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TBA Online: News & Features: June 2015

I Know You of Old: Actors Cast Together Often

Thursday, June 11, 2015   (0 Comments)
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By Jean Schiffman

When L. Peter Callender got a call from California Shakespeare Theater artistic director Jonathan Moscone asking him to replace an actor who’d had to drop out of Romeo and Juliet, Callender showed up within the hour to rehearse a sword-fight scene with actor James Carpenter. “We learned the fight in 20 minutes,” reports Callender, “because I know Jimmy, I know his moves and his temperament, I know what a perfectionist he is, and he knows that about me, too. He knows how I think.”

Callender was able to fold into the cast very quickly, not only because he knows the actors who work regularly at Cal Shakes in the summers, but also because the core Bay Area acting community is fairly small, and actors tend to get cast together repeatedly, whether as scene partners or simply as co-cast members, from theatre to theatre. Within that community a familiarity develops, leading to trust, which inevitably makes for a faster and smoother rehearsal process (much needed in these days of often mere two-and-a-half-week rehearsals), a sense of freedom during rehearsals and performances and sometimes close offstage friendships as well, which complete the loop by sealing that bond of trust.

Johnny Moreno and Monique Hafen with Richard Frederick in My Fair Lady at San Francisco Playhouse, 2012. Photo: Jessica Palopoli Johnny Moreno and Monique Hafen in Camelot at San Francisco Playhouse, 2013. Photo: Jessica Palopoli

For example, Carrie Paff and Mark Anderson Phillips estimate they’ve been in about 12 plays together, in theatres that include Center Rep, San Jose Rep, Marin Theatre Company, Aurora and most recently at San Francisco Playhouse throughout several incarnations of Aaron Loeb’s
Ideation. The second or third time they’d worked together, in the Alan Ayckbourn comedy How the Other Half Loves, they became friends. “I don’t get to do a lot of comedies,” says Paff. “Mark is a great comedian; I love working with him on comedy.” By the time they got to Ideation, she sensed a rhythm between them in the comic parts of the play, a rhythm they’d acquired from so many years together as scene partners. “There is this freedom to be silly and goofy” with someone you trust, she says, “and I’m always daring myself as an actor to suck, to fail. With someone you trust and respect, and who respects you, you can start failing a whole lot faster. There are always insecurities that come up, but having somebody who knows you well gives you the freedom to be a disaster [during rehearsals]—to make mistakes, try something wild and different. Mark always has my back and that only makes me feel braver.” She adds, “Because we’re always jobbing from one gig to the next, having people there for you every time is one of the few ways we get a sense of stability and security.”

Security” and “trust were two words that came up repeatedly when I talked to actors about why they like working with tried-and-true colleagues—which they all said they love to do. “Acting is risky and feels vulnerable,” says Phillips, who has worked more often with Paff than with any other actor in his career. “So it’s nice to feel that people have your back. With Carrie it’s always like that—I feel safe and comfortable.” He adds, “In theatre, the whole focus is to come together in two and a half weeks and convince people we have these deep, longstanding relationships. When I think analytically—that’s really a bizarre job we’ve taken on!”

Carrie Paff and Mark Anderson Phillips in
Center Repertory Company's
How the
Other Half Loves, 2007. Photo: Kevin Berne
Carrie Paff and Mark Anderson Phillips with Michael Ray
Wisely (left) in
Ideation at San Francisco Playhouse, 2014.
Photo: Jessica Palopoli

What does it mean exactly to feel that a co-actor “has your back”? Suggests Paff, “Onstage, it means knowing that whatever happens, if you get lost, that person will save you.” Because you know each other so well as actors, you can tell when your scene partner is blanking out and jump in on a rescue mission. For example, when Johnny Moreno and Monique Hafen—frequent musical theatre scene partners at San Francisco Playhouse—played Arthur and Guinevere in Camelot, they were in the midst of a screaming match when Moreno suddenly went up. “There was nothing in my face that said anything more than ‘Arthur,’ but Monique knew right away and kept feeding me lines, like CPR,” he says. “She was able to get me on track right away.” According to Hafen, “If it’s somebody I don’t know, and they drop a line, you want to give them a few more seconds. When it’s somebody you know well who [normally] never drops a line, I need to help.” She saw instantly, looking into Moreno’s eyes, that he wasn’t in his character anymore, although she assumes the audience couldn’t tell.

