Thomas Hescott: More open auditions will hit the refresh button for talent

Vivienne Gibbs (centre) won her part in Jumpers for Goalposts, (Paines Plough co-production with Watford Palace and Hull Truck), which toured in 2013, via an open audition. Photo: Elyse Marks
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Open auditions have long been the preserve of big West End musicals. Long before reality television started broadcasting the casting -process, emerging, unrepresented -performers were still getting the chance to audition for big -productions and international tours by responding to adverts in The Stage, turning up early and -joining the queue.

Recent open auditions for the West End revival of 42nd Street reportedly attracted more than 2,000 dancers for the 36 ensemble roles. The new Stiles and Drew musical adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, which starts its tour in October before coming into the West End in 2017, also held open auditions around the country. In the end, Holly Wilcock, a young actor the team met in Salford, was cast in the role of Portia. The Wind in the Willows will be Wilcock’s professional debut, and what a great first job to be given.

In musical theatre, the open audition has given many actors their big break. Many have gone on to have long and -successful careers. It’s a great way for creative teams to meet new actors, and see what’s out there beyond the usual casting lists, and it’s a brilliant opportunity for performers to bypass the gatekeepers and get in front of the people making the decisions.

In the days of media-savvy producers, the open audition also generates large amounts of heat. Both The Wind in the Willows and 42nd Street picked up extra column inches because of the public auditions.

But while ‘opens’ are commonplace for musicals, you rarely see them being used to cast actors in straight plays. There are good reasons for this: musicals tend to have large ensembles, while straight plays tend to have smaller casts, and the length of contract on a big musical is longer, making it more cost-effective to spend time and money meeting more actors.

But despite these differences, couldn’t the open audition be a valuable addition to the casting process of straight plays?

Both The Lion King and Miss Saigon (when it first opened in the late 1980s) were heavily reliant on opens to find talent that, at the time, wasn’t coming through traditional routes.

Both productions rely on a diverse cast, and the open -audition was an effective way of expanding the pool of actors those shows could cast from. Cameron Mackintosh has again advertised open auditions for the Miss Saigon tour in 2017.

With mounting pressure on casting directors to diversify the pool of actors appearing on stage and on screen, and with more and more actors looking at alternative training models – so as to circumnavigate costly student loans and fees in private drama schools – the open audition is a chance to see what’s really out there.

Two out of three of the Paines Plough cast for Broken Biscuits came via open auditions held in Newcastle. Photo: Matt Humphrey
Two out of three of the Paines Plough cast for Broken Biscuits came via open auditions held in Newcastle. Photo: Matt Humphrey

At the Liverpool Everyman, the artistic management is creating a resident company of 14 actors. As part of the -process of putting together this company, it is holding open auditions for professional actors from, or resident in, Merseyside – those who aren’t already known by the theatre and who don’t have an agent.

Anecdotally, the response to these open auditions has been overwhelming and, whatever the results of the auditions, it is certainly the case that the Liverpool Everyman will now have a much clearer idea of the actors local to it; it will have undoubtedly put new actors on its radar.

Paines Plough has also run open auditions for a number of years in an effort to expand its pool of actors. I asked artistic director James Grieve why it started this process. “We started doing them because lots of our mates are actors and we were hearing the same frustrations from many of them, the old Catch-22 that you had to be seen to be in something and you had to be in something to be seen.

“We wanted to meet more people, broaden our horizons, widen our knowledge of actors in the UK,” he explained. Just as the Liverpool Everyman has been looking for actors based in Merseyside, Paines Plough, as a national touring company, was also “very conscious of London centricity in casting, and that our knowledge of actors based outside London was not as extensive as it should be, so we wanted to hold open auditions across the UK”.

Paines Plough has been holding open auditions for six years now, and is convinced of the benefits. “Our casting database is vastly more diverse and far-reaching. We have met around 1,500 actors through opens, many of whom we would never have met otherwise. And I hope the benefit has been mutual.

“People certainly seem greatly appreciative of the -opportunity; we receive lots of lovely emails. We often have 1,200-plus applications for 90 places, so the demand is certainly there.”

From initial open auditions, Paines Plough has cast Vivienne Gibbs in Jumpers for Goalposts, Rhys Isaac-Jones in Not the Worst Place and Ben Winger in Juicy Fruits.

The company is -currently in rehearsals for Broken Biscuits by Tom Wells, where two out of three of the cast came from open -auditions held in Newcastle. It has also cast many actors seen at opens in readings and workshops.

It seems particularly apt for new-writing companies who already have an open-door submission policy for writers that the same would apply for actors.

It isn’t that open auditions circumnavigate training – most of the actors who find success at an open will have -undoubtedly had some kind of training, and many will have come from three-year drama school degree courses.

What an open audition does is create one more bridge into the industry; auditions outside the capital help rebalance our London-centric industry and, with actors frequently -complaining about seeing the ‘same faces’ appear in -everything, this would be a chance for companies to really expand the pool of actors they know.

It isn’t that casting directors are lazy, or don’t know what and who is out there, and this isn’t a way of totally bypassing agents and casting directors: both the Liverpool Everyman and Paines Plough have combined open auditions with -traditional invited casting calls working with agents and casting -directors. But with limited slots to meet actors, and directors often -wanting to work with actors they know and trust (as Rufus Norris recently admitted), the open audition gives us all an opportunity to engage with actors not yet on the radar.