Theatre Season Invites Islanders for Auditions

By C.K. WOLFSON

"What actors, professionals and amateurs have to realize, is that the people who are watching the audition are rooting for them," said M.J. Bruder Munafo, artistic director at the Vineyard Playhouse. "I'll speak for myself - I'm hoping that they're going to come up and just be fabulous."

Inside the playhouse on a muddy Vineyard Haven morning, M s. Munafo quietly conferred with artistic associate Joann Green Breuer about the audition schedule. They, along with associate artistic director Jon Lipsky and the individual show directors, form the team that will spend the next two months casting parts for summer productions of Proof, The Lady from Havana and Fighting Words.

People straggled in - some by appointment, others just drop-ins. By the afternoon's end there were 10 who filled out brief information sheets and were given excerpts from the script (referred to as sides) that were used to audition.

While Ms. Munafo said she often asks candidates if they're familiar with a role, she admitted, "Usually we just launch right into it because of the time." Actors' Equity members - professionals - are usually well prepared, she said, but those actors often go to multiple auditions in a week, and "cold readings" don't intimidate them.

One by one, those who had come to audition were brought upstairs to the stage where the playhouse reader, Christopher Kann, who performs all the other parts in the audition scene, waited to read with them.

Ms. Munafo explained, "In about a five-minute time frame they read the scene they've selected. Then, the director will usually ask them to read it again, and give them some sort of a direction to see if they can follow it and maybe, to bring them closer to the way the director sees the character." If they like what the actor has done, they send him back downstairs to study another side and prepare for a call-back.

*

"The array of talent in this room is remarkable," artistic director Lee Fierro announced as she stared at the expectant faces surrounding her. With obvious enjoyment, she described the characters and plot of Once Upon a Mattress, the Island Theatre Workshop production for which they were auditioning - "a nice musical with good, satisfying parts." She took a breath. "Obviously, everyone cannot be cast as Winifred."

Inside the parish hall of Federated Church in Edgartown, a gathering of 14 theatrical hopefuls noisily arranged folding chairs in a semi-circle around Ms. Fierro. The group, 12 women and two men (Ms. Fierro said she might have to go out and "pluck male leads" from the Vineyard talent base), filled out slips noting their prior acting experience and the times they would be available for rehearsals.

There was a broad range of experience among the Island teachers, students, a builder, a nurse and maybe diva or two - everything from 10 years of operatic training to a high school performance 30 years ago.

"Who wants to go first?" Ms. Fierro asked.

The room was silent. Could they warm up first, someone asked, and musical director Peter Boak led everyone in a breathing exercise, voices sliding up and down the scale.

The first young woman, wearing orange overalls, sang Summertime and the group suddenly became an audience, smiling, nodding and applauding enthusiastically. Another young woman wearing a blue bandanna sang an a cappella version of At Last, and the room swayed with her soulful rendition, whooping and clapping as she finished.

The gathering that at first seemed ordinary had become remarkable. The nurse sang A Few of My Favorite Things, in a clear, perfectly pitched soprano. The retired teacher sang a selection from the musical Cinderella, and it sounded like an original cast recording. After every performance there was applause and cheers changing the atmosphere from apprehensive to entertaining.

And Ms. Fierro asked everyone to remember that there is no chorus as such because, she said, "Everybody has an identity."

*

"People tend to be surprised when they find out that for the summer season we audition people in New York and Boston as well as the Island," Ms. Munafo said.

There will be open casting calls in Boston - about 50 hopefuls, most of them members of Actors Equity - will come with their head shots and resumes for their scheduled appointments during a six-hour time slot. "They have five minutes to make an impression," Ms. Munafo explained that the casting team would then go to an invitation-only audition in New York city. Altogether, about 150 auditions have been scheduled for the 10 available parts. "Highly competitive," Ms. Munafo said, noting that she deals with agents who book time for their clients, as well as seeing the actors she's used before.

"The idea is to cast the best person for the role, and sometimes it's card-carrying members of the union. But we like to cast people from the Island whenever it's appropriate." The summer productions of Shakespeare, this year including Cymbeline, draw on a larger per cent of Island talent.

The actors are paid union scale, about $300 a week, for five weeks of full-time involvement - three weeks of rehearsals and two and a half weeks of the show's run.

"This is an exciting time," she said. "This is one of the most important aspects of the whole summer season. The casting is so crucial."

It is the director's vision of character that guides the process, she said. "It's a collaboration, too," she added. "You steer your actors into your interpretation. I like to think when I direct a play that the playwright could come and see it and say, ‘Yes. That's it.' "

Ms. Fierro zeroed in on the two women most familiar to Vineyard audiences. "You are obviously leading lady types," she told them. But would they be willing to accept a lesser part, she wanted to know. No, they answered one at a time, they wouldn't, and she thanked them for their honesty.

After everyone had sung, the acting auditions were held. Everyone lined up to take turns reading parts in different mix-and-match pairs.

"It was one of the most fun auditions," Mr. Boak said. "It seems as if everyone was there to have a good time and to support each other."