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Casting About

More Than 100 Hopefuls. Three Weekends of Auditions. Just a Handful of Parts.

Photos by Christopher Myers
TREADING THE BOARDS: Ian Bellknap and Molly Moores audition for the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival
MANY ARE CALLED, BUT FEW ARE CHOSEN: Auditioners mill about St. Mary's Outreach Center as Quenton Novick (seated at center) waits for his turn.
IF ONLY I COULD REMEMBER MY NAME: Two hopefuls rehearse a scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream.
THE CASTING PEW: (from left) Baltimore Shakespeare Festival's Raine Bode, Kimberley Lynne, and Laura Hackman decide who's in and who's out.

By John Barry | Posted 3/1/2006

The head shot looks great. She’s tall, poised, and the dress is perfect—not too casual. The high heels look great, but she takes them off so she can move around the stage more easily. She makes creative use of available props by pulling a bench from the wings. But what really sets her apart from the other auditioners is the brief pause before she begins, as if to say, When I’m onstage, I control the clock.

After several seconds, she picks an audience—she’s not eyeballing the three directors seated out in the house; she’s talking directly to King Richard, about the Duke of Gloucester. After several renditions of Kate from Taming of the Shrew, a monologue from Henry V’s Margaret is a welcome change of pace.

Can you not see? or will ye not observe

The strangeness of his alter’d countenance?

With what a majesty he . . .

Halfway through the third line she stops.

“Would you mind if I try that again? I’m sorry”

She tries again, and stops at exactly the same point.

Tony Tsendeas, one of the three directors, gets up and tells her, in an avuncular way, to try again in a half-hour, just to keep the confidence level up.

It’s a minor meltdown. She returns a half-hour later, completes the speech, and leaves. But a general audition is like figure skating: one slip and you can’t win. But the more times you fall, the less afraid you become. As an aspiring actor, there are far worse places to fall on your butt than Baltimore.

By about 11 a.m. on this Saturday morning in January, actors are streaming in and out of the side entrance of the gray-stone St. Mary’s Outreach Center in Hampden, once a church and now home of the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival. Production manager Kimberley Lynne sits waiting for them at a card table outside the main stage area, checking off their names and confirming audition times. There are 119 names on the list for the seasonal auditions—some are no-shows, and a few extras have turned up without warning. Actors mill in the hallways, prep themselves, converse in low tones, and wait for their calls. Every four or five minutes, the door opens. One actor leaves, another wanders in.

The list of auditioners samples a cross section of area actors. It includes entourages from Towson, Howard, and Catholic universities. There are also local legends of community theater, drama professors looking for a little extra work, and parents who put their acting careers on hold for their children. There are a few child actors who’ve just gotten the bug. There are a significant number of Screen Actors Guild members, and actors affiliated with the stage actors’ union, Actors’ Equity Association. It’s not the big time, but in Baltimore, if you want to be a professional actor, it’s what you’ve got. The Baltimore Shakespeare Festival’s seasonals are tailor-made for actors testing the waters, offering brief windows of opportunity for actors to advance and gain experience.

Three shows are slated at the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival for this season. Desdemona, by Paula Vogel, is a feminist variation on Othello, involving a potty-mouthed woman who is not just cheating on her husband but also sleeping with other women. The Compleat Works of Wllm Shkspr, to be directed by Tsendeas, is a montage of Shakespearean plays. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the big summer crowd-pleaser, scheduled to go up July 7-23, four days a week, for a total of 12 performances, outdoors, in the verdant (although occasionally soggy) gardens of the Evergreen House in North Baltimore.

Baltimore Shakespeare Festival is a professional theater company, but it hasn’t been so for long. As a “level two” Actors’ Equity theater since 2003, it pays Equity actors about a third as much as Baltimore’s other professional theaters, Center Stage and Everyman Theatre. Equity actors are paid $198 a week at BSF, but they don’t necessarily do it for the money. To keep getting heath insurance as a member of Actors’ Equity, an actor has to spend at least 20 weeks a year working on Equity jobs. Six or seven weeks at Baltimore Shakespeare Festival is a significant boost in that direction. Nonunion actors get paid a smaller stipend, in the range of $100 a week.

