Have finally managed to select the six plays we are going to be producing for Cast Iron VI, and it was a tough process. Not only choosing the six plays, but the six directors, and various casts. A lot of it ends up about being sheer, mundane logistics: having some very talented actors (or directors, or writers) to work with, but a certain actor not quite fitting a certain role (or being far too suitable for pretty much every role). Plus, one of the major headaches – that I have given myself – is that I don’t hold auditions at Cast Iron. While it is still a relatively small and manageable group, I like to run it as a benign dictatorship – assigning directors to the plays and casts that I have chosen for them. It’s a massive trust exercise on the parts of those directors and actors, an exercise that they have for the most part embraced whole-heartedly. My main reason for doing it this way is so that I, as artistic director / curator / whatever, still maintain some control over the evening – so that, for instance, we don’t have an evening of plays that are all about relationship break-ups, or twist endings (unless, of course, we were intentionally having that theme for the evening).
One of the other major reasons that I dictate these terms is to get people – including myself – to operate outside the comfort zone. In small theatre groups – particularly the kinds of ones that students set up after college, for instance – it’s very easy, very understandable, and very desirable to work with the same people again and again. You get to know each other’s rhythms, ways of working, and will have a short-hand in the way you communicate with one another. More important, it’s nurturing: within that group, you will be supported, and validated. I’ve been lucky enough in the groups that I’ve worked with – particularly the New Venture Theatre – to be allowed a good deal of artistic freedom to try out ideas and concepts that I just know that other companies would have been a lot more nervous with.
But theatre groups tend to – as well as nurturing you – nurture their own audiences, as well. So I might tell myself that I’m being all clever and risky and trying out new things, but the simple fact is that if I already have a built in audience that reasonably likes the kind of things I do anyway, and indeed is likely to buy a ticket for the September show regardless of who’s producing it because they’re loyal to the theatre, it could well be true that I’m not actually learning anything about my craft.
And it’s worth pointing out the odd little window I’m operating in here. Trying to produce original theatre, or at the very least, interesting productions of existing texts, and not calling it am-dram. Oh, yes, I know, many am-dram groups proudly announce that what they are producing is at professional level – and more than occasionally, they happen to be justified in that bold claim. But I’m not sure I can kid myself too much. I have a full-time job, and a couple of other jobs that occupy the weekends. Any writing that I do often gets done in lunch breaks, or on the commute home. And that’s ignoring the fact that in other times I’m either acting or directing. So I don’t get much time to write. And that’s when my brain is actually functioning enough to do that – I’m not often able to do the lovely writer thing of hammering out a few pages, daydreaming about it for a bit, then ripping it all up and starting again. Frankly, it’s impressive that I manage to write anything coherent. And, if I might allow myself a quick burst of pride, what I’ve produced over the last couple of years is a damn sight more than coherent. Despite all that, I actually feel lazy when it comes to my writing output – I could write a helluva lot more.
But that odd little window straddling professional ideals while operating within am-dram (no time, no money) constraints can indeed be productive, forcing you to be ever more creative with less. I consider the Cast Iron nights to be ‘calling cards’ for those who want to use them as such: inviting agents to see their work – either as actor, writer or director. I’ve been humbled by the people – usually writers – who have told me that Cast Iron has given them the platform (or courage) to finally get around to writing, and how delighted they’ve been to see their work produced onstage, something that they didn’t think they ever would have an avenue for otherwise. Now, I can hear the wincing of a thousand professional writers, worried that this means below-par stuff is getting produced, but I don’t accept that. As many writers know, nothing is more effective in getting STUFF FINISHED than some kind of deadline, and I know that I personally have produced more work in the last two years than if I didn’t have this (admittedly self-created) avenue to write for.
The whole non-audition thing can create its own challenges, however. I get emails from very impressive people who I simply don’t know how to use, who I can match them with. They’re clearly great, and brilliant, and capable and everything, but it’s good to have a sense of chemistry of the person (which, of course, is one of the main reasons for actually having an audition). Normally, we’re able to solve this when they come along to one of the drop-in sessions at Iron Clad Improv, or if they’re really terrified / uninterested in that kind of thing, we usually try to sort out a quick, informal chat which is normally enough to tell me where (I think) people would be best suited.
So, yes: we have selected the plays, the casts, and the directors. It has been a very difficult selection process this time round, with lots of juggling and moving stuff around. We’ve emailed those people already, and they start rehearsals in the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, I’m preparing for a few days at the Edinburgh Fringe ..