Wednesday, November 10, 2010

When Good Actors are Miscast

Have you ever seen a good actor struggle in the wrong role? I’m thinking here of, say, Laura Linney in Mystic River, where she tried to play a tough working-class Bostonian. I’ve enjoyed her work in any number of other things, but she was just unconvincing in that. As good as she usually is, it wasn’t the role for her.

Over the last year or so, we’ve had a few instances of that on campus: talented and hardworking staff people who were just slotted into the wrong roles.

It’s different from the more straightforward “low performer,” since you can see signs of real ability and drive. Every so often, circumstances align to let the talent shine through, but it doesn’t last. The random blasts of talent make the overall mediocrity that much more frustrating.

Sometimes the miscasting is a result of economic need; this was the job available when she needed one, and she interviewed well. Sometimes it’s a personality clash between a staffer and a supervisor. And sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint, but hard to miss -- something is obviously not quite right, but it’s just not clear what it is.

There’s something incredibly satisfying about seeing a situation like that get fixed. When a talented person who just isn’t clicking in office A moves to office B and becomes a star, everybody wins. Office A loses its headache, office B gets a winner, and the staffer is suddenly happier and more effective. The budgetary impact is a wash, but the impact on productivity and morale is substantial. I’ve seen that happen a couple of times now, and I consider those moments pure victories.

On the faculty side, the most common version of miscasting is the wonderful professor who becomes an ineffective department chair. Although the skill sets overlap, they’re not the same; someone who may be great when autonomous may have trouble in a “first among equals” role. Alternately, some professors who excel at upper-level classes struggle when teaching developmental ones, or vice versa.

Low performance isn’t always about miscasting, of course; some people just suck. But when it is about casting, and you’re able to rectify miscasting and see the person suddenly blossom, it’s really gratifying. It’s that rarest of birds, the pure win. Let Laura Linney play the repressed-but-mischievous WASP; it’s a better use of her, and we’re all happier.