Theater director Michael Disher hates opening night.
When the lights go down, he is forced to stand at the back of the Southampton Cultural Center, silent and still. His work is finished. He has to let go.
“It’s like taking the training wheels off a child’s bike and going, ‘Well, you’re either going to pedal this sucker or you’re going to fall over and skin your knee,’” Mr. Disher said during an interview at the theater last month, gazing toward the stage. “And then you hope and pray you made the right choices during casting. I can usually do it within 48 hours. It ain’t easy. It’s pretty dicey. It’s not foolproof. Never is, never has been, never will be.”
Auditioning looks much different from behind a director’s chair than to an actor on stage performing a memorized monologue, according to local industry pros. There is no one way to hold a casting call, they said, at least not for East End theaters. Each has its own method, which depends on whether its productions are professional—the rules change when the Actors’ Equity Association, commonly referred to as “Actors’ Equity” or simply “Equity,” gets involved.
The Actors Equity Association, which was founded in 1913, is a labor union that represents more than 49,000 professional actors and stage managers in the United States. And while there are slight variations, Equity theaters in the Hamptons—Guild Hall in East Hampton, Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor, HITFest in Bridgehampton, and occasionally the Hampton Theatre Company in Quogue—generally follow the same process, which involves a mandated casting call known as an Equity-eligible performer audition, or an “EPA” in the trade.
Whether the directors cast based on the EPAs is their decision entirely. Sometimes, roles or even entire casts are already spoken for, explained Guild Hall artistic director Josh Gladstone during a recent telephone interview. The theater’s production of “Equus” in 2010, for example, was driven by actor Alec Baldwin’s interest in the play. The star ended up coming on board as a producer, as well, Mr. Gladstone said.
But more often than not, the casting process isn’t as simple as making a telephone call to check on an actor’s availability, Bay Street Theatre Artistic Director Murphy Davis explained.
First, for Bay Street, there is a conversation between four key people: Mr. Davis, the director of the play, the playwright—if alive and interested in being involved with the process—and the casting director. They each come up with a list of about 20 actors for each role and confer, giving their top three to five choices in order of preference. Then, they come to an agreement on whom they should offer the role to first.
The Bay Street Theatre group is currently at this stage with the theater’s upcoming one-woman show, “My Brilliant Divorce” by Geraldine Aron, which opens on May 29. But Mr. Davis was not at liberty to say which stars are on the discussion table. For Guild Hall’s next production—“LUV,” a comedy by Murray Schisgal—which will open in June, Guild Hall has reached out to actors Ray Romano and Debra Messing, and the EPA is scheduled in Manhattan for Monday, April 16.
“When casting a name, you’re often, as anywhere else, trying to increase the exposure of the theater,” Mr. Davis said, citing the casting of Darrell Hammond in last year’s lead role as Truman Capote in Jay Presson Allen’s “Tru.” The theater has also hired actress Mercedes Ruehl four times, and Mr. Davis has worked with stars Richard Dreyfuss, Marsha Mason and the late Rue McClanahan, among other famous faces.
The next step, according to Mr. Davis, is that if no one on the preferred roster accepts the role, the group holds a Manhattan audition. That’s when a number of actors from the original lists are called in. The stipulated EPA is also required, both in the city—from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.—and on the East End. The latter draws out 20 to 40 local actors, while Mr. Davis said he’ll see 200 to 250 actors in Manhattan.
“My eyes are always open,” he said. “If a non-Equity actor shows up, and I have the time, especially out here, I will definitely see them. And I’m happy to. Equity gives us a quota of non-Equity we can use. It usually comes up to one or two, and if they’re cast, they become Equity.”
Generally speaking, the more celebrated the performers, the less contact time a director gets with them, said Mr. Disher, who now works solely with non-Equity actors in Southampton.