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What's in the name

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October 13, 2006



(Stunt casting's a touchy subject with me, so bear with the rant.) The problem with stunt casting (and I mean that it's a problem for, like, the future of New York theatre... from an artistically ideological/non-profit theatre perspective) is that even when it doesn't happen to also be *good* casting, the financial rewards are still huge (as long as no one comes down with strep). The day after the (multiple) eye-gouging reviews came out of 'Wrecks,' the Public's phones were ringing off the hook. I can't imagine anyone read the reviews and thought it was a good play - they just saw that Ed Harris was in it. Last spring, MCC's 'Some Girls,' brimming with TV stars, was a ridiculous hit. (I think it's mostly coincidence that these are both LaBute examples - I've heard that he's got his own name cache, but since it's used so often to recruit starry names for the marquis, I haven't gotten to find out if he pulls it off on his own.)

As someone who believes in good casting over star casting, I'm horrified to be learning how many people don't share that priority. Right or wrong, many producers think that a good play isn't enough to sell tickets, and that every show, in order to succeed, needs a star attached. And in the worst cases, they see the money and see no reason *not* to stunt-cast even when it's to the detriment of the play. As long as people are paying and in the seats, who cares if the play is any good once they're there?

David Cote

Good points. Casting is 80%. And many great, "unknown" actors should work more. But if a genuinely talented person who happens to be famous does a show and draws crowds, even better. And that has nothing to do with producers, but the ticketbuyers. If producers have decided that plays, good new ones or great classics, aren't enough to sell tickets, they're simply reacting to the star-worshiping herd instinct of the general public. In short, I blame Joe and Jane Q. Public. I'm sorry, but producers—commercial or nonprofit—cannot wave their magic wand and make hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers and tourists want to see a new play by, oh, Adam Rapp or a classic by Eugene O'Neill, unless there's the added celebritude incentive. (Added value, if you will) If we lived in a sane culture, this wouldn't be an issue. So basically I'm saying that stunt casting is a reaction to the fact that people would rather see a live star than "boring, pretentious" art. It's that simple, I fear. How do we change that is the question. I think it's naive to simply say, cast the best people possible, build it, and they will come.

David Cote

And to add to my comment, when big names catapult a lousy play to success (Some Girls), again, you can't blame producers if the general ticketbuyer can't make a distinction between stars and the material.


You're right - it is naive. But I am, at times, naive in my idealism, so...

I don't think the ticketbuyers can be entirely blamed, though, either. What I was talking about was also in reference to non-profit producers, because they're the ones who are supposed to be taking the artistic risks, right? Grants and donors can't cover everything, and you do need to sell tickets, but it's frustrating to see the promise of ticket sales guiding the selection of seasons and casting, rather than the intention of making of the best art possible. It's a catch-22 - I don't know what came first, the audience's preference for shiny stars, or the producers' willingness to cast lesser actors of greater name recognition. I understand that the benefits of casting stars are hard to resist - I just wish producers would at least keep to stars who are actually *good*, casting them for talent and name rather than subjugating the quality of the product to the ability of a known name to sell tickets.

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