Saturday, June 25, 2011

For an interesting look at the resentments simmering beneath the happy face of Boston theatre . . .

 . . . you could do worse than 'cast' a glance at this posting on the Stage Source blog.  (Be sure to read the comments.)  The post, by Member Services Manager Jeremy Johnson, is the result of an anonymous letter left in melodramatic style at the Stage Source offices, alleging that our local cast system is largely, well, a caste system, with most of the roles in the Boston theatre season going to folks in a few "small-town cliques," who together are giving the scene "a community theater feel."  The writer, clearly a frustrated - or exasperated - local actor or actress, lamented that "We see the same people on stage over and over again."

From the number of responses to the post, it also seems clear the letter touched a chord.  It looks like half of the Actors' Shakespeare Project has weighed in - as has SpeakEasy founder Paul Daigneault.  Which is a bit ironic (or do I mean inevitable?), as ASP and SpeakEasy have the reputation for running the tightest casting cliques around; but then again, the ASP folks say they're looking for new people, and Daigneault has run numbers exonerating himself.

All I'll say is that I'm on the fence about this particular issue.  What the letter writer alleges, I think, is to some extent true - but at the same time, theatres generate both their identities and their loyalties largely from "cliques," don't they.  A better argument would be that people with lesser talent were being promoted to prominence onstage because of their connections - but I don't think that's the case (aside from one or two obvious examples, but then no system is perfect).  Of course it's hard for a frustrated actor to appreciate what a risk it is to gamble on an unknown - or to appreciate that a theatre's established audience does develop loyalty, for better or worse, to a certain set of familiar faces.  Still, you never hear of an untried actor saying he or she will guarantee a shortfall in revenue if their performance doesn't work out, do you.   Indeed, if actors don't do their jobs properly, they nevertheless always walk away financially unscathed.  No, this kind of thing is always about a one-way demand for trust - a kind of complaint that's far from unusual in other fields, btw; how many critics who wouldn't part with a dime for a theatrical project are nevertheless always railing that other people aren't risking more of their own money on daring scripts?  Too many to mention.

On the other hand, I have to admit it would be good to see more fresh faces on Boston's stages.  So I always try to applaud actors who make work for themselves, or who struggle in spaces on the fringe.  And if it's a trust issue that's holding untried actors and actresses back, I wonder if StageSource might do more than just hold auditions.  Would low-tech StageSource "showcase" productions offer casting directors more confidence in unknowns?  Would established theatres like SpeakEasy or the Lyric (or the Huntington!) be willing to give over their spaces on dark nights to these kinds of performances?  That might be one way to build a bridge between the cast and the uncast.


  1. I think that part of this actor's issue is that he/she is looking to be case in one of the larger companies right away without considering the smaller/fringe companies. If an actor is looking to work in Boston, it is worth it to get on stage because that's how you start to develop a following. There are people from larger companies that attend this production, and if an actor is memorable, it can help them work their way into into companies like SpeakEasy, the Lyric or the Huntington.

    I will say this about the Boston "clique:" People on the production side of things work with multiple theatres and they talk about actors who are rude and difficult to work with. If a person causes trouble at one company, others WILL hear about it because the theatres in this town are in close communication by their mutual employees. I can assume that the same is true of actors that are easy to work with. Sometimes it may not have to do with talent, but with reputation.

    So I think the moral of this story is this: It's worth it to start at smaller theatres to get your name out there. Remember that Boston IS smaller than NYC and that reputations get around in this tight community. The important thing is to get your name out there and start developing relationships, and StageSource is not the only way to do that. Check New England Theatre 411 and The Small Theatre Alliance of Boston if you're looking for work.

    In every field, not only theatre, connections are key.

  2. I was at the StageSource auditions too, and I've gotten four audition invites (some from larger theatres) and a job offer already. My experience, therefore, seems to differ from that of the letter writer.

    I'm fairly new in town, so theatre companies are by definition taking chances on me. Still, I've done two productions since I moved here last fall, am in rehearsal for the third, and just booked my fourth.

    But then again, I'm slightly older and more experienced than the pool of 20-somethings, I have a terminal fine arts degree, a fat resume, and I'm also on the Exec Board of a group mentioned in the previous comment.

    There are any number of reasons why the letter writer may feel excluded. I of course don't know this person, but maybe he/she needs to brush up on his/her audition skills, self-marketing skills, or maybe even people skills. And yes, if you don't play nicely with others, it gets around.

    It couldn't hurt to take classes, workshops, etc. He/she can volunteer, usher, do staged readings, whatever. Be seen. Go to events. Meet people. Make connections.

  3. Hmmm. Thank you for your comments - but you guys both realize you're hardly disagreeing with the letter writer, right? I will also share one thought from an email I received on this topic (again, I can't name the sender, at their request) who opined that the disgruntled actor/actress at Stage Source really should try marrying another actor or actress, as that seemed to double the casting opportunities around here. I'm afraid there's some truth in THAT, too.