What do casting directors look for in auditions? Theatre’s hidden talent spotters reveal the secrets of their trade
As a new award seeks to give casting directors overdue recognition for their key role in shaping productions – not to mention actors’ careers – leading practitioners in the job tell Nick Clark what they believe makes a good casting director, how they started their careers, and what actors can do at auditions to impress them
Casting is the “Cinderella” of the entertainment industry. Or so says actor and writer Mark Gatiss. “Too little attention is paid to the vital, and by no means simple, task of finding the right person, the right mix, the right chemistry for stage, television and film,” he has said.
And The Sherlock and League of Gentlemen star is by no means the only person to think so. The Casting Directors’ Guild is so concerned that the craft is undervalued that it has launched an awards ceremony to celebrate the best in the business.
Many of British theatre’s most respected casting directors agree that recognition is long overdue. Jerry Knight-Smith, head of casting at Manchester’s Royal Exchange theatre, has warned that “the business of casting goes unrecognised with monotonous regularity”.
“The role can get lost,” adds Jessica Ronane, casting director at the Old Vic. “By the time an actor is successful in the role, thanks go to millions of other people. We should be fighting for a bit more recognition.”
It is a crucial role but it stays hidden, as Julia Horan – who has cast shows including Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – points out, primarily because most of the work goes on “behind closed doors”. But she also adds: “The main reason casting directors aren’t given their due is because it’s mostly done by women. Traditionally jobs done by women have been undervalued.”
Putting a cast together
The casting director’s job starts at the genesis of a production, whether a new play or a classic. According to Alastair Coomer, head of casting at the National Theatre: “When it comes to casting, every show varies; no show is the same.”
From the start, a casting director has to take the lead from the production’s director, says Wendy Spon, Coomer’s predecessor at the NT. “It’s their vision, not yours. You have to listen, and understand what they want to achieve,” she explains. “Casting directors are in a position of influence, not power. It’s not my decision who gets the job.”
Working with a director for the first time, learning their tastes and how best to work with them is one of the trickiest tasks for a casting director, though Spon says she’s been very lucky – in 30 years, she can count the bad experiences on one hand.
Whatever the work, there is no best cast for a play, Horan insists – “There is only a best cast for that director.” One of her specialisms is casting new works, which she cultivated while in-house at London’s Royal Court before she went freelance. “I love not knowing what will come my way,” she says.
When casting the classics, it’s still about isolating the director’s vision. Hannah Miller, head of casting at the Royal Shakespeare Company, says: “I talk to the director about reasons to put the plays on 400 years later, what it means to them and what it means to the world now, so I can get a sense of the story they want to tell.”
If a theatre is programming an established play such as Hamlet, it has likely worked out the lead actor early on. But the casting director’s influence will then be seen in drawing up a list of five names for Gertrude, seven for Claudius and 20 for Laertes. The number of options tend to increase the lower the age range of the character, according to one casting director.
A challenge for Miller is that some actors feel the RSC “isn’t their place,” she adds. “We know those preconceptions are there and want to say that’s not the case. There isn’t ‘an RSC actor’.”
The casting director builds up a list of potential actors for each role from their own scouting in theatre and on screen, discussions with other casting directors, producers and directors, visiting drama schools, and the responses to the breakdown of characters they have sent to agents.
Knight-Smith, the Royal Exchange casting director, says: “You’re always trying to widen your experience. The simple way is to see as much theatre as you can.”
Each casting director said they spent at least two nights a week at the theatre. “The ‘shoe leather’ aspect of the job is the most important bit,” Spon says.
They look at showreels and self-tapes, and a photograph “that is in some way arresting, in a good way, is essential,” says freelance casting director Ginny Schiller. “But it must look like the actor – there’s no point in having the person who walks through the door not look like the photo. That’s infuriating.”
Finding the right performers for a musical is a more drawn-out process, because of the additional layers to casting, in which the choreographer and the musical supervisors also need to be consulted alongside directors, writers and producers.
