

Every other artistic director in town knows this too. Therefore, we've gotten to the point where if I don't nail down Joe and Scott many months in advance, another artistic director will nail them down and I'll lose them. This is not always the case, but it often is. Joe and Scott are regularly offered work at theatres (and on films) both in town and out of town, and I almost always compete with other directors to secure a contract.

The same thing can be said (at varying degrees) for Brian Barker, Stacy Cabaj, Desiree Roots Centeio, Larry Cook, Sandy Dacus, Patti D'Beck, Paul Deiss, Ford Flannagan, Jan Guarino, Lynne Hartman, Audra Honaker, Tamara Johnson, Jackie Jones, Ron Keller, Kelly Kennedy, Joe Pabst, Steve Perigard, Melissa Johnston Price, Adrian Rieder, Ali Thibodeau, Debra Wagoner, Aly Wepplo, Ginnie Willard, Joy Williams, Irene Ziegler, and several others. They've each worked their way into that place where artistic directors (and/or freelance directors like Billy Christopher-Maupin) talk to them and begin wooing them for projects many months in advance.

That's not the way it used to be, but it is the way it is now. Actually, I was behind the eight ball on this one. James Ricks, Tom Width and Rusty Wilson led the charge to get actors to commit to projects really early. It was a smart move on their parts. I've learned from them, and have begun to copy in order to keep up.

For the artists, it's a good thing. For Richmond theatre in general, it's a good thing. I love the fact that Richmond is starting to have "stars" and I'm doing what little I can to increase that trend. I think it adds to overall interest in theatre, and appropriately recognizes the amazing talent that exists here.

I think we should all love that. But with the increased buzz comes this reality: competition for "star" talent is growing more and more intense. Increasingly, this means that the talents of certain individuals will be secured months in advance.

Another component that drives this trend is health insurance. Several of Richmond's finest theatre artists rely on their unions for their and/or their family's health insurance. They begin negotiating a year in advance to ensure that they'll book enough work weeks from a company that pays for health insurance in order to guarantee that there will be no gaps in their coverage.

The last thing to be considered in this discussion is the notion of an ensemble company. There are independent artists within the community, including all of the names mentioned above, with whom I seek and to whom I offer a long term commitment. I think this helps those artists remain in Richmond (everyone likes a sense of security), and it helps us develop a loose knit ensemble company at Barksdale and Theatre IV that enables us to create better theatre.

Again, I'm not trying to "defend" casting decisions or the casting process. Things are as they are; different people will have different opinions. No "defense" is offered or needed. I'm trying to share with you what goes on in my head and behind the door of my office as the leadership of Barksdale works hard to create a nationally recognized, professional, resident theatre here in Central Virginia.

Sharing perspectives is a good thing. I greatly appreciate all those who share their perspectives with me.


--Bruce Miller


Anonymous said...

Hey Bruce, I have to say you are one of the most eloquent writers around. I think you walk the fine balance between being a compassionate human being and also a business man leading a major theatre in town. I think you make strong points regarding casting. A lot of people don't realize that the reason they dont see Scott and Joe in line with them at auditions is because they have equity appointments. I am a firm believer that equity does not equate to better as a lot of actors have chosen against it when offered for various reason.

I have always wanted to throw a few ideas your way and get your thoughts. Have you ever considered turning the little theatre at the Empire into a new playwright space? You could get annual submissions and then produce those that would put the playwrites on the map, appeal to your audience base for new works and also have a platform to pump out new works which can then be done elsewhere further putting Barksdale on the national map. (Don't you love my run on sentence?) Other major non profits like Signature do this. And not just playwrites but maybe new musical workshops/performances, etc. When not doing this, you could also use the space to bring in Broadway and local singers for top notch quality cabarets. A sort of cabaret series perhaps? When you do happen to have some big names doing a mainstage show, you can also feature them across the hall and this could be a source of extra income and/or combo tickets options.

Have you ever considered doing a summer musical theatre workshop for youngsters? Not one that babysits children but one in which big names come in and do intensives?

