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Judgment

Fall is here, and with it, here in New York City, are all the previews for the upcoming theatrical season. I grew up here, so I’ve watched and read these hungrily ever since I was a kid. Since becoming an arts professional myself, I’ve had the extra pleasure of seeing the names of friends of mine listed in the announcements for upcoming shows, and companies where I have worked. This year, though, there was an odd and bittersweet first to be found in the New York Times arts coverage. For the first time, in the cast of a prominent upcoming show, was the name of a performer whom I myself had auditioned – and not cast.

During the EPAs for my Fringe production of Dragon’s Breath two years ago, we saw a remarkable young actress who, to avoid any embarrassment, I’ll refer to here as Jane. Jane was just starting out, but she had impeccable training and had done workshops with a bunch of prominent theatres. Moreover, her monologue was electric, off-center and memorable. We called her back that very night, eager to work with her. However, it became clear during the callback that she wasn’t right for the secondary female lead, and she didn’t quite fit our concept of the show’s three-person chorus. So we removed her from consideration after that first callback, even though it broke my heart. (Seriously – I cried out that my heart was broken to Jane’s headshot as my creative team met for dinner after that first callback. You can ask my director.)

Last year, Jane was cast in a supporting role in an off-Broadway production which wound up receiving a large amount of press. Uniformly, Jane was singled out by the reviews as the high point of that production. And now, in the fall previews of the upcoming season’s highlights, there is an even more high-profile revival, at an even more prominent off-Broadway theater, and Jane’s name is featured prominently in the cast.

I am truly happy for Jane. It’s hard enough for anybody to “make it” – goodness knows I’m still slogging away, as are the performers which we did cast for Dragon’s Breath. I’m glad that somebody with clear talent is seeing that talent rewarded, and in a timely fashion. But now, I’m forced to question my own judgment. I could have cast this rising star in my own play, and I didn’t. Did I blow it?

Dragon’s Breath had a remarkable cast – don’t take my word for it, check out the archived reviews here. Putting that cast together required making a bunch of heartrending decisions, given the size of New York’s talent pool. After seeing the final result, and working alongside my castmates* in that show, I’m sure we made the right decision. But I can’t help thinking of things from Jane’s point of view, and wondering if she ever thinks at all of this show that doesn’t appear on her resume. Does it prompt regret for what might have been? Or – my deepest fear – does it bring to mind that scene from School of Rock where Jack Black denounces his treacherous ex-bandmates by declaring them “a funny little footnote on my epic ass?” The history of the arts is full of critics and fools who’ve failed to recognize genius when they saw it – am I one of them?

I do hope not. And the problem with this whole line of thinking is that it’s based on a model of scarcity – only so many actors, only so many productions, only so many opportunities to make the right call. This model doesn’t work. It doesn’t work in overall life, and it doesn’t work at all in the arts. Rather than agonize over a particular audition, production, or choice, we need to work at all times to expand the number of productions and auditions available for everybody. That way, every genius truly does get their moment in the spotlight.

*Yes, I know, I cast myself in the show. It was just a supporting part, and I was right for it! Don’t judge me!

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