Chris N. Hanley

In some ways, the bearded and mellow-voiced Chris N. Hanley ’07is the George Lucas of the Harvard theater world. He’s deceptively relaxed, an industry outsider—this is the third show he’s ever directed, and none of those three have been for the HRDC—and he’s focused as much on the business of theater as on its artistic potential.

“It’s something I don’t think is encouraged and taught to students here: how to do show business,” Hanley says. But don’t get the wrong idea—he’s only emphasizing “business” because every other director spends so much time talking about their “show.”

Some directors put their ambition into making a grand thematic statement. This semester, in casting and directing the musical “Chicago,” Hanley’s ambitions are focused on a goal few Harvard shows ever attempt, let alone accomplish: he wants to turn a profit.

He attended the Career Exploration Program of a Los Angeles-based networking organization for Harvard alumni, called “Harvardwood,” over Intersession, and is intensely interested in the business of theater.

Part of his interest comes from necessity—“Chicago” is an independently funded production at the Agassiz Theater, without the HRDC’s financial backing. Currently Hanley and his company are $5,798 in debt, flying on a loan from the Harvard Club of Mississippi (an assistant director’s father is a member), a $5,000 loan through the Agassiz Theatre, and a prayer.

But despite all these obstacles, Hanley thinks he’ll do the impossible—He hopes to rake in roughly $25,000 from “Chicago,” and donate the funds to the Office For The Arts at Harvard, as an endowment for House drama productions.

Hanley’s expectations are not entirely unfounded. Last year, he directed Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” for the Winthrop House Drama Society, with unexpected success.

“We sold out all five shows,” he recalls with pride. “We were the first House play to make a significant profit. We made $900, which is sort of really unheard-of.”

Unheard-of, indeed—especially given that it was the first show he’d ever directed, and the first show many of the actors had ever done. But Hanley thinks inexperience, far from an impediment, can make a show into a sleeper hit.

“’Picasso’ was an underdog success,” he says. “I think the most significant part of it is that I had five people on that stage that had never acted before.”

Indeed, he prides himself on the ability to draw from resources that lie outside the Harvard theater bubble—his four choreographers are members of the Harvard Dance Team, and his music director is a member of the Harvard Jazz Bands. “He brought in all the jazz people,” Hanley says, “so now we have a professional jazz orchestra as our ‘jazz orchestra.’”

But the fact remains that the odds are stacked against him, especially in terms of appealing to actors. “With Common Casting, there’s an appeal, especially through HRDC, to do a Mainstage show,” he says. “I think there’s a lot of little stigmas and things that have gone on in there, specifically to the degree that you would rather take a chorus part in a Mainstage show than a lead role in a House show.” Or a non-HRDC musical in the Agassiz, for that matter.

In short, this show is pivotal for Hanley’s Harvard theater career. His third show directing, his first musical, thousands of dollars in debt, an opening date of Mar. 9 – an incredibly compressed time, since Hanley just found out he got the rights from the show’s publishing house six weeks before Intersession.

From day one, the pressure is on.

First Day

The first day of Common Casting is full of nervous energy for staff and actors, alike. Hanley and his crew sit behind a long table in the basement of the Loeb Drama Center. They’re a little worried about turnout for “Chicago,” although rumors that “everyone” was talking about their show in Annenberg today seem to cheer the gang’s spirits.

The long stretches of idleness make the contrast that much greater when the first few actors walk in; each time, there is a strange moment of silent formality when an actor hands in his or her Common Casting form and stands there, waiting, as Hanley looks over the sheet.

It’s the moment before performance, so it’s the actor’s last moment of anonymity.

“Okay, I want you to do it again. This time, I’m going to give you a spasm. Your leg,” Hanley says. Making the auditioning actor incorporate a nervous tic into her monologue is one of Hanley’s trademark moves, to see how well the actors respond to direction. Although most of the casting decisions come down to intangible factors like “presence” and their particular “fit” for “Chicago,” Hanley, for his own personal sanity and for that of the actors, relies on formulaic tests like this one to evaluate the actors.

He writes general comments on each actor, and records his impression of their “presence,” “vocal ability,” “dancing,” and “overall impact,” each on a scale from 1 to 10. At first, his notes are copious and detailed, and there are long discussions about each actor. Choreographers and music directors are consulted, and a consensus is always reached. Time still seems unlimited to them.

But difficulties particular to Harvard’s Common Casting system start to clutter the way. The system is particularly tricky for Hanley because “Chicago” is a musical, and so he has to audition people for three different skills: singing, acting, and dancing. There are so many small parts to cram into a single audition space and a few minutes of audition time, that it’s hard to coordinate everything.

“It was a hectic week for everybody,” Hanley says. “You get one room to audition dancing, singing, acting, you sort of go: This is kind of crazy.”

Although clearly frustrated, Hanley is unwilling to pin blame specifically on the HRDC’s inability to provide space, stressing that “it’s not their fault” and that the need for more space is universal: “It doesn’t matter whether you come in as an outside actor or the directors that are part of the HRDC or HRDC shows.”

Midweek (Tuesday and Thursday)

It’s early on a Tuesday night, and Hanley Hanley is lying spread out across the top of the grand piano. “How cool would it be to have this piano on stage with us?” he asks, spinning himself around on the instrument. “How cool would it be to have this piano,” he repeats, wondering aloud how they could handle the $400 cost of moving the piano from the Spindell Room to the Agassiz for the production.

