Agony seemed to have been one of Jean-Paul Sartre’s personal specialties but he may have been on target about acting. The New Conservatory Theatre is doing the final casting for my play, “Waiting for Giovanni,” which explores a moment of indecision in the life of queer writer/activist James Baldwin and I’ve had the privilege of sitting in on the sessions. It’s like having ringside seats at a very intimate moment.
Back in the day I worked as stage manager for mass auditions at the New York Shakespeare Festival and other theatres in NYC known, unfortunately, as ‘cattle calls.’ Usually I’d sit, with the director, several yards away from the actors which always made them look rather small. But the aura of the work they could do was unmistakable.
At New Conservatory the auditions are in a small studio about the size of a nice living room; it’s a place that retired set pieces come to live, including two first class airplane seats, refugees from a production. The actors are up close and personal and some of the characters they’d be playing are known quantities, not total abstractions. Even though the play is set in Baldwin’s mind and is not meant to be biographical it must be daunting to know the audience has a real idea of who your character looks and sounds like.
Once the director asked the actor auditioning for the role of playwright Lorraine Hansberry to sing something bluesy and I could see her expression flit through so many thoughts it both revealed and concealed. Who of us has ever heard Hansberry sing? How to portray the women who wrote “Raisin in the Sun” as a full character (not just a name in the news) in 3 minutes?
To act is to think and feel—sometimes difficult for any of us to do at the same time without someone looking and judging. This actor turned back inside herself to find the connection between what she knows about Hansberry and what the song might feel like. Somewhere in the space between skill and anxiety tension builds and a performance is sparked with the energy that will make it unforgettable.
Last week I watched two actors, one already cast and the other a hopeful, play what I consider a difficult concept to portray successfully on stage—drunkeness. So many playwrights can’t resist it; myself included. So how to put onstage such a strange and usually unattractive state and have the characters still hold the audience’s sympathy and keep the lines comprehensible? These two guys were magnificent and funny and touching…actually it was the touching that worked.
They were playing Baldwin and his brother, David, and they went to the heart of that kind of relationship…brothers are comfortable with each other. They do touch…push, hug, nudge. They both captured that sensibility which made the moment magical.
So much of an audition for the director is identifying what potential an actor has. It’s thrilling when you see one take in a new idea then interpret it using vocal intonation and physical gestures right there in the moment, with so little preparation. I’d have to be drugged and hypnotized to try such a thing!
But actors…we see so many of them we take acting for granted. That guy playing the doorman on ‘Law & Order’ or the lead in the Broadway production that comes to SF or anyone cast in Shakespeare at Ashland—they are all doing the same work and when they do it well we can’t actually tell they’re acting.
As the playwright my job is to not only imagine their potential but to also let go of some of what I’ve had in my head as I’ve been writing. Of course I know what Baldwin and Hansberry looked and sounded like. But they’ve also taken on another resonance as I’ve been creating the play. But with actors embodying the parts I must re-imagine the characters with the life force and skills the actors bring. It’s a whole new ball game.
My play goes up at New Conservatory Theatre Center on August 19th and if you’re curious about the progress visit the show blog: http://waiting4giovanni.blogspot.com. We’re still looking for one actor; I know we’ll find him. And I can hardly wait to see what happens when Lorraine sings.
Jewelle Gomez is the author of 7 books including the lesbian vampire classic novel, The Gilda Stories. Her new play about James Baldwin will be produced in September 2011. Follow her on Twitter: VampyreVamp. Or her website: www.jewellegomez.com