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Casting that Spell (or how Deep is Your Laugh)? Part I

Entry Number #3 of Countdown to the Classical Theatre of Harlem Production of FIT FOR A QUEEN

Often, the same word in English is used very differently.

For example, let’s take the word “occupation.”

It means job.

It also means military control of a civilian population by a more powerful foreign power.

Another example is the word “cast.”

What does it mean to cast a dye?

A spell?

A play?

Does one particular way we use a word


how we view the other seeming unrelated ways also we use it?

Freud would say it did on a subconscious level


Elia Kazan definitely said much of his job as a director was casting.

(I would argue he also did much of what wasn’t his job, which included acting like a scared little lily-livered beyach and naming names for the House on Un-American Activities when he could have instead used like his power and visibility to support the Group Theatre artists who lost their livelihoods and careers due to daring to flirt with radical politics. But, that’s a rant for a different time. It’s been said that what we detest most in others in the things we dislike in ourselves. How many times a week do I act like a scared little lily-livered beyach when it comes to expressing radical politics/ideas is a question worth asking myself before I started calling dead genii ((another word that has two different meanings)) unpleasant names like beyach for naming names after using their quotes as an entry point to a blog post).

When you’ve lived with a play for a whileand shopped it around to various theatres, it’s likely that you will have worked with over a hundred actors on it before you get the chance to cast its world premiere.

To cast a play means you cast a spell (a spell which includes figuring out how much or – more often – how little your producers can afford to pay your actors to do your play, but it’s a spell nevertheless).

Once it has been cast,

the actor magically transforms and becomes that characters several times a week – they speak,

they act,

and they dress like that character at the appointed hour

over and over.

Each one of those many, many actors who don’t ultimately do the role always leave invisible fingerprints

on your play.

They make their marks on your feelings about your script (and your feelings is what will ultimately decide what will stay in it and what will go),

especially if it is a comedy.

With a comedy, you can know whether a moment works immediately.

All you have to do is hold a public reading with some smart comedic actors

in front of enough folks in the audience to know.

Those folks in the audience either laugh or they don’t.


Comedy is universal.

It transcends culture.

Take it from me. I’m a melding of two very different ethnicities and (I feel) I move easily between those worlds, which means I’m rarely completely comfortable in or feel entirely welcome in either.

Or don’t. Take it from psychologists.

Funny is funny.

Someone smart once told me that for a comedy to be a winner,

all it has to have is three really good laughs.

Your favorite movie or play might have many other chuckles,

but all it needs to be truly excellent is to have three gut-busting moments,

where your audience cannot contain themselves.

“Only three laughs? Are you kidding?” I thought to myself. That’s nothing.

But, not just any laughs will do. Really truly good laughs are incredibly hard to come by. But, we are not even talking about really truly good laughs. We are talking about moments of laughter that are unstoppable.

But, setting up those three moments of unstoppable laughters takes the entire rest of the play/movie/story, of course.

I once counted audible laughter during the last public reading I did of Fit for the Queen. So, I would have a number in my head. The last number was 42. That version of the play ran about 85 minutes.

I must come clean. It really was not all about my work for a significant number of those laughs. I had amazing actors in the cast of that reading. They nailed jokes that were not written.

One actor just had to look at the character playing his daughter in a scene and the audience would erupt helpless before the actor’s comedic genius. Those moments of mirth had little to do with my script as it was written.

You may be asking yourself - why would a playwright sit there in a public reading, pretend to be scribbling erudite notes, and instead be simply counting laughs by marking the front cover of her script each time she heard it?

Because no one was producing this play. Not even in Europe, where I got mad love for many of the wackiest tales I could create.

I needed a tangible way to prove to myself that it wasn’t foolish to keep sending this play out for consideration at theatres, because – frankly – I had several other plays to peddle. If a lesbian love story/farce about a female Egyptian pharaoh was not the world theatre’s current cup of tea, I needed to know it and move on.

Finding a theatre to produce your play is like finding a lover or a best friend.

Rejection (I thought you’re totally my type, but you’re not my type)!

Rejection (You could be type, if you make these fundamental changes that you don’t know how to make, so you’re not my type)!

Rejection (I don’t like your type. Neither does my board, but you asked to meet with me and I don’t want to look like I don’t like your type. So, here we are, staring at each other and trying to extract ourselves as politely as possible from this encounter. Awkward)!

Then, suddenly, score!

I think that’s what makes being an artist (or a salesperson of any sort where you’ve yourself made the product that you are selling) so @&%#ing difficult.

You have the ordinary slights and rejections of life including…

Want to be whole and healthy? Sorry, that’s not for you.

Interested in finding a life partner? Well, you’ve got to look harder. Or just wait. You’re good at that, right?

Feel your friends aren’t that dependable? Well, maybe you’ve invested in and surrounded yourself with the wrong kind of people.


And that play you think is funny? No one else does. At least not enough to produce it. Ha, ha. The joke is on you.


It’s no wonder why a sister might count how many times she hears the sound of audible laughter in a play reading and hold on to that paper with that magic number of 42 laughs in 85 minutes, hoping within that number there is at least unstoppable 3 moment of true laughter that will make it 1 worthwhile comedy.

Whether you loved or hated the text of The Black Eyed, Jeanine Serralles was killing it when she played the role of the Architect. For years, I had folks who were introduced to me tell me, “Of course, I know your work! You wrote that play that Jeanine was in!” That’s how the play was known for a long time, and I am thankful for it. Because if what lingered with folks was her performance in The Black Eyed, it was something truly wondrous that stayed. I was clever enough to recognize greatness and choose Sam Gold as a director after he did a stunning job of staging a portion of the text with student actors at the Hangar Theatre Lab in 2002. I was lucky enough to have the incomparable Jack Doulin be the casting director for our NYTW production and he suggested Jeanine to us. I’ll never forget her audition. She landed jokes I did not write. She took words on a page and made them live.

It’s sorcery. It’s mystical. It’s out of one’s hands. So much of the magic comes down to whether the cast is gotten right.


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