Theatre People caught up with Director Paul Watson to get the low-down on what he’s looking for in the upcoming auditions for Chicago.
Theatre People: Why chose Williamstown for this show?
Paul Watson: Williamstown Musical Theatre Company chose to do the show before they had a creative team onboard, and then set about finding a team that would do the show in the challenging venue they perform in. I always thought Chicago would work in a small venue with creative ideas and always wanted to do it when I was living on the East side and directing for Fab Nobs. Fab Nobs should totally do Chicago in the Fab Factory! I'm very excited about the design of the show and how I'm looking to direct it in an intimate space with no fourth wall, and mega excited about the team that’s we have in place. Dan Heskett is so familiar with Chicago as a musical director, that it's almost like a show he could call his twin sister! I'm loving hearing his suggestions and ideas on how we could (and can) present the show musically. Venessa Paech is one of the greatest choreographers I have ever worked with, and the last time we worked together was on another Fosse-style production. I just love her work, and I think her training in New York just allows her to understand Fosse better than anyone I know.
TP: What is your concept?
PW: I think the words "cynical", "sarcasm", and "satire" are most important when I think of Chicago. I think Fosse developed the show with the idea of cheekily giving the 'middle finger' to society and its apparent morality… or lack of! The presentation of 'villain' being adored through media and pushed towards a celebrated pedestal is still so prevalent today. One word… Li-Lo! So I intend to focus on the original staging, dramatically, and trying to create a 1920's sense of paparazzi and bring the live show to life from out of a black and white picture. I also think that the original intention was to pay homage to the vaudevillian performers and legends of the prohibition era, and making sure each number in the show is a stylised tribute to these artists. This is where the true soul lies in Chicago, in the historic vaudeville. I think the original staging is very important, but, to the same degree, I think the more modern revival aesthetic and look of the show is also just as important now as the message. Combine that with the importance of the Fosse 'body language' and I'm intending on combining all those four elements. The movie version will not really be a considered point of focus at all.
TP: What are you looking for in the audition process?
PW: The casting notice is hopefully rather detailed and full of hints and suggestions. I tried to give some background to the main characters so people could see what it is I am looking for and the kinds of real-life people these characters are based on. Basically I'm really interested in someone’s interpretation of the real-life characters and performers the show pays homage to, rather than the interpretation heard on the cast recording. We don't have a balcony at Williamstown!!!!! so I'm not looking for the actors to leap over the footlights. I'm hoping to keep it contained and scarily real! Chicago requires actors who are confident, but mostly I'll be looking for people who are malleable and looking to explore ideas and have fun creating. Having fun together with the entire cast will be a major focus of this production. The cast will be on stage supporting and contributing to the show for most of the performance, and creating a track (with little down time) is a challenge for many performers, especially in an intimate theatre where you can not hide. It will be a really rewarding experience. Actors who are willing to try things and go to places they might not have thought a role could go will be high on my list. It will be a true ensemble show. Many of the roles require triple threat ability, but as a director I have to place the text first. I'm after actors who can sing and dance really well!
TP: Any specific audition tips?
PW: The biggest tip I can give is focus on the one thing you are in there to do. If it is dance, dance! If it is a read, just read. Don't block a little scene, just stand and read. If it is a singing audition, do nothing but sing. I just want to hear the timbre and quality of your voice and nothing else. I don't need to see blocking or connection to lyrics etc etc. I promise we'll check dance ability at the dance call, and I promise we'll check your connection to text either by a cold read or during a callback! Come looking sharp, well dressed and prepared, but keen and open to do whatever we may throw at you. It's a safe room, full of friendly people who want you to be fantastic. Keep it simple. I like simple auditions! Casting can be complicated enough!
TP: What will the performers get out of this experience?
PW: I think there is so much to be taken from a show like Chicago, too much to mention in an article. I honestly feel working with Dan and Vanessa, and being in a cast at Williamstown (who are fast gaining momentum and have a strong reputation for producing great theatre) will be something worth looking back on as a great time in your life.
TP: You are known for team-building. What sort of team-building activities have you undertaken in the past?
PW: I'm always looking for ways to get my cast connected, working together, and for each other, working towards the show and focussed on the same goal. I have a few ideas about what I want to do during Chicago and it will be a lot of fun and educational. I guess one of my favourite experiences was recently during RENT at Whitehorse. We decided to have a 'tree of life' built within the set and we offered the cast the opportunity to bring something material to hang on the X-Mas tree that was a symbol of someone important to them, someone who has touched them emotionally. The response on the night we had the tree ceremony was unlike anything I have ever seen in theatre. The honesty, emotion and sharing energised me to take these approaches to theatre further. That really was an incredible family, incredible cast. That experience will stay with me and the cast forever and that is a single great reason to do theatre.
TP: What songs should potential auditonees sing? What style are you after?
PW: I think the best thing to do is keep it Broadway. Keep it based around composers Kander and Ebb if you can.
TP: Do you require monologues? If so, what sort?
PW: No monologues required. There may be cold reads and we will have callbacks for various roles.
TP: Are you looking to cast 'traditional' characters, or are you looking for people who break the mould?
PW: I'm always willing to see what people may bring to the role with their own interpretation. I have an idea of what I want of course, but my theory is always to work to an actor’s strength. It's good advice actually. If you can do what I'm after… great! If you can't, it is not the end of the world. All I am looking for is that you at least are prepared to try. If all else fails, I'm very excited to see what you think of the role that I may not have thought of.
TP: Will there be call backs?
PW: Yes, I like to run my callbacks as an open room so i can put the various actors up against each other. Theatre is very much about "people management" as well as being a very aesthetic beast. So once we find the talent we could be after it then becomes about how the auditionees look and work together as a cast. How they connect. We will be calling back various roles to see all our options and how they will work together. Nothing has been pre-cast in this production. Paul also suggests checking out the embedded videos on YouTube.