Casting around can make its own dramas
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In our latest archive essay, from 1966, author and playwright James Pattinson discusses the perils of casting for amateur plays...
There are, I should imagine, few operations in this life that call for the exercise of more tact than the casting of a play for the amateur stage. Of course, it's easy enough to get people to take the glamour roles: you just say to Miss Black that she is absolutely right for the beautiful young heroine and she thinks you're a paragon of good judgment, while Mr White simply gobbles up the part of the strong, handsome lover. These are the kinds of character everyone sees in the mirror, and even if you are only shoving Miss Black and Mr White into the parts because, God help you, they are the least repulsive players you can lay your hands on, they themselves are quite ready to believe that they have all the physical attraction and acting ability of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
When it comes to filling certain other types of part, however, you really do have to watch your step. Take for example a character described in the script as a blowsy, vulgar woman of fifty-five. If you go to Mrs Jones and tell her point blank that she fits this description down to the ground you're in trouble right away. You may be stating the plain, unvarnished truth, but that isn't going to help your case with Mrs Jones one little bit. In fact, before you can say Will Shakespeare the odds are that your acting strength will have gone down by one F. and you'll be hunting round for another blowsy, vulgar woman of fifty-five.
The correct approach is to start by flattery, preferably laid on with a shovel. You tell Mrs Jones how remarkably good she is in character parts, how she seems to have the ability to efface completely her true self and really get into the skin of the person she is portraying. You say that this is a very rare gift indeed and you don't know what you'd do without an actress of her calibre in the company and so on. After a few minutes of this kind of stuff you've got her all softened up, so that when you trot out the blowsy, vulgar business she gulps it down like a trout gobbling a fly.
Now consider a shifty, dishonest character with a weak chin and close-set eyes. This description may fit Mr Robinson to the last detail, but if you tell him so to his face you're more likely to get an action for slander than an enthusiastic actor. What you have to say is that parts like this present far too much difficulty for the ordinary amateur and that it takes a man with experience and skill to put them across with any success. You say that you would have liked Mr Robinson for the hero, but the other is the really important character and you can think of no one else in the company who would be capable of presenting it with anything like the desired force. After that he's yours for the taking.
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By this time you are doing pretty well with the main characters, but you still have the problem of mopping up those tiny parts like the maid who comes in and says: 'Mrs Poecock to see you, ma'am!' and the police constable who does nothing but arrest the criminal when the detective-inspector tells him to. Nobody wants to turn up at rehearsal two or three times a week just to say: 'Mrs Poecock to see you ma'am!' or 'Now you come along with me!' After all, there are more profitable occupations.
So again the tact and the flattery are called for. You have to point out that anyone can say: 'O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?' and get away with it because the dramatist has done all the work for them. On the other hand, the words, 'Mrs Poecock to see you, ma'am,' have not in themselves any great dramatic quality; they are not fine poetry; they do not take fire by spontaneous combustion. Therefore it is up to the player to invest them with poetry, to breathe into them the fire that is lacking.
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You point out that there are at least a hundred ways of delivering this particular line, but only one that will ignite the imagination of the customers and make them eager to come again and again simply for the pleasure of hearing it spoken. In the end you'll have Miss Blenkinsop falling over herself to take the maid's part and ready to go away and practise the hundred different ways of saying: 'Mrs Poecock to see you, ma'am!' till the cows come home.
By similar cunning you should be able to ease Mr Wilson into the part of the police constable. You explain that police constables are the most difficult of all characters to play convincingly that only one person in a thousand can wear a policeman's uniform on the stage and avoid looking merely ridiculous, and that he, Mr Wilson, is that one remarkable person. Bottom would have roared to make the Duke say: 'Let him roar again!' Mr Wilson will say: 'Come along with me!' to make the audience cry: 'Let him say, 'Come along with me' again.' And so on.
If you have any qualms about bending the truth to suit your own purpose you had better not go into the play casting business. Every amateur actor is a Bottom at heart and would like to play all parts from the lover to the lion, and it is not the easiest of tasks to fob him off with Wall or Moonshine when he is dead set on nothing less than Pyramus.
Perhaps the best way round the problem is to write your own drama, making all parts exactly equal in length and attractiveness; no villains, no blowsy women, no maids and no coppers with only one line. By this method you may get a contented cast. Of course you will almost certainly be stuck with an absolute stinker of a play, but you can't have everything, can you?
James Pattinson has several of his 104 novels re-released as ebooks, currently being sold on Amazon.