I read in the paper that the English actor Brian Bedford, now 75, who has spent a great deal of his time in the states and Canada, is on Broadway playing Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance Of Being Ernest” and has been nominated for a Tony. We’re back to the issue of casting. Sometime ago I was in the acting company at the Derby Playhouse and had played three very different types of inspectors – van Helsing in “Dracula”, Inspector Truscott in “Loot”, and the Inspector in J. B. Priestley’s “An Inspector Calls.” The fourth play scheduled was Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit” and I thought, aha! I thought. Here’s my chance to play another inspector of a very different kind – Madam Arcati. So I duly trundled along to the director’s office and made my pitch. ‘Mark,’ I said. ‘I’ve come up with a fantastic idea for “Blithe Spirit” a piece of casting that will be talked about in Derby for years. I’ve played three inspectors so I would like to play a fourth.’ I could already see his eyes glaze over as he realised what was coming so, of course I never, much to my regret, got to play Madam Acarti. In fact I’ve never ever had the chance to play a female character or one in drag such as in “Charlie’s Aunt.” Now I’m too old by a good five years to even play Lady Bracknell but I’m sure my rendering of ‘in a handbag?’ would be exactly the same as Dame Edith’s so probably just as well.
In this grossly overcrowded profession no one has yet come up with a better way of sorting actors out than that dreaded phenomenon – the audition! Of course there are actors who sail through auditions with never a care though that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to be any good when it gets down to the nitty-gritty. And then there are those, like me, who find auditions nerve-racking. Even if I have said a thousand times before even leaving home – ‘you’ve got the job or you haven’t. It’s truly in the lap of the gods,’ nerves still played a part. It’s like the character sings in “Chorus Line” ‘Oh God, I need this job.’ Consequently I got few engagements from auditions on stage. Most of my work came from interviews and readings. There’s a sad theatrical story about the girl who auditioned a hundred times and was never cast. Then one day she was offered a part and she said, ‘no I don’t do parts, I only audition.’ When I was teaching in the late eighties I made no bones about what students faced when they ventured into the great big world. I would say to them, ‘When I was a young actor, for every part I went up for, there were at least twenty others equally suited. Today you’re more likely to find two hundred.’
A number of times I have been on the other side of the table and that can be just as distressing, particularly where kids are concerned. I’m thinking in particular of the films for the Children’s Film Foundation and the TV series ‘The Double Deckers.”
They arrive in their hundreds and have to be whittled down to six and, as the numbers decrease you can sense the desperation and the hope. I remember in particular one little girl who immediately burst into floods of tears and was virtually inconsolable. We discovered later it was her third rejection that week.
Of course as someone auditioning you can sometimes miss the wood for the trees. I was casting my play “Women Around” for production at Worthing and we were interviewing in an office at Spotlight. The part of the youth who all the women are in love with obviously required someone who was pretty, even somewhat dainty and a young man sat opposite me who I was about to reject when the agent Rolf Kruger, who was sitting next to me whispered, ‘Ask him to take his jacket off.’ I did. He took off his heavy leather jacket to reveal a floral shirt (all the rage at the time) and got the part then and there. Rolf had seen the potential. I hadn’t. And he turned out to be very good.
When I was working at The Wayside Theatre in Virginia I directed a play called “Tribute.” The play is about a man dying from cancer who is visited by his estranged wife and for the last time they make love. Now I had no say in the casting of this particular production and, to my surprise, the actress cast as the wife was, to put it simply – enormous! She was so big part of the set had to be removed to allow her to get through. Not in a million years, if it had been up to me, would I have cast her in that particular role. Not for a million other actresses would I have exchanged her. Her performance was so moving not only did she have me in tears every night but virtually the entire house. It was stranding ovation time. It was truly beautiful. How wrong I would have been to reject her because as a director I had in my mind’s eye what I thought the character should look like. Really so facile.