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Theatre: The Performance the Public Never Sees

By Robert W. Bethune
ART TIMES October 2013 online

The audience is always tail-end-Charlie. Before the doors ever open on the first performance, there’s been a whole range of performances the public never sees, starting with the first one of all: the one in the audition room.

A while back, Risa Bramon Garcia, a casting director, published a list of the twenty-one things an actor should do in the audition room to make the casting director happy. It’s an interesting list, both as good professional advice and as a mirror into the dynamics of what happens in the process of doing theatrical work—an interaction of people, places and things even more complex than what happens in the public space of a theatrical performance.

In the audition room, the balance of power is wildly skewed. The person who has casting authority has total control; the performer entering the room has virtually none beyond the power to choose whether to stay or leave. The peculiarity of Ms. Garcia’s list is that it appears to be born of a deep desire to reverse that reality. The actor is to see oneself as a guest, not as a job applicant; to have no need to earn the casting director’s approval; to avoid giving up one’s power—which one entirely lacks—upon entering the room. She thinks the actor should regard what transpires as collaboration. She commands that the actor make no excuses and no apologies. “Above all else,” she recommends, “share your artistry.”

She cannot help acknowledging the underlying reality completely. The actor is to take direction – “no matter what it is.” That’s an extraordinarily broad commitment. “You’re being evaluated in terms of how you serve the role and the material. It's not a verdict on your personhood,” she advises. Yet how can it not be? The actor’s voice, face, body, manner and personality are essential and intimate parts of one’s “personhood.” Precisely that is under intense evaluation by people who are very likely perfect strangers. She advises the actor to “bring in joy, conviction, and ease” so that “our hearts will open,” yet to expect “no stroking, coddling, or love” because “we’re there to work.” Any courtesan would understand such a requirement immediately.

One might well say, “But isn’t all this merely what actors do? When an actor goes before an audience, is it not one’s ability to share artistry, to bring in joy, to open hearts, which is exactly the whole point and purpose of the exercise? Yes—but with a deep and vital caveat: the audience has only the power to approve or disapprove. That casting director has the power and indeed faces the necessity of choosing, of hiring one actor rather than another, of deciding who succeeds and who fails, of judging whose “personhood” meets present requirements and whose does not, of determining who will be made visible and who will remain invisible.

To labor under that necessity is a very uncomfortable thing—or at least it should be; having that much power ought to make any thinking person very uncomfortable, precisely because exercising it can be so very gratifying. That explains the very odd, self-contradictory underlying thought in Ms. Garcia’s essay. She seems to be saying, “Yes, I have to choose, I have the power, I will use it, but make it nice for me! Be a wonderful artist so that I can feel good about this!”

Is there another, better way? There is no way to avoid the fact that many people want the job and only one can have it. One must winnow down the crowd. The enormous disparity of power is inherent in the work. A very few actors rise to such a level in the business that this grossly one-sided power structure no longer applies to them.

How do we know when such an actor is involved? Very simple.

Those actors don’t have to audition. They don’t ever have to give the performance the audience never sees.

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