Here’s where it gets tricky for BSF. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is budgeted for five Equity parts and eight nonunion parts. It’s up to director Laura Hackman to decide which parts go to Equity actors, and which go to the nonunion professionals. Since actors can only join the union after 50 weeks of professional experience at Equity-approved theaters, and must work 20 weeks a year to maintain their union status, Equity members are usually more committed and consistent. Nonunion actors, however, are sometimes just as talented and every bit as hungry.

Many of the actors walking across the parking lot to the theater inside the St. Mary’s facility are in a sort of professional limbo. They’re not go-for-broke actors who spend several hours a day lining up for cattle calls in New York. They’re not the tightly knit, dedicated core of the local community theater who have learned to juggle evening rehearsals and day jobs. Although many of the actors here today have been seen onstage with the Vagabond Players or at Fells Point Corner Theatre, few are supporting themselves by acting. Many are flirting with the idea of going professional—at least to give it a try.

At the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, aspiring actors get a few more minutes to prove themselves in front of local directors than they might at one of the seasonal auditions hosted by the Baltimore Theatre Alliance. And it’s certainly far more of an opportunity to hone audition technique than one might get in the crushing routine of New York cattle calls, which are notorious for their 60-second windows of opportunity.

Hackman lived and worked in New York for several years after graduating from Towson University with a bachelor’s in theater in 1990 and a master’s in directing from Catholic University in ’98. “In New York I had friends who would have index cards and would write down all the auditions they have for the next month on file cards, so that they had four index cards,” she says. “They’d wake up at 6 in the morning so they can wait in line, then they run over to another place, and wait in line for their number—if they got one gig out of 30 auditions, it was good.”

Hackman says she has directed more than 30 plays, many of them in Baltimore during her five years with the Shakespeare Festival. At least if you melt down in Baltimore, she notes, you’re doing it among friends.

“I always end up talking to the actors,” she says. “It shouldn’t just be, ‘I come in, show you what I can do, you grade me, and then I leave.’ You know, theater in and of itself is about the human experience, but it’s so hard to make those connections in the audition process. It takes a very strong person to get rejected or not cast constantly.”

The lights on the stage are painfully bright. At the end of each monologue, the actors squint and wait for the first questions from the directors.

“Are you comfortable with lewd and vulgar language?”

All the actors answer in the affirmative.

“What’s your favorite curse word and why?”

Raine Bode, director of the BSF’s production of Desdemona, says she asks the question because the play is a fairly salty variation on Othello. It’s also a test to see what happens when the actors are thrown a curve ball. She wants to know, in essence, whether “cunt” will go trippingly off the actors’ tongues. The ideal answer to the question is a flow of expletives or, better yet, the C-word, but most of the answers fall short of that:

“I’ve recently liked the word ‘balls.’”

“Zounds.”

“Shit.”

“Fuck—fuck, all the way.”

“I try not to curse, but if I do, it’s fuck—all or nothing.”

“Goddamn it. I’m in a church, aren’t I? Sorry.”

“Twat.”

“It’s the C-word. Cunt.”

“Fuck. I don’t know why, but I say it a lot.”

“Damn. Because I have two little kids. If I say fuck a lot, I’m in trouble.”

“Asshole. You can use it in a way that really means something.”

“Fuck. It’s hard, it’s rough, when I say it, I can feel my teeth and lips . . . coming.”

“Blimey.”

“Cocksucker. There’s no equivalent. It really works.”

“Shit. Why shit? It encompasses a whole range of things.”

“I like merde. I can say it in front of teachers. Unless it’s a French teacher.”

“Cunt-rag. One night when we were drunk on Halloween, waiting for a woman friend, my boyfriend at the time used the word. I really liked it.”

Another question, always implied: What makes you so special? The answer to that is usually saved for the bottom of the résumé, where areas of specialization and special skills are listed.

