Casting nightmares drove me to write Eat the Runt, a play that's recast every night. Quite often, playwrights write fascinating and specific physical descriptions of characters that make the play impossible to cast - especially if it is going to first be presented in a small theater.
So I've stopped writing plays like that. In Eat the Runt, I decided to create roles that any talented actor could play, regardless of age, ethnicity, or gender. This is not a play in which appearance doesn't matter. It is, in fact, almost entirely about appearance and identity, but is designed to give the director flexibility to cast the best actors available without regard to physical type. Or to choose physical types that heighten the excitement of the situations on stage.
The play is set in an art museum, a wonderful arena for exploring ethnicity, gender, and cultural issues of representation. It's based on a series of interviews I had for a job at a large encyclopedic museum, a job I was pretty certain I did not want. On the airplane I fantasized about sabotaging myself with each interviewer so that they'd reject me before I was put in the embarrassing position of rejecting the job. Ultimately, I opted to behave myself, but on stage I could be much bolder than in real life. In the play, the character Merritt lives out my fantasy, and manifests increasingly strange and contradictory behavior with each interview. My challenge was to figure out why Merritt would go to such extremes, which pushed the play into the realm of impersonation and lying. So it became meta-theatre, a play about acting.
I've always been fascinated by fluid identity. When I was growing up in the South, the closest bar to my high school was a drag bar, and I sat down in the dressing room one night to interview David as he transformed himself into Gypse La Frump, whose act was to give birth to a doll on stage and make paternity accusations while lip-synching "It Shoulda Been Me!" With a little make-up, some padding, and several layers of pantyhose, he changed his sex - in most peoples' minds - a basic aspect of identity. To me this was the ultimate in acting.
A few years later, productions of Caryl Churchill's gender-bending Cloud Nine and Tom Jacobson's The Glory of Her Sex inspired my own explorations of what it meant to be a woman or a man. In The Glory of Her Sex, a true story from the court of Louis XVI, the Chevalier d'Eon de Beaumont declares at the age of 35 that he is actually a woman, then calls for a revolution to obliterate gender altogether. To its way of thinking, gender shouldn't matter because its gender is nobody's business but its own.
But obviously gender does matter, even 200 years later, as do age and race. I was fortunate to see the first New York and Los Angeles productions of David Mamet's Oleanna, and experience the play quite differently in Los Angeles because of Mamet's insistence on a particular African-American actor for the role of the professor accused of sexual harassment. When the black professor tried to encourage the failing student by talking about his own struggle for respect, the confession generated audience sympathy. With a white actor in the role, the ploy seemed smug and fatuous. The same words, unchanged, had a very different meaning based entirely on the appearance of the speaker. Both interesting, both legitimate, but with almost the opposite emotional effect.
A joy and terror of live performance is that it changes from production to production, and even from night to night. Once released, most movies don't change. The words in novels and short stories remain the same, with the imagination of each reader influencing interpretation. Eat the Runt exploits the live nature of theatre by allowing each director to cast the ages, ethnicity and genders of his or her choice. For instance, the central sexual relationship of the play can be lesbian, gay male, or heterosexual.
The Mefisto Theatre Company production, directed by Peter Hawkins, takes the multiplicity inherent in Eat the Runt and squares or even cubes it. Peter, clearly out of his mind, has asked eight actors to each learn all eight roles. Every night the audience chooses which actors will play which characters.
Playwrights, unlike screenwriters, are legally blessed with the right to approve most elements of production, including director, designer and actors, as Mamet did with the Los Angeles production of Oleanna. Mefisto's Eat the Runt essentially throws casting approval out the window, or at least into the lap of the audience. Normally any loss of control over my work makes me anxious, but this leap into randomness thrills me.
Another clever move on the director's part is to cast the play with a fair degree of physical variety. The actors are all relatively young, but represent an interesting array of heights and weights, three or more ethnicity and at least two sexes. The mix-and-match possibilities are endless, which will completely change the dynamic of the seduction scene each night. In another key scene, the interviewee claims to be African-American, which is not perceived by the interviewer. The interviewee then torments the well-meaning but flummoxed interviewer with accusations of racism. This scene will have different a dynamic depending on whether the actor playing the interviewee appears to be black, Asian, or Caucasian. If the actor playing the confused interviewer is African-American, a completely different set of questions are introduced (Is s/he denying his/her own race? Is s/he really Jewish as s/he claims?). In either case, the scene plays with the idea that there is no scientific or genetic basis for the concept of race, and that no one can tell you what race you are or are not.
I'm terrified about what could happen on stage, and sometimes imagine the actors mouthing each others' lines throughout the play. Some of the random combinations will make literal sense, while others will hurtle the play into the realm of the absurd. But sometimes the greatest discoveries are accidents. This one's waiting to happen. Every night.
Eat the Runt performs Tuesday through Sunday evenings at 8 PM. Tickets are $35. For Ticket Reservations and Group Discounts call (212) 760-5940. TDF vouchers are accepted Tuesdays through Thursdays.
Visit the Mefisto Theatre Company website.
Photo: Damien Sandone
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