The Lower East Side has long been a breeding ground for hopeful artists and dreamers. Now, Itziar Barrio’s The Perils of Obedience, at Abrons Art Center this past weekend, brilliantly harnessed that drive and made it into a fascinating performance. Following an open call held at the Henry Street Settlement, selected actors auditioned for four days with theater director Nigel Smith. The surviving seven actors performed their last two days of callbacks in front of a live audience. The entire process was recorded and will be included in a resulting video piece, in which the final four actors will also star.
I walk into the black room of Abron’s experimental theater with the rest of the audience and we shuffle to our seats quietly, as the audition process is already underway. The first round involves speaking, and the actors are mid-scene, tagging each other out so the cast constantly rotates. Everything is directed by two men, dressed all in black, sitting behind a table closer to the audience, partially hidden from the actors by cameras and mics. You can already feel the desperation to make an impression in the way the actors take over the stage. There is a seductive, raw energy to their movements; they all want this. Badly. The second round contains no sound, just movements to a Nirvana song. Some simulate jumping rope, rub each others backs, cry and holding each other or engage in misguided making out.
But what is most intense and personal are the individual interviews that come next. From behind his desk, covered in head shots and notes, the director asks a series of questions which each new hopeful must answer into a camera. These vary for each actor, but almost all include: Can you lie well? How would your friends or family describe you? Do you believe there is ever a case where a person should be put to death?
One actor confesses “I’m virgin!” Though it is unclear if this is just his example of lying well; then he sings about death. The one common question each person is asked is, “Why do you want or need this job?” No one says they need it, focusing instead on why they want it.
You can feel the audience reacting to each auditioner’s confessional interview through laughter and also a sort of building tenseness. We are all thinking: Who will make the cut?
I spoke to Spanish director and artist Itziar Barrio a few days before the performance, in the midst of her hectic audition process, about what she is looking for from these actors and for this overall production piece:
YOUNG: What are the roles, exactly, that you are auditioning these actors for?
BARRIO: Four performers working with a theatre director creating a video piece. We are looking for a leader, someone who works towards something. Then we have the anti-leader, somebody that says no to the leader’s petition. Then the soldier, who always helps the leader and finally the navigator who makes the conflict endless.
YOUNG: You mean like an instigator? Someone who is always poking at people?
BARRIO: Yes, very much! And they are very chameleonic, always changing.
YOUNG: Is this project about personal conflict or about the casting process itself?
BARRIO: The final piece we are casting for is about power dynamics. But the audition is about frustration and wanting. I’m fascinated by the idea of a lot of people wanting a role and they are going to give the best they can.
YOUNG: Is this the first time you’ve done this in the States?
BARRIO: Yes, and it is the first time I’m doing the casting live. When I did this in Spain, we didn’t have an audience and then we presented it later. In this case, I wanted to have it live.
YOUNG: What was the biggest difference between the Spanish people and American people who tried out?
BARRIO: Woo! [laughs] Well, one difference is that in Spain we worked with an acting school, so it was only students from that school. Here, this is basically an open call to all of New York. Both were about the same age range 20-40’s. The biggest surprise will be that I’ve never done this with an audience before.
YOUNG: But the audience doesn’t interact with the performers.
BARRIO: No. With this project, I am always analyzing the fine line: a movie, the making of a performance and the making of an audition. I’m putting them very much in the power dynamics I spoke of before. It’s not a metaphor, this is really happening. These actors want a role. They are trying to seduce us.
The Perils of Obedience was only at Abrons for two short nights, but Itziar is now a New York resident and you can follow the progress of the project at http://www.itziarbarrio.com/