David Grindrod, who set up David Grindrod Associates in 1998 and has been Andrew Lloyd Webber’s dedicated casting director on all Really Useful Group productions, says: “There are far more elements to put together for the process. There is singing, script work, a dance call, and then a script and dance call… it all takes longer.”
He is looking for the “old-fashioned triple threat” of singing, dancing and acting, adding: “You hold people in your head, and go on gut feeling. What they’ve done before, what sort of person they are, where they trained.”
Another issue for casting directors is that a director may not realise who they want for a particular character until they’ve seen multiple actors in the audition room. “If you see a dozen actors for a part they may all be brilliant, but they won’t all be right,” Schiller says. “Many directors discover the right actor only after looking at the different options.”
Do’s and don’ts in the audition room
Casting directors tend to organise and run the audition room. When it comes to auditioning actors first of all, they look for a “bold offer”. The NT’s Coomer says those who take a specific approach to a project, whether it’s about a playwright they care about, a part they’ve long coveted or a director they’ve longed to work for, will get attention. He adds: “If someone makes a passionate case for working on stage after working on screen, that gets my attention too.”
More prosaically, a consistent theme among casting directors is that actors should not be late. Not just because of the bad first impression, but because it puts actors in a bad place to perform. Once in the room, though, don’t apologise. Grindrod says: “We’re not interested. It’s a job interview and you’ve got to come in on the button.”
Any actor auditioning must have read the whole play. “I’m not interested in anyone who hasn’t,” Horan, who worked on Hamlet at the Barbican and A View from the Bridge at the Young Vic, says. “Even if you haven’t had long, the people who do well stay up and read it. You must have an idea about the play, it’s no good coming in without one.”
A generation ago, auditions were “more general and people busked it,” she says. “Now directors’ tastes and expectations have changed. They have to see your choices and how you navigate a scene.”
The Old Vic’s Ronane expands on the theme. “Think about the play, the era, the country, the politics… whatever can help. Know the work.” She adds: “It’s worth coming in feeling informed and being ready. If you don’t, move the meeting. I’d rather that than have people come in unprepared.”
Most agree that actors do not have to be off book for the first audition. “You need to be familiar with it, you need to look up and engage so we can see your face, but we don’t need you to be off book because then it becomes about trying to remember lines,” says Schiller, who has cast shows including The Father and 1984, which both transferred to the West End. “Be familiar, look up. It’s not a memory test.”
This is especially true when the writer is in the room. She remembers an example when the actor riffed on the words.After he left, the writer said: “Does he have any idea how rude that is?”
Coomer goes further: “Please don’t learn it for the first audition – it can really go wrong if you don’t get the words right and the writer is in the room – perhaps learn it for the recall.”
Actors should dress for the part, though within reason. “Do not come in costume,” Schiller says; instead use the clothing choices to show an idea of the character. “I have had people come in with plunging necklines and full make-up for a young, virginal innocent – you’re not helping yourself. Most of these things won’t lose an actor a job, but they’re not helping.”
Schiller, who worked at the RSC, has built a reputation for casting Shakespeare and offers words of comfort to actors auditioning for one of the plays. “There is no one right way of speaking Shakespeare in verse,” she says. “It’s important for an actor to display that they know what verse is and that it can help elucidate meaning rather than obfuscate it. I would encourage actors to recognise that the verse is there for a reason and not fight against it.”
When it comes to getting in the right mindset for an audition, the RSC’s Miller adds: “Remember you’ve been invited, you’re not gatecrashing. You’re there because we think you can bring something interesting. It’s yours to win, but you need to take responsibility for that.” She adds: “Also be the person you want to work with and remember: we’re all human and everybody is doing the best they can.”
A final point was that actors not planning to come should give as much notice as possible. Grindrod says: “People that pull out at the last minute because they don’t think it’s for them – if you had phoned two days ago we could have got someone else in there who wanted the job.”
What makes a good casting director?
Good taste, a gut instinct, a love of theatre and a love of actors and directors are among the crucial requirements to be a good casting director. “You have to be a source of knowledge, have a strong point of view but be flexible,” Coomer says. “There are often actors I’d like a director to take a chance on, and maybe with others less so, but I’m happy to be proved wrong.”
