THE LIVING Stage Theatre Company is a unique company with a power of improvisational theater that excites the artistic spirits in people rarely touched by live theater: the very young, the aged, the incarcerated and the disabled. Unlike a conventional theater company, Living Stage does not perform any full-length plays during its season. Therefore, because an actor does not audition for a specific role, each member of our company must be able to embody and draw upon a multitude of characters as our improvisational performances demand.
In the 17 years since I created Living Stage, I have auditioned approximately 10,000 actors. When I audition an actor I need to discover in a short time his or her artistic and humanistic point of view on such diverse subjects as children, education, love, parents, friends, war, oppression, poverty, freedom and fantasy. The actor must be able to translate his or her feelings and thoughts into a stark, economical and emotional moving form that will have a profound impact on the lives of our audiences.
Before coming to Washington and Living Stage, I was an actor in New York for 17 years, as well as a stage manager, director and producer. I learned early on that most auditions are "cattle calls," a name given by actors to the dehumanizing process of showing oneself off to the producer, director and casting agent, in hopes of getting a job. In conventional auditions, even those done with the intent of treating the actor with respect, little time is taken to investigate the actor's talents and skills. Worse still, these skills are often hidden beneath ill-prepared scenes and badly chosen material.
The audition process for Living Stage is quite different. It is designed to give the actor a workshop learning experience, so that even if the actor is not hired, he or she will have grown in skill and understanding of the relationship of the art of theater to all of life. I try to spend from 15 minutes to a half-hour with each actor, or I run a mini-workshop for 7 to 12 actors for 30 to 45 minutes. During this time, they create a character or characters, sing a song as that character and use their body as an abstract instrument of expression. Throughout this process, the actor must reveal the inner emotional and intellectual life of that character. After seeing up to a hundred people in one day, I make a decision as to whom I would like to see again. For the next three or four days, I work with a group of 15 to 20 actors, selecting after each full day of an eight-hour workshop the people I'd like to see back. By the end of the week there are perhaps five actors who are interested in working with us, and who have both the artistic and humanistic qualities we're looking for. In addition, the actors must be willing to make at least a two-year commitment to Living Stage.
These actors are then brought to Arena Stage, where Living Stage has its home, to spend three or four days in workshops with other members of the Living Stage Theatre Company. Finally, a day of talking ensues before we're ready to make our decision. This process has been honed over the years so that even when an actor is not hired, his or her response invariably is that it's been a pleasure to have worked so hard, so long and to have learned so much.
If actors are to regain their positions as queens and kings of the theater, then they must be allowed and encouraged to show who they are and what they are capable of creating. When I hear of "audition anxiety" I weep and rage. It is the responsibility of those who are conducting the auditions to create a climate that actively encourages the actor to live out of his or her artistry without fear.
Twenty or so years ago, Carl Weber, a director from the Berliner Ensemble, came to America to direct a play in New York. When casting, he took 20 to 30 minutes with each actor. Asked with great astonishment and shock by American producers and directors how he could afford to give so much time to each actor, Weber replied, "How can you afford not to?"