Auditioning Agnes

I have always been enchanted by the magic of John Keats’ poetry, and loved every minute of adapting his romantic The Eve of St. Agnes for stage. With the beautifully gothic Durham Cathedral and Castle greeting me as I walk out of lectures every day, gathering inspiration for the setting was no challenge! The opportunity offered by Durham Drama Festival to have my play performed, celebrating both Durham’s beauty and Keats’ words, seemed almost too good to be true. My first play We All Fall Down had been performed as part of DDF 2013, and I had loved every minute of writing, casting and rehearsing. Taking part in DDF for a second year running looked to be equally inspirational.

I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to set my play in Prior’s Hall, the beautiful medieval dining room of Durham Cathedral. I had a script, a set… even a production team, in the form of Producer John Halstead and Director David Myers. All that was missing, it seemed, was the actors to bring mine and Keats’ characters to life.

Now, I’m no stranger to being on either side of the table at auditions, and I’m well aware of the exciting, yet terrifying, process that is running auditions. There’s nothing quite like the joy of seeing someone arrive who is just perfect for your part, or watching someone transform under direction. But there’s also the panic that no-one will turn up, then the panic that there are too many actors, and difficult decisions have to be made. There’s a moment of triumph when you’ve decided on the perfect cast, but that is quickly replaced by – you’ve guessed it – panic about the first rehearsal.

However, when observing from a writer’s perspective, auditioning takes on a whole new range of emotions. Like any playwright, I have a tendency to get extremely emotionally involved with my characters, and entrusting them to anyone else feels a like you’re giving away your own child. So when asking David Myers to direct, it was done with a considerable degree of nervousness!

The first few auditions go well, notwithstanding a few nerves (from both sides of the table!). Mentally I draft my perfect cast list, impressed by both David’s directions and the absurdly high standard. I only wince occasionally, when one of the most beautiful stanzas in the English language is ruined by a mispronunciation or a stammering, but overall I’m enjoying myself.

“Can you make those lines…cheekier?” David asks to one Madeline hopeful. Cheeky? I think to myself, in slight horror. The idea of Madeline having any grain of cheekiness was completely alien to me.

But as soon as the actress starts, I notice that he is completely right.  She gets exactly the right grain of wheedling into  her voice, and suddenly, I can see both director and actress bringing out a playful, flirtatious side of Madeline’s character, a side I completely neglected. And it works, brilliantly!

Of course, somewhere along the line I was expecting him to bring his own ideas to the table, to read deeper into the script than I had, and to bring new creativity to areas I had neglected. But I suppose I was expecting to have to fight each and every one of his changes, to keep my script as pure as possible. I didn’t expect to actually like any of his ideas. But as he sketches out his ideas for staging, talks over costume design and discusses the imagery he wants to evoke, I start to realize that he has got more out of the script than I ever expected him to. And, most scarily of all, I think his ideas are incredible!

That seems very big-headed of me, and I suppose it is. After all, it’s in a writer’s nature to believe that their creations are perfect, and to ask each actor to mould themselves to their part. But auditioning all these people makes me realise that all I’m doing is giving David a cardboard cut-out. He fleshes out each character and draws features, and it is up to the actor to colour it all in. It’s scary, handing over something I’ve worked on for so long and trusting people so implicitly with my characters, but the more we discuss it, the more I realise how rewarding it will be.

The clock hits  nine, and David and I start shuffling actors. A couple of parts are no-brainers, but the vast majority involve a lot of debate. The smaller the part is, it seems, the harder it is to choose between two or three perfect auditionees. It’s awful, really, knowing that we’re turning down some of the best people I’ve seen in a long time, just because we don’t have the parts for them. But by the time we’ve finally retreated to the bar, we know we’ve found an incredible cast.

David, I know, can’t wait to start working with them. His work has only just started. (I can’t deny feeling slightly smug about this.)

And I’m just like a child on Christmas morning. I can’t wait to see my characters become reality.

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