I finally wanted to ask if you would ever consider doing a large scale production of Les Mis maybe with some members of the Richmond Symphony in the pit? Maybe all the professional theatres can join and put on a large production at centerstage? I also feel Richmond would love seeing 9 to 5. I know I have raised a lot of ideas. I am a theatre professional in town and just really adore you and Barksdale/Theatre IV.

Anonymous said...

You mentioned your most used actors who, yes, are wonderfully talented. But what about the tons of actors in Richmond who are often turned away when they are just as, if not more, talented than that crew? People audition multiple times and are continuously turned away (even when they are cast elsewhere). It sends mixed messages, and it further continues to support the stigma about Barksdale that if you're not one of those people mentioned, you'll never be cast in a Barksdale show. Any thoughts on this very popular thought about Barksdale?

Dave T said...

Bruce, if my blog spurred you in any small way to get some blogging done, I've done a good thing! I would echo sentiments expressed above that you are very eloquent and forthcoming about your perspectives, something I really appreciate.

And while I can understand the frustration the commenter on your previous post expressed, I wholeheartedly support your assertion that pre-casting "stars" sells tickets and builds awareness of shows. To toot my own horn a little, I've been an advocate for this kind of approach for quite some time ( People remember performers who move them, impress them, make them laugh. It's a win-win for both artist and audience when familiar local actors are cast.

Also, pre-casting does not prevent other actors from having break-out performances. Matt Shofner is having one in "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" at the Firehouse. You should check it out if only to see him.

Thanks for keeping the conversation going and keeping it interesting.

Bruce Miller said...

For most of my 36 years in this business I've heard the comment that the same actors keep getting cast over and over again. I've heard it said about every theatre in town, and I think all the theatres are equally "guilty" as charged. I too see the same actors over and over again at African American Repertory Theatre, Barksdale, Carpenter Science Theatre, CAT, Firehouse, HATTheatre, Mystery Dinner Theatre, Richmond Shakespeare, Richmond Triangle Players, Swift Creek Mill, Sycamore Rouge, and Theatre IV. I also see new actors routinely appearing each season at each of these theatres.

This season, for ezample, 21 Richmond actors performed at Barksdale Theatre for the first time. 21! Several others returned to Barksdale after an absence of several years. And yet people continue to say it's impossible to "break in" at Barksdale. It's not impossible at all. New people "break in" here all the time. Twenty-one broke in this season alone.

I suspect the other theatres in town also have welcomed tens of new actors onto their stages.

My opinion is worth no more than anyone else's, but here's what I believe. I believe directors ALWAYS cast the actors who they believe gave the best auditions. If you disagree with their opinions, then you disagree. That doesn't mean you should question their motives.

I think three quarter of the time, the actors who are cast are experienced and have performed on Richmond's stages before. I think about one quarter of the time, those actors are experienced and/or talented newcomers. That three to one ratio seems about right to me, and doesn't concern me at all.

As I always say, casting is subjective, and people will always disagree about whose audition was best. But this notion that a director or producer says "I'm going to cast this person because I already know him or her, as opposed to this other unknown person who is clearly more talented and suited to the role"--I think that's crazy thinking. It just doesn't happen like that. Directors want their shows to be GREAT. They cast whomever they believe will do the best job. And every director and producer I know LOVES to discover a talented newcomer.

Dave brings up Matt Shofner. I'm glad Matt's doing great as Snoopy. Before this role, he was great in The 1940's Radio Hour, Seussical, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at Barksdale and Theatre IV.

When we decide to make a commitment, long term or short term, to a theatre artist, it's not because he or she is a great pal. It's because we think he or she is especially talented and will do a great job.

Are there actors who aren't cast, repeatedly, at Barksdale but are cast, repeatedly, at other theatres? Absolutely. Is it because of some unfair casting practice? I don't think so. Auditions at Barksdale are very competitive. And I'm glad they are.

Another thing to remember is that directors and producers frequently disagree as to who should be cast. In almost every show, there's at least one person I think deserves the role but the director wants someone else. Every time this happens, the director wins.

Bruce Miller said...