A casting director needs strong belief in their own choices. Horan says: “I’m employed because people want my experience and they like my taste,” before adding: “My job is not to audition as many actors as possible and my job is not to be fair to all people who want to be actors.”
Being firm and fighting the right battles is a core skill. The Old Vic’s Ronane says: “Part of my job is knowing how much I need to speak to the director, how much I need to ‘rise up’. Sometimes you don’t need to do anything. But I will challenge a director.” She appreciates that for actors, the process can be “brutal and hard”, and believes a fundamental part of her job is to make those auditioning “feel valued and supported”.
For Knight-Smith, patience is a core virtue. “It’s an irregular and unpredictable workload. You have to be able to handle that.”
Spon sums it up: “You need patience, diplomacy, empathy and the ability to put your ego to one side. You have to remain objective. There may be actors who are not to my taste but that should be on a list for a part.”
There also has to be a belief that casting can make a difference. Coomer points to the all-female Shakespeare trilogy directed by Phyllida Lloyd at the Donmar Warehouse, and its effect. “I don’t think it’s good enough to have slightly boring lords in the middle of Shakespeare anymore,” he says. “These actresses really took those roles by the throat and you heard Shakespeare anew. Don’t be boring. I really believe that.”
Freelance versus in-house
In-house casting jobs offer different challenges to being freelance. “I’m definitely a freelance,” says Horan, who also worked two stints at the Royal Court. “There are great things being in-house and you feel closer to the work and closer to its artistic progress. For me, I really love variety, and that’s what you get as a freelance.”
Ronane went the other way from freelance to in-house at the Old Vic. “Being within the theatre has been fantastic,” she says. “Having the actors around all the time, the buzz of the building and the work you’re part of coming into fruition right in front of you… it’s just amazing. The work is very diverse and constant.” She adds: “The real joy of being in-house is we really get to know everyone. You build a family, which grows larger and larger. I keep a list and it grows endlessly. It’s people you gather and like.”
In-house casting directors go beyond populating the stages. The RSC’s Miller says after that “we do all the employment paperwork, and all the contractual work to make sure everyone gets paid. And then it’s about being the consistent person for actors before, during and after their time with us. I’m also involved in planning the strategy of the company.”
Freelance casting director Schiller, who twice worked on staff at the RSC, says: “If you’re heading up a casting department in a big national company, a lot of the job is not the casting but the pastoral care and policy stuff. It’s brilliant and needs to be done, but it soaks up time you could be in an audition room.” She adds: “Casting for me is about being in the room. Helping the actor and the director, talking through the parts. That’s what I miss when I can’t do it. That’s the joy of the job.”
The in-house role changes depending on the size of the theatre. The National, with 25 shows a year, needs a big casting team, as actors come through constantly, requiring a lot of pastoral care. When Coomer, who is now at the NT, had the equivalent role at the Donmar Warehouse, with six shows a year, he saw casting as much more of a producing role. “We have huge influence on the programming of the theatre,” he says.
None of the casting directors I spoke to took credit for spotting an actor or setting them on a course to recognition, though all fondly remember early appearances of actors in their audition rooms who went on to wider recognition. “It’s a bit dubious for a casting director to claim they’ve discovered someone,” Spon says. “That actor had probably done a few shows before.”
Coomer – whose first show cast as a junior at the NT in 2006, Burn/Chatroom/Citizenship, featured Matt Smith, Andrea Riseborough and Andrew Garfield – picks up the theme. “I’m not possessive over actors’ careers, they do the hard work,” he says. “It’s rare to discover people, unless you’re casting children. Really the job of a casting director is not only to know what an actor can do, but also recognise where they are in the trajectory of their career.”
Horan, who cast Alex Lawther in David Hare’s South Downs while he was still a sixth-former, says the most talented performers will always be snapped up. “They are fully formed people we stumble across, and they have the talent and brilliance that makes their career.” Schiller fondly recalls giving Garfield his first job at Soho Theatre in a play called Mercy, but she adds: “If I hadn’t, someone else would have. I wouldn’t take credit for anyone’s career.”
