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Phil Willmott: Actors, this is what casting looks like from the other side of the table

More than 550 readers voted in The Stage poll on casting. Photo: Sean De Burca/Shutterstock Photo: Sean De Burca/Shutterstock
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I thought it might be interesting for actors to know a little bit about how a cast is selected. Or at least how I did it last week.

I’ve just completed casting for a micro-budget production at a tiny but fashionable fringe theatre. The play requires an all-male cast of 14. (I did ask the rights holders if I could gender-blind cast but the estate of the playwright forbids it.)

We selected around 100 people to meet from just over 1,000 applications for an audition.

More lucrative and higher-profile gigs will of course attract many many more submissions, meaning the better the gig the less chance you have of being considered if you don’t have a track record and/or a premier- league agent. Plus the producers may approach ‘star’ names first for lead roles, which won’t be advertised and subject to an audition process.

Personally, I like the actors (and me) to come to rehearsals with as few preconceptions as possible. Idiosyncratically, I don’t use the play in auditions so I won’t have to hear the key speeches over and over again.

On this occasion, I asked all auditionees to prepare a short reading of a Walt Whitman poem so I could quickly assess how dextrously they understood and conveyed text. It allowed me, rather then their agents, to determine what role they were best suited for.

If things are running to schedule, audition slots are about 10 minutes each. I like to have a quick chat, watch what the actor’s prepared, give some direction to bring out something different and then watch a second time. I try to be welcoming and positive, I really do appreciate the time and effort actors put in to auditioning, but meeting and directing a new person every 10 minutes for several days is taxing.

After each audition, CVs are put into one of four piles: no, probably not, possibly and abso-bloody-lutely.

What I’d like to covey to actors, and what so many struggle to understand, is that if your CV goes in the ‘no’ or ‘probably not’ pile, it isn’t because you’ve messed up the audition or aren’t talented. Your ability to play a role isn’t in question, otherwise you wouldn’t have been asked to audition. It’s simply that on meeting you face to face you’re not quite what we’re looking for or we haven’t a suitable role for you.

After the last person has been seen, it’s time to spread out CVs on a big table. Happily, on this occasion the standard of applicant was phenomenal: we could have cast it three times over and there were nine people in the ‘abso-bloody-lutely’ pile. We assigned each of those the part for which they were best suited.

Your ability to play a role isn’t in question, otherwise you wouldn’t have been asked to audition

Next it’s time to look through the probably pile, fill in the gaps and assign second choices. Where it’s not possible to decide between candidates, it’s sometimes necessary to get them back in for a recall.

Once I’ve chosen the perfect cast, I then contact the last director each actor has worked with to find out if they ‘play well with others’. Any hint of inner demons that might disrupt everyone else’s rehearsal process and they get dumped in the interests of assembling a tight ensemble. This very, very seldom happens.

Then you make the offers and hope the actor hasn’t been offered anything tastier in the meantime. It usually takes two or three days to hear back from everyone, but it’s rare that anyone turns an offer down unless there’s a clash with a TV or movie job. If they do, you’re ready with your second choices.

The most unpleasant part of all this is, spoilt for choice, you often have to say no to actors you’ve loved working with in the past but who aren’t quite as ‘right’ as someone else.

And there’s another factor: if there’s little or no money involved, I like to prioritise casting actors who are new to me to give them the showcase they need. But it’s nice to be loyal and, when I’m allowed, if someone’s worked with me on a poorly paid project I’ll often fast-track them to suitable roles, or at least the recall stage, on more lucrative productions.

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