“Can go cross-eyed on command.”

“Expert at the espresso machine.”

“Can walk on stilts.”

“Bullwhips. Novice fire-eater. Kayaking.”

“Can drive manual shift.”

“Ultra marathoner.”

“Can burp on command.”

“I.Q. 140.”

 

Some of the actors fall neatly into aspiring-thespian stereotypes. Quenton Novick is tall and blond. He graduated recently from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and lives in Washington, and his résumé is still fairly unformed, highlighted by a few independent movies and several college performances. He makes some money modeling, which helps pay for head shots, which can run to hundreds of dollars for many actors.

“In Washington, it’s almost impossible to get auditions, unless you’ve already been in plays and people know who you are,” Novick says, “Of course, it’s impossible for people to know who you are if you never get to audition. So heading up to Baltimore is worth the trip.”

Standing on a chair at center stage, he delivers a flamboyant recital of the St. Crispins Day speech from Henry V. It works. As he heads back to the hallway, his résumé goes into the callback folder.

Like most auditioners, Novick isn’t all that happy with his performance. “It’s a long speech,” he says. “I had to cut it back to stop them from turning off the lights on me.” He decided to tackle the bravura monologue because he’d recently seen Kenneth Branagh’s film version of Henry V, but he wonders if it was a little over the top.

Then there’s Mark Cairns. He’s a little older and lives near Philadelphia, but says he’s willing to make the commute if he gets a part. He’s a thin, tightly built man in his early 30s, with intense, almost Clint Eastwood-esque blue eyes. He seems a little distant from the college students who are hanging around shooting the breeze. His résumé mentions that he’s recently retired from the Navy and is a Gulf War veteran.

“I worked with the chemical and biological weapons brigade,” Cairns says. “If they’d used those weapons, we would have been the ones out there with funny suits. But they didn’t, so we spent most of our time training.”

He started acting a little late in life, after a career in the Navy as an environmental engineer. “I don’t know exactly how I started getting interested,” he says. “I went to a few plays, and I thought the delivery was a little flat, and I decided I could do it better. And I did.”

Cairns says he’s been working “paid gigs” for about a year and a half, and he’s working toward his Equity card. He thinks his career is already off to a decent start. About a year and a half ago, he won a role in a Philadelphia production of Frank McGuinness’ Someone to Watch Over Me, in which he played a man held hostage by Muslims in Beirut. “I was never taken hostage,” he says. “But I’d been around there, and I could smell the smells and hear the language.”

He credits the Navy itself with giving him the final motivation to take up acting professionally. “They told us a few months ago that our base was one of the ones getting closed,” he says. “There was another job opening at Norfolk, Virginia, and I could have transferred there, but I didn’t really want to. There wasn’t much of a theater scene out there. So I decided that with three to four months severance pay I’d give it a whirl.”

In Philadelphia, he says, he doesn’t really need to audition—he’s already pretty well known among a small group of directors there. Now he’s trying to expand the network a little by dropping into auditions like this one at Baltimore Shakespeare Festival. But it’s a big jump from government service to a profession where a pension and retirement benefits are hard to come by at best.

“Yeah, there’s something scary about taking that step from being an engineer with all the benefits to being a starving artist,” Cairns says. “But I think fate pushed me to this decision—especially when my base closed.”

A number of the auditioners seem to be in similar positions: in unfamiliar territory, uncommitted, and even a little wary about their choice. A young Taiwanese actress comes out and does a full-throttle Lady Macbeth. Then, under a little prompting from the directors, she wonders aloud why there aren’t any opportunities for Asian women in acting. The acting program that invited her to the United States, she says, hasn’t offered her any serious roles, and she’s been told by one teacher not to bother trying to find acting jobs in the States. After she leaves, Hackman puts her photo on the callback pile.

Then Raine Bode gets up.

“You’re not going to do that again?” Hackman asks.

“I’m sorry, I’ve got to.”

