"Hello darling. Where did you come from?"
"You do that a lot, don't you? Why?"
Ready for lunch?
"I'm starved. I've been up talking about taking out a bus and truck of Arcadia. I think I could pull off Hannah, don't you?"
Only if Elaine Stritch plays Chloe.
"Since you're buying me a nice expensive lunch, I'll forgive you that comment."
"It's a natural for the smaller regional Performing Arts Centers; cheap prestige, easy to sell. Drema Paige is still a draw in the provinces. One performance each city. They shouldn't have too much trouble selling tickets."
It's not easy to cast.
"The kids, I know."
And on tour.
"Here's a cab. Glutton for punishment, that's me. Did I ever tell you about touring King in the late 50's? We thought we were being smart by carrying only three children. We were planning to pick up the rest in each town. Well . . ."
Drema Paige is an actress of the old school. This means that year in and year out, somewhere in the English-speaking world, she is on a stage, acting. At age 13 she made her professional debut in Elmer Rice's Street Scene. At 15 (having lied about her age) she toured for three years as Somerset Maugham's Sadie Thompson in Rain. Drema understudied Gertrude Lawrence in the original King and I, but never got to go on and left that show for another just before Lawrence's untimely death. Since then she has played Mrs. Anna, with a vengeance, in every state in the union. Her story about the 57 tour is rather droll, what with the fire at the orphanage and Tuptim giving birth on stage during the second chorus of "We Kiss in a Shadow," but I won't bore you with it.
Arcadia is a recent play by Tom Stoppard, which had a good season at the Beaumont in Lincoln Center a couple of years ago. Since then it has had a surprisingly active production history with Universities and aggressive little theater groups, due in no small part to its intellectually stimulating plot, which involves extensive references to the history of English landscape design, Lord Byron's personal life, Newton's inaccurate view of the universe, Chaos Theory, and lots and lots of sex. The program usually provided its audience is chock-full of lengthy notes, ostensibly present to insure the play is comprehensible. In reality, Arcadia's reputation as difficult to understand is undeserved and the program notes unnecessary as few playgoers have any problem at all understanding the sex.
Hannah Jarvis (the role Drema intends to play) is described as an author in her late thirties. Though at least twice this age, Drema probably can "pull it off." (Although there have been unpleasant rumors lately of her spending the hour before each performance writing her lines on various parts of the set and her own body, just to be safe.)
". . . and with only the one set we can book it into a truck stop and make money. Look at what they've been doing with Master Class."
Finish the wine?
"Just a coffee. I'm full. I don't know how they came up with lobster potpie, but it's delicious."
It's the sherry and truffle butter. Dessert?
"I'll just have a small bite of yours. The cheesecake looks good. So, what did you want to talk to me about?"
Auditioning young actors.
"Don't get me started."
What are the problems?
"Oh, God no! Give me a good old-fashioned stage-mother with a kid who projects some personality and we can get work done. It's the other type gives me heartburn."
The other type?
"You know. The kid who wants to act with parents who are scared shitless by the idea. The ones who are absolutely convinced that the theater is full of perverts eager to rape, abuse, and financially exploit their innocent child."
It's a legitimate concern. Those people are out there.
"Yes, and pretty much everyone knows who they are. So there's a sleazy side to the business. Big surprise."
You don't sound disturbed by the idea.
"I know what those parents are thinking. I'm a mother too. And they're right to be worried. I was playing a hooker when I was 15 and let me tell you those sleaze-balls were coming out of the woodwork to hit on me. But, thanks to my mother, I knew what was going on, I knew how to protect myself."
Tell me about your mother.
"She was a remarkable woman for the time. My father died when I was nine. She raised me in what we called genteel respectability. She didn't want me on the stage. When she realized I intended to be an actress in spite of everything, she had the exceptional common sense to sit me down and frankly discuss her misgivings. Especially about sex. I was shocked. But we talked and talked and I learned what I needed to know.
"That's what I do to this very day before I'll hire a kid with worried parents. I sit down with the kid and the parents and we get all of their misgivings out in the open. We talk about everything. What pisses me off is that I have to take my time to do it. They should be talking about these things long before I come into the picture."
Assuming the parents have been dealt with, then what do you look for? Talent?
"I wish. Maybe once or twice in a lifetime you'll run across a kid who instinctively understands what acting is all about and, more important, how to project a character. Hell, I was a working actress for twenty years before I figured it out. Remember when Shelley got her big break? She dragged me down to the Studio and I sat there for six months before I had any idea what in blazes was going on. They looked like a bunch of damn fools to me. Then one day what's his name. . . ."
Drema? Kids. Talent. What you look for?
"Oh, yes. No, most of the time you are forced to cast as close to the role as possible. No kid knows anything about acting. Most adults don't either. You just match the role and the kid's personality as close as you can and hope they remember the lines."
"Well, for Arcadia I'm looking for three kids. Chloe is your standard, silly, 18 years old ingenue. I want to run the tour for a year, so I'm looking for a girl in her early 20's (maybe a little older if she looks young enough) who can do embarrassment and indignation. She has a couple of funny lines, so a sense of timing wouldn't hurt. This one should be easy.
"I need a boy who looks 15 for both Gus and Augustus. It's a small double role and there's nothing particularly demanding about either part. All I'm looking for is a kid who can read the lines clearly and physically resembles the actors who play his brother and sister.
"Thomasina is the problem. She's a cheerful, thoughtful but uncomplicated, 13 year-old girl. What I want, and am going to have one hell of a time finding, is a 13 year old girl who can play a 13 year old girl."
