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Finding The Actors

( Originally Published 1938 )

EVEN AFTER YEARS of experience the director will make mistakes in casting. He will deceive himself about some prospective actor; he will mistake personality for acting ability, only to find, after two weeks of rehearsal, that the candidate he has chosen cannot act at all. Then, seeing clearly his error, he condemns himself for his stupidity. He tries to find consolation in the thought that he has learned his lesson. But in all probability he has not learned his lesson. Personality, an ability of certain people to project themselves, will deceive the director year after year. The beginning director, when he makes his first casting mistakes, may find comfort in the knowledge that others with far more experience also make casting mistakes.

The unimaginative beginner sometimes decides to give a play without having a thought as to whether or not he will be able to find actors capable of acting the play. The more cautious but still inexperienced director asks the question, "Shall I choose my play to fit the actors, or can I hope to find actors after I have chosen the play? Just what am I supposed to do?" The intelligent and experienced director knows that he must have some of his available acting material in mind when he considers a play, and he sets out to find a certain play which will not only be appropriate for his audience and well suited to his stage, but will be within the capacities of his acting group.

It may be that the director has three or four actors who can play three or four different kinds of parts effectively; and, as he considers various plays, he at length chances upon one which will give several of these actors an opportunity. Or, as he starts to read a play he may have no actors in mind, but, as he continues, he sees one or several of the characters being acted by particular individuals. With some degree of truth we may say that he chooses the play and the actors, at least for some of the important parts, simultaneously.


The ordinary method of finding actors, the traditional procedure that is presumed to give the director his cast for the play, is called a tryout. The director may do some casting from among actors he has used in former plays, he may cast from his classes in acting, he may find out an actor's capacity for a part in an interview; but the tryout is the generally accepted method.

The tryout, to be reasonably serviceable, should be based upon two sound premises: first, that the director knows exactly what he wants and can see in the actors the capacity to give him what he wants; and second, that the amateur actor, who frequently approaches the tryout without very much experience, can show the director his acting capacity. As a matter of fact, few untrained directors can read a play and gain a clear idea of the characters, of what an actor has to possess in order to portray a character, of whether or not an actor, in a tryout, is going to do ultimately what must be done with the part. And many actors, because of inexperience, nervousness, or slowness of comprehension, do not show up well in tryouts.

Our theater can learn a lesson from our athletic departments, in this matter of selecting material. An athletic di-rector does not, on the afternoon of September tenth, line up his football candidates, ask them to kick the ball, to run with it, to tackle, to form interference (especially if some of these men have never handled a football before), and then the next morning post on the bulletin board the names of the eleven men who will start in the first game on the first of October. He knows better. And we should know bet-ter. We are presuming upon a sense of judgment beyond our director's capacity and upon a power of expression beyond the abilities of most of our actors.

The reasons for tryouts are obvious and even logical. First, the spirit of democracy still rules in America, tryouts are democratic, and our natural impulse is to be democratic and give everyone a chance. Second, since nearly everyone thinks he can act, the candidates come to the tryouts without inhibitions and without timidity; they believe they can do well. Third, since we haven't the length of time to give the play and its casting a suspended judgment, we must choose our actors hastily and get to work on rehearsals at once. The tryout seems to fit our emergency and so we continue to use it.

The tryout system is established, and perhaps we ought to make it as effectual as we can. Ordinarily, if the play we are considering is to be given a public presentation to which admission is charged, the director should not, after several hasty private readings of the play, simply ask the candidates to read the different parts and choose his cast on the basis of what little he knows about the play and what little he learns about the actors at this tryout. If it is at all possible, he should know something about his candidates before they come to him for the tryout. The actors, in turn, should know something about the play; they should have had it read and explained to them at least. And during the tryout the director should work with the actors, putting them at their ease, determining whether they are flexible, responsive to suggestion, and capable of some give and take in reading the scene.

As a preliminary to the tryout for specific parts in a specific play, a general tryout is very helpful. The director, let us hope, has in mind the important qualifications desirable in an actor. He knows that the actor needs body language, at least to the extent of a control of the body and the ability to express simple ideas through bodily movement; that he should have some imagination and a normal intelligence; that he should be able to express emotion through both body and voice; that he should possess an acceptable voice and speak the English language with some degree of correctness.

