Aoife Spillane-HInks

Aoife E. Spillane-Hinks ’06 first took to the stage at age four. Sure, her role only required her to sit still, and she was only cast because of her ability to pay attention, but none of that mattered—it was the experience, one she still fondly reflects upon as “wonderful.”



Since then, Spillane-Hinks—a resident of the Dudley Co-op—has never been far from the theater. As a child, her classes included dance and drama and much of her time was spent in New Haven’s community theater and in drama-heavy summer camps; and throughout high school, she dedicated three hours each afternoon to a performing arts conservatory, where, as a senior, she began making the change from actor to director.



This extensive background and dedication to the craft of theater has served her well in her time at Harvard, where she has had a large impact on the theater community as both an actor and a director. This fall, “Slavs!,” her third show as director and first on the Loeb Mainstage, was a success, despite several obstacles in Spillane-Hinks’s path. She had to compete with a time-honored Harvard tradition—its run on stage conflicted with The Game—and deal with losing many of her first-round casting selections.



When asked about this latter point, her response is typical of her approach to the difficult casting process—stoic and work-oriented. “In casting a show, you always get some actors and lose others,” she writes in an e-mail. “What matters is how the actors and the play come together once casting is complete.” Such experiences have also helped her refine her approach. “One of the most important things about the process, I’ve learned, having done it so many times, is organizing what’s going on behind the table,” she says.



This semester, she will direct J.M. Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World,” her second Mainstage production—an honor many Harvard directors don’t experience once. In addition to her artistic background, Spillane-Hinks brings to it an intellectual familiarity: the playwright is the subject of her thesis in Folklore and Mythology, of which this staging will be a part.



Still, her intimate knowledge of this somewhat esoteric play wasn’t her focus going into Common Casting. “A production isn’t a research paper,” she writes in an e-mail. Instead, she planned on “selling the show as a great story.” Indeed, the play’s universal appeal was something she wanted to emphasize—to The Crimson, to the actors, and to the eventual audience. “It’s very sexy, very racy, very funny, very violent,” she says. Though it is set some 100 years ago in Ireland, Spillane-Hinks wants it to have a modern, accessible feel and planned to use “non-traditional casting” in order to find the best actors regardless of their race.



It was this unique combination of artistry, scholarship, experience, and openness that Spillane-Hinks, a veteran who knew what she wanted and what she had to do, brought to Common Casting.



ACT ONE



“There are many parallels to Shakespeare,” Spillane-Hinks says to one actor. “It’s a beautiful, poetic way of writing.”



For the affable Spillane-Hinks, Pizza Q is a relaxed affair among friends, full of laughs and hugs; and yet, when talking to those few roaming actors at the under-attended event, she is sure to emphasize the play’s selling points and try to give it a more universal appeal.



Spillane-Hinks and her producers mill about the Loeb Ex with colorful, comic book-inspired flyers advertising “P.O.W.W.!” (an acronym for the play cleverly disguised as Batman-esque onomatopoeia). The flyers featured two panels with stylized Lichtenstein drawings, one with the necessary information about auditions, the other attempting to move the play beyond early-twentieth century provincialism by emphasizing its basic draws: “Sex, Lies, and Patricide—in Beautiful Ireland!”



Still, whatever the visceral appeal of the play, Spillane-Hinks maintains a strict professionalism throughout the process. Auditions begin Tuesday, Feb. 7, in the Agassiz’ high-ceilinged Horner Room, which, with its wood floors, chandeliers, fireplace, and grand piano, provides an unusually refined ambience.



Spillane-Hinks and her producers sit behind a long table, calm and much more serious than at Pizza Q. That’s not to say they’re all business—they aren’t afraid to laugh with actors, especially those they know, and their discussion when the actors were out of the room was the light banter of close friends, covering everything from theater to Thanksgiving.



Still, they missed no detail. Executive Producer Zoe M. Savitsky ’07 gives each actor, even friends of the production team, a carefully rehearsed speech after every audition that details the information they need for callbacks and encourages them to visit the play’s website and join its e-mail list—another uniquely professional advertising strategy Spillane-Hinks employs.



Spillane-Hinks recognizes that the auditions, in which she has only a few sentences to outline the plot, set the scene, describe the characters, and make the play seem appealing (“It could have taken place yesterday in America,” she tells one group), reflect upon her production. “We’re both auditioning for each other,” she says, later comparing it to a choreographed scene. “The objective of the scene is to say, ‘We are responsible, we are focused, we are good people.’” But still, she insists that her professionalism has other causes. “It’s less about an image and more about respect for the work we’re doing,” she says.



Her auditions are crisp and driven, attracting many from the theater scene, including actors she’s worked with before, her fellow directors, and at least one member of the HRDC board. In each case, she watches their varied acting styles intently, only occasionally looking down to make notes.



