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Casting Call

Harvard theater and the Boston community

Casting Call

About this time a year ago, Elizabeth Pattyn, then a sophomore at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, was standing, a bit nervously by her own account, in the Agassiz Theater’s Horner Room. She was at the first production meeting of the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ upcoming production of “The Gondoliers.” During her freshman year at MassArt, she attended the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ production of “Patience” and left impressed with the polish of the production. She sent an email to one of the producers, asking if there was any way she could help with their next show. Now she was at Agassiz, about to start her first gig as a set painter. When it was her turn to introduce herself, Pattyn stood up, gave her name and year, mentioned she didn’t go to Harvard. Suddenly, everyone started applauding. “I didn’t know anyone on the production staff and had no prior technical theater experience,” Pattyn wrote in an email. “But [the applause] made me feel incredibly welcomed and valued as a member of the team.”

Pattyn is now a junior, and she has only become more involved in Harvard’s theater scene, working on three different shows this semester alone. Her experience isn’t singular: There are quite a few non-Harvard affiliated individuals who participate in Harvard’s theater scene in roles ranging from actors to musicians to set designers to choreographers.

Common Casting and the Community

Harvard’s theater community is, for the most part, overseen by the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club, which acts as the umbrella organization for Harvard theater. The group is responsible for holding Common Casting, the weeklong event through which the vast majority of Harvard productions are cast. Common Casting, though itself a fairly complex procedure, allows prospective actors to audition for as many or as few shows as they would like to make sure that directors’ final cast lists don’t have any troublesome conflicts, such as two productions independently casting the same actress as lead. Common Casting is something of a logistical feat, to be sure, but it is also in some ways the lifeblood of the HRDC, because it provides the organization with its membership. The criteria for HRDC membership are simple: Any Harvard-affiliated person who works on a Common Casted show is a member of the HRDC, with membership suspended only in the case of prolonged inactivity. Because Common Casting is seen as vital to a smooth casting process and is therefore widely used, the HRDC actually encompasses a pretty wide swath of Harvard’s theater community.

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Common Casting is not only for Harvard students, however—students from other schools, as well as other individuals from the larger Boston area, consistently audition for parts during Common Casting week. “In my institutional memory, it’s always been a policy of HRDC to open up auditions to anyone in the community, whether that be someone from Emerson or Tufts or a doctor in Somerville,” HRDC President Magdalene M. Zier ’16 says. The HRDC’s official policy, according to their constitution, is that auditions are open to the public, but all else equal, “preference will be given to Harvard undergraduates.”

Still, it is difficult to ascertain exactly how much, if at all, this HRDC policy ends up affecting final casting decisions. The HRDC clause only comes into effect if the two performers are extremely similar in acting skill, which is a corner case that does not occur terribly often. “No two performers are ever really exactly equal. It’s rarely a thing where we have exactly the same amount of desire to cast these two people, but one of them goes here and the other goes there,” HRDC Vice President Daniel J. Prosky ’16 says. “It’s usually a much clearer distinction.”

However, the very existence of this policy could easily act as a slight deterrent to casting people from outside Harvard. “Even though we frequently have a lot [of outside actors] audition, there aren’t always as many cast as audition, because of that system we have in place,” says Emily E. Bergquist ’18, a theater-maker who has been involved in multiple shows on campus.

Perhaps due in part to this policy, shows differ wildly in the proportion of non-Harvard students they employ. Some shows have relatively large non-Harvard contingents involved—according to Zier, “Assassins,” an Oberon show she produced last year, had an orchestra that was almost halfway composed of non-Harvard students. But many other shows have very little, if any, non-Harvard presence. “This year there were a few [individuals unaffiliated with Harvard], here or there. I probably saw like three or five or something like that,” Prosky says. “I would say that it’s never really a sizeable portion of people participating in Common Casting.”

Some of this discrepancy might be because only actors go through the Common Casting system; directors usually find technicians, set designers, and other members of the crew. But even taking this into account, production staff members are often predominantly composed of Harvard students. “I’ve often been the only non-Harvard affiliate in the shows I’ve worked on,” Pattyn writes.

Spreading the Word

This underrepresentation could stem from a lack of outreach. “I don’t see us spending resources putting up posters in Porter Square,” Zier says. It’s difficult to fault the HRDC for not doing more, however, given that actively recruiting actors from outside Harvard might be outside the organization’s mission and scope as Harvard’s general-purpose, umbrella theater organization.

“We’re not really looking to reach out to find other opportunities and share them. They’re fantastic opportunities and if people want to submit them we’re happy to publicize them,” Prosky says. “But it’s not part of our stated goals.” If a production, HRDC or otherwise, wants to access a wider base of theater-makers, that production has to do its own publicity.