Bode slides out of the pew and heads to the back of the church and out into the hall, locks the door behind her, and knocks three times. Hackman lets her back in again. It’s an exorcism, a longstanding theater tradition that Bode repeats whenever anyone mentions Macbeth by name.

When J.R. Lyston walks in for his
audition, he’s treated like an old relative. He’s a local favorite, someone often thought of whenever the script calls for an ample, white-haired, ruddy-cheeked uncle. He gets onstage, wheezing a little, and recites a speech from Henry VI, Part III, wherein Gloucester decides that if he’s going to be a bastard, he might as well go all the way.

The reading isn’t bad. In fact, it’s pretty convincing, considering that Gloucester was fairly young at the time. But as Lyston clomps offstage, they ask if he’s capable of swinging on monkey bars. (Hackman has them in mind for A Midsummer Night’s Dream.) That may be a problem.

Lyston is certainly not a nervous newbie. “I’ve been acting around here for 40 years or so—a long time anyway,” he says. “But it’s my first audition in quite a while.” He’s a professor at the Community College of Baltimore County in Essex, though he doesn’t teach full-time anymore. Most recently, he played a part in Shadowlands at Theatre Hopkins.

Twenty-year-old Kelli Wright, on the other hand, is just at the beginning of her career. She started acting at Baltimore School for the Arts, under the tutelage of director Donald Hickens, and then went on to study at New York’s Juilliard School, one of the most reputable drama schools in the country. But after two years of speech training and disciplined Shakespearean instruction, Wright felt that she’d hit a professional dead end. Not that they didn’t train you, she says, but when people asked her to play a young, hip black woman, she was unprepared.

“I find that I’m dealing with a lot of very typecast roles,” she says. “Because I speak in Juilliard-speak, it’s a little hard—they keep asking me if I can be a little more ghetto.” She laughs a little: “They want me in jail and on drugs.”

Now, several months after leaving Juilliard, Wright is auditioning around the region. “It’s a little nerve-racking—it’s a lot different from being in a protective school,” she says. “When you were at Juilliard, that’s all there was. My first audition [after leaving school] was for Mike Lemon Casting in Philadelphia. I went into the audition room, and there was nothing but a camera. They told me to talk into the camera. I guess I talked a little too loud.

“I didn’t have much work experience when I got out of Juilliard,” she continues. “My strength was dealing with people, so I got this job selling burritos at California Tortilla at BWI [Airport]. They said they wanted spunky cashiers, so I figured I fit in.”

 

“Spunk” is a word one often hears flitting about in audition halls, an elusive quality that involves going a little—but not too much—over the top, and keeping yourself on directors’ radars without annoying them. When a spunky actress walks into unknown territory, she talks to the women at the desk, hands out calling cards, and writes follow-up postcards to directors. It means that you socialize with local actors and actresses, dress right, and powder yourself before heading onstage.

Gia Mora seems to have it. And she’s prepared—almost to the point where her
introductory monologue becomes irrelevant. After her monologue, she begins chatting with Hackman and Bode, giving her life story.

She was born in Colorado. After graduating from the University of Colorado with a degree in screen/playwriting, she acted and modeled for a few years in Denver. She decided to move to Washington, she says, because she heard the area had a “great theater scene,” and she has no regrets: “It’s the greatest move I could have imagined.”

Hackman looks over Mora’s résumé, which includes trapeze experience. “Would you consider going blond?” the director asks.

“Oh God, yes!”

Then Bode asks Mora what her favorite curse word is.

“Fuck. Why fuck? It’s incredibly percussive!”

As Mora leaves the room, the brief silence among the directors speaks for itself. Hackman slides her head shot into the callback list.

Back in the waiting room, Mora powders herself with a vanity kit and searches through her appointment list on her BlackBerry. “I’d heard about the D.C. scene through friends who’d been fellows at the Washington, D.C., Shakespeare Company,” she says. She rattles off the names of the theaters she’s aiming to work for: Shakespeare, Roundhouse, Arena, Folger, Olney, and . . . well, those are the first tier. She recently auditioned for the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Pericles at Carter Barron, the amphitheater in D.C.’s Rock Creek Park. She’s directing a one-act version of The Hobbit at Chesapeake Arts Center in Brooklyn Park. She’s just been in a Bling! commercial and says that people already recognize her in grocery stores. That’s three months after arriving in D.C. And she calls her fiancé in Colorado several times a day. Faithfully.

