If you attend a production presented by the Antaeus Company in North Hollywood, it's hard to be sure which performers you'll be seeing.
Antaeus specializes in large-ensemble classics. And yet the company doesn't use understudies — theater's traditional insurance policy for absent actors.
Rather, at Antaeus, in a profoundly different casting approach, two actors are hired to play each part, alternating performances. Not only are both performers expected to attend all rehearsals, they also partner in creating the role, negotiating character motives, stage movement and maybe even costumes with each other as well as with the director. In fact, the actors take and use ideas for the role from each other. It's almost inconceivable that a principal performer would borrow an idea from an understudy
This policy of "partner casting" — also called "double-casting" — is expedient in a small theater such as Antaeus, allowing actors to jump out of a show for lucrative TV or film jobs without damaging the quality of the production. Explains co-artistic director Bill Brochtrup, "It started out as a way to solve the problem of the TV/film actor who wants to do theater in L.A."
Brochtrup, his co-artistic director Gigi Bermingham, and non–company directors who have worked with Antaeus, including Jessica Kubzansky, Bart DeLorenzo and Casey Stangl, all say that not only is the process a better insurance policy than using understudies but also that actors sharing a role (and sharing the process of creating it), as well as the privilege for audiences of seeing multiple interpretations of a classic prepared by two casts, have turned an expedient casting policy into an innovative artistic process.
Still, partner casting has its downsides. Some directors point out that rehearsing two casts at once is such an exhausting use of a rehearsal's limited time that it impedes their ability to explore a text as deeply as they'd like. Furthermore, two actors sharing a role can inflame rivalries between them. Explains DeLorenzo in a 2010 report he wrote (at the request of then-artistic director Jeanie Hackett) after his double-cast staging of King Lear that year, partner casting "reduces the actor's sense of responsibility and ownership of the role. For some more than others, and in different ways for all, but this factor manifests itself in all sorts of insidious ways."
In any given rehearsal at Antaeus, one of the double-cast actors will be watching from the seats while the other is onstage working with the director, before the actors switch positions. If one of the pair is unable to attend a rehearsal, the duo stays in touch so that both are fully prepared for the opening weekend. Shortly before the production meets its first audience, the director creates two companies, based on the best combinations observed during rehearsals. Sometimes, however, with company members stepping out to take higher-paying work, the companies get rejiggered into a third hybrid company.
A couple of the directors interviewed mentioned their own tendency to pick personal favorites from the actors sharing a role. Although Antaeus Company created the double-casting strategy in the early 1990s, Joe Stern's Matrix Theatre Company started putting on regularly staged double-cast shows around the same time — sharing many of Antaeus' A-list TV/regional theater actors (including Dakin Matthews, Lawrence Pressman, Jeanie Hackett, Gregory Itzin, Robert Foxworth, Nike Doukas and Anne Gee Byrd).
Stern says he found himself fretting over getting the "best" cast onstage for the major critics. "And I was always wrong," he admits — meaning that the actors he considered inferior got the better reviews.
Critic-playwright Charles Marowitz offered a blistering criticism of double-casting, on moral grounds, in a 1993 article, reprinted in his 1996 compilation of essays Alarums and Excursions, Our Theater in the '90s: (In his commentary, "Waiver" theater refers to venues of 99 seats or less.)
"In many instances, shows are deliberately double-cast ... so that defecting players can be instantaneously replaced by their counterparts. This practice is not, as a recent L.A. Times review implied, a breathtaking artistic innovation but a contemptible device to compensate for the impossibility of getting actors to fulfill their commitments in Waiver theaters when Mammon beckons — as it regularly does." (Mammon meaning wealth — i.e., Hollywood.)
Marowitz's argument is a bit like spitting into the wind, or spitting on the reason why most actors are here and their entitlement to make a living at what they do — which double-casting attempts to accommodate. In DeLorenzo's list of positives and negatives, he writes in the positive column that the policy "removes the actors' guilt about having to leave a production, temporarily or permanently."
Gigi Bermingham remembers being double-cast as Arkadina in Chekhov's The Seagull in early 2012. "I got food poisoning on opening night. My partner, Laura Wernette, did both openings, which was awful and wonderful for me. That was a time when I thought, thank goodness."
Current critiques of partner casting are far more nuanced than Marowitz's, having to do with the capacity of a top-flight director to fulfill his or her vision of a classic. Says Kubzansky, who directed Antaeus' Macbeth this summer, "It takes three times as long to accomplish half as much. I block [determine where characters move on the stage] off actor impulses. When I start to block one actor, I can't assume that the second actor will get it because [he or she] may have different impulses. Or there's a dialogue and they ask me, 'Which do you prefer?' " — pitting one actor's choice, even their personality, against another.
Adds Kubzansky, "Actors sitting around watching their partners lose patience, so I'm switching them back and forth, making it that much harder to cement a scene — though when they're really paying attention, it's great."
Kubzansky does stress the luminous history, brains and talent inside the Antaeus company, "and it is exciting to mix it all up with different chemistries of different actors."
Like Kubzanksy and DeLorenzo, Stangl is a regional theater director not in the Antaeus company, but she's more of a fan of the process than they are.
"I'm definitely an enthusiast of partner casting," says Stangl, who directed Antaeus' Peace in Our Time in 2011. "Scheduling rehearsals was hell, but I found it makes the actors collaborators in a way that's not just in their own cause but being aware of the whole wheel. They're always stepping out and watching themselves inside it."
Stangl adds that she deliberately tried to cast actors who were not carbon copies of each other, "so you could get different takes on the role. It works at Antaeus because they're a company, they know each other. It demands a certain generosity of spirit and egolessness and confidence — the ability to be confident in what you're doing and watch somebody else and feel you don't have to copy them."
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Brochtrup, the co-artistic director, recalls a line from Lillian Hellman's The Autumn Garden, which the company presented in 2010. Mrs. Mary Ellis says to her grandson's now ex-fiancée: "Well. If there is ever a chance, come and see me."
Broochtrup explains, "When Dawn Didawick said the line, it was full of sweet Southern poison, like a knife in the back. When her partner, Anne Gee Byrd, said it, the line was full of sorrow, as if she had lost a daughter. One line, so different, made the entire play take on a different shade."
Brochtrup cautions, "On ... occasions there will be personalities that don't mesh well. But we're finding the more we do it, we're refining ways to handle that early on. Now so many people have done it and had a good experience, so everyone is now kind of on board with how we do it. We've seen no personality conflict in a couple of years. We like to think we're getting better at it."
A double-cast production of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's You Can't Take It With You, directed by Gigi Bermingham, starts previews Oct. 11 at Antaeus Company, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., N. Hlywd. For more information, see antaeus.org.