Interview with Jill Rafson

Jill Rafson, Director of New Play Development at Roundabout Theatre Company

I met Jill years ago through her sister Debra, who I’d worked with in Boston at New Repertory Theatre. We hit it off immediately. Over the years, she has introduced me to the work of some of my favorite living playwrights through her work curating the Underground at Roundabout Theatre Company.

Brooke M. Haney (BMH): How does it feel to be the person who picked a Pulitzer Prize nominated, Tony Award Winning playwright?

Jill Rafson (JR): It’s a little crazy. Stephen’s reaction to being a two time Pulitzer Finalist was a series of emojis. Where my response was “Really? You’re supposed to be a words guy.” It’s funny, he said “Who would have imagined at the first Speech and Debate reading when we were rolling a projector down a rehearsal hallway that this is where we were going to end up a couple years later.” I feel really psyched about what’s happening with him, and my intention this year was to commission him to write a new version of The Cherry Orchard and that would be his Broadway debut, since I’ve been searching for ways to get new playwrights to crossover onto Broadway within Roundabout, since we don’t really do new works there. But then The Humans got there first, so –  champagne problems really.

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Jason Fuchs, Sarah Steele, and Gideon Glick in Speech & Debate (Photo by Joan Marcus)

BMH: I feel like you’ve had a chance since starting Roundabout Underground to hire just about any actor you want. What do you find yourself looking for in actors for the Underground Reading Series versus full productions?

JR: It’s interesting, because Roundabout is so big, all of our spaces serve different purposes. When you’re trying to get people in the room for a reading for say, a Noël Coward revival you might try to get the to American Airlines Theatre, you’re trying to get names, talented names with stage cred because you are trying to sell tickets. The great thing about the Underground is that the second I say “yes, we’re going to do your play,” I’ve just lost the company several hundred thousand dollars. Because even if we sell out the run at $25 a ticket, we’re not going to make a lot back. So it’s a safe space where you get to try things and you don’t care what the names are in the play, which gives you a lot more freedom. So for the reading series in particular I try to say to people “Listen, I want you to get the best possible actors in the room who are going to be helpful to you in this day” because it’s mainly just a day. But very often with young playwrights they get this list from our casting office who have access to basically every person in the world and they start to say we might get this fancy person and we have to go through this discussion of what do you want to get out of this experience? Do you want to find out if this “name person” is capable of acting in a play whose never been onstage before OR do you want to get some killer theatre actors in a room who can for sure give you a solid reading and might actually inform the process a bit. So that’s a big discussion we have every time.

BMH: What is it about Roundabout that values new work so much that they are willing to invest so much in the Underground even when it’s a huge expense?

JR: Here’s the way I look at it: we are a theatre whose bread and butter is producing from the canon. We do revivals, and you have to refresh the canon. So what I think we’re doing at the Underground is starting to build the canon of the future. So I don’t want to find just a good play when I’m choosing writers to be produced in the Underground. I want to find a writer whose career I believe in and who I think we should support in the long run.

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Jared Gertner and Kate Wetherhead in Ordinary Days (Photo by Joan Marcus)

BMH: That’s awesome. I’m going to change directions now. What skills do you look for in an actor for the reading series?

JR: The Underground Reading Series really is just rehearsing around a table in the morning, then you read it for people at night, and that’s the entirety of it.

So I just try to get the writers people who are going to be helpful to them in the room. So we often have “repeat offenders.” The writers can really only come through once because that’s the nature of the program. But the actors can come back over and over again. So what I like to do is sit in on that first table read and see, how do they react to the piece? Are they able to ask questions of the writer? Are they asking the right questions? What are they doing to inform? How is this going to develop? So there are people who are definitely my favorites, who I will try to get in the room on new plays because they’re awesome and ask all the right questions. Like Cassie Beck, I think she is the best person you can put in any reading ever if you’re working on a new play, because she asks the best questions of the playwright.

BMH: Can you give us examples of best questions an actor can ask?

JR: What the writer needs is for somebody to ask questions from the perspective of the character. Here’s something you might not have seen from looking at the big picture, and here’s something I can see being in it. Because it’s almost the same role as a dramaturg – my role in a lot of plays is to not get in as deep with them as the playwright is because then I become less helpful. I need to be able to go in with unbiased eyes for as long as possible; inevitably I start to lose that to some extent. But I like to go in and say Here’s something I’m looking at and you’ve read too many times and you can’t see anymore. So for actors we need someone to go through the first read and say Okay, here are the questions I have from the point of view of this character. Here’s why I had trouble navigating and why I am or am not reacting this way. Or I lost track, am I even in the room for this scene, and if I am in the room shouldn’t I be doing something, or what does it mean that I’m not? It’s people just being able to narrow it down honestly.

BMH: And, what’s less helpful?

JR: It’s sometimes less helpful on the day of to hear from actors the bigger questions of the play. Because when I’m in a reading situation we usually have to get it up that night, so if you raise that question that the playwright might be inspired to answer, but has absolutely no way of accomplishing in the next two hours, that’s not as helpful. It’s great if you talk after, but in the moment it’s about how do we answer things that keep us all on the same page for this event and help us accomplish what we need to.

