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Known Quantities

Just how important is it for actors to know and trust their directors when tackling particularly challenging roles? "Collaborating with people you've collaborated with before is where you want to be ideally. It's terribly important if you are embarking on some of the more ambitious projects," said Deborah Warner, in an interview published in the San Francisco Chronicle on Nov. 10. She was talking about directing the amazing Fiona Shaw in Medea (the Abbey Theatre touring production, which I recently saw in Berkeley). "It's about trust, about being braver because that's in place. People don't go off on expeditions to discover the North Pole with people they never met before, do they?"

I read that quote to a handful of actors, to see what they thought. All agreed that it's always preferable to work with someone known and trusted; it saves time during the first week or two of rehearsal, for starters. Nevertheless they felt it's possible to do equally good work with a new-to-you director, provided it's someone who is on your creative wavelength.

Beth Donohue, who recently appeared as a thoroughly impressive Medea in Berkeley, had never before worked with director Russell Blackwood. Luckily she had a safety net: The play was produced by Shotgun Players, of which she is a longtime company member. Artistic director Patrick Dooley and resident director Reid Davis were involved throughout, which is the way Shotgun operates, and Donohue could go to them for support and feedback during what she described as a "grueling but rewarding rehearsal process."

Donohue has worked with equally unfamiliar directors on risky roles, and with equally good results. Still, she considers herself lucky to have an artistic home, where she can go deeper every year with people she's close to.

Like Donohue, director/actor Margo Hall has an artistic home: She works regularly in San Francisco with both Campo Santo and Word for Word. A firm believer in the collaborative process, she said, "The best directors are the ones who are open enough to understand that everyone in the room has something to offer." As an actor, she appreciates the directors who hold off as long as possible in making final decisions for the actors, and that's how she directs. "You can tell within a week if the director is prepared, if there's a creative environment in the room, or if [the approach is], 'This is my vision; you're just a pawn.'"

Hall noted that the sense of trust works two ways: As a director, she said, "You want to know there's someone in the cast you trust, and you do build relationships." That, of course, is why directors tend to cast the same people repeatedly, a frustration for actors trying to break in.

Language Lessons

Tamar Fortgang, too, is allied with a theatre company. She is scheduled to play Kate in The Taming of the Shrew with Los Angeles' Zoo District; she'll also co-produce. The director, to be selected by artistic committee, was not yet chosen when we talked. "There's excitement about the prospect of working with someone new," Fortgang mused. "But then there's that sense of, is it better to go with someone who's talented, who admires my work, who understands Zoo District's mission, even if they haven't directed Shakespeare before?"

She has valued working with longtime colleague Gleason Bauer, who directed her in, among other things, Tennessee Williams' The Two-Character Play. "There is no doubt my performance wouldn't have been what it was without the collaborative camaraderie we had," she declared. Fortgang felt able to lose herself, artistically speaking, in madness, to fully explore the fragility of human nature, because she had a trusted outside eye telling her what worked and what didn't.

She's also worked with unfamiliar directors whom she didn't particularly trust. In one project, the director was nervous at the same time Fortgang was trying to figure the role out--which made it unsafe for her to explore. But, said Fortgang, "There's no question that my work grew because the ride was so bumpy."

Even though James Carpenter and director Penny Metropolus had never met when they began rehearsing Richard II for California Shakespeare Festival years ago (Carpenter had been precast in the title role a year earlier by the artistic director), the process turned out to be quite healthy. "Penny was so sensitive to my process," reported Carpenter. What he calls her "bogometer"--sensitivity to what's bogus--was finely tuned. "You need someone to tell you, No. 1, is this an honest moment; No. 2, is it theatrically effective, will the story be told better with this choice?" Metropolus did all that.

Similarly, Carpenter had never worked with Les Waters, but when he auditioned for Waters for the role of James Link in Glengarry Glen Ross at American Conservatory Theater, Carpenter immediately felt accepted. Waters' body language was revealing: "He didn't lean back and fold his arms." Carpenter knew that Waters' aura of openness would encourage him to take risks. Indeed, Carpenter was so seamless in the role that he scarcely seemed to be acting.

Carpenter recently worked with Amy Resnick in Two for the Seesaw at Marin Theatre Company, in roles that required exceeding vulnerability. Resnick had never before worked with director Domenique Lozano (who also acts). In general Resnick, like the others, relishes working with directors she's worked with previously. The shorthand saves time: "I can say, 'Should I beam in or fade in or magically appear out of nowhere?' and directors I've worked with before know what I mean."

However, things worked out well with Lozano. "She set up a very peaceful focus and attentive environment, which made me much less self-conscious," said Resnick, whose work in that play was, as always, fresh, unpredictable, and truthful. She also loves working with Marin Theatre artistic director Lee Sankowich ("He really trusts my instincts and lets me play for a while"), Moises Kaufman, Stephen Wadsworth, and Leigh Fondakowski, with whom she worked on the docudramas The Laramie Project and I Think I Like Girls (the latter in San Francisco and at the La Jolla Playhouse). She hopes to someday work with Mark Wing-Davey, Les Waters, and Delia MacDougall, all known as consummate actor's directors.

Taking the Dare

I've seen local treasure Ken Ruta in many roles, both contemporary and classical, with many theatres. He has played Lear three times (not surprisingly, he claims that Calista Flockhart was the easiest Cordelia to carry) and has worked off and on with director Edward Payson Call (who directed him in his first Lear, at the Old Globe) since 1960. Of Call, he said, "He knows when to slap you and say no, or to get you to go out on a limb and try new things and be dangerous."

Ruta was also in the first acting company at the Guthrie Theatre and loved working with Tyrone Guthrie, recalling, "He would never read a line for you or show you how to do it. He'd turn things on in your head. He's someone you'd dare anything for. Directors like that are rare. I like the ones you have a hard time with as long as they make you dig deeper and be more honest."

He's done only one show with Berkeley Rep's Tony Taccone but adores him, and he said he's also worked with two other wonderful directors recently, in Seattle: Jonathan Miller and Bulgarian director Mlden Kiselov. And he's looking forward to his next gig, in Copenhagen at Arizona Theatre Company. Although he's never before worked with Arizona's British director, Stephen Wrentmore, he's not worried: "We met and hit it off immediately." And he and Call are discussing the possibility of doing No Man's Land together in Cleveland.

Whereas Fiona Shaw was able to do her Medea with a longtime, trusted friend--and Ruta, too, is at a point in his career at which he has a lot of choices--most actors don't have that luxury. Yet the rewards of playing roles like Medea or Lear or Richard II may outweigh the fears of venturing into deep territory with an unknown guide. As Fortgang and others pointed out, it's possible to grow artistically whether a familiar collaborator or a virtual stranger is shaping your performance. Besides, as Carpenter said, "Knowing the director is still no guarantee of the piece coming together." He thinks the best actor-director combos have to do with some sort of intangible chemistry between two people.

But what if the director who is offering you a plum role has a bad reputation among actors? Or turns out to be, as Ruta says, a "horror," or even abusive--then what? We'll discuss that in the next "Craft." BSW

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