My interest in becoming an actor grew in high school, where no one really considers the idea of “typing” an actor when putting together the cast list for the latest play/musical. To type an actor is to consider the person as a whole and then label them accordingly, all for the purpose of determining what type of character they can play onstage. This is a crucial and inevitable process all actors must go through on the college and professional level, so today I’ll be examining it closely.
Just as a matter of comparison, let’s go back to the high school setting and look at some of the roles I earned as an unbelievably skinny, eggshell-colored teenager clocking in at 140 pounds on the scale. During my freshman year I was in Fiddler on the Roof, the iconic musical about a Jewish family trying to maintain their traditions in the face of societal change. Now if someone up top had considered typing for even a second, they would have realized how insane their decision was to cast me not as a boy my age but rather the withered, ancient rabbi. Yep, when push came to shove I wore a disgusting prop beard and hunched over like a man in desperate need of tapioca pudding. Later on, during a production of The Miracle Worker, I would play a slave. Oh sure, we didn’t say I was a slave, but in the original script there was no doubt.
Of course, when you’re a director in a high school resources are usually limited, sometimes extremely so, thus rendering the typing process a bit moot. If you only have twenty kids, someone’s gonna play the old man, it’s that simple. However, the scenario changes when you reach the college level, where I am currently stationed. A lot of people have a hard time making this transition because for four years they’ve been given the opportunity to play a wide variety of roles, ones they must now realize they will never play again. Suddenly the kid who got to be Dracula when he was a senior in high school must accept the fact that from here on out casting directors will be looking at him in a different way, one much more strict and narrow-minded than they’ve ever experienced in the past. It’s a hard lesson, but it must be understood if you’re to ever go on and form a career for yourself.
So what are some examples of types, anyway? A teacher once led an acting class of mine in a very helpful exercise, one which had us stand in front of the room while the rest of the group wrote down adjectives and phrases concerning our obvious character type. One student was immediately relegated to the rare and oftentimes desired group known as the “lead ingénue,” which requires a classic physical appeal and nice-guy attitude. In men it means you’re tall and handsome, and in women it means you have nice legs and can pull off sexiness without even trying. Another woman, older than the rest of us by more than a few decades, was coined as being the “grandmother type,” the one you cast if ever there is an older role that must be filled. Other types brought up over the exercise included “villain, overweight comedic relief,” and “brassy showgirl.”
When it came time for me to go to the front of the class, I knew what had to be coming. Attending my university has taught me a lot, and one of the biggest pieces of advice I’ve been given is to accept my type and mine as much work as possible from what I have to give an audience. So when words like “sidekick, little brother, comic relief,” and similar others came back in response, I wasn’t surprised. What you have to realize is that typing oftentimes has nothing to do whatsoever with your talent as a performer. No, it all has to do with what the director sees the moment you walk onstage for an audition. If they see you’re overweight, they’ll consider you for some roles and ignore you for others in the blink of an eye. If you’ve got frizzy hair and are six and a half feet tall, guess what, you get to play the weirdo.
Therefore, I wasn’t offended this past summer when I was cast as a teen in a musical, since a paying job is a paying job and Lord knows I don’t have aspirations to play Willie Lowman in Death of a Salesman anytime soon. Could I play such a role? Maybe, years from now, but the principal of this discussion doesn’t matter when it comes time to fill the performance slots. I’m a sidekick, you’re a leading male/female, and you’re the kooky night club owner with a heart of gold and an axe to grind. Deal with it, love it, and take home the paycheck.