I thought Thomasina was older. And a 13 year old girl looks about 9 on stage.
"She jumps to age 16 in the last scene, but that's just costuming, add a padded bra. It's still the same character. You're right about teenagers looking like very young children on stage. But I want to stay as close to 13 as possible. Anyway, Stoppard was very clever when he wrote the part. All of the lines (and there are lots of them) use the vocabulary, phrasing, and emotions appropriate to a 13 year old girl. Everything you need is right there on the page. If I can find a girl who can memorize the lines then get up on stage and say them naturally, I'll show you a performance to remember!"
So what's the problem?
"Any girl, at that age, who's taking an audition wants to act with a capital A. Everything has to be Camille!"
So you're saying the problem isn't finding kids who can act, it's finding kids who don't overact?
"That's about it. They need to know how to project their personality, or at least a personality."
What do you look for on a kid's resume?
"I'm not too impressed with professional credits, though they do indicate reliability. And a warning sign of ego problems. Film and television work, especially on a series, means that they are probably too expensive to use.
"What I like to see is involvement with some amateur or school theatrical group for at least a couple of years. That shows the kid is really interested and won't get bored and start causing problems three weeks into the tour."
"Several years ago I auditioned a kid, 15 or 16 years old, who wanted to act so badly that he had managed to start a small children's theater troop. They played birthday parties. That impressed me!
Did you hire him?
"On the spot. And several others have since. If you want to catch the matinee of Pimpernel, I'll point him out."
What sort of training do you look for?
"Well, in my opinion, acting classes before the age of 18 or 19 are pretty much a waste of time. The smart ones figure it out for themselves. Performance. That would have to be it. If they've been to college, hopefully it's one with a strong emphasis on performance. If they had the chance to work on three or four productions a semester, in whatever capacity, they're a lot better prepared than someone stuck in a classroom studying theory for four years."
And for the younger ones?
"The same thing. Performance. Little theater groups, drama clubs, whatever is available. Every minute spent on stage or behind the scenes working on a production pays off at some point. Look to see if they've worked on musicals rather than straight plays."
"The singing, the dancing, the dialogue where you have to land a point in just a couple of lines. The experience of performing before an audience. Musicals are a good context for a kid's natural exuberance. Even if it's, God forbid, the annual High School production of Oklahoma, it's worth it."
You don't like Oklahoma? The National's doing a revival in London.
"It's fine for what it is. All I'm saying is those High Schools that even attempt musicals pick from the same dozen or so shows year after year. Where are the challenge and relevance in the umpteenth production of Annie? True, Into the Woods is now a staple and you even see the occasional West Side Story. What I want to see is a High School production of Assassins, or Titanic, or. . . ."
"You can do it on a High School stage, believe me. Carousel would be a good choice. Company an even better one. Merrily We Roll Along, Pippin, Sweeney, even Passion would. . . ."
Passion? You can't be serious!
"Well, maybe that one is a few years off. But you show me a 16 year old girl who's done Fosca in no matter how bad an amateur production, and I'll show you an actress who's got a career in front of her!"
Drema, you're dangerous.
"I know. The Wing won't let me do their seminars any more."
No High School would attempt Passion.
"Maybe. The old days, when some English teacher got stuck with doing the senior play and did Brigadoon because that was the only live theater she'd ever seen, are over. Kids are getting pretty sophisticated. Most High Schools have a group of kids who know more about the theater than their teachers do. If they want to do a more adventurous show, all they need to do is make sure their teachers know what the show is all about."
And how would they do that?
"Tact. Don't be a smart-ass and try to show the teacher up. Say the kids want to do a production of Assassins or Merrily."
"Chances are that English teacher doesn't know either of them. Lend the teacher a copy of the cast recording and ask her opinion of it. When you've got a conversation going, show her Scott Miller's book. Ask her to read the chapter on Assassins or Merrily or whatever."
"That's it. The book is practically a blueprint of everything the teacher needs to know about the show. It could even be used as a teaching guide for classroom discussion of the production. Teacher saves face, kids get to do a show they want to do."
You've eaten all my cheesecake.
Scott Miller's From Assassins to West Side Story: The Director's Guide to Musical Theater, which includes chapters on Assassins, Cabaret, Carousel, Company, Godspell, Gypsy, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Into the Woods, Jesus Christ Superstar, Man of La Mancha, Merrily We Roll Along, Les Miserables, My Fair Lady, Pippin, Sweeney Todd, and West Side Story, is required reading for anyone planning a production of any of these shows. (It also can help you convince others that these shows can and should be done.) This book has proved so successful, Mr. Miller is currently working on another volume which will cover Anyone Can Whistle, The Ballad of Little Mikey (a show that's been done around the country but not yet in New York), Chicago, Jacques Brel, The King and I, The Music Man, Passion, Sunday in the Park with George, and possibly one or two others.
When asked if Passion is appropriate for a high school production, Mr. Miller said "I think it makes more sense than high schools doing Sweeney Todd, and yet I'm told some high schools are pulling Sweeney off pretty well. Passion is logistically easy, it's just that the characters and relationships are extremely complicated. The kids won't completely understand how Fosca and Giorgio feel, but that's the case with lots of "adult" musicals (I mean, do kids really know how Marion feels being branded an "old maid"?) I'd love to pass them my Passion chapter to give them a head start."
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From Assassins to West Side Story:
Mr. Miller can be reached at Chaz64@aol.com