The actors, from the top down:
Keesha Sharp, Linda Cameron, Weil Richmond, LaKeith Hoskin, Kelli
K. Barnett, Thom Rivera, Jama Williamson, Curtis Mark Williams.
the bizarre off-Broadway play called:
your interactive theatre
-- You get to cast all the parts!
WOULD you like to go to a play where the audience picks the cast?
Sounds weird. But that's exactly what happens at an off-Broadway
play called "Eat the Runt," which opened June 5 in
Just before the play starts, eight actors step before the curtain.
Each portrays the same character by saying a line or two--they
all have the same lines--and members of the audience vote their
choice. They use a keypad about the size of a TV remote. A computer
connects it to video monitors on each side of the stage so spectators
can see the results immediately.
And so it goes until the play's seven characters are cast. Since
eight actors are on stage, one goes home early each night. I
couldn't help wondering if that actor's feelings were hurt, especially
if he or she were bumped regularly. But I was fooled. The actor
returned as an unannounced character and all but stole the show.
At any rate, casting by playgoers is the premise of this audience-interactive
comedy. Its unfortunately crude title refers to the fact that
some animals eat the smallest of their brood--an unhappy event
that nevertheless fits the motif of this story about cutthroat
competition. The play, staged at the American Place Theater,
tells about a person who interviews for a highly prized position
as grants manager for an art museum.
Avery Crozier, the author, said "casting nightmares"
drove him to do this work, his first full-length play.
"Quite often, playwrights write fascinating and specific
physical descriptions of characters that make the play impossible
to cast, especially if it is going to be presented in a small
theater," says Crozier. "I decided to create roles
that any talented actor could play, regardless of age, ethnicity,
The Mefisto Theater Company took the genderless theme one step
further. It decided to have the actors learn all the roles and
let the audience pick the cast.
To me, that's the most intriguing idea of this 90-minute play.
It is mind-boggling to think of actors memorizing the lines of
all the characters without knowing which one he or she will play
until moments before the curtain goes up. The producers--Matthew
von Waaden, Weil Richmond (who is in the cast), and Matthew Richmond--say
the script never changes. And there is no improvisation.
Characters names--Merritt, Royce, Chris, etc.--are not gender-specific.
So, a man or woman could play any role.
On stage, the characters all look to be in their 30s. There,
the similarity ends. They are of different sexes, heights, weights,
body builds, and ethnicities. One is black and stands about six-feet,
five inches--a dead-ringer for a linebacker for the Giants.
As the play starts, the job-seeker shuttles from office to office
for interviews and most scenes are one-on-one situations. The
mix makes the dynamics different each night. For instance, in
one scene an executive makes a blatant pass at the job-seeker.
The night I saw the play in previews, the predatory executive
was a woman and the job-seeker a man. That was a bit of a twist.
But at the next performance, a woman could be propositioning
a woman, or a man coming onto a man.
In another scene, the job-seeker, who is fair-skinned and blond,
tells his interviewer that he is an African-American. The interviewer
is dumbfounded. And so begins a crazy back-and- forth dialogue
ending with charges of racism.
On the other hand, if the black actor had said the lines, the
executive might wonder what possessed him to make such an obvious
statement. It raises all sorts of questions. Is he denying his
race? Do words have different meanings when different people
say them? What happens if people change roles?
The concept offers a lot of food for thought. But the comedy,
which started off with a bang, got a bit stale and lost momentum
as the night wore on. For one thing, I found myself not hearing
the fast-moving dialogue because I was busy trying to figure
out what my reaction might have been with other actors in the
Also, there is a downside to the unique casting idea. The interactive
auditioning process isn't really meaningful the way it is done.
Can you make an informed choice by hearing actors say two lines?
At intermission, I talked with people sitting nearby. We all
marveled at the memorization feats. The question came up: Could
the monitors have been rigged to flash pre-selected results?
Ushers assured me that there were different actors in the roles
each night. Patt Dale, the press agent, confirmed that, adding
that doubters could return and see the show again.
How hard is it for a trained professional actor to learn eight
parts? Not that hard, according to actor-producer Weil Richmond.
"The characters are so distinctly different that each time
I go on stage, I feel that's the only role I've rehearsed."
From time to time, he added, actors will drop a line or say lines
a page ahead, as happens in a traditional play. "But since
everyone knows everyone else's lines, we have always been able
to bring them back on script."
I think the play is worth seeing. But one element is missing--the
chance to find out how the comedy would play on a second night
with different actors in the roles. How many play-goers would
shell out another $50 a seat to find out?
Memo to the producers: after the play ends, why not let the audience
recast the comedy? Then, rerun two or three of the most provocative
scenes, and allow the curious and the skeptics to see how the
play works with the actors switched around.
By the way, before voting on the cast, the audience tried a practice
ballot. They were asked whom they would vote for if the Presidential
election were held today. The choices were: Bush, Gore, Nader,
and none of the above. Gore got 30 percent of the votes. Nader
picked up 10 percent. Surprisingly, Bush got only eight percent.
But the biggest surprise was that "none of the above"
won hands down with 52 percent.
2001 by David Zinman. The cast photo is by Mark Fisher.
June 11, the playing schedule for "Eat the Runt" will
Wed.-Sun. at 8; Sat. at 2; Sun. at 3. (No show on Tuesdays.)
running time is 1 hour 45 minutes. It is an open-ended run.
Tickets are $50.00 and can be ordered through Telecharge
212-239-6200 or on the web at www.telecharge.com.
is a former reporter for Long Island Newsday and the Associated
Press bureau in New Orleans. He's the author of 50 Classic
Motion Pictures and The Day Huey Long Was Shot.
He recently co-authored a play about the assassination of
the Louisiana Kingfish and completed a collection of short stories.
He's a graduate of Columbia University and the Columbia Graduate
School of Journalism. Now retired, he divides his time between
New York and Conway, South Carolina, the hometown of his wife,
Sara. In Conway, he writes a column for the Horry (County) Independent.
Zinman was a first prize winner in the 1998 competition of the
National Society of Newspaper Columnists. The Zinmans have three
children and twin grandchildren.
comment on this column or contact David Zinman with an email