Her list of accomplishments is impressive, but even this early in her career—she’s 22—there are a few war wounds. Her jaw, for instance, had to be restructured after it snapped in performance. “It was a play called Last Summer at Bluefish Cove,” she recalls. “I went out for the curtain call, and smiled, and then my mouth wouldn’t shut.” She says she’s also had one of her knees reconstructed after an accident during a stage-combat workshop. Given the fact that she’s practicing yoga and doing splits in the hallway, it looks like she’s overcome that handicap.

 

At the end of the two-day auditions, the number crunching begins. One hundred and nineteen actors (24 of them Equity members) have come to the stage and recited one- to two-minute monologues. After about 40, the actors start to blur together for the directors. Even the favorite curse words get intermingled—somewhere along the way, it must have gotten passed along that the question was coming, but the fouler the word got, the more artificial the explanations. While jumping off the stage in the middle of a monologue and running into the front rows of seats seemed exuberant at first, by about 4 o’clock it seems a little forced.

Tricks such as conversing with oneself or reciting Shakespeare with a Southern twang get irritating. Actors who direct their speeches at the directors seem presumptuous. And Shakespeare himself seems to be more a prop than a poet. Underacting, or even subtlety, loses its fine points. And, by the end of the day, there are also several audition speeches that no one wants to use again.

I would not be thy executioner;

I fly thee, for I would not injure thee.

Thou tell’st me there is murder in mine eye.

’Tis pretty, sure, and very probable,

That eyes, are the frail’st and softest things . . .

A week later, after days of counting, pulling, and weeding out, the field for the cast of Baltimore Shakespeare Festival’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has been narrowed from 119 to 95. A number of actors have been ruled out after the general auditions, but in Baltimore, when someone disappears, there’s always someone else to take his or her place. Laura Hackman sits inside the theater, arranging folders in front of her. The piles of résumés haven’t gotten much smaller, they’ve just morphed into a series of different categories: lovers, mechanicals, fairies, Oberon/Puck, Titania, Equity, non-Equity, likely, unlikely, new head shots, old head shots. Follow-up postcards have started to pour in. One, from Gia Mora, stands out. It reads, in part, “Any time I get to spank myself on stage is a good day!”

Freezing rain falls outside, and actors trickle across the parking lot for the first callback auditions. As they sit in the hallway powdering faces, discussing jobs, and applying underarm deodorant, Kimberley Lynne comes out and asks, “Anyone leave a blue car outside the cemetery?” There’s a funeral at the church next door, and the car is about to get towed.

“I’ve got Hermias coming out the ass,” Hackman complains inside the theater. In other words, the field of eligible young women for the part has been narrowed slightly, but there are still twice as many women trying out for parts as there are men. “There are about 30 I’m considering for Hermia and Helena, and about 15 for their two male lovers,” she says.

Her job is to find two non-Equity male/female couples who have the right chemistry, the right age difference, and who are physically compatible. That makes 300 possible combinations. That’s only four characters.

“Does anyone have an Advil?” Hackman asks. Lynne goes to look for one.

Later, Lynne comes into the waiting area with a pile of papers, which get distributed in groups. The lovers’ scenes include selections from Act I, Scene 1, where Lysander and Hermia plan their escape. In Act II, Scene 1, Helena pursues Demetrius, who is infatuated with Helena. In Act III, Scene, 2, Lysander, Helena, Hermia, and Demetrius get entangled in a brawl. All actors being considered for these four parts get to participate in all three scenes, which run the gauntlet of moods from romance to slapstick. Helena has to be a bit older than Hermia, and, given references to Hermia’s height, Hermia has to be shorter. There are no hard-and-fast differences between Demetrius and Lysander, but they have to be relatively athletic. As for the rest of the cast, Oberon and Titania are older, with a little more gravitas and intangible sexual energy. Puck is small and highly athletic. The troupe of mechanicals, the performers in the play-within-the-play, can be a little plumper—but still have to be athletic enough to swing on monkey bars.