Much of the responsibility of casting a wider net lies with individual directors and producers. “We just publicized our auditions online, we had a Facebook event, we generated a lot of word of mouth, and personal emails to people,” Bergquist says, regarding “OSCAR at The Crown and the love that dare not speak its name,” a production for which she served as associate producer. “A majority of that cast was non-Harvard students.” The effort individual directors put into non-Harvard outreach seems to pay off. Individuals unaffiliated with Harvard can add a new sense of perspective to a production, especially since Harvard’s theater community is fairly close knit. “We frequently work with the same people over and over again—we do that for a reason, we do that because we like them—but also, just having a fresh set of eyes and new voice in the mix is always helpful,” Bergquist says. “Everyone that I have ended up working with I’ve had just a wonderful time with, whether it be in the cast or even on the staff. They just bring like a really good new energy.”

Apart from the particular camaraderie that a diverse team affords a production, can often provide a wide range of expertise to a production. “It’s really awesome to engage with students who study art full time and it’s just amazing to have their skill set with us,” says Kathleen C. Zhou ’18, a board member of the Harvard-Radcliffe Gilbert and Sullivan Players. Having a cast and crew with a wide variety of theatrical skills and backgrounds can greatly expand the horizons of a production, and allow it to tap into a deep pool of traditions and ideas.

Despite the benefits of working with non-Harvard students, the exchange is not particularly two-sided. “The Harvard theater community and the shows and organizations that we have here are all of a pretty high caliber and produce a lot of really good productions every semester,” Prosky says. “You really don’t see a lot of—or I haven’t seen a lot of—people branching and going to Emerson or BU or BC and participating in their auditions or their shows or anything like that.”

Harvard does enjoy a comparatively large amount of institutional support for its productions, a factor that draws outsiders to Harvard, rather than the opposite. “There is a small theater group among the consortium of colleges to which MassArt belongs,” Pattyn writes. “But it simply doesn’t have the resources that Harvard is able to provide in terms of production materials, performance space, budgeting, etc.”

When Harvard students seek theater shows outside of Harvard, they tend to gravitate more heavily towards professional productions, especially students who intend to pursue theater as a career. “What’s really exciting about a lot of members of the Harvard community who do theater here is that they do intend to pursue that in a professional capacity at some point,” Prosky says. “So when you have actors who are really committed to being actors, they, in addition to going through Common Casting and trying to do shows here, also look around and go out and audition for professional productions. And they’ve been cast.”

Beyond the Student Stage

Given the number of Harvard students who aspire to a career in theater, it might seem strange that there is not a well-known, formal system expressly designed to help Harvard thespians find opportunities to participate in professional shows, especially given the abundance of networking events and on-campus interview opportunities in the fields of technology, consulting, and entrepreneurship. Though Harvard’s Office of Career Services does offer guidance for individual seniors trying to find spots in professional shows and otherwise advance their theater careers, and the American Repertory Theater is a close-by community resource, there isn’t a popular equivalent to the business on-campus interview program for theater.

If Harvard students want to make forays into professional theater, they often have to venture in independently, without the help of major recruiting and advising events like those offered by the OCS’s On-Campus Interview program. “If you want to do it, you kind of go out and you do it,” Prosky says. “There’s absolutely no framework. It’s really just a person-to-person thing, if it happens.” There are informal mechanisms in place to help inform others about professional theater opportunities—friends will often pass along roles and opportunities that may be outside their own areas of expertise. In addition, the HRDC’s newsletter does contain a section which lists potential gigs, but that section relies entirely on submissions—the HRDC itself does not seek out productions beyond Harvard’s campus. Beyond Harvard’s own efforts, there are Boston-wide Facebook groups where directors and producers will post information about shows. But the predominant method for finding productions is still one-to-one interpersonal outreach. “Similarly to how we do it with other schools, people will send individual emails or text messages,” Bergquist says. “In the same way that we see success reaching out to individual people, they see the same success reaching out to us.”

Of course, an acting career cannot be wantonly compared to a career in a tech firm, and networking tools that work well in other fields would not necessarily beperfect fits for Harvard’s theater community. “I think part of it is also the difference in the structure of the theater industry versus these STEM things, where you can work for a company and get retained,” Zhou says. “Most of the time, [in theater] you’re just trying to get gigs.” Since most productions, except at fairly professional levels, are relatively self-contained affairs, burgeoning theater-practitioners have to search for new productions over and over.

Due to this pattern, students think that it could be utile to develop a more visible framework for support in that search, if only so that each prospective theater-maker’s foray into the professional [world might feels a little bit less isolated, a bit more communal. “I’m sure it would be helpful to have these network opportunities, these events where you have representatives from a bunch of companies or labs or whatever industry it might be coming in and talking about what they do to students,” Prosky says. “Certainly that sort of thing would be beneficial to the arts communities as well.”

For now, in the absence of a well-known and well-attended formal system for finding gigs, undergrads, at Harvard and elsewhere, are still finding success in expanding beyond their campuses. “Not only is Boston just a very cool, very artsy city with a lot of really exciting, interesting things happening, we also have so many universities around—so many colleges, so many schools,” Bergquist says. “You have a city that’s not only got such an investment in making good art, but also has so many young people and so many students who are freer to take risks and be creative, I think it’s really exciting what we get to be able to do.”

—Staff writer Adriano O. Iqbal can be reached at adriano.iqbal@thecrimson.com.








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