Ted Sod, Education Dramaturg, spoke to Cassie Beck about her role in The Humans.
TED SOD: Where were you born? Where were you educated? When did you decide you wanted to become an actor?
CASSIE BECK: I was born in Tacoma, WA, the daughter of a military officer and the youngest of six children. I was raised in a station wagon, bound for wherever my father was expected next. We spent several years in California, both southern and northern. I went to high school in a tiny town in Mississippi where I first found theatre, thanks Mrs. Byrnes! Got my BFA in performance from the University of Memphis and spent a year in The Warehouse Theatre Journeyman program in South Carolina. After that, I upped and moved to San Francisco for my first professional job in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Napa Valley Shakespeare Festival. I played Peaseblossom. In an honest to goodness vineyard. For a bunch of drunk people. Very Dionysian. It was glorious.
As for wanting to become an actor, well, as I mentioned, I’m the youngest of six kids. I had to be quick on my feet to get attention and food.
TS: You’ve done all the developmental readings of The Humans, which began on July 23, 2013. Can you give us a sense of what happens during these developmental readings?
CB: July 2013!!! Is that true? Oh my gosh, two years of development -- and the first draft of the play was already so great -- it had rhythm, humor, pathos and smarts. But mostly, it was inherently theatrical. I love scripts you can only do live in a theatre -- you’ll see what I mean! Most significantly, the action happens in real time. The play starts and the audience spends 90 real minutes with the family on stage -- no jumps in time or physical space. Those watching are true voyeurs, peeking through the dollhouse. Real time action is ambitious, from both the writing and acting perspectives. Because of the structure, the developmental workshops and readings covered physical logic/timing (Would I really spend that much time in the bathroom? Or How much conversation can I overhear when I’m standing in the kitchen?); to ensemble work (Who are these people and what is the family dynamic?). Everyone pitches in with thoughts, personal anecdotes, and suggestions.
Dramaturgically, Stephen had his eye on each character’s progression -- what was working and what was possibly missing against the bigger plot points -- how the twists and turns hit each character and when. We toyed with physical space, dividing the rehearsal room into three parts with music stands further delineating the bathroom and kitchen. For the actors and Stephen, this was a chance to illuminate how staging can keep time with the rhythm of the play and the moments where physical action disrupted that flow. There were rewrites addressing these issues. By the time we read it before the general audience at the Powerhouse in Vassar, we were all very clear about the relationships, the time/space mechanics, and the major plot points while still discovering tone and individual character choices.
TS: What do you think the play is about? What did you learn as an actress from doing these developmental readings? How has your role as Aimee evolved? What questions did you ask the playwright, Stephen Karam, about your role?
CB: I think the play is about fear. Stephen quotes Napoleon Hill on the first page of the script, “There are six basic fears, with some combination of which every human suffers at one time or another…” To fear is the human condition. No one is immune. I think that is what I learned, or rather, re-learned from the development process. Fear is pervasive and takes numerous forms. The play is full of people wrestling fear to the ground, both consciously and subconsciously. The character of Aimee has incredibly high personal and interfamilial stakes. Most of her evolution has been about streamlining those stakes, especially relating to finances and career. I had several questions for Stephen about Aimee’s medical condition, ulcerative colitis, thus the bathroom queries I mentioned previously!
TS: What are the benefits of being attached to a project during the development process?
CB: The trust felt when I know I’m attached to the project communicates confidence, and that always helps bring out my best work. I’m not beholden to a “correct” interpretation of the role -- just my interpretation. That collaborative spirit helps everyone remain flexible. Plus, keeping up with and understanding why a piece shifts requires, in addition to acting, some directorial/dramaturgical skills. My approach to development is to be of service to the writer, but production is where I really get to put my stamp on the part. I like the full workout that comes with creating a new play.
TS: Which aspect of your role is most challenging? Which is the most fun? Will you tell us about Aimee’s relationship to the rest of her family, as you understand it?
CB: I think the most challenging part is also the most fun, which is Aimee’s dry wit. She’s the peacemaker in the family, constantly aware of what people are feeling. She uses her quick tongue and humor to keep everyone in check, but in a loving way. Her approach to conflict is practical clear sightedness, but her heart is her greatest strength.
TS: What do you look for from a director?
CB: Swag. I mean, like t-shirts. I want a director to get me a theatre tote or a sweatshirt or something. They’re the only ones that can get it for free. Also, I’m drawn to directors who communicate clearly and let me do my thing. I’m less interested in carrying out someone’s concept and more interested in working with a director to fulfill our shared vision of the piece. I’m extremely demanding of myself so I appreciate an open, positive rehearsal room. When a director can keep giving me insights into the role, I love that. I’ll try anything -- once!
TS: How do you keep yourself inspired as an artist? Do you see the work of your peers? Travel? Read? Go to museums?
CB: All of the above. I love to travel, and to cook. I sketch and paint. I started as a dancer, so I adore any and all black and white movie musicals, especially Fred and Ginger films. I’m a British TV junkie and will read anything about the Tudors. I meditate and spend a lot of time in Central Park, which is the most inspiring of all -- New York! Just taking in the city gets my creative juices flowing.
TS: Do you have any advice for a young person who wants to enter the profession of acting?
CB: YES -- Put yourself in a position to do your best work. There is no formula for becoming a professional actor, so pick the path that allows you to gain the most experience and improve. That could be anything from grad school, to ensemble work, to self-devised work, or regional work in a smaller city. I think there is this notion that in order to be successful one must go to a top-rated grad school and hit New York in your late teens or early 20s with guns blazing. That really works well for some, but personally, I never could have done that. It would have ruined theatre for me. I was able to acquire formal training and then join an ensemble theatre in San Francisco to hone some skills and gain professional experience. By the time I came to New York in my 30s, I had a much stronger sense of who I was and what I wanted in a career. Know yourself and follow your passion.
The Humans begins previews September 30 at the Laura Pels Theatre. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.
2015-2016 Season, The Humans