I LOVE hearing new ideas. Many thanks to commenter #1 who offered several.

You will soon be hearing more about our Little Theatre and plans for future productions. Barksdale and Theatre IV currently produce 30 productions per year--13 mainstage and 17 touring shows. We're also heavily involved in several innovative educational partnerships and service initiatives. Our small staff is stretched to the max. Just ask anyone who works here.

Nonetheless, we have not forgotten our wonderful Little Theatre (it's used pretty much every day), and the theatregoing public will soon have new opportunities to visit this exciting, intimate venue.

Our commenter is absolutely correct in suggesting the need to create more new work. In our strategic planning, we've identified three areas where increased activity will bring us increased national visibility.

1 (the easiest) begin bringing national talent to Richmond to work side-by-side with Central Virginia's most outstanding professional theatre artists

2 begin producing at least one world premiere each season--in 2011-12 we have two (Scorched Earth and Blue Ridge Mountain Christmas)

3 begin transferring shows originally produced here to Off Broadway

We are working hard in all three areas. Planning is proceding nicely.

I wish we had a multi-million dollar grant like the one obtained by Signature to foster new work, but we don't ... yet. We're working on it.

Having musical workshops/performances is a GREAT idea. It would mean partnering with another company. I honestly can't add one more minute of work to the plates of my exemplary, talented, overworked and overstressed staff.

We also LOVE the idea of a cabaret series. Triangle is doing exciting work in this area. If and when we reinvigorate our cabaret series, it will involve a mix of our amazing local singers and some top notch national cabaret talents. The programs will most likely take place in our lobby at Willow Lawn.

Jeff McCarthy will actually be doing a mini-cabaret matinee this summer at the Leslie Cheek Theatre at the VMFA. More about that soon. We're very excited to be entering into this new partnership with the Museum. And Jeff has a truly incredible voice.

I've collected and filed lots of info about summer musical theatre workshops in other cities, where Broadway actors come to town to work with kids. It's another one of those projects we'd most likely pursue in partnership with another organization--most likely SPARC and/or CYT. I think it's a great idea.

Finally, the commenter asks if we'd ever consider doing a large scale production of Les Mis, maybe with some members of the Richmond Symphony in the pit?

Yes, we'd definitely consider doing Les Mis. And we'd LOVE to work with the Richmond Symphony. The pit at the Empire holds 21 musicians, and it is impossible to book the Symphony for an extended run. But if we could find the right funding, working with a pit-sized orchestra with musicians from the Symphony on a short-term run of Les Mis, co-produced by several of Richmond's major theatres, might be fun.

Doing it at the Carpenter Theatre would be wonderful--but very expensive. We currently produce five children's shows each year at the Carpenter Theatre for school matinees. We love working there.

Like everything else, this dream production would require a lot of funding. But why shouldn't we dream big?

And yes, commenter, I too got a kick out of "9 to 5" when I saw it on Broadway. My daughter Hannah saw it twice!

Thanks for the GREAT ideas. Keep 'em comin'.


Anonymous said...

Bruce- I think you're missing the point to a degree. When you list in this blog the names of some 25 actors who are "in demand" and then put "and several others" as a footnote you may have offended a dozen or more OTHER actors who should be on that list. Instead of making a GENERAL comment that this list of actors is Richmond's short list why not just admit that they are on Bruce Miller's short list. What about Jill Bari Steinberg? What about Julie Fulcher? Susan Sandford? John Moon? David Bridgewater? Gordon Bass? Matthew Costello? Erin Thomas-Foley?........When you publicly fawn over a short list of actor you ostricise and, frankly, offend many more. Perhaps if you stop announcing YOUR favorite actors the criticizims will lessen. It's like a judge at a beauty contest publicly saying, "Well these are all fine contestants! Really. They all stand a chance. But Miss Ohio is God's gift to beauty contests...." And I do agree that there is ONE (not two as you state in your post) actor in particular that is just that for you.

Anonymous said...