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Rebecca Henderson and Phyllis Somerville in Too Much, Too Much, Too Many (Photo by Joan Marcus)

BMH: How would you prioritize some of the skills required of an actor in the rehearsal room?

JR: There’s nothing worse than a boring reading, and that doesn’t teach the playwright anything. Especially in a cold read, because sometimes we do that – although for this series we don’t ever go in unrehearsed – but just on the occasion we do a reading unrehearsed we say just make a choice and go with it and we’ll see what happens. And whatever their instinct is about the part will probably teach us something about what’s on the page. So that can be helpful. I will say if you’re doing a reading in front of people and there’s no rehearsal, maybe read the play first. 

BMH: I would assume that even for your reading series your actors get the play in advance.

JR: They do. I can’t promise that they always read it in advance, but they always get it. But we’ve certainly had occasions where halfway through you see someone going Ohhhhhh, as in they don’t know the twist that’s coming yet.

BMH: Sometimes an actor is hired for a reading of a new play that would never be the right type for the full production for the reading, is that true at Roundabout?

JR: For us it’s rare because we have access to a lot of actors. We try not to do what I call “unproductive readings.” I like to do something that is always going to move the process forward, but every playwright’s process is different. We’ve certainly done the thing where the playwright is not ready to attach a director to the piece and just needs to hear it out loud for the first time, and that’s the case where we don’t need to get the casting office involved. The writer and I will call in some people we know and we’ll just sit around the table and very often those people are intentionally the wrong type so that they know they’re not getting the part later down the line. You’re here because you’re a smart actor and you’re helpful to be in the room and we don’t want you to feel like we’re rejecting you. This is not an audition, this is just to help the process. But most readings we really are trying to cast who we cast.

BMH: I think it’s very kind of you to say you’re not trying to lead actors on, because I’ve always kind of felt also that actors who work in new plays understand a reading doesn’t mean you’re getting your Broadway break.

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Tracee Chimo and Michael Zegen in Bad Jews (Photo by Joan Marcus)

JR: Yeah, we’re using readings to figure stuff out. And we’ve done readings for plays where we say Oh we cast the mother as 60 when maybe the woman should really be 45 and that changes everything from there. Sometimes that happens, and you don’t know that until you’re in the room. But we do really try. When you’re in a company like Roundabout, where Todd is always saying there’s not a whole lot of Rep left in this country, and so companies like ours are really as close as you’re going to get to that, because we do have a lot of the same artists come back over and over again. And so when you have this family of artists, the last thing you want to do is lead people on in a way you can’t fulfill later.

BMH: When you see actors coming in for Underground auditions is there anything different you think they need to bring to the table as opposed to if they’re going to a different type of audition?

JR: Just being able to take an adjustment, because guess what: the play’s going to change. So two things: you have to be able to respond to the director in the room because that’s important, and as the script changes, things about your character are going to change, so you have to be malleable.

The other thing is don’t paraphrase on a new play. It’s one of those things where people think they don’t have to respect the text the same way with a new play that they would with a classic and I’ve yet to sit in a room with a playwright next to me who didn’t freak out when the paraphraser left. They’re not going to hire that actor. They want somebody who cares about their text. And it’s one thing when you go in under-prepared, fine. People can walk in the room and say I just got this 24 hours ago, I haven’t had time, but I want to be off the page so I’m probably gonna paraphrase a little, great. But if you don’t give us the context it just feels like you don’t think the words really matter. I’ve had people basically talk their way out of a job that way.

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Chris Stack and Mamie Gummer in Ugly Lies the Bone (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Hannah Herbert-Hunt (HHH): What are some of the qualities a writer may have that make you think they’ll have promise in the future?

JR: Mostly it’s making sure you’re not just getting a fluke play. Generally I’ll have read more than one piece from a person before we end up putting them in the Underground. It’s also just an aesthetic where I want to say to you Hey you’re writing a play that we can do in this Black Box right now. Are you going to write a play that I can put in a 400-seat proscenium in front of our subscribers two or three years from now? Are they going to grow into a “Roundabout Writer?” My main goal is to find people who are going to continue with us.

BMH: If you were to write a syllabus for training actors in new play development, what are three things you would put on it?

JR: I would say to read something that is super traditional in a fresh voice, read something that is super non-traditional (meaning form or content), and make sure you’re actually looking at comedy. I mean teaching people how to land a joke can really kill a new play. Everybody focuses on dramas, and yes I get more dramas submitted to me for sure and it is a battle, but guess what? People like watching comedies, so hopefully people will keep writing some, which means people need to know how to act them.

JILL RAFSON is the Director of New Play Development at Roundabout Theatre Company, where she also serves as Associate Producer for Roundabout Underground. Jill has worked with The Broadway League, New York City Center, and ART/NY and has been a Dramaturg and member of the Artistic Council for the O’Neill Playwrights Conference, in addition to reading scripts for Vineyard Theatre and Deutsch/Open City Films. Jill is a Dramaturg for rising theater company CollaborationTown and for the Flea Theatre’s 50-playwright project, The Mysteries. She has served as script consultant for “The Importance of Being Earnest HD” (screened worldwide), lectured for the Commercial Theatre Institute and guest blogged for World Theater Day. She is a nominator for Off-Broadway’s Lucille Lortel Awards, a member of NYFA’s Emerging Arts Leaders program, and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.

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