BWW Blog: Tony Isbell On Casting
I began my work in the theatre as an actor. That was the passion that first led me to the stage as a young man. After a few years, the opportunity arose and I tried my hand at directing. I've been doing both for a long time now. Because I both act in plays and direct them, I sometimes get asked something along the lines of "Do you think of yourself as an actor or a director?" My answer is always the same: I am an actor who directs. I don't mean the answer to be flip or facetious. The fact that I was, and still remain, an actor at my core informs the way I direct a play.
Harley Granville-Barker said: "The art of the theatre is the art of acting or it is nothing." I completely agree with this. For me, the primacy of acting in the theatre is self-evident. By saying this I don't mean to denigrate any of the other aspects of play production. Playwriting, directing, set design, lights, costumes and on and on are all important and bring much to the table. Ultimately, all the different pieces must come together to present the theatrical experience to the audience. But the most immediate thing the audience relates to is the acting, the living, breathing story taking place before them.
So casting a play is the most important job of a director. Harold Clurman was once asked how to be a good director. He responded by saying, "Pick a good script, cast good actors and you'll be a good director." Truer words have never been spoken.
The first part of this formulation was taken care of for me when I was offered the chance to direct Death of a Salesman. Universally acknowledged as one of the greatest scripts of the American theatre, Arthur Miller's play is also one of the most honored, with a long history of stellar productions. Pick a good script, indeed.
The second part, casting good actors, was a task I approached with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. In this case, some of the people who auditioned for me I had worked with in the past, either as a fellow actor, a director or in some cases, both. Others were actors I did not know. Trying to find the right balance, the right person to play each of the roles could make or break my production.
In my mind, I tried different combinations of actors, trying to imagine what kind of ensemble they would form, what strengths and weaknesses each would bring to the show. At this point in the process, you have to rely on instincts as much as any kind of rational formula. Finally, I made my decisions, casting a mixture of actors I had worked with in the past as well as several of the people who were unknown to me.
As rehearsals have progressed and the cast has formed a true company, I feel confident that I made the right choices. I think we are on our way to a good production. I got the first part of my job right. The rest is just details.