His mind races, darting to one thing and another; Hanley and his staff move on from piano dreams to discussing the possibility of getting Catherine Zeta-Jones or one of the other stars of the movie to come here for the premiere of “Chicago.” Now and again, they burst into a spontaneous rendition of “Come What May” from the “Moulin Rouge” soundtrack. But eventually, an actor always comes in, and they switch into professional mode.

The constant stress is starting to wear on everyone involved. People conducting auditions in nearby rooms ask the “Chicago” people to keep it down. The lack of space for all three aspects of auditioning constantly irritates Hanley.

“We got a complaint,” he says one night. He moved some of his auditions out to a nearby landing, and an HRDC staff member yelled at his crew. Ever the pacifist Hanley says of the event, “Hey, I’ll sacrifice getting yelled at for the fact of being fair to the actors themselves. But it’s not the [HRDC] students’ fault at all” that they have to strictly regulate the use of space in the Loeb and Agassiz, emphasizes Hanley.

His point is that there’s no single overwhelming cause of stress in the Common Casting process—everyone is frustrated and frazzled for reasons beyond control. The normally silver-tongued director proves unusually inarticulate in his attempts to emphasize this fact, resorting to generalized reproofs of Harvard’s institutional inflexibility: “Theater is just so limited in so many respects here. And that’s what’s sort of irritating.”

Hanley’s cast is feeling particularly frustrated because whoever designed the calendar did give them two spaces on one day to hold dance rehearsals. The idea was to have at least one night when dance auditions wouldn’t have to be conducted in the same room as everything else. But due to the fact that this day was the only one on which the printed schedule read “‘Chicago Dance Auditions” as a separate event, dozens of actors thought that Wednesday was the only day to audition for dance.

35 actors arrive at the same time. “God forbid it might take too long,” a staff member mutters, implying the potential for reprisals from HRDC staffers. But Hanley wants no ill-will towards the HRDC or the process. “That’s OK,” he says. “We’re going to have a great time.”

There is little time to waste, however. The pattern of the auditions is down to a science now; it has achieved a choreography of its own. Evaluation of auditionees is now reduced to numbers on a sheet and an occasional, scribbled comment. Sometimes the most valuable communication is a meaningful glance between staff members. Hanley’s watch lies on the table, and between actors he announces the average length of a block of auditions. “Okay, I want to get it down to 25 minutes flat,” he says.

Hanley mouths the words of the actors’ songs, staring intently at them, trying to observe every detail in the hopes that within some actor might lie the particular spark of a Roxie or a Billy.

One of the things that makes the staff so weary is the blinding monotony of the same audition pieces being read again and again. “We’ve been hearing it for-EVER!” says one choreographer about the show-stopping number, “All That Jazz.”

But by Friday, after 100 auditions, Hanley has found solace in his ever-present daydreams of glamour and success. He sits on a huge, red, exercise ball that’s sitting, inexplicably, in a basement corner. Bouncing a little, he talks about the outfit that he’s decided to wear to the premiere of “Chicago.”

“I don’t want to be stuffy,” he says, but “I wanna look elegant.”

If Common Casting is a play in itself, then Callbacks are the nail-biting climax.

From over 110 actors who auditioned for “Chicago,” 49 have been called back for consideration for the final cast of 22. The auditions are noticeably more intense. Instead of trying out for singing or acting or dancing separately, the directors give the actors full scenes from the show to perform.

Everyone is wearing fedora hats, which just makes the scene that much more formal - and surreal. Hanley is extremely professional, making it a point to shake every actor’s hand and say, “We appreciate your time.”

The actors who have been called back are grouped by the part for which they are being considered. In the process, the actors become anonymous: “Get the Velmas in here!” Hanley yells. It’s as if, in this late stage of the game, the characters become more real than the actors.

Therein lies a shocking, but central paradox of any audition process: in the final stretch, the directors’ knowledge of the characters is tested far more than the actors’ abilities. The individual auditionees all have the ability to sing and dance and act. What matters is the director’s vision: he has to know exactly who will make the best possible Roxie or Velma.

“That rare someone comes in and just is a part,” he says. He explains that many final casting choices ultimately rely on the director’s intuitive sense of the characters: “She’s just got that little ‘erk’ that makes you think, ‘She could be a murderess,’” Hanley comments. Often the casting decisions are made right after auditions. Hanley always takes the lead, but it’s a very democratic process; he asks everyone for their yea or nay and then says: “It’s gonna be X, for this reason....”

Hanley says he’s satisfied with the cast he chose. He stresses the difficulty of making the final decisions. “Everybody that we called back was extremely talented,” he sighs. “It literally came down to the beauty being in the details.”

First-round cast-lists go up, and Hanley thinks “Chicago” stands a good chance of winning over its leads. “We’re not competing with anybody else” for actors, he says, because “Chicago” goes up so soon that actors who accept roles in other plays have enough time to do “Chicago” and then move on.

“We’re gonna have an amazing cast,” he says, but stops himself for a reality check. “If people accept. Hopefully everybody does.” That’s the problem with Common Casting—once the lists go up, the tables are turned, and directors must wait patiently for actors to make their choices.

Then, something astonishing happens. Every first-round lead accepts his or her part.

Hanley sums up his goals for the final cast of “Chicago” in a reference to his previous work on “Picasso:” “When you were watching the scene, it wasn’t a play. People felt like they were looking through a window – it’s the goal of theater, a scene of life.” That has been Hanley’s guiding vision throughout the Common Casting process: the hope of making his expansive dreams very real.

With his cast selected at last, Hanley is one step closer to doing just that. Still deeply in debt and pressed for time, he’s passed the first hurdle. But for this ambitious outsider, the business of the show has only begun.