Ronane, who auditioned many of the children for the stage adaptation of Billy Elliot, remembers when [Spider-Man star] Tom Holland auditioned at “seven or eight”. She says: “He was too young for us to work with, but [director] Stephen Daldry said: ‘Don’t lose him.’ He was always fabulous, I’ll never forget him coming into the room when he was so little.”
Grindrod is one of the few casting directors to have done the job in public. He appeared on television reality shows including I’d Do Anything and How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? on the BBC to discover musical theatre talent. This gave a stepping stone to performers including Jodie Prenger, Jessie Buckley and Samantha Barks.
Meanwhile, theatres outside London have a chance to draw on different acting talent pools. Knight-Smith of Manchester’s Royal Exchange says: “There’s no getting away from the fact that theatre appears to be, and can be, London-centric.” He auditions in the capital a lot, “but we audition elsewhere”. He stresses: “There is a lot that isn’t London, that has its own identity. Eyes need to go further than London and see what’s happening where regional identity is strong.”
For the RSC in Stratford, Miller says: “Obviously London is the world’s theatre capital, and as the RSC we understand that relationship – and perform there – but being based outside gives us a different perspective. We have a great deal to offer actors.”
Getting into casting
Few of the top casting directors started out aiming at a career in the craft or even knowing such a job existed. Horan “accidentally” became a stage manager before getting a job in casting. “I didn’t come from a family in the arts,” she says. “Before working in the theatre I asked someone at the National what they did for their actual job during the day. It sounds so ridiculous.”
Schiller “didn’t know casting was a career” but after working with Jill Freud at Suffolk Summer Theatres and then Comic Relief, she applied for a job as an assistant in the RSC’s casting office. She went freelance after that, working for companies including Soho Theatre, Chichester Festival Theatre and English Touring Theatre.
Spon, who is taking some time off after the National – “I want to decompress a bit” – also didn’t know the job existed growing up. She started as an actor, then did some directing and got a job at the Royal Exchange. She went to the Crucible in Sheffield as casting director before she was 30 and joined the NT in 1995. She left, but came back in 2006 as head of casting.
Several came to the job through training in technical theatre. Grindrod trained as a stage manager at LAMDA and came to casting through the Really Useful Group after he cast school choirs for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Two decades ago, he went out on his own, continued to cast for RUG, then Mamma Mia! came along, which “changed my life”.
Knight-Smith also trained in stage management and technical theatre at the Guildhall and was a working stage manager for around a decade. He was offered a job as an assistant casting director at the Royal Exchange in 1997 – “basically I’ve been here ever since” – becoming head of the department some six years later.
The Old Vic’s head of casting Ronane came from an entertainment background. With parents in the business, she trained to be a dancer then an actor before moving into casting. She learned by doing the job herself, auditioning for Billy Elliot then Matilda the Musical and becoming a specialist in casting children. Her shows also include Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and School of Rock. She joined the Old Vic when Matilda director Matthew Warchus was appointed its artistic director. Ronane advises people looking for a career in casting to work in casting offices “and learn all the ways productions evolve”.
Coomer is that rare breed who wanted to get into casting when he was young. “I knew it was what I wanted to do. I’m a geek about actors,” he says. “When I was a teenager and other boys were thinking about football, I was at the RSC. I was a completist, it introduced me to a range of actors.” He joined the NT and after six years went to the Donmar as head of casting. He returned to the NT, in the top casting job, this year.
Another to come through the NT casting office early was Miller. She had taken a drama degree at Hull University in a quest to be a film director – “the female David Lynch” – though she moved towards theatre, and an NT workshop in Edinburgh turned her on to casting. She joined the National’s casting office after graduating, working on South Pacific, My Fair Lady and Oklahoma!. She joined the RSC, went to Birmingham Rep and returned to the RSC as head of casting a decade ago.