Several actors are coming in without having gone through the initial vetting. They’re mostly veterans who have acted in Baltimore Shakespeare Festival plays before, or who have acted in so many local plays that they’ve already been mentally cast by the director. A contingent from Everyman Theatre comes in; they’ve got about 15 minutes before rushing back for their afternoon matinée.

Bruce Nelson is an Equity actor who has built a professional career in area theater by shuttling between the Everyman, Howard County’s Rep Stage, and Woolly Mammoth Theatre in Washington. He rushes through two roles: Bottom and Oberon. Hackman asks him which part he would prefer. “Well, Bottom fits like a glove,” he says. “But then, Oberon would be a challenge.”

Jimmy Flanagan, 24, bursts in for a brief audition before his matinée at Everyman, in the title role of The Cripple of Inishmaan. For someone just out of school, he’s off to a pretty good start. Barely two years after graduating from Towson University, he’s won major roles at Rep Stage and Everyman, as well as Washington’s Studio Theatre.

And now he’s wondering if, after all this, he wants to be a doctor. If he gets offered a part in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he says he isn’t sure he’ll be able to take it—he’s waiting to see if he got a summer course in organic chemistry.

“It’s been great, but I’m not sure I really know if it’s what I want,” Flanagan says of his acting career to date. “I mean, it’s a tough life, going from one production to the next, not knowing what’s coming next. I think someone else told me, ‘If you can think of yourself doing anything besides acting, then you should probably try it.’ And maybe this is what I’ll do, I don’t know.”

Nelson and Flanagan go through a manic Puck-Oberon scene and rush out the door. Hackman sits juggling possibilities until Lynne comes in from the hallway and whispers in her ear about someone who’s been bugging the front desk to let him in. “Do whatever you want with him,” Hackman says. “The fact that he’s a diva and shows up 45 minutes late . . . ”

As the day begins in earnest, Hackman brings in various combinations of actors, and for about two hours, she tweaks and adjusts the combinations. Peter and Ian do Oberon and Puck. Courtney and M.J. do Titania and Oberon. C.J. and Ian do Oberon and Titania. M.J. and Kathleen do Titania and Oberon. Carl and Reese do Titania and Oberon. Antoinette and Patrick do Titania and Oberon. Damon and Gerald do Puck and Oberon. Kelly and Carl do Quince and Bottom. Hackman shuffles résumés, stacks cards, and scribbles down impressions and scores for the couples. Then she asks for more Advil.

“I don’t know,” she says, picking through a largely uneaten box of doughnuts. “You never know when you’ll find it, something that clicks between two people.”

By 3 p.m., Hackman’s headache is worse, and she’s still weighing combinations of prospective couples and pairs. By the end of the second day of callbacks, she’s juggling actors’ schedules, careers. She’s sorting several stacks of head shots when Lynne comes in. It’s getting close to 5, and there’s still a significant group out in the hallway, waiting for their last chance.

Hackman yawns. Two actresses walk in.

“Katie and Marcie. You guys are doing Hermia and Helena. Make it a little larger, a little more . . . more angry.”

They go through the scene.

“Nice, ladies.” Hackman looks at one of
the résumés. The actress comes from
Arlington, Va.

“How long a drive from Arlington?”
she asks.

“About an hour-10.”

“Whew.”

“Yeah, it’s rough.”

As the actors leave the room, she looks through another stack of résumés and frowns. “Actors shouldn’t write that they’ve done dance technical classes but that they’re klutzes anyway,” Hackman says.

Lynne comes in to take sandwich orders and continues, “I’m bringing in Molly and Eliza.”

“OK, Molly, you’re Hermia.”