Spillane-Hinks compares it to the college admissions process: she isn’t looking for something specific or for a reason to mark an actor down, only for the positives they bring. What matters to her most, however, is the actor’s ability to react and change.



“This time could you try to get him to laugh?” she asked one actress she had never seen before. Giving actors notes like this is important to Spillane-Hinks; it levels the playing field, giving her an idea of what these unknown quantities will be like in rehearsals. It is what she looks for above all else: actors who respond to her direction and the flow of a scene.



“It’s about looking for actors who are willing to listen to the text, listen to each other, and listen to me,” she says.



ACT TWO



“I change things from night to night,” Spillane-Hinks says. “That’s one of the great things about auditions: you get to edit.”



Indeed, by the final night of auditions, now on the Agassiz Stage, Spillane-Hinks had managed to boil down her selling points—the play’s visceral appeal and its universal applicability—into one concise sentence: “It happens to take place 100 years ago and it happens to take place in Ireland, but it could take place in Iowa and it could take place on the stage of Jerry Springer.”



Spillane-Hinks’s knowledge of the play was on full display. Multiple times, she was asked about language that gave actors difficulty. But after answering their questions about things like poteen—which, if you didn’t know, is an Irish moonshine pronounced “po-cheen”—she was sure to tell them not to worry about the language, which she has had to grapple with herself as an actor in Synge plays. “You give them these two pieces: You justify it…and you say, ‘And don’t worry…this language is doable.’”



Spillane-Hinks’s approach seems to work well. All told, “The Playboy” attracts more auditioners than almost every other show, some 120 for its 12 roles—an impressive feat for a play without immediate mass appeal. In considering this many actors, Spillane-Hinks relies heavily on her producers and tries to establish an egalitarian atmosphere for discussing callbacks. “We don’t usually debate,” she says of their deliberations. “We all err on the side of the person who wants to see them again.” But the volume of auditions also gave her cause for excitement. “I’ve got a lot to play with this weekend.”



And during callbacks, she certainly does play. It’s a hectic process, as Spillane-Hinks enjoys testing the various permutations available to her. Some six women and two men are present for the two-character scene witnessed by The Crimson, and Spillane-Hinks makes sure to use every possible actor-actress combination. She often has them perform the scene while “goaltending,” an exercise in which one actor attempts to reach the wall while another tries to stop him.



Self-assured but still speaking gently, she begins giving the actors more pointed and direct notes. “Feel how that felt, that last line, and let’s start from the top,” she tells one actor. “I want you guys to settle more into your authority,” she says to a pair. And she makes sure that actors properly understand the characters: “Widow Quinn never wonders whether she has the power of the situation,” she tells one actress.



But while Spillane-Hinks knows exactly what she wants from each scene, she’s still open to new ideas. “Bring your pear,” she tells one actress who is in the middle of a snack, encouraging her to use it to convey attitude. And when asked about one character’s reaction to another, she was willing to accept an actress’s suggestion: “Yes, ‘crazy asshole’ is awesome.”



But after callbacks, Spillane-Hinks is forced to take a difficult step back and allow the actors to take control.



ACT THREE



Once directors have posted cast lists, they can only anxiously wait for actors’ calls and hope that those they cast accept their roles. During this time, Spillane-Hinks turns to Practical Aesthetics, an acting technique based in Stoic philosophy. “You can’t control how you feel and you can’t control how other people feel, but you can control how hard you work,” she says. “I sit down and I think about the play…I force myself to go back and work even further in analyzing the play and analyzing what each character is about.”



This time, that extra work, whatever its later benefits for her production may be, proves unnecessary. She receives just two e-mails asking about acting in two shows and one phone call inquiring about the rehearsal times, to which she proudly responds with a very specific, pre-planned schedule.



The actors are already sold on her and need no more convincing, it seems. Only two of her twelve first-choice actors turn their roles down—and only so they can take larger roles in other productions. Her past experience proves invaluable. “I was the most professional I’ve ever been in the process because I know how to best do it,” she says.



Spillane-Hinks’s dedication to both her craft and her play is rewarded, but not without a lot of hard work. Between preparations, auditions, and deliberations, Spillane-Hinks spends over 40 hours on the week-and-a-half Common Casting process, and this while still attending class, writing her thesis, and working on applications to graduate programs. On the same Saturday that Spillane-Hinks stays at callbacks from noon through midnight, she also has to present a paper on Synge at a symposium and perform part of one of his plays, keeping her awake for 22 hours.



Yet for Spillane-Hinks, Common Casting is on the whole a positive experience, one that gives her the chance to see her vision begin to take shape. “As with any show, I’m just excited to see people speak the words,” she says, reflecting on the work at hand near the beginning of the week. But despite all her knowledge and preparation, Spillane-Hinks recognizes that she can still be made to view the play in a new light by experienced actors and novices alike. “The surprises are some of the best parts of the auditions.”



--Staff writer Patrick R. Chesnut can be reached at pchesnut@fas.harvard.edu.