Darren Sextro’s “In Theory” series discusses various theater topics with artists who are living and breathing the work.
Casting Familiar Faces with Sidonie Garrett
“The single most important part of planning to tell a story is considering who your storytellers might be.”
As Executive Artistic Director for the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival and one of the most sought-after theater directors for other Kansas City arts venues, Sidonie Garrett has cast hundreds of actors – and employed dozens of theatrical designers – over the years. Her most recent projects have included HAMLET for her own theater company this past summer, HOW TO — USE A KNIFE for Unicorn Theatre earlier this year, and A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE for Kansas City Actors Theatre last fall. She returns to Unicorn Theatre this fall as director of the Pulitzer Prize-winning DISGRACED.
Recently, I listened to an interview with the playwright David Hare. What especially caught my attention was what it means to his process to work with the same people repeatedly over the course of a career. Hare has worked numerous times with people like Kate Nelligan, Judi Dench – he’s even written specifically for her – and Bill Nighy, among others. And I thought of you, Sidonie. Over your long directing career, you’ve introduced a lot of new faces while also revisiting a stable of regulars. Is this something that you consciously consider when either casting a single production…or consider as part of your ongoing work?
It is both challenging and thrilling to live in, and tell stories to audiences in, a particular community over a span of many years. Within that community are the actors who have made it their long-time home and some who are there to attend an advanced acting program or who move there temporarily on their way somewhere else. When I plan to produce a play, I always have some actors in mind with whom I am very familiar and in whom I trust. The single most important part of planning to tell a story is considering who your storytellers might be. I always think of as many actors I know who could fill roles in a play and then as part of the audition process I ask those actors to read for roles along with other actors, as yet unknown to me, who might fulfill what the roles demand. There are times when I pre-cast an actor for a role, particularly a title role in a Shakespeare play, around whom a company will be cast. It is important in very large roles, to carry a production, that an actor has the experience, skills and ability to create and deliver what is needed within the timeframe available to ready the production.
So the rehearsal mechanics can motivate a casting decision toward someone with whom you’ve worked previously?
In professional theatre, the timeframe for rehearsal to first performance is most often limited to two to four weeks. Knowing some of the actors and having an established relationship and ready communication enables me, as director, to work more quickly and efficiently. It allows for the storytelling to progress more readily and more so again if some of the actors have worked together previously and have an established trust between them.
I also think that it is the best challenge for an actor to live and work in a community where they bring many characters to life, telling varied stories over a span of time. The fact that their audiences will be made up of people who have seen them in multiple performances requires that they consider how to bring truth to every character and delve deep every time to craft a specific performance.
That limited rehearsal time is a key part of this discussion about working with the same people. It all happens so fast. In working with someone new to me, which has so many obvious benefits, I feel like a chunk of time is eaten up by getting to know each other…developing the type of trust that is necessary, figuring out how we work. Someone I’ve worked with before: There’s a shortcut that moves us more quickly to the work itself. But does that ever backfire?
I don’t feel that working with someone I know well has ever backfired or been a horrible choice. I feel that most of the time I have a higher rate of success given that the work advances more quickly and is more ready to be shared when the audience joins the process. The heights are higher!
It’s a sound perspective. But in the midst of casting, I still feel an empathy for the new talents working hard to break through.
What may happen, on occasion, is that I miss out on ‘unknowns’…choices that would elevate and greatly enrich the storytelling, an energy that would galvanize the entire cast and make them soar and/or an actor with a particular set of skills or particular strength that would encourage and push the other actors to places about which they might have never had a thought or idea of going.
It is important to always have some ‘unknown’ creative energy in the process, in my opinion. A fresh perspective and an artist or artists who ask different questions and provide different answers when asked. A lighting designer, three actors and a stage manager with whom a director has never worked would create quite a lot of “new” if all the other designers and the rest of the acting company were “known.” I’ve rarely directed the same play twice, so the story itself is new and unknown and must be discovered each time. It’s great to have some like-minded and collaborative souls upon whom you KNOW you can rely.
Over the course of your directing career, which artists have you worked with most frequently?
For 17 years, as Director/Producer with Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, I have worked with costume designer Mary Traylor, on HASF outdoor and indoor productions, Unicorn Theatre, and KC Symphony projects; scenic designer Gene Friedman; lighting designer Ward Everhart; fight directors Martin English and William Gray Warren; and composer Greg Mackender.
For 10 years, as Director and/or Producer at HASF and other arts venues, including Coterie Theatre, Unicorn Theatre, Avila University and UMKC Rotating Rep, I worked with sound designers Rusty Wandall, Tom Mardikes and David Kiehl; scenic designer Gary Mosby; lighting designer Art Kent; lighting and projections designer Jeff Cady; and costume designer Georgianna Londre.
Actors with whom I have worked multiple times over many years include John Rensenhouse, Jan Rogge, Cinnamon Schultz, Bruce Roach, Jason Chanos, Nathan Darrow, Matt Rapport, Mark Robbins, Kim Martin-Cotton, Jacques Roy, Jake Walker, Scott Cordes, Robert Gibby Brand, J. Will Fritz, Phil Fiorini, Kathleen Warfel, David Fritts, Merle Moores, Carla Noack, Rufus Burns, Vanessa Severo. Brian Paulette, Ben Auxier, Emily Peterson, Sam Cordes and Melinda McCrary.
It’s a huge list…and could either be reassuring to someone who is trying to “break in with Sidonie Garrett”…or daunting. What’s your advice to an actor, for example, who is frustrated about not getting a role because you’ve instead cast one of your regulars?
I am always working with new actors, and always ready to cast the right actor for any role. I encourage actors to prepare themselves and be ready for the demands of professional work and the specifics of the role for which they are auditioning. For example, if the role requires that the actor is able to perform Shakespeare’s language with clarity, choices, and specificity AND be trained in stage combat, then the actor must have done their work and prepared themselves for what is required. Their competition may well have done so and will show that.
What other advice do you have for how an actor could take at least the first step toward eventually making her or his way onto your list of regulars?
Another way actors can prepare themselves for professional consideration and work is to take classes, work with a scene partner and/or continue to flex their acting muscles. Including improvisation. A director can learn a lot and discern actors’ capabilities in a callback when actors read scenes together. If an actor can make changes when asked, make choices and connect with their scene partners, those things speak volumes to their readiness to do the work.
I am also always working with new designers and theatre artisans. They too must prepare to do their work, either at a university or by working at every theatre they can to gain experience. My best suggestion is to prepare. Work hard to be ready to work.
To read past “In Theory” discussions click here.