Sometimes talent really isn’t enough

.. to get you the role you want.

Which, with my actor’s hat on is rather reassuring.  With my director’s hat on I find it slightly sad!

Last Saturday I saw nearly 30 people at auditions for the Southside Players’ production of Julius Caesar – I’d seen two a couple of weeks before, and I’d contacted two people to play a specific role (although one of these turned up and auditioned anyway).  Technically I could cast everyone! The great thing about amateur theatre is that you aren’t paying anyone so you don’t have to worry about the actors’ wage bill – also as I’m setting it in 2012 I won’t be overtaxing the costume budget either.  Also Julius Caesar has 37 named parts and lots of crowd scenes so there is a line for everyone to say! Of course having a cast of 30+ people presents its own directing challenge (especially considering the size of our rehearsal room) but it was one that in the end I was prepared to take.

I think one of the unique features of amateur theatre is that it is as much about the enjoyment of the people doing it (the actors, the backstage crew) as it is for those watching it (the audience).  In the professional theatre,  if you aren’t really enjoying being Plebian number one (with your 4 lines and no direction to speak of) then it’s tough – you are getting paid and you are opening doors (theoretically) to other opportunities.  Not so for Southside Players, if you don’t enjoy it, you may just not turn up! No pressure on me then…

So yes, I cast everyone. But that doesn’t mean to say that everyone is happy with the part I gave them.  Nor does it mean that everyone was equal in talent.  Clearly some people have more experience, some people have less experience but more talent and some people just get so nervous at auditions that if they are new to you you just can’t tell what they are really going to be like after a few rehearsals and on the night itself.  Even people you know really well (and since I’ve been with the Southside for 20 plus years I know lots of people really well) can get nervous.  But I did what I could to make the auditions pleasant and un-intimidating.

Like what? Well letting people have the audition piece in advance, not keeping them waiting too long by giving people time slots, getting them to audition in pairs, not sitting behind a desk, in fact I think I spent most of the day standing up! I also have a ‘panel’ – again not sitting behind desks – I think this helps both me (when it comes to making decisions) but also the auditionees – as the panel of me and three others were spread across a reasonable area –  it meant the auditionees weren’t forced to focus solely on me and also had something that looked more realistically like an audience!  As an actor I’ve always hated the unreality of having to deliver a ‘performance’ under distinctly un-performance like conditions – so I approach auditions as a director expecting them to be more like the first rehearsal – an opportunity to explore and try things out.  This means that everyone gets a second chance at doing the piece, and I got them to do some of it very naturalistically and then for the second exercise to stand on a chair each and deliver a speech in a very oratorial way.  This produced some interesting results.  Particularly in those who were most nervous.  Something about the unexpectedness of my request ‘ now stand on a chair each’ and the exercise itself, seemed to take them out of their nervousness.  It also helps to still people’s physical ticks! If you are trying to balance on a chair, arm waving and pacing become much less practical and stillness much more instinctive.

And what did I learn from all this? Well the first thing I knew, as the last audition concluded, was that I had enough talent to cast at least another two shows! But that I would have to squeeze it in to what I could offer.  My main challenge was casting the part of Cassius.  Having said that I would consider a male or female Cassius I was then faced with about 10 people who could have done the role.  Of these I simply discounted those who had under-prepared for the audition (and therefore not done themselves justice) or whom I wanted for another role (already you see that talent was not enough), leaving me with 3 main contenders, of these when I checked their preferences for roles one had said ‘small parts please’ so that took her out of the mix.  Of the two left I struggled to make a decision – they would be very different in the role and in the end I opted for the one that more closely matched my preconceptions.  What does that say about the person who didn’t get it? They had the talent, they’d done the prep, they’d shown they had the commitment, and yet they didn’t get the part.  So did I give them the next best part they were suited for? Actually no I didn’t.  I could have cast this person as Caesar, but I didn’t.  Why not? Because it would have unbalanced the play – by this point I had a female Brutus, a female Cassius, a female Octavius, if I’d cast Caesar as a woman it would have begun to look like my intentions were to create a feminist version of Julius Caesar (rather than just a modern one).  I may live to regret this decision, I hope not.

So actors, if you don’t always get the job you want, it’s not that you didn’t deserve it, not that you didn’t have the talent, simply that a cast is like a jigsaw and you belong in a different part of it (or sometimes just a different puzzle!).  As an actor I find that reassuring – knowing that when I thought I’d done a great audition, but didn’t get the part, it really wasn’t because I was fooling myself.  Sad though, because if talent and dedication aren’t enough, it can make you feel a bit powerless to make your own success.  I think you just have to keep going for it.  Eventually you will be the right bit of puzzle in the right jigsaw and you will have your chance to shine.

I can’t wait to get to work with my cast.  I think they will be brilliant.  The fact I am able to have so much talent in the smaller roles will just deepen the whole play.  I also hope that we will all have fun with it and that the experience for both actor and audience alike will be a good one.

The production is part of the RSC Open Stages project (supported by Esme Fairburn trust) and is being put on by Southside Players ( on 15-18 February 2012 at 7.45pm at Chestnut Grove Drama Hall, Balham (5pm on Saturdays).

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