Start with the text. When I work through a casting process, I always find myself checking in with this idea; that I am supporting the script, the characters, the plot…the world of the play. In my opinion, each “world” has a set of rules that must be agreed upon between the playwright’s work and the director’s vision, and that these rules must be applied before a rehearsal process can begin.
For “Pillowman”, I’d had a wealth of time to decide upon these rules – from the moment I originally read the script about 7 years ago to this past Wednesday night when auditions commenced. Over the years, this script and its characters have been a touchstone for me in my work – comparing performed roles in other works with the ones that are required for “Pillowman”. I have equated the four principal parts and the ensemble/storytellers in McDonagh’s play to being some of the most challenging acting roles available within dramatic literature; these four men and the storytellers are delicate, complex, maniacal, and morally obtuse. They each have a system of ethical logic, but the scale to which they liken morality and justice slides outside the bounds of what most people consider humane.
Specific to the four principal roles, I’ve identified that each of these men find themselves in a paradoxical divide between empathy and detachment. The dark humor of the script mirrors this conclusion, allowing the audience moments of sincere, spontaneous laughter at the grotesque quality of the situation, which then transforms into a questioning of why such tragic circumstances can be funny. Knowing this, I went into the audition process looking for actors that could “get away” with morally ambiguous actions and still come off as somewhat likeable, or, at least, relatable.
I’ve gotten accustomed, within Hampshire College Theater, with stigmas surrounding specific projects. It seems as if a lot of auditions here have become pigeon-holed and more exclusive depending on whether or not one decides to bill his or herself as solely an “actor”. By “actor” here, I mean someone who has participated in performance onstage before. But there is so much more room within this term that seems to be forgotten by those who distance themselves from being an “actor”. There is movement, humor, song, poetry. On my auditions posters I specified I was looking for “all actors, comedians, dancers, movers and shakers”. I believe that this may have aided in the wonderful turnout at auditions, by making it clear that there is room within this process for everyone. I was overwhelmed by the talent that walked through the audition room doors. We indeed, found ourselves within a room of actors, comedians, dancers, movers and shakers, because within each of us these qualities exist.
For auditions, we began by sitting in a circle and hashing out introductions. I gave everyone time to stretch and wake-up their bodies without the limitations of a prescribed warm-up. I thought that it would be better to start informally, since auditions can be a nerve-wracking event for actors and placing everyone in the same, relaxed state would encourage more honesty and less anxiety in scene work. I also used this time to tell them more about the play and what we (as the production team) were looking to do with it. I explained to those auditioning that it was just as important that they wanted to be cast that it is that we want to cast them. This is a project for which I want everyone to feel ownership and investment. From there, I told everyone that we were each going to tell a story. It could be true, false, funny, tragic, romantic, epic…anything at all, but they had to tell the story in 2 minutes. We each took turns standing and narrating. After everyone had gone around once, I asked them to tell their story again, but only with their bodies and a gestural vocabulary. I wanted to see how people translated their self-generated texts into movement, how comfortable they were in their bodies, how they naturally used their voice and gestures. I also wanted to create an atmosphere of mutual listening and ensemble: “I listened to your story and now you listen to mine.” This exercise in particular was important in determining who I saw as a possibility for a principal role and who would work better in a movement-based ensemble.
From here, we moved into sides for the script. I pulled independent monologues from each of the 4 characters instead of scene sides, so that I could get a good idea of independent performances before testing dynamics between actors. After each person read a side, I would then give them one of four statements I compiled before auditions. These statements were open-ended, and meant to leave a lot of space for different qualifiers and inflections. They were:
- It is my fate to be beautiful, it is my fate to be damned.
- I told you the story because you needed to hear it.
- I ran over your dog. It wasn’t an accident, but I’m sorry.
- It isn’t about being dead or not dead. Its about what you leave behind.
After allowing each performer to say it once in their natural inflection, I prompted them with different directions, such as: Say this as if you just explained to your young child where babies come from, let’s hear it as if you think this is the funniest thing in the entire world, or you have just had the shit kicked out of you, and this statement is the equivalent of your final swing at the opponent. I wanted to see how quickly each person could adapt to direction, and how far they were willing to push themselves. Also, I know from my own experiences auditioning that not everyone does well with cold readings, and I wanted to provide an outlet where text didn’t hinder a performance.