The performance of a pantomime and the reading of a simple passage of prose or verse will reveal whether or not the prospective actor possesses all, or some, or none of these prerequisites. If the director will sketch a simple panto-mime and ask the candidate to fill it out and present it, he can determine fairly accurately whether the actor has any bodily language, whether he possesses imagination and intelligence, and whether he knows what is meant by the expression of emotion. If he is asked to read the simple passage, he will reveal the quality of his voice, and his intelligence or ignorance of his mother tongue.

But after all, such a testing of the candidate's qualifications has a negative rather than a positive value. It eliminates, quite effectively, those who have no capacity for acting; for if a certain candidate is awkward or hasn't control of his body, if he cannot express emotion, if he has an unpleasant vocal quality and doesn't speak clearly, the director is justified in his conclusion that the candidate will prove a liability rather than an asset on the stage; at least at present, he is not ready for a public appearance.

But the candidate who passes the test, who does possess the necessary qualifications even to a marked degree, may not turn out to be an actor. He may be able to do these exercises as assigned but may be unable to coordinate mind, body, and feeling into a character unit; he may turn out to be an individualist who will never be able to become a member of the team, cooperating with others, fitting himself as a unit into the larger unit; he may be an exhibionist; or he may be a "reader," not an actor at all, and, incidentally, a clever reader may, with his experience and knowledge, make a very good impression in a general tryout.

Therefore, about all a director gains from a general tryout is a knowledge of those candidates who cannot act. From this knowledge he can separate his group into those who are hopeless and those who show some promise. Now he can take his promising material and try out the successful candidates for the specific play, taking care, as we have suggested, to give them an understanding of the play and its characters and working with them during the tryout.

We have proceeded upon the assumption that the director, and not a committee or some individual other than the director, has charge of the casting. It should be unnecessary to defend this assumption were it not for the remarkable fact that a casting committee is sometimes assigned the responsibility of selecting the cast. For an exposition of what this sort of casting means, we may again find material in the conduct of the athletic coach and his team. The coach does not choose an English professor, administrative official, superintendent of buildings, and the dean of men, and ask this group to select the team which will play against the rival college on the following Saturday. The idea of his doing such a thing is absurd. He would resign rather than submit to it. Yet, occasionally, we do this absurd sort of thing in our amateur theaters.

Imagine, for example, a director with clear, definite ideas about his characters and his plans, such as were necessary for our analysis of the Hamlet scene in the earlier chapter; imagine him turning over the casting of the parts to one or several individuals who, perhaps, know Hamlet only as readers or members of the audience, and nothing about the director's problems and ideas concerning the play; and imagine what would happen if these individuals chose the actors according to their conceptions of the characters, and the poor director then had to try to direct the play according to his conception of the characters. It would be dangerous enough if the casting were done by an assistant or fellow-director with whom the whole plan of the production had been studied thoroughly. Surely, as the definite and difficult task of directing becomes clear, it will be more and more obvious that the director himself is the one to select the cast.

We have expressed a number of admonitions and offered several suggestions without revealing the way in which the director can, with confidence, find the proper actors to act in the play. It is doubtful whether any such revelation can be made. The tests we have explained have some value, but they are far from infallible; and the director who has to cast a play from unknown material must be prepared to accept the mistakes he may make. Experience alone will increase his confidence and lessen his mistakes.

There may be, here and there, a rare director gifted with an intuition something like that of a great detective who can "sense" an actor as readily as the detective senses the criminal. Most directors do not possess this rare gift; most of us have to acknowledge that we know no magic, no swift and sure formula which will reveal the acting candidate as wholly capable of acting a part. Once more we may turn to our athletic department for suggestion and precedent. The coach takes his raw material and works with it day after day. He studies it. Under his guidance some men learn to kick and tackle and carry the ball successfully; others do not. After several weeks of work and study with his squad, he is in a position to make a judgment regarding which men are going to play in the game and which men are going to remain on the side lines.

The director is in much the same position as the coach. He has material, but he doesn't know what it can do; it is inexperienced and untrained; in most instances it is only material with promise unfulfilled and potentiality unrevealed. So, he must work with it. He must train it. He must see whether or not it responds to his training. Then, after the training period, he may be able to say, "This man can act and that one cannot."

Experience, we repeat, makes the director's work surer and easier. He is not so enthusiastic over a striking personality, nor is his sense of judgment blurred by a charming voice. He learns some things. He becomes more clever. But he must still be prepared for making mistakes.

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