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Here’s the real reason you didn’t get called to audition

It’s audition week. In some ways, for me, auditions are the most vital part of the production process. As such they always make me feel slightly anxious.

On the one hand, I really want to get it right and see the best side of any performer investing the time to come in. But at the same time I don’t want anyone brilliant to slip through the net.

Before the meetings can take place there’s the challenge of deciding who to call in. With the best will in the world you cannot see everyone who applies or is submitted by their agent. Even on a fringe profit share production there are over 1,000 CVs to consider. (On a commercial production there are many, many more, but thankfully there’s also usually the budget for a casting director to make the first cut.)

No such luxury last week when Hanna Leask and I set up auditions for Whores of the Roses, my adaptation for the Union Theatre of Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy, focused on the reviled female characters. There are 12 principal roles.

How do you pick 75 candidates from more than 1,000 CVs?

So how do you pick just 75 candidates? I like to open things up to people who don’t have access to Spotlight so by last Thursday there were around 200 direct approaches in my inbox as a result of a Facebook post and 900 via official channels. Youngest: 17, oldest: 75.

The first thing I do is skim through for anyone I’ve enjoyed working with before. They’ll get an automatic recall if they’re right for a role I’m casting. Similarly anyone whose work I’ve seen and admired on stage or TV. Then I’ll go through the rest and pick actors who adhere to my approximate idea of what each character looks like. I try to be as flexible about this as possible because some pics give me new ideas about a direction the character could go in. That usually reduces things by a third.

Next I’ll start clicking on CVs and remove anyone from the lists who doesn’t have experience appropriate to the project. So if it’s a musical I won’t select anyone who’s never sung in public before or who hasn’t highlighted their singing as highly skilled. In this instance I cut anyone who hadn’t played a lead Shakespeare role either as part of an accredited drama course or since. That doesn’t usually reduce the pile by much. Then, where possible, I’ll take a quick look at show reels.

A word about showreels. There seems to be some received wisdom that showreels have to start with a minute of loud music and a montage of shots of the performer laughing in a bar, running or taking a punch.

Why is this? Is this what TV commercial directors want to see? It’s bloody irritating when you want to find out whether the person can act.

Next there’s usually a selection of scenes aimed at EastEnders, the actor looks angsty and mumbles with an accent. Finally, if you’re lucky there might be a scene in which the actor strings a sentence together.

We don’t need underscoring, sophisticated lighting or whizzy graphics

The most useful clips for me as a theatre director are when the subject performs a monologue, shot simply and directly. I suppose performers might worry this’ll put off the film and TV directors but as most of us are carrying around a video camera in our pockets these days it would be really great to see self-shot monologues submitted for theatre jobs. We don’t need exciting underscoring, sophisticated lighting or whizzy graphics. We’d just like to see you act through text.

Despite the limitations of showreels, when casting a play you usually get some sense of the actor’s essence, a hard thing to quantify but I’d say it’s a combination of presence, emotional truth and watchability. I know it’s different on camera but chances are if you’re engaged by them on a little screen, they’re going to be worth meeting.

I was still left with 100 or so more people than I could practically audition, who all looked right and were qualified.

I looked over the list again (and again, and again) last week to weed out a few based on considered judgement but that was barely making a dent so I did something I’m not proud of. I prioritised submission from agents I know and trust and deselected those from agents I’d never heard of. I make sure there’s a contingent in my selection to see who haven’t got agents because on the fringe I want to give those people a chance.

I was still about 50 people over so – and this is horrible and unfair – I next cut every third person.

All this is to point out that selection really can be that cruel and arbitrary. I hope that’s some kind of comfort if you are wondering what’s wrong with your CV or picture.

You might not have got the job because you don’t look right or haven’t got appropriate experience. You might have an agent who doesn’t know the right people for that job, or just isn’t very good. But equally, it might just be that luck wasn’t on your side that day.

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