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  • To Be or Not to Be Cast

    Joy Dickson's role as OSF casting director combines juggling with completing puzzles
  • Here's a question more than one playgoer has pondered: How do they ever get the right actors in the right roles for all those plays?
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  • Here's a question more than one playgoer has pondered: How do they ever get the right actors in the right roles for all those plays?
    A season at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival involves a repertory company of 60 actors — not to mention guest artists, trainees, youth performers, dancers and musicians — in 11 plays in three theaters with 800 performances spread over an eight-month season.
    To further complicate matters, an actor ideally has roles in two plays and understudies a third.
    "That's the huge puzzle," says OSF Casting Director Joy Dickson. "Some shows work with others, and others don't."
    But there's a handy helper. Dickson and the other members of OSF's casting team refer to a document known as the "conflict list."
    If an actor is in, say, "The Tempest," a glance at the list will reveal that the show's schedule will permit her to be in certain other shows, and make it impossible for her to be in others.
    Still, casting is a complex process.
    "If you move one puzzle piece, it's a domino effect," Dickson says. "That's what we do in May, June and July. We work on putting actors in certain shows for the following season."
    The OSF likes actors to play two roles that differ widely from each other. Actor John Tufts, for example, in 2012 played the title role in Shakespeare's "Henry V" and Chico Marx in "Animal Crackers."
    "It's a great challenge for the actors and exciting for the audience," Dickson says. "Sometimes you can't put people in the two shows you'd like."
    Dickson, 52, has spent seven seasons as the OSF's casting director. She is also a member of the OSF's casting team along with Artistic Director Bill Rauch, Associate Producer Mica Cole, Director of Company Development Scott Kaiser and Associate Artistic Director Christopher Acebo.
    "We work as a team," Dickson says. "Bill has the final say."
    Dickson and her then-casting partner, Nicole Arbusto, started working for the OSF from Los Angeles in 2007. Dickson gradually spent more and more time in Oregon and moved to Southern Oregon in 2010.
    Dickson went to Smith College and got interested in the casting process when she read an article in the New York Times about Juliet Taylor's work casting Woody Allen movies. After college she worked for a casting director who did such big-budget films as Michael Douglas' "Black Rain."
    She wound up being paid by producers to see plays almost every night in New York City, looking for plays that might make good movies. When her boss moved to Los Angeles, she went along, and soon became partners with a college chum in her own casting business, working with such theaters as the Mark Taper Forum, the Geffen Playhouse, Seattle Rep, Berkeley Rep, the Goodman Theatre, Portland Center Stage, the Pasadena Playhouse, Cleveland Play House and others, as well as casting for television and independent films.
    These days her contract at OSF keeps her busy right through November, or about a month after the OSF season ends.
    "We start casting usually May-ish in L.A.," she says. "Then I come up to Ashland. Bill meets with the actors, and we work on the next season. Right now we're working on 2015."
    The search for the right actors begins with the OSF's acting company. Offers for parts go out in mid-July, and actors have until the end of the month to accept or decline. OSF actors work on a one-year contract.
    "Once that happens, then we have a better idea of what we need for next season," Dickson says.
    As the search broadens, Dickson in August starts going to look for actors in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Chicago, Minneapolis. There's also an annual trip to New York City. Now that the festival is doing musicals, there's a need for actors who sing and dance.
    The guest directors for an upcoming season typically come to see the current year's actors and the shows they're in, generally in mid-May to June, seeing as many actors as they can. The guest director likely has a certain concept for the play. If there's not an actor in the OSF company that seems to fit, the search expands.
    "Sometimes we'll make an offer to an actor we know," Dickson says. "We like to bring back actors who are not in the company now but may have been several seasons ago. Like Dan Donohue for this year's 'Richard III,' or Nancy Rodriguez in 'Water by the Spoonful.' We don't need to audition somebody for that part if it's an actor we know."
    In the case of "Richard III," the guest director, James Bundy, knew Donohue's work.
    Another option in casting is tapes that actors create to show their work. Still other roles may be pre-cast, that is, an actor has signed to play a part before work on a play even begins. An example is Jack Willis (name corrected), who played President Lyndon B. Johnson in 2012's "All the Way" and is playing him again in this season's "The Great Society."
    Dickson says one part of the OSF's casting process may be unique: a "wish list" that actors fill out indicating roles they'd like to play.
    "That's where we start," Dickson says. "Bill meets with every actor for 15 minutes. We can't always give them the roles on their list, but we refer to them. It says a lot about Bill and the way he works."
    Alejandra Escalante, who plays Meg in "A Wrinkle in Time," expressed an interest in the part, met with director and adapter Tracy Young, auditioned, and got the role.
    Dickson says there wasn't an actor in the OSF company who was right for the title character in Lorraine Hansberry's "The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window." So the team ended up going outside the company to find Ron Menzel, who is known for his work at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. She'd seen him act and thought he'd be perfect. When she finally found him he sent tapes to OSF, and a deal was made.
    As non-traditional or color-blind casting has spread in recent times, audiences have grown used to seeing, say, an Anglo actor, a Hispanic actor and an African-American actor playing sisters. Dickson says that's a result of simply not limiting choices to specific ethnicity.
    "If we're doing 'Hamlet,' you know, not everybody has to be white," she says. "Actors of color can go into any show.
    "We knew we didn't have enough Latina actors in company for "The 10th Muse" last year, so we had to go outside the company," she says. "Other times we like to cast non-traditionally, like a woman playing a man's role."
    Dickson says her biggest challenge is finding actors with not only acting ability but the skill set for a particular play, including such talents as singing and dancing or a facility with Shakespeare.
    Sometimes it's hard to get actors to commit to 10-month contracts.
    "Agents and managers don't want them leaving town for that long," she says.
    The casting team may cast 150 to 175 roles in a season. More often than not, actors seem to wind up in roles they're suited for.
    "It does amaze me," Dickson says. "But it has so much to do with the range of the actors. If you saw Judith-Marie Bergan in "August: Osage County," compared with some of her other roles, it speaks to the range of the actors."
    She says she knows that not every show can be perfect.
    "But it's great when everybody's right on the money."
    Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.
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