The key issue facing casting directors today is that of diversity. Spon says the Casting Directors’ Guild has been on the frontline of the conversation for a long time. “It’s about making people understand we’re a force for good in the journey,” she says. “We all had a lot to learn. There’s an assumption we’re responsible in a negative way for the slow progress. That’s when people don’t understand how the process works.”
Yet it is not just ensuring more diversity on stage – the profession needs to change itself, says Horan: “How we develop our industry is important. We need to look inwardly to see who is becoming a casting director or assistant, how they are getting those jobs and the pay.
“It’s as important that we reflect society as the actors we employ reflect society. We are an incredibly white and middle-class industry. It would be great if more people came into our industry from different backgrounds.”
Coomer agrees: “Inclusivity is a key theme, and dominates the current conversation, not just on representing every aspect of society on stage, but showing people a different route into casting offices, which currently remain very white and middle class. Casting directors are not a very diverse bunch.”
The CDG feels the role of the casting director should be better understood and the best practitioners should be more highly feted outside of the craft. This led to the award that will be presented for the first time next year.
Knight-Smith, casting director for Manchester Royal Exchange, agrees: “Shining a light on good practice and being progressive is important, and for me that justifies the awards.”
Yet there is a more pressing issue behind the drive for recognition than winning a statuette. “The push for the awards isn’t to pat ourselves on the back,” Schiller says. “It is to say we’re here, we contribute, could the rest of you out there recognise that and it might help us earn a crust. There are casting directors doing very well, but many work very hard for not a huge income.”
This is partly because, as Coomer says, “it is quite a hidden job, especially in theatres. It is one of the things you only notice if it’s bad”.
“It’s very frustrating,” agrees Grindrod. “If the show is a success and the casting is a success then the producers and the director look great. If it isn’t, the casting director is blamed. I say that with love.”
Casting directors’ highlights
Alastair Coomer, National Theatre
“One Man, Two Guvnors was a blast from start to finish. I’ve loved everything I’ve done with Rob Hastie, like My Night With Reg. I worked on the all-female Shakespeare trilogy at the Donmar. It was exciting – once in your career do you come across a project like that, and you see the effects of that change.”
David Grindrod – David Grindrod Associates
“Each show has something. The vocals in Bat Out of Hell are amazing, you’re so proud of the cast. 42nd Street and those tappers, it’s incredible. Mamma Mia! the diversity of the characters and how that works.”
Julia Horan – Freelance
“Artistically, Gaddafi: A Living Myth was one of English National Opera’s least successful shows and was reviewed perhaps more unkindly than anything I’ve cast, but I loved working on it. I loved the director, it was so unusual. Another was Wild Swans, [director] Sacha Wares was brilliant and I just loved the jigsaw puzzle of it.
Jerry Knight-Smith – Manchester Royal Exchange
“A favourite was A Raisin in the Sun in 2010, with Ray Fearon and directed by Michael Buffong. It came together so well, and was such a perfect piece for me. Another was Sarah Frankcom’s production of Our Town last year.”
Jessica Ronane – Old Vic
“The Girl from the North Country was great. I quickly understood I could introduce actors I really liked whether or not they seemed a perfect fit. The play was unique, and the company was extremely talented and unusual. That opening night was magic.”
Ginny Schiller – Freelance
“Everyone involved in The Father was brilliant. Kenneth Cranham won everything going, rightly. More recently, The Cherry Orchard was great. Director Michael Boyd really pushed the casting, with a really diverse cast. I so enjoyed that show, and I don’t always with Chekhov.”
Wendy Spon – Freelance
“London Road was a standout experience, such a crazy project. [Director] Rufus Norris didn’t know most of the cast we brought in. We unearthed people from musical theatre to do verbatim with cassette players and headphones. I loved The Reporter that Richard Eyre directed, he understands the value of casting. I worked on Oklahoma!, directed by Trevor Nunn. What a joy it was when Hugh Jackman walked out and sang Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’. ”
For more about the Casting Directors’ Guild, visit thecdg.co.uk