But it’s about more than that. For instance, when Michael Gene Sullivan and Darren Bridgett are onstage together (as often happens), especially when it’s a crazy comedy like last season’s The Hound of the Baskervilles at TheatreWorks, they have to trust that one won’t leave the other hanging. Both actors, as it happens, like audience interaction—but Sullivan, a veteran member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, prefers to interact from the stage, whereas the irrepressible Bridgett loves to actually go out into the audience, and often does so in comedies at Marin Shakes. In Hound, at one point Bridgett would leap into the audience and start improvising, with Sullivan onstage awaiting his return. “So we’re both doing what we do,” says Sullivan, “and I’ve got to trust that he’s going to find that beat and we’ll mutually know where it is, and he’s going to come back onstage.” The two actors are the best of friends, carpooling when they’re in the same show, heading out to midnight movies together, riffing on every topic under the sun.

When Sullivan’s wife, Velina Brown, was cast in what she considers the most difficult role in her career, David Mamet’s intense and talky two-hander The Anarchist at Theatre Rhinoceros, she didn’t know her co-actor, Tamar Cohn. But as it happened, the two of them were then cast in Sullivan’s comedy Recipe at Central Works, which actually preceded The Anarchist in production, so they had a chance to get to know each professionally. The obvious advantage in such situations, says Cohn, is that “you’re past any awkwardness or self-consciousness or insecurity or ‘Are we going to gel? Am I going to look stupid?’” By the time they went into the challenging Mamet play, she felt that they both trusted each other. Says Brown, “When you’re in that proving-yourself space [with a new scene partner], it’s a distraction from the work. It’s to everyone’s advantage to not waste your own creative time with thoughts like, ‘Are they going to understand what I’m trying to do here?’” In The Anarchist, she and Cohn played adversaries, which was easier to do than if they hadn’t already come to like and trust each other. And in plays like Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park, with a second act that’s full of racial jokes, it’s important to know your colleagues; when Brown appeared in that play at Center Rep, the cast had a week of table work in order to talk about, for example, why is saying this more offensive than saying that? Most commonly, though, that getting-comfortable time is simply not available to actors.

Velina Brown and Tamar Cohn in The Anarchist. Photo: David Wilson

Trust between scene partners can be an especially big deal when the show has a strong physical component. Wiley Naman Strasser and Madeline H.D. Brown had recently returned from an acting intensive in Poland, with Teatr Zar, when I talked to them. They were finishing a run of
Our Town at Shotgun Players and preparing for a new version of Antigone at the experimental Cutting Ball Theater, where they’d both first met and become friends. They’ve also worked together in Mugwumpin shows. For both of them, knowing (not in the biblical sense) each other’s bodies and boundaries is very important considering the kind of movement-based work they often do. Brown has a back injury, and when they were at the Poland intensive, Strasser, who comes from a dance background, was the only one she trusted to be her partner for a particular physical exercise.

Strasser refers to Brown as his anchor and confidant; he says he always trusts that she will show up ready to work, will inspire him and will push him, make him want to bring his “A-game.” Says Brown of the two emotionally and physically demanding weeks she and Strasser spent in Poland (along with other Cutting Ball cast members and their Polish counterparts), “I don’t think I kept the most professional demeanor”—the hours were long, the work and the characters extreme. “I think we learned how to communicate in spite of external circumstances and extreme internal emotions,” she muses. “That was a new leaf I turned over with Wiley.” Despite the tension, they didn’t fight, but she compares the experience to a conflict with a good friend and then coming through it knowing that you’ve figured out how to navigate the storm. “What we’ve developed,” she says, “is a grounded understanding [that’s] less about language or process but more to do with experience between us. We know we have the other’s support and there’s a kind of energetic shorthand that feels readily available to me when I’m in the room with Wiley. I know I’m safe and can take risks.

Feeling safe doesn’t mean, of course, that you don’t want to be surprised at times. It means that you trust your partner to startle you in ways that fit the material. “I like to be surprised,” says Moreno. “I think Monique and I both surprise each other quite often.” Sullivan and Bridgett seem to live to surprise each other, onstage and off. Bridgett particularly relishes Sullivan’s uncanny ability to appear indifferent, even morose, on the surface. “He’s always pre-disaster!” says Bridgett delightedly. “He can still throw me with it!” Looking for Sullivan’s hilarious dissembling is part of the fun. “When you’re working with somebody you enjoy working with, you get to start playing right away,” Bridgett says. 

