In June of this past summer, I had the opportunity to sit down with the director, playwright, and casting assistant Gama Valle, who offered some invaluable insights for actors on the reality of casting and directing. Others have described Valle as an “up-and-comer” in professional theatre, but I would argue that he’s been up for hours and has long since arrived. Besides working as a Casting Assistant at the acclaimed Harriet Bass Casting, he is also an accomplished playwright and director (see bio at the end of this interview), and holds an Master of Fine Arts degree in Directing from The New School For Drama.
At the time of our conversation, Valle and Harriet Bass Casting were in the middle of the audition process for Oklahoma! at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, as well as organizing casting sessions for The Color Purple at Portland Center Stage. In addition, he was reading scripts as part of the selection committee for the NYC Fringe Festival. I caught him at the end of a long workday, and he was generous with his time. The following are some highlights from our exchange.
MG: How does being trained as a director affect you as a casting director?
GV: I think a lot about the production as a whole. Can’t help it. As a casting assistant I’m supposed to keep an eye open for actors that might be a right fit for a specific role and keep everything running smoothly, but my mind goes to the big picture. I find myself putting actors together— assembling the cast is my head. Not sure if that’ll be useful when I have my own casting projects in the future. We’ll see.
I mean, most (actors) who come in do a great job—they’re prepared, talented, appropriately dressed, they check all the boxes—in the end it’s about whether they fit the vision for that specific production and whether the actors that you choose fit together in the world of the play or fit together in terms of how they work.
You really want to have all the actors on the same level or people who have similar training or instincts.
Before a casting session, when you’re in the office behind the computer, it’s really about finding the best actor you can have for the (casting) session, and finding the people who actually want to come in for the project you're working on. But when you’re in the room, when you’re at the end of the session or in callbacks, you're really talking to the creative team and they'll ask you questions: “What do you think about these three options? Which one you think is the best (for the role)?” You have to have an informed opinion on those three people, and not just about them as actors, but also about how they can support the director’s vision. You have to be able to articulate it in terms of the project and not just like, “I really liked this person.” You like all of them, because you just want everyone to succeed. You want everyone to get the job at the end of the day. But you have to take the whole production into consideration to be able to make an informed decision and also to give an informed opinion. That’s where the directing training is really useful.
MG: What is the most satisfying part of casting? Of directing?
GV: It’s really satisfying when you've seen someone… let's say at a showcase or a play or in a festival, and maybe it’s not a great production, but you can see the actor is basically better than the show. And then you find a role that might be a good fit and you bring that actor in. Nobody knows that person. They come in, they do a great job, they get cast. It’s really gratifying to see we're helping someone to improve their career or to get a bigger credit for their resume.
I think directing… the most gratifying thing is just seeing the final product. But I also love to see the actors working in the rehearsal room. See them finding the characters and the beauty of it all, giving life to the to the play… That process…not everyone sees that process—and I'm sure most of us just don't want everyone to see that process! — but you, as the director, you can be a witness, you get to enjoy that and see how the actors go through the full process of creating a human being. Oh, yeah. I love that.
MG: There’s been a lot of discussion lately about whether a BFA or an MFA is worth getting. Do you have an opinion on acting degree programs? Can speak about how well they're preparing students to actually leave school, find representation and book work?
GV: Definitely in my experience, in our office, we gravitate more towards the people who have an MFA. That's solid: someone who has had more diverse training. You know that person can handle classical text, that person can handle a period character, you know the can handle the idea of style, which is always a little bit hard to discuss— how do you describe style? And how do you teach it, how you get it? But most of the time a good MFA program gives their actors the tools to really get through any sort of rehearsal process and be able to compete with other actors who have been doing it for longer and have stronger credits. So, you know, there is really something to being in school and learning and getting to know yourself and getting educated about theater in general. But the other great school is the daily grind: going to auditions, knowing how to handle yourself in the room, workshops, reading, rehearsing. An MFA isn’t the only way to make it. But yes, you can definitely tell when someone comes from a good degree program.
I know some people are always on the defensive side. Do I really need an MFA? Do I really need to go and keep training? I would definitely say yes because it's part of what we look for when casting theatre, because you need people who can handle text, who can be onstage, who can carry an hour and a half of action and motion. And do it again and again.
MG: A lot of actors read OnStage Blog. As someone who works in casting, is there one thing you wish actors knew about auditioning that they just don't seem to know?
GV: I think the main thing is being truly open and relaxed when you come in into the audition room. A lot of times you see very talented actors, they're great with the material, and then when the read is over and it's time to have a moment with the creative team, to build up a quick relationship with the people evaluating their work, they sort of close themselves. There's like a wall… and I know there's nerves, but at the end of the day the director wants to know if there's some sort of connection there, someone that you can talk to, someone that you can spend six to eight weeks together rehearsing with from ten to six…leave an impression on me, because I'm sure you have a personality.
It's not about coming in and being overbearing and trying to grab everyone’s attention. It's just about being there, being connected and being open to do what you came in to do. I think sometimes actors just close off. You can say “hi”. You can smile. Actors tend to think of the audition as the acting part and the rest of it is not as important. The director is going to have to literally spend so much time with you. So of course, they want to make sure that your approach to the material is close to what they have in mind. But also, they want to know if you have a nice personality that they can deal with, that you’re someone they could have a cupcake with. Someone who’s going to be a team player.
MG: So the same question about directing: is there anything as a director that you wish actors were more aware of? Is there something you find yourself thinking, like “God if there's one thing that I wish all actors would do it’s this, or that all of them would stop doing, it’s that.”
GV: Yes. In the very beginning of the rehearsal process, you're getting use of the words and the staging and the technicalities. But after that, after that process is done, you just want every day, every second to be at 100%. Give me everything you have, all the time, because I want to see everything I have to work with, like what I will see on opening night. When actors think, “I'm just going to do it, even if I fail I'm just going to do it here and now, every rehearsal” it really takes the production somewhere else and your work with the actors goes much farther. There’s really no time to just go slow and ramp-up. You have to jump in. Yeah, we're not going to save it for later. As a director, I like a strong point of view, like, “This is how I see the material, this is what I'm doing. I'm jumping in and I'm going: stop me when I'm totally wrong.”
MG: I think that’s a really important and affirming thing for actors to hear from a director.
GV: I hope so. We want them to go for it. We want them to succeed.
MG: Thank you for your time, Gama Valle.
GV: It was my pleasure.
Gama Valle is a Puerto Rican director, playwright and freelance casting assistant. He holds an MFA in Directing from The New School University. Gama works as a casting assistant at Harriet Bass Casting. He was also the recipient of the Van Lier Directing Fellowship ‘10/’11 at Repertorio Español. Gama received the First Prize in playwriting from Puerto Rico’s Institute of Culture (2008) for his play “Queishd&Dilit”. Recently his play ¡Los huevos o la revolución! was part of IATI Theater’s Cimientos Play Developing Program. N.Y. credits include: “The Lesson”, “L’Amfiparnaso”, “Among Who, Whom and Ever”, “Jump It”, “In Love but Discreet”, “The Girl Who Used to Die Often”, among others. IG: @gamavalle
Molly Goforth is the Features Editor for OnStage Blog. She recently wrote for OnStage Blog on about the working actor’s need to come up with creative excuses.