Maximum security casting

Feb 7, 2011   //   by Kate Powers   //   Director's Notebook, Incarcerated performers

I was surprised, schooled and humbled by casting Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts, which I am directing under the auspices of Rehabilitation Through the Arts (RTA) at Sing Sing Correctional Facility.  It was not unlike casting a grad school production in the sense that it wasn’t about casting the best man for each role, per se, but about marrying relative rightness for the part with an assessment of where each man is in the work on himself.  Is he ready for this challenge?  Is he due for an opportunity?  On what level did he participate last time around?

Asked what role he would like to play in the production, S said, “My one goal is to continue this most recent form of happiness.  Apart from the birth of my daughter, nothing has meant so much to me as making theatre. Any role you give me will be rewarded by my commitment.”  Now I actually know what ‘breathtaking’ means.

The auditions

Men ironed their state greens, put on dress shirts, freshly braided or combed their hair in preparation for auditions.  The hands of these nominally ‘hardened’ individuals shook with anxiety when they came in to read scenes from the play with me.  I work hard to dispel some of the nervous energy in an audition environment; I get up, I shake hands, I try to make some jokes or ask some questions to ease the tension.  As ever, there was not enough time to spend with each person in his audition, but I asked them to read bits and snatches of the text a second or a third time, in the hopes of dissolving the anxiety and getting to the heart of the scene or the beat.  Sometimes it worked.

The RTA steering committee at Sing Sing is comprised of five men chosen by the membership of the group; they select the plays (with some input and guidance from RTA facilitators like me) and they draft the rules under which RTA functions.  These are guys who have participated in the program for a number of years; they are role models for the newer members of the group.  They feel very strongly that RTA works best when new men ‘pay their dues’ before they play lead roles; the steering committee has devised a kind of apprenticeship within RTA where a new participant learns the various backstage roles and responsibilities, works crew on a production, and participates in classes and workshops before he can be cast in a production.

A dilemma

With Superior Donuts, one young man seemed perfect to play the role of Franco, the young African-American man filled with big ideas and great hopes, who bursts into Arthur Przybyszewski’s slipping-down donut shop.  And indeed, his audition was great, full of big choices, energy and enthusiasm.  Out in the world, I would have cast him without reservation.  But he is new in this past year to RTA and I felt I had to ask the steering committee about casting him.  They all agreed that he would probably rock the part, but they nonetheless felt that he had to wait, that the RTA community functions best when they adhere to these guidelines.  (What I find fascinating is that they didn’t model this rule after a conservatory program; they minted this policy themselves, after years of trial and error.)

The second best candidate for the role of Franco is a guy who has been a member of RTA for a number of years.  I’ll call him T.  T shows up to classes and workshops consistently, although he doesn’t always participate once there.  He is respectful and attentive, but sometimes he has had to be drawn out.  He had a very small role (there really are small roles, whatever people say) in last year’s production.  But at his audition, he had memorized the scene and he made some leaps.  Normally, I counsel actors not to waste their time memorizing for an audition because I don’t want to see that you can memorize; I want to see that you can make bold choices, but T memorized the scene as a way of conveying his commitment to do the work.  He gave a good audition, too; he wasn’t as ‘right’ for the part as the first young man, but he was ready to step up his game.  He had earned it.

So T is playing Franco.  (Thus far, he is doing great work, too.)

Making the offers

After I’d discussed my choices with the steering committee, I walked back down the hallway of the ancient Sing Sing schoolhouse to where the company waited.  I suddenly realized that even more than out in the world, my casting choices were going to cause some happiness and some disappointment.  Sitting on the desk at the front of the room, as I looked at the assembled members of RTA, instead of rattling off my casting choices, I began to ask them, one by one, “S, will you please play the role of James?  B, will you please play Arthur?”  The men applauded one another as I asked.

It’s a survival tactic in there to keep your emotions well concealed ─ which can be exasperating when trying to make theatre ─ so it was challenging to read the expressions of the freshly cast, to see if they were pleased.  But it was painfully easy for me to see the quick flash of disappointment in the eyes of the men who did not get cast.  It weighed heavily on me that I was adding a fresh disappointment to lives that are already seriously burdened with regret.  At the same time, it is part of the process of achievement in this life that one experiences setbacks, and RTA is about developing life skills even more than it is about making theatre.

All the members of RTA are welcome to attend rehearsals; a lot of guys come for the companionship, the discussion, the ideas, the sense of community.  I encourage everyone to participate in the discussion, whether they are cast or not, but I’ll talk more about rehearsal in another post.

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