As a follow up, Bruce. Imagine someone in a position of power and exposure (not this tiny poster) writing the following for the public to read:
"Richmond's favorite director by far is Steve Perigard followed closely by powerhouses James Ricks, James Bond, Robin Arthur, John Moon, Daniel Moore, Grant Mudge, Maury Piersol, Chase Kniffen, Keri Wormald, Rusty Wilson....and several others." I'm just saying.

Bruce Miller said...

I should have learned long ago not to write about any of this. It always offends someone, which is never my intention. As for Jill Bari Steinberg, Julie Fulcher, Susan Sanford, John Moon, Dave Bridgewater, Gordon Bass, Matthew Costello and Erin Thomas-Foley... Seriously? If I had a list, they'd be on it, and they all know it. And what about Robyn O'Neill, Robin Arthur, Matt Hackman, Derek Phipps, Jody Strickler, Suzanne Pollard, Andy Boothby, Frank Creasy, David Janeski and so on and so on? I also feel nothing but affection, respect and admiration for them. The "list" I posted is not a list of Richmond's "favorite" actors. In fact, it's not a list of actors at all. It's a list of theatre artists, including actors, directors, designers, music directors, stage managers, whom I've recently asked to work on one project or another only to learn that they were already committed somewhere else. I asked too late; they turned me down. That's all the list is. I know there are those out there who want to think of all this as some sort of popularity contest. The point I will continue to try to make is that it isn't that at all. Believe me or not, it's up to you. Casting at Barksdale has nothing to do with who my favorite actor or actors is or are. The same can be said for every other theatre and every other artistic director in town. It's not nearly that simple. We're not nearly that stupid. And if Richmond's favorite director by far is Steve Perigard, then Richmond is choosing wisely.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous #2 from Anonymous #1 of these comments:

I don't think any of us really know what it takes to run a major non profit theatre in a state that's continuously cutting funds. People are precast all over the country. Every town has its local favorites. A lot of broadway producers wont even move forward unless they can land a American Idol finalist in the lead role. My point is, its a business. Now here is how I view it... If you go into an audition totally prepared and truly right for the role/show and blow them away causing the director to not be able to sleep at night until they want to hire you over anyone else in town... then I would say that's the right approach. And if your not right for that show, they will still remember you audition. I find that there is a fine line between talkers and doers. Nothing or no one in life has ever promised that we live in a fair world. It's really not the job of a director to be fair unless you define fair as the best person getting the role. If someone is precast in a role that is your type, then go to the next audition and blow them away and soon you might be the one enjoying being precast with a change in tune. I know this is not NYC but the fact still remains this is a very tough, subjective business. I don't work for Barksdale and I myself am a professional actor not listed in any of the above names but I still understand the point Bruce was making. And keep in mind, Bruce is a human being just like anyone else. I myself get frustrated with certain things in town. I sometimes seem to feel like the only person in town who did not care for a certain show or performance while everyone else is raving about it. I sometimes miss Roy Proctor's very honest reviews, etc. But at the end of the day, I bring the focus back to myself and do me. And I think we could all do well by focusing on doing our best work. If at the end of the day Richmond does not feel like a match, then go audition at Riverside or DC. There is great work going on very nearby. Anyway, those are some thoughts however fragmented they might be.

eraserhead said...

Again, I appreciate all the insight Bruce has shared on these obviously "hot" topics.

One small suggestion: how about creating some buzz around the casting of new talent or larger roles for previous supporting players? While it might add a little pressure to the newcomer, it's the Hollywood story writ large in Richmond.

I don't see as many shows as I'd like, but an example would be Joey Ibanez as Tybalt in RS's recent R&J. I know Liz Blake White is always a big draw, but Joey seemed to come out of nowhere with his powerful, physical performance. A little preview of his talent might have whetted some appetites.

wmartin said...

I'm glad to read your "when I tried to hire them, they were already committed elsewhere" list explanation. I too was wondering how Jill Bari Steinberg, for example, failed to make your list of awesomeness. :) I thought of her one-woman shows in recent history -- Syringa Tree, Shirley Valentine. Steinberg is a force to be reckoned with and her name is often all it takes to make me perk up my ears and open my wallet.