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Hiring local actors: triumph or calamity?BY: Jim Rutter 10.04.2011
Philadelphia’s Arden and Wilma theaters open their seasons this month with large-cast plays populated by local actors. That’s a tribute to the growing wealth of local talent available— and also cause for concern that directors are getting too comfy and complacent in their own provincial backyard.
Philadelphia’s Arden and Wilma theaters open their respective 2011-2012 seasons this month with large-cast plays populated by local actors. The Arden’s artistic director, Terry Nolen announced the casting for August: Osage County as a point of pride, boasting that Philadelphia offers enough quality local talent to give audiences as thrilling a production of Tracy Letts’s Pulitzer Prize drama as they would see anywhere.
The Wilma, similarly, hired only one out-of-towner for Our Class (Michael Rubenfeld, who originated his role in the show’s world premiere). Although I suspect that budgetary concerns influenced the Wilma’s casting, the presence of these large all-Philadelphia casts at two of the region’s largest houses represents both a triumph of talent and cause for concern.
Philadelphia’s theater community should celebrate the wealth of artistry that has taken root and grown here. The increasing availability of higher quality actors has enabled the industry to explode over the past decade. A number of companies— including New City Stage, 11th Hour and Theatre Horizon— now offer high-paying Equity contracts. None of these companies existed five years ago.
Many Philadelphians have received national recognition, raising Philadelphia’s theatrical profile in the process. The Philadelphia actor Pete Pryor last year received a Lunt-Fontanne Fellowship, an award given to the country’s best actors. The Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout praised Grace Gonglewski’s performance in the Arden’s Moon for the Misbegotten. Temple graduate and Mauckingbird Theatre Company regular Evan Jonigkeit starred opposite Kathleen Turner in the Broadway production of Get High.
Talent also begets talent. A greater quality of local performers earning their living from theater encourages similarly skilled artists and mid-career professionals to relocate here for work or graduate school. Kate Czajkowski of Wilma’s Our Class moved from Seattle to study at Temple and subsequently won a Barrymore Awards nomination for best supporting actress.
But it doesn’t necessarily follow that hiring the best Philadelphia performers will generate the best possible productions. Nor can Philadelphia actors fill every role available. The Wilma couldn’t find a muscle-bound 30-something actor in Philadelphia to play the action hero role in Theresa Rebeck’s The Understudy last season. Philadelphia Theatre Company will no doubt look beyond the dearth of local Equity-level African-American talent when casting The Scottsboro Boys.
Local casting can also imperil the art form, especially if companies use it as a marketing or ticket-selling ploy. Directors who hire only actors they know and trust might stop taking risks; overly hired local actors may develop an entitlement mentality that stunts their growth.
New York influx
By contrast, in New York— which sees a continual influx of young, ambitious talent— the level of competition keeps actors on their toes. Philadelphia companies in Philadelphia need to hold local performers to the same competitive standards, even if that means importing more expensive, better skilled artists.
Philadelphia should likewise encourage its best actors to spread their wings and appear elsewhere. Cliquish casting could turn Philadelphia into a parochial outpost that produces 500 professional shows a year without influencing the national theater scene.
Ten years ago, Philadelphia’s best actors crisscrossed the country because they couldn’t find enough work to support them here. It was a tough slog for them, but in the process, they sharpened their creative blades.
Besides, the more regional and New York exposure that young and talented actors like Dan Hodge, Krista Apple, Evan Jonigkeit and Ross Beschler receive, the more audiences and performers in other cities will learn about the wealth of talent that has accumulated here.
Daisey’s baseball analogy
In his 2009 one-man rant, How Theatre Failed America, Mike Daisey argued that, in theater as in sport, fans want to connect with familiar faces. No baseball team would develop a fan base, he said, if every home game featured a different roster.
True. But theater isn’t baseball. Baseball is a contest between the familiar and beloved home team and a distant faceless rival. In theater, by contrast, familiarity breeds boredom; variety breeds excitement. (Last season, I overheard a couple at Act II Playhouse bemoan the announcement of yet another Tony Braithwaite casting).
In any case, baseball teams draw their players from all over the Western Hemisphere. And even in baseball, new players do show up constantly. That’s what keeps the game interesting. Who would have guessed last spring that a rookie pitcher (Vance Worley) would produce a better won-lost record than any of the Phillies’ vaunted Big Four starters?
“Hiring local” may gratify local actors and civic boosters, but ultimately it’s a dubious formula for creating great art— which, lest we forget, is the bottom line.♦
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