Waiting to Exhale

posted by Meryl Lind Shaw, A.C.T. Casting Director

Wednesday, November 26, the day before Thanksgiving 2008, 3 p.m.

A group of us are gathered around Carly Cioffi’s desk on the sixth floor at 30 Grant, just outside Carey’s office. Greg, Carly, Vinny, Deborah, Caresa, Heather, Carey, Tom, and me. We’ve just popped open a bottle of Prosecco Vinny has provided, clinked glasses, and toasted to completing the casting for Rich and Famous. A festive moment, wouldn’t you say? Little would the casual observer appreciate the first deep breaths I’m inhaling in days. We have just received a “yes” from the last actor to join what is a fabulous cast, which is a wonderful moment. The excitement comes from the fact that the show in question starts rehearsal a mere 12 days from this moment.

Winding back the clock, here’s how the casting for this show evolved. The first cast member, A.C.T. company member Gregory Wallace, was signed on from the moment we read the script and chose to produce the play. John Guare was interested in revising the 1974 script substantially and incorporating some text from another piece, Muzeeka, and new songs. There is a hilarious character named Aphro, and it had Gregory’s name on it.

The next two roles fell into place pretty easily and quickly, despite the complication of having to have several people “sign off” on making offers. The director, John Rando, who directed the outstanding Urinetown we were lucky enough to produce prior to the national tour, had several actors in mind for the lead role, a character named . . . wait for it . . . Bing Ringling. Of course, as John and I discussed possible actors to whom we’d make offers, each idea would then need to be “signed off” on by both John Guare and Carey (playwrights have casting approval as part of their contracts, and Carey has approval rights, as well, of course). We needed to find a cast that had great comic acting chops and could sing. After we all agreed, we were thrilled to have an offer accepted by our very favorite choice: Brooks Ashmanskas (another great name!). Brooks was in San Francisco a few years ago in the Martin Short piece Fame Becomes Me, in which he played a variety of hysterical characters. He and John Rando had just collaborated this past summer and fall in a much-praised production of She Loves Me at Williamstown and the Huntington Theatre.

Next, after another round of approvals, we made an offer to Stephen DeRosa to play The Actor, a role that includes playing several characters, including Bing’s father, a matinee idol named Tybalt Dunleavy, and Anatol Torah, a very eccentric composer. After a bit of breathless anticipation on our part, Stephen also signed on. While all this was going on, however, John Rando was directing in New York, D.C., Boston, Milwaukee, etc., so finding the time to communicate was challenging along the way.

We also had the help of a wonderful New York casting director, Laura Stanczyk, with whom we’d collaborated before, continuing to feed us ideas. So, we were down to the fourth and final role: The Actress, who plays Leanara, an actress; Veronica, an elderly Broadway producer; Allison, Bing’s high school sweetheart; and Bing’s mother! No small order. Here’s where the wanderings of the artistic staff became a challenge. John R. was directing an Encores! production of On the Town in New York, John G. was working on a new project, and Carey was in Boston with Rock ’n’ Roll. Only John Rando knew our next top candidate, Mary Birdsong, whom we had already ascertained was available for the dates and who had expressed some interest in coming to do the show here. (She was also in the Martin Short show with Brooks.)

Although I had only seen Mary onstage in the Martin Short piece, we had watched her reel on her fabulous website, and fallen completely in love. After we showed the reel to Carey, she signed off on the offer, but we were waiting for John Rando to contact John Guare and obtain his okay. John R. was in tech rehearsals in Milwaukee, trying to reach John G. Finally, on Wednesday morning at around 10 a.m., John R. called with the okay, and I immediately called Mary’s agent with the formal offer. To add to the drama, the agents were all closing their offices at 1 p.m. New York time because it was the day before Thanksgiving! Fortunately, Mary’s agent is one of the good guys; because I had told him I expected to be able to make an offer that day, he had given me his cell phone number as a backup. The agent and I made all sorts of contingency plans to communicate over the holiday weekend, and I was anticipating an angst-filled few days. Then, at 3 p.m., the call came: Mary accepted our offer.

I exhaled. Clinked glasses with the group around Carly’s desk. Drank Prosecco. Went home and took a nap before going to see a play that night!

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