Welcome to the Wonderful World of Common Casting," reads a chalked sign in the Loeb Ex’s black box theatre, a surreal room transformed by candy, a functioning green swing, and drum beat soundtrack. Returning actors greet one another with full body hugs, while nervous novices and first-years fret over potentially awkward interaction with strangers, especially when directed to act "sexual, but not explicit."
Once called, a stage manager leads actors upstairs, walking backward, tour guide-style, and punctuating her spiel by deep gasps for breath. There is a quick sizing up as a director distributes parts, then the groups of two or three head down the hallways, past headless tailor dummies and tables covered with pairs of black shoes from former shows.
The Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club (HRDC), a board of directors, actors, and producers that decides which plays will be performed each season and monitors administrative details, controls this inner sanctum of the theater world. These are self-proclaimed "theater people"—loud, boisterous, and comfortable in the spotlight.
Four writers from The Crimson receive passports to this bizarre universe for one week, as they follow seven participants to understand Harvard’s biannual Common Casting process (see sidebar). The fate of spring semester’s productions and the complexities of Harvard theater will unfold, as we shadow two directors—an HRDC vet and an ambitious non-conformist—and five actors—two "A-listers," two rising stars, and one cavalier first-timer—from pitching the shows to picking roles.
In some ways, the bearded and mellow-voiced director Chris N. Hanley ’07 is the George Lucas of the Harvard theater world. A deceptively relaxed industry outsider—he’s directed three shows and none for HRDC—Hanley is focused as much on the business of theater as on the art.
"It’s something I don’t think is encouraged and taught to students here: how to do show business," he says. He’s only emphasizing "business" because most other directors fixate strictly on their "show."
Casting and directing the musical "Chicago," Hanley’s ambitions center on a goal few Harvard shows ever attempt, let alone accomplish: he wants to turn a profit.
Director Aoife E. Spillane-Hinks ’06, on the other hand, never seems concerned with anything but the spirit of her artwork. She directed "Slavs!" last fall and J.M. Synge’s "The Playboy of the Western World," will be her second consecutive production on the Loeb’s mainstage—an honor most Harvard directors never even experience once.
She also has academic interests at stak—the playwright is the subject of Spillane-Hink’s thesis in Folklore and Mythology, of which this staging will be a part.
Still, "a production isn’t a research paper," she writes in an e-mail and she plans on "selling the show as a great story."
Actors are her best customers.
Theater was never the obvious choice for Liam R. Martin ’06. The blond-haired, blue-eyed government concentrator was a varsity athlete in high school. But an injury—what he now calls a "blessing in disguise"—cut sports recruiting short, and when he tried Common Casting the fall of junior year, he soon landed roles on the Loeb Mainstage with professional directors. Next fall, he will head to New York, not as an investment banker, as was originally planned, but as the latest hopeful looking for a big break.
"I went from kind of a zero to having it be my whole life," he says.
When Catherine P. Walleck ’06 entered the Loeb her sophomore fall, she was looking for a new activity to throw herself into.
"I felt like at Harvard, I was lacking in a fun extracurricular," she recalls.