Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Conflicted About Conflicts?

If you've seen my City of Angels audition preview video, you know the auditions are coming up fast. Since my focus has been on directing over the last couple of years, I've been thinking about one of those thorny little theater issues that always comes up when casting a community (read "unpaid volunteer") theater production - cast conflicts.

One of the biggest challenges whenever I direct a show is organizing the rehearsal schedule. Readers of this blog already know some of my view points about the actual lengths of rehearsal schedules. Obviously another big component of rehearsals is who can actually show up to which rehearsals. Which is why it's so important to fill in that space on the audition form asking for conflicts as thoroughly and accurately as possible. But is it realistic for directors to always expect there to be nothing written in that space? It may not be realistic, but it is real.

I think it's rare but there are directors who won't cast anyone with any conflicts - not even the very best performers who may have an interest in being in their show. Being on the other side of the audition table, I would agree that this probably makes life a lot easier in terms of organizing rehearsals. In the ideal world, cast members would push everything else in their lives aside and commit to being at 100% of rehearsals. But I also think in today's hectic world where our volunteer actors are also parents, workers, students and volunteers in other organizations, casting only "non-conflicted" performers could be cutting off our nose to spite our face.

The very best performers - many of whom may be perfect for a given role - may want to do your show but have a few scheduling conflicts. To not cast them because of that is short-sighted. After all, we have an obligation to the ticket-buying public to produce the very best productions we can. If we can put the best talent on that stage, the audience will never know which rehearsals an actor showed up to and which they didn't. Of course, if we can cast a show with great performers who don't have conflicts (which I'm convinced doesn't really exist) that is the ultimate way to go and you don't have to worry about passing over some other fantastic performer with kind of a crazy schedule. But we all know these "great" community theater performers are not a dime a dozen and may require some flexibility.

Of course, this can go too far. If there is a diva who might be great in a given role, but thinks the schedule, cast and crew should bend around his or her personal schedule, run away as fast as possible. This person will only cause headaches, tension, resentment and other problems throughout the entire process. Every member of cast and crew needs to have the same commitment to the process in order for the project to succeed . I would much rather cast an actor who may not be quite as technically outstanding, but who has the heart, commitment and good attitude to help make the show a success, over a diva with an attitude problem. But surely, having a conflict or two does not mean one is not committed to the project and a couple legitimate work, family or other previous commitments shouldn't automatically exclude an actor.

But is it fair for one actor to have a few conflicts when other cast members might not have any? I don't think it's realistic to think that every member of the cast would have the same conflicts, responsibilities and schedules. As long as the conflicts don't interfere with the other cast members' work or the rehearsal overall, it shouldn't be a problem. But this is also why it's so important to have this information ahead of time. So the director can plan accordingly and respect the cast's time and make the best use of it with whomever is supposed to be there. Open communication and honesty with the rest of the cast can also go a long way in resolving conflict challenges. When the cast feels respected, it is amazing how far they will go to reinforce the team spirit and work together. I recently had a situation where the actor I had cast as a lead in one of my shows found out shortly after being cast that he would be called out of town for a few days for work late in the rehearsal process. Rather than re-casting the role, I decided to communicate that to the cast at our very first read-through, telling them we would have this challenge. They were prepared for it - they picked up the slack, the actor was well-prepared and when he returned he picked up as if he hadn't missed a day.

But of course as any organizer knows the best laid plans can always get screwed up. Someone is always going to call in sick, be late or even drop the show. Be prepared, be patient and be flexible. This is supposed to be fun, remember?

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