Open auditions: should theatres embrace them to break down barriers to the industry?
With the issue of diversity a continuing concern for the industry, Michelle Douglass gauges opinion on whether more open auditions would help to redress the balance and dispel the notion that theatre and casting rooms are often closed off to certain groups
Hamilton, Magic Mike Live and Les Miserables are among the big-ticket shows to hold open casting calls, Cilla the Musical found its star from thousands of hopefuls, and new-writing company Paines Plough traverses the UK in search of actors. While the open audition process can mean queuing for hours just for minutes in a room with a fatigued casting director, it is also an opportunity to get in front of industry people who may otherwise feel unreachable.
“It gives you a chance,” says Suzannah Ruth, a dancer from Stockport, now living in Los Angeles, who has shared the stage with J-Lo, Cheryl and Little Mix as well as appearing on The X Factor and The Voice.
“Open auditions were the first way in. Things like Les Mis, I auditioned very young and I was in a [talent] pool for girls and boys. It was the best way of being seen at that time, to make contacts.”
Though she has known people “who have had direct bookings from being never seen before”, Ruth says the focus “doesn’t always need to be on definitely booking a job”, but building confidence.
Open casting calls are advertised fairly regularly for West End musicals (though a poll in The Stage showed most people thought there should be more), but less so for straight plays.
London-based writer and actor Joshua Asare won the lead role of Pip in Great Expectations at the Old Red Lion Theatre when he responded to an open call.
“The audition process wasn’t a long one,” he says. “I first met with producer Mat Burt and then met again with the director, Tom Crowley. A couple of days later, I had the job.”
Given the apparent benefits of open auditions for performers, should the theatre industry hold more of them?
“There should be way more open casting calls in my opinion, especially for minorities that don’t have certain fast tracks that others naturally have,” says Asare.
Paul Roseby, artistic director of the National Youth Theatre, an organisation known for its alternative routes into the industry, says: “Truly open auditions are a huge logistical challenge, which might put off some companies and theatres that are already under financial and time pressures.”
But the NYT would always encourage greater openness “and a system that celebrates individual talent”, he adds.
Sue Scott Davison is a freelance casting director and artistic programmer at Rhodes Arts Complex in Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire. She also had a 25-year acting career.
She used open casting for a children’s ensemble in The Railway Children at Waterloo and King’s Cross, and says: “We generally preferred to use very natural, untrained children. And as many of them didn’t have agents, open calls were the most efficient route.” But, she adds: “I can’t imagine [open auditions] would work when casting plays, unless you were looking for a community ensemble.”
Spotlight is Davison’s go-to casting resource, though she explains there are alternative routes to being seen. “I always appreciate that some performers, especially graduates, haven’t secured agents, and I will always consider someone for interview if they write to me directly.”
Paines Plough is one of the few professional theatre companies for whom open auditions are their lifeblood: it travels the UK, looking at actors in pairs performing three-minute duologues and seeing up to 180 individuals in a day. Those who impress form a pool considered for roles.
“Anybody can come,” says James Grieve, the company’s joint artistic director. “You don’t need to consider yourself a professional actor even, you don’t have to be on Spotlight, you don’t have to have an agent, [and] you don’t have to have had specific training.”
He believes the resulting “extraordinary resource” of actors has had a hugely positive impact on productions.
“[In] the production of Broken Biscuits by Tom Wells that I directed, Faye [Christall] who played the lead and Andrew [Reed] both came through open auditions,” Grieve says.
The latter auditioned in Newcastle and was “completely compelling, brilliant and perfect for the part”, he explains.
“We found a local lad who was doing great things in the youth theatre but who probably would never have had the opportunity to audition had we only held auditions with a casting director in London.”
But, in a profession that demands the resilience to deliver a live show night after night, is taking on new faces a risk?
Grieve argues there’s “always a risk, anytime you cast anybody” and that companies have “a duty of care always to the actor”. He adds that there’s “no reason” an actor with “no training but with buckets of talent can’t do everything a professionally trained actor can do”.
The arts industry has been widely blasted for its lack of diversity. Labour’s 2017 Acting Up report cited a study showing just 16% of actors came from working-class homes, while 51% were from privileged backgrounds. Another revealed only 7% of the theatre and performing arts workforce were from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds, while just 5% identified as disabled.
Homogenised casting calls are something Asare has encountered: “As an actor, every now and then you will naturally bump into a familiar face outside an audition room,” he says. “But as a black actor, I could count on one finger the times I haven’t seen someone I know – and it’s always the same four people.”
So, would more open auditions ensure better onstage diversity?
‘Open auditions can help to give a more diverse range of people a sense of ownership over the industry’ Paul Roseby, NYT
“Open auditions can definitely help to give a more diverse range of people a sense of ownership over the industry and dispel the idea that theatre and casting rooms are closed off to certain groups,” says Roseby.
He points out some progress has been made improving diversity, such as through youth and engagement programmes, but “there’s still much more to be done”.
But Davison argues open auditions “as a rule” aren’t the answer to the problem. “There is such a mix now of performers with agents, and if the production is looking for diversity, then you will mention it in the brief. Performers without agents, but who have an entry on Spotlight, will be found in a search.”
Grieve says theatremakers need to think about diversity in every way, including geographically and socioeconomically.
“Many of the drama schools are in London and very expensive,” he says. “And I think that could potentially be prohibitive for a young person growing up in Belfast, or Newcastle, or Hull.
“Any measures we as a subsidised industry as a whole can take to allow more people to have access to us and the work we do, I would positively encourage.”