Don't Confuse Desire with Discipline

— Two of the most useful books I've read about theater: Moss Hart's Act One and Michael Shurtleff's Audition. Hart's concerns playwriting, not the craft so much as the tenacity it demands. He wrote one a year for ten years. Nothing. Number 11 got a bite -- from none other than the great George S. Kaufman. Hart assumed the sail'd be smooth after that. Not so. The pair revised almost every word.

For decades, Michael Shurtleff was a legendary casting director, working for David Merrick and Bob Fosse (who said, "I know no man I trust more in the theater") and later with his own company, Casting Consultants. Shurtleff died January 28 in Los Angeles. He was 86.

"Casting director" is a misnomer, since Shurtleff neither directed nor cast a production. He would recommend actors for roles -- often an unknown he saw in a studio performance, at a cabaret, or a bit part Off-Off Broadway. "The casting director suggests," Shurtleff wrote. "It's his job to know a lot about a lot of actors, so he can advise and present to the director the best of the existing possibilities."

Because he went to every show on and off Broadway, averaging 10 to 12 a week, and kept a mental Rolodex on literally thousands of performers, Shurtleff probably discovered more famous actors than anyone -- but could never take credit. "If he's clever, a casting director makes a discovery," as Shurtleff did with Bette Midler, Gene Hackman, Jerry Orbach, and Lily Tomlin. Then he devises a situation that enables the director or producer to think they found the new talent.

Shurtleff discovered 18-year-old Barbra Streisand singing in a Greenwich Village dive. He got her to audition for David Merrick on the last day, in a time slot he'd carefully chosen for effect. She came in late, raccoon coat and a jawful of gum. She began to sing. Stopped. Took out the gum and stuck it under her chair. Then she sang and "mesmerized" everyone -- except Merrick, who took Shurtleff aside.

"I told you I didn't want ugly girls in my shows!"

"But she's so talented," said Shurtleff.

"Talented schmalented."

"It wasn't long after that Mr. Merrick was paying her five thousand dollars a week to do Funny Girl."

Shurtleff also can't take credit for discovering Dustin Hoffman (though Shurtleff got him the role for The Graduate), Ben Vereen, Elliott Gould, and Robert Redford, who labored under "a customary show biz belief that a blond actor could never make it."

Merrick needed a leading man for Sunday in New York, a Norman Krasna comedy. Merrick held days and days of auditions, but no one felt right. As he'd done with Streisand, Shurtleff scheduled Redford late on the last day of casting, "so by then the director and the playwright were ready to consider an unknown, even if he was a blond." Redford got the part.

"Michael was my mentor and best friend for 30 years," says San Diego acting guru D.J. Sullivan. "He's the one person who changed my life totally." Even when she disagreed with him, "and I did, somewhere down deep you knew he was right.

"Michael loved actors," says Sullivan, adding it would practically break his heart to watch talented ones audition badly. Sullivan recalls Shurtleff begging producers to see a young man with incredible promise. But the man did cold readings as if he had trouble with the words. So for an important audition, Shurtleff allowed him to memorize his lines. Sullivan: "It's the only time Michael ever did that. The actor was Robert DeNiro, and he never had to audition again."

Moss Hart's book is about tenacity. At bottom, so is Audition. "Perhaps you feel that Robert Redford would have made it sooner or later," he writes. "Not true. The woods are filled with those who missed, frequently because they weren't persistent or disciplined or driven, but sometimes because they were never in the right place at the right time.

"Luck aside, the reason a lot of talented actors don't make it is because they don't work hard. I would hazard that 85 percent of them don't. Sadly, most of them don't know this about themselves. They daydream of being an actor, confusing desire with discipline."

Shurtleff wrote Audition not as the last word on acting, but as a way to open the gate ("you won't get what you want," but "you will be considered for what you want"). Much of what he says concerns those one or two minutes under a solitary worklight, before a table -- coffee cups stuffed with dead cigarettes -- behind which lurk strangers with notepads. He advises: take the other side, always fight for something, be memorable (Streisand, it turns out, wasn't chewing gum when she stopped singing; she mimed sticking a wad under her seat: it was part of her carefully rehearsed performance). But the book's 12 "Guideposts" also apply to acting in general, to job interviews, and to improving communication skills.

In an article entitled "Using Michael Shurtleff's Book Audition to Help You Write Fiction," Timothy Sexton recommends the chapters on Opposites and Importance for giving characters dimension and drama.

I'd also recommend the chapters on Relationship and Humor. Shurtleff had been working with visiting English director Noel Willman. After three weeks of auditioning, Willman asked, "Don't American actors have any sense of humor?" When Shurtleff realized the answer was no, he decided "to begin teaching actors how to audition."

"Humorless acting is the dreariest kind," Shurtleff writes; "it's the hallmark of soap opera performing." He defines humor not as jokes but an attitude toward the world and looked for it even in serious scenes, because without it they're "unlike life." He adds, "I've never seen a great or star actor who did not have humor."

I would also recommend what he says about wit (page 130 in the Bantam paperback), his three-sentence chapter on "Simplicity," and, most of all, his pep talk, though it applies to "civilians" as well: "I advocate to all actors, and to every director and writer and designer: Never be a passive audience. That's for civilians. Your job every time you go to the theater, every time you go to the flicks, every turn on of that television set, is to put yourself in the shoes of those people who are acting, writing, directing. Find ways you can contribute to make what you're seeing better than it is.

"Every day, learn. Learn enough so that you can do good theater."

Shurtleff's friends and former students are "gathering" this Sunday, March 11, between three and six p.m., behind the Skylight Bookstore, 1816H Vermont Avenue, in Los Angeles. "Michael wanted a gathering, not a memorial," says Sullivan. "He said if there was any solemnity or singing of hymns, he'd come down and smite us all."

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


Log in to comment

Skip Ad

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader