I Believe

Over the last twenty-two years, we've evolved, adjusted, and focused our approach to musical theatre. In some ways, New Line Theatre works like other regional theatres; in other ways, we work more like the theatre cooperatives in 1960s New York. Over all this time, I've continually readjusted our rehearsal process, to better shape it to our needs. And I've developed a strong belief system, a philosophy, about why we do theatre and how we should do theatre.

The good news is that even after all these years, we're still periodically changing things, reassessing how we work, absorbing new ideas, etc.

One of the things that makes New Line cool has always been our approach to casting. Beyond the obvious questions of whether a particular person can sing, act, dance, and is right for the role, three other things are also important to us in this process.

First, we sort of have a repertory company, a dozen or so actors who work with us every season, including a few who work with us on almost every show, and we always want to nurture that. Second, we try with almost every show we produce to put together a cast that's half newcomers and half New Liners. There are exceptions, but not a lot. Third, we try to have a racially diverse cast for every show. We don't accomplish that every time, but it's rare that we have an all-white cast.

Those three things working together give us a very cool, comfortable working process, an artistic home for some wonderful artists but also a constant influx of new talent, and a cast onstage that looks like our community.

I hear from time to time that some local actor will complain that "Scott only casts his friends." As a very wise friend once told me, some people are just mad they're alive. Almost always, it's someone who thinks they deserved a lead in a New Line show but didn't get it. That kind of silly bulshit shouldn't bother me but it does, because we work so hard not to just cast my friends. Not only do we aim every show for a cast that's half new people, but new people also routinely walk in off the street into our auditions and get leads. That happened with both female leads in Chicago, with Frank, Janet, and Riff Raff in Rocky Horror, both leads in Reefer Madness, Dr. Parker in Bat Boy, one of the two leads in JC Superstar (our two leads alternated the roles of Jesus and Judas throughout our run), both leads in Grease, four of the leads in Forbidden Planet, the female lead in Love Kills, two of the four leads in Two Gents, three of the five leads in bare, the title role in Cry-Baby, and both younger leads in Next to Normal.

I think that's a pretty great record. And that's just the last ten years or so.

On the other hand, it's really great to work with people who already know how I work. With our veteran New Liners, I know when and how hard to push them. I know that some of them will find their characters really early and others won't find them till we move into the theatre. I know their process. I know if they'll do better left alone or if they need hand-holding. I know some of them like really specific concrete suggestions while others need more abstract ideas from me that will lead them to their own concrete choices. I know who gets scared and of what.

Also, when we're doing a weirder show (which is fairly often), the veterans help the new folks stay calm. Some of our shows are unique enough that the actors don't necessarily understand upfront what the end product will be. In those cases, our veterans are there to reassure the newbies that as weird as the road may seem, I really do know where I'm taking us. That might sound kinda funny, but it has really mattered with shows like The Wild Party, Two Gents, Passing Strange, Next to Normal, Bukowsical, and others.

We did a big favor for our veteran New Liners a few seasons back. We know the audition process is barbaric and soul-crushing, so we created the "18-month rule," which says that anyone who has performed with us in the last eighteen months doesn't have to audition -- they can just submit their name for consideration when we're casting. Our actors love that.

Another important consideration for us when we're casting is racial diversity. We live in a large, metropolitan, racially diverse community and we believe our work should reflect that community. We've been working on this issue for a long time, going back to New Line's early days when I found a book in the Drama Book Shop in New York about racial diversity in the theatre (I wish I could remember the title!). I read it on the plane back to St. Louis, and its arguments were laid out in such clear, plain, and reasonable terms, that I was fully convinced that racial diversity in the theatre is a moral and artistic Good. Before reading this book, I had never really even thought about it...

In the mid-2000s, New Line instigated two St. Louis Theatre Racial Diversity Forums, with help from the Regional Arts Commission and the Black Rep. Linda Kennedy, one of our most amazing local actors and directors, said something in one of those forums that really struck me -- she said when black actors go to local shows, and they see no black people onstage, or in the audience, or on staff, they assume they are not welcome either. That's a pretty powerful statement that has stayed with me. She also said the way to get black actors to audition for us is to ask them, to make a point of letting them know they are welcome.

So we immediately started doing that at New Line, but we can always do more. All our press releases for auditions say we want a multi-racial cast, but just saying it isn't enough. We often give black actors roles that aren't specifically "black roles," like Pirelli in Sweeney Todd, Marty in Grease, Jesus and King Herod in JC Superstar, Bobby Strong in Urinetown (with a Latina Hope Cladwell), Gloria in Return to the Forbidden Planet; and when we did Two Gentlemen of Verona, instead of casting two same-race couples as written, we cast who was best for the roles, and ended up with two interracial couples. None of this because we're "enlightened" or politically correct, but because those were the best actors for those roles.

Now, to be clear, we still have lots of work to do in this area. One thing that has helped is that every so often a show comes along that naturally attracts a racially diverse crowd, like Hair or JC Superstar, and that brings a bunch of new black actors to us. Doing Passing Strange in 2011 also helped with that. And this season, we have Rent coming up, which I think will bring us a very racially diverse crowd -- which is good, because Hands on a Hardbody also has a very racially diverse cast of characters.

Nothing matters more when we're casting a show than whether a particular actor can act and sing the role, but other things do matter. (And for the record, we will almost always cast a great actor who's a decent singer, over a great singer who's a so-so actor.) The comfort of working with veteran New Liners is for us; the rightness of finding as diverse a cast as possible is our obligation to the community.

We New Liners think and talk about this stuff a lot. Because I really believe it's important.

And if this sounds like the kind of place you'd like to work... New Line will hold auditions for both Rent and Hands on a Hardbody on October 21 and 28, 2013. Both shows require black and Latino actors, so we need very racially diverse casts for both shows. Come join the fun!

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. To check out my newest musical theatre books, click here.

P.P.S. To donate to New Line Theatre, click here


Cara | August 3, 2013 at 10:36 PM

You have no idea how tempting it is to take the 6 1/2 hour trip to come see Hands on a Hardbody. It's really, really tempting.