(Literally) Behind the Scenes of Tartuffe–Part 2
Moliere’s Tartuffe, in its final weekend at American Stage, features actors who have also appeared on professional stages at freeFall Theatre in St. Petersburg, and in Tampa with Tampa Repertory, Jobsite and Stageworks.
American Stage’s current farce with a political and contemporary twist stars an impressive ensemble, starting with Ned Averill-Snell as Orgon. The charismatic, ubiquitous character actor is a local favorite on both sides of the bay.
Ricky Wayne, the titular buffoon, pioneered improv with classes, shows — like his monthly act with Gavin Hawk the first Sunday of the month — and has had some interesting turns on TV in The Walking Dead, Bloodline and Halt and Catch Fire — the latter of which also features a recurring role by fellow cast member J. Elijah Cho.
Georgia Mallory Guy, who’s consistently funny in her comedic roles and great at portraying sassy and sharp-witted women, deftly portrays Dorine, the play’s maid and voice of reason. The equally spirited Kelly Pekar, who plays Mira, will be appearing in freeFall’s highly anticipated Peter and the Starcatcher, which will be presented in repertory with a new adaptation of Peter Pan by freeFall Artistic Director Eric Davis. (Also noteworthy: freeFall adapts at least one show per season.)
In light of such high-profile talent, one might wonder how political the process gets and if the actors are cherry-picked for the roles because they’re known and loved commodities.
“Everyone auditioned for Tartuffe,” says the play’s director Brendan Ragan, who’s also an actor and artistic director/founder of Urbanite Theater in Sarasota. “They all read at different times, but they all auditioned and did call-backs.”
Call-backs, if you’re not in the know, is a second read to narrow down picks — similar to what employees do during the job interview process.
freeFall Theatre, 5 miles west of American Stage, also strives to maintain a standard of fairness when casting for shows.
“For us, the process of casting is always about finding the best professional actors that we can, with the specific skills needed to play any given role,” says Davis. “We are always looking for diversity in our casts, and often cast against presumptions of race, gender and type.’”
Also, there isn’t just one type of audition.
Ragan says he, American Stage Artistic Director Stephanie Gularte and the theater’s operations manager Jim Sorensen saw several actors try out and selected performers from general auditions — standard practice by local professional theaters.
General auditions aren’t held for one specific production. They’re held to help theaters cast roles for their entire season and are presented both by theater companies and networking organizations. Not only does American Stage and the above-referenced houses host their own general auditions before seasons begin to field talent in advance, there’s also the Unified Auditions presented by Theatre Tampa Bay and the FPTA (Florida Professional Theatres Association) in South Florida.
“The process itself can take several weeks,” Ragan said.
Selecting a director for the play doesn’t take on the same institutional approach. It’s usually an undertaking of the theater’s artistic director and is a subjective choice based on a set of criteria that can be attributed to a play’s special set of demands.
Ragan says that American Stage’s Gularte noticed his physicality as an actor and his directing style. Because Tartuffe has so many moments involving physical comedy, she thought Ragan, acclaimed for his visceral predilections and knack for visuals, stood out to Gularte. Ragan won local awards and earned critical praise for his one-man show performance of another contemporary retelling of a classic — An Iliad — which required agility from the actor.
Adds Gularte: “I saw Brendon’s directing work in Urbanite’s production of Drowning Girls and was very impressed with his precision in staging and timing. Then I met with him and found that we were really able to speak the same language with one another not only as directors but as fellow artistic directors. I felt he would be a great collaborator and I was right.”
As the taskmaster of Tartuffe, Ragan says he was neither hands off nor a micro-manager.
“It was 50 percent me and 50 percent them,” Ragan says of his directorial style.
Once the play got up and running, Ragan had to use various forms of technology to keep the actors with jobs in other states/projects involved. It took some wrangling, he says. Wayne, for instance, did his call-back readings by Skype.
Speaking of technology, Ragan and his colleagues at American Stage along with playwright Robert Caisley and set designer Jerid Fox had to be on the same page with how to introduce the Information Age into a play written during the French Renaissance.
“The current political climate is driven by what’s going on online and in social media,” Ragan says. “We put in the video elements [flat screen display] so the audience could see the world looking through their eyes.”
Fox’s “McMansion” setup in Tartuffe is remarkable — and even includes an LED-lighted pool. The set designer and propmaster shared his inspiration on American Stage’s website:
“I was inspired on two fronts: the first were famous TV homes like the Kardashians’ mansion, ‘The Bachelor mansion’ and the Property Brothers’ house in Las Vegas – I knew I wanted it to look expensive, but also have a little cookie cutter McMansion feel to it. The second was a desire to evoke the architecture of the White House so when the play takes a big turn towards politics, there it would be looming in the background.”
Ragan and Fox, along with costume designer Frank Chavez and lighting designer Chris Baldwin, worked together to impart an upscale look on the set in keeping with Moliere’s satirical skewering of the upper class.
“Right from the beginning of developing themes and ideas, it became clear we needed to hold onto Moliere’s device of placing Orgon’s family in the upper class of society,” Ragan says. “It was important to us to show them as the type of family that not only had money, but perhaps their taste for showing that money was greater than their taste for design and class.”
In researching certain mansions in Vegas and Miami, for example, Ragan and his American Stage cohorts found several houses that clearly were expensive and gaudy, but also tacky.
“From a practical Farce standpoint, I needed a lot of doors and levels, and modern American McMansions can provide those in droves, so it was a natural fit,” Ragan said. “The exact style and achievement, however, should fall directly onto Jerid Fox, who did an extraordinary job marrying our visions with practicality and tacky elegance.”
This is the second in a four part series taking a look behind the curtain of the local theatre productions. Check out Part One here.