Before calling an end to the auditions, we also gave each person the opportunity to show us anything else that they thought would give me and my Assistant Director a better scope of their performance range. This could be a monologue, song, dance, or other special skill. While most people didn’t have anything prepared, we wanted to give them space to demonstrate a skill if they wanted to, and it definitely changed the tone of a few auditions. For instance, the actor we ended up casting as Tupolski had a hilarious cold-reading and found great humor and timing within the statement prompts. When we asked him at the end of his slot if he wanted to show us anything else, he concluded that he wanted to show us that he could be a serious actor as well as a comedian, and performed the first few stanzas of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven. This choice cemented him in the role of Tupolski for me – someone who could be so funny and aware of comedic timing but who could also hold the emotional weight that is required for such a dramatic, lyrical text.
After the second and final night of auditions, I felt overwhelmed by the task of whittling down so much talent to a list of names for callbacks. As I went over the list time and time again, taking a name of the list for this or that reason, I started gaining confidence and trust within the casting process. I realized that, yes, I did know what I was looking for in my cast, because I had already given so much thought to it over the last few months. Yes, there were tough cuts to be made but they were not personal, they were based out of the text that I was serving.
I had an “aha” moment as I looked over the names that remained: it became a puzzle that I knew I could solve but just required focus. I realized I had already cast certain people in my head and that they were the only people I had auditioned who could handle the roles I had chosen for them – furthermore I understood that I hadn’t chosen them because they were better than anyone else at auditions but because they were right for those parts. Thus, I decided to cast 3 of my 4 principals before callbacks – because I would’ve chosen them anyway and I didn’t feel like wasting anyone’s time, or leading other actors on.
Surprisingly for me, I used Viewpoints as a means of justification within casting. Katurian, in terms of movement quality, has to emulate an anchor – he has more weight onstage, he stays in one place. Ariel and Tupolski factor into this idea, with both of them qualified as orbiting Katurian, giving him gravity by granting themselves movement. Michal’s positioning onstage falls somewhere in-between these two qualities – heavy but meandering and never quite achieving stillness. These character projections were employed in my mind as physical, emotional, and verbal provocations. For examples – How is Tupolski physically circling Katurian, and does it create a predator/prey relationship? How does Michal’s language and dialogue meander as oppose to shoot straight?
Casting some of the roles before callbacks also meant that I could use my actors to finalize other casting choices by testing character dynamics. Since I had already cast Katurian, he was able to be there to read with the two actors I had settled upon for Michal, Katurian’s brother. The two brothers in the script require a specific familial dynamic, and I used this opportunity to ask the actor playing Katurian who he felt more comfortable onstage with. Luckily, me, my assistant, and our actor all felt similarly as to who should be the final principal actor.
Therefore, callbacks were almost entirely devoted to casting the storytellers, or the ensemble members that act out Katurian’s fairy tales. Before I go any further, I would like to state that I am still having trouble with the term “ensemble” to identify this part of the cast, because “ensemble” (and “chorus” for that matter), seem to give them a connotation of being the “others” within the cast, outside of lead roles. This is something that I plan on talking to my cast about, and allowing them to find a term by which they want to be identified. For callbacks, I started with check-in’s, mentioning that this will be a big part of our rehearsal process – I think its important to know how everyone is doing and where their heads are before starting work for the day, in order to understand other people’s physical and emotional limits. From here, I prompted them to pair-off and tell a non-verbal story between two people, using only their hands. They were not allowed to negotiate the narration or flow of the story by themselves, they were forced to create something together. This allowed me to see who could step up and facilitate a movement or idea while still listening and reacting to their partner. I then asked them to tell me what they saw within their stories. By the end, each pair had focused to the point that they were in agreement on their joint story.
After check-ins, I had 20 minutes of physical theater training as a warm-up – playing with music, movement, and call and response. Once we were more present in our bodies, we sat down and I read one of Katurian’s stories from the play, “The Pilllowman”. I then asked them to retell the story with their bodies. They could not talk to one another, but were encouraged to check in with their peers through eye contact. This exercise also began my directorial research in how to portray the pain and violence of these stories in a more abstract, graphic way. I already feel as if I have more ideas going into movement rehearsals than I did before seeing this improvisation. It is moments like this that allow me to see this process as something fluid and transformative instead of divorced and separated (between casting and rehearsals and showtime).
When I reflect on my experiences both at auditions and callbacks, I realize how much I’ve already learned about the script of “The Pillowman”. I’m already putting a heavy focus into the act of telling a story, which is a cornerstone of the piece as a whole. I haven’t assembled a cast of actors. I’ve found myself a group of storytellers, and with them, we are finding our own story.