Darren Bridgett and Michael Gene Sullivan in TheatreWorks' The House of the Baskervilles, 2014. Photo: Tracy Martin

The shorthand that develops between actors who are cast together regularly can take various forms. Says Bridgett, “You start to anticipate what something means when someone moves in a certain way, gives a certain line reading. You understand each other quicker and get the chance to sort of riff on each other, not necessarily onstage but in the rehearsal process. You’re not trying to negotiate how you work together, which can take time and doesn’t go so easily. You get to make stronger choices, sooner. You know what’s happening underneath
, and you can go deeper with the conversation, with how you’re connecting. You can kind of read somebody deeper.” He says he and Sullivan know how to “give stage” to each other in moments that might otherwise have been lost.

Everyone has his or her own individual temperament, Callender points out, and if you know what it is, the rehearsal process goes much more smoothly. For instance, if another actor doesn’t pick up dance movement as quickly as he does, or doesn’t like to be pushed hard, then Callender knows the whole process will be slower and that he needs to be patient. When he acted with Dan Hiatt in Breakfast with Mugabe at Aurora, it was the first time they’d been scene partners, but they’d been in many plays together, so Callender knew Hiatt’s pace, his sense of humor, his habits. They arrive at the theatre at different times, they have different methods of warming up. But when the lights came up onstage, Callender and Hiatt knew what to expect from each other. “If I changed something, a slight rhythm change, I knew Dan would react in a professional way and give it right back to me,” recalls Callender.

When Hiatt thinks of shorthand, he thinks of how, when he feels safe with a co-actor, he feels free to have discussions about what the two of them think is useful for the scene. “You can say whatever you want to say when you know the person,” he offers. “You know you’re not going to create a rift.” Once again, in today’s short rehearsal periods, two actors can make use of valuable time by talking to each other while the director is occupied with other details. Phillips says, of working with Paff, “She’s very meticulous and detail-oriented, and I try to be that way, but I don’t know if I’m as good as she is about being prepared. Sometimes she calls me out on stuff.” She might tell him, “That thing you do all the time, your character probably wouldn’t do that,” and he replies, “Yeah, you’re right.” Adds Phillips, “We value each other’s opinions so much that we say to each other, ‘Tell me if I’m doing something stupid.’ We’ve worked with great directors who have helped us, but a director might not be focused on something [because it’s okay as is], but Carrie and I are still trying to figure it out in our heads, so we’ll say to each other, ‘Can you watch this moment?’ Although usually not when others are around. Usually at lunch or when we’re walking to the garage after rehearsal.”

L. Peter Callender and Dan Hiatt in Breakfast with Mugabe at Aurora Theatre Company, 2014. Photo: David Allen

Whether you and your recurrent scene partner are offstage friends, as Paff and Phillips are, or not, actors who are often cast together, or opposite each other, tend to be considered to have “chemistry”—an elusive concept that actors usually don’t worry about, but that directors and critics like to try to identify. “I think it’s what happens when two people’s brains are in sync,” says Paff. “The first time I worked with Arwen Anderson, in
Streetcar at Marin Theatre, just from the first moment it was, ‘Oh, I get you, you get me’—the emotional connection was instant. It’s a little mysterious.” Callender points out that he and his ex-wife, Margo Hall, had such strong onstage chemistry in Winter’s Tale at Cal Shakes and Seven Guitars at Marin Theatre that some people thought they were back together; they’re not. Once you have chemistry, he notes, you can use it equally forcefully in love scenes or in adversarial scenes. Hiatt suggests that the whole concept is subjective; there have been times when he feels he’s clicking with a scene partner, but critics, and perhaps some audience members too, don’t agree. Offers Sullivan, “If you have actors really listening and responding, that looks like chemistry. Because Darren and I talk so much, we’re in the habit of listening to each other. You listen to the other person because you care; that’s the rapport you want.”

The key to everything, Paff believes, is that every performance is essentially about your scene partner. “If I make it about myself, I will be terrible,” she declares. “It has to be about the other person.” And when the other person is a trusted and familiar colleague, you can go deeper sooner.  

Jean Schiffman is an arts writer based in San Francisco.