Two tall men onstage, playing Demetrius and Lysander, appear a little lost, as Hackman explains that she’s looking for a more physical performance. As Hermia and Helena engage in a catfight, Demetrius and Lysander duke it out in the back, throwing one another off the edge of the stage.

“Lovely,” Hackman says. Shuffling papers again, she asks, “Who’s next?”

As the day winds toward evening, there are still several actors in the back who haven’t been called up for particular variations.

“OK,” Hackman says, “Alex has to [leave].”

“Tim and Marianne are up next.”

“Colby has read Bottom.”

“Release Michael.”

“Let’s have . . . um.”

“Tim and Colby, could you do Bottom and Quince until the flute line?”

Bottom: Are we all met?

Quince: Pat, pat; and here’s a marvelous convenient place for our rehearsal. This green plot shall be our stage, this hawthorn-brake our tiring-house, and we will do it in action as we will do it before the duke.

A week later, on Saturday morning in the theater at St. Mary’s, Hackman is still shuffling through files. Several thick folders are filled with callbacks who didn’t get accepted, and two other files include female and male possibilities for the lovers, Hermia and Lysander and Demetrius and Helena.

She still looks a little exhausted but says that she’s narrowed most parts down to two or three choices. Though the phone calls aren’t going to be made for a couple of days, several decisions have been made: Hermia, Lysander, Demetrius, and Helena can’t be Equity.

“Oberon and Titania are Equity,” Hackman explains. “Bottom’s going to be Equity, and Puck may well be Equity. One of the mechanicals will be Equity, although I don’t know which one.”

She acknowledges that the pay difference between Equity and nonunion can be a bit of a problem in getting the cast you want and making the production run smoothly. “I’m really a communist at heart,” she says. “And the differential makes me a little insane. If you’re Equity, you get paid more than non-Equity, regardless of the size of the role. If there’s going to be a tight ensemble, I’d like to keep the pay difference minimal.”

Once Hackman parses the union issue, other considerations step in. “I’m always a little wary of people who list their film or TV credits first, because it seems like that’s where they want to be,” she says. “I also don’t want to cast 13 people from D.C. I can deal with one or two from out of town, but when there are 10 actors stuck in traffic, I’m screwed.”

Not that local actors walking in off the street have it much easier getting professional parts. The largest Equity employer in Baltimore, the “level one” Center Stage, gets most of its actors from auditions in New York. Baltimore and Washington actors and actresses can participate in local auditions, but Hackman says that chances of getting parts are slim at best. Center Stage’s latest production, The Murder of Isaac, includes two Baltimore actors, Kelli Danaker and Dan Manning, both playing minor roles. And, as Hackman notes, even local actors are usually discovered through the networking process rather than auditions. With only three professional theaters in Baltimore, everybody knows everybody else. Many actors suspect that the odds are against them, and that perception may help stop them from breaking through.

Then again, when a director takes a chance on a newcomer, he or she is taking a risk. “I can’t swear to this, but I bet about one third or one half of cast [for A Midsummer Night’s Dream] are people I haven’t worked with before,” Hackman says. “It’s a tough call between the safety of casting somebody whose work you know and casting an unknown who gives a really great audition.”

But it happens. Hackman says she’s not sure why—she calls it her intangible, gut feeling. She picks up the postcard from Gia Mora and recalls the actor’s over-the-top, athletic audition for Helena. It wasn’t the postcard itself, which Hackman considers a little cheesy. But after 121 auditions and 95 callbacks, something just stood out.

“There was no holding back,” Hackman says. “She’s got the technical skills. She’s got great poise, she’s got movement. She’s believable onstage. And in callbacks, she did a sort of over-the-top, almost slapstick portrayal. That’s what I think the lovers need to be in this production. She wowed me. She took really big risks at the callbacks. . . . I mean, she spanked herself onstage!”

It’s not just the spanking, though. It’s the spunk.

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The Charm City Circulator is more than a cool free bus--it's part of a hopefully sustainable relationship

Drama Splice (5/20/2010)
Recent Towson University theatrical conference wants to break contemporary Russian playwrights onto American stages

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