Serena Hill has been Head of Casting at Sydney Theatre Company since 2003, and after an incredible career Down Under, she is heading home to England with her family. For now.
I was fortunate enough to squeeze in a quick chat with Serena about her time here in Oz, London, and steal some inside tips into nailing that audition from one of Australia’s leading Casting Directors.
What first got you into casting? Was it an immediate choice for a career?
No, it wasn’t actually, because at first I didn’t really know what it was. I worked for a theatrical agency in London for five years, and then realised I wanted to be closer to the work. I was lucky enough to get the job of casting director at the Royal Court Theatre which was a new writing Theatre in London. It was a very good way to learn. I wanted to be nearer to the art – I’m not an artist myself, so being closer to the creatives was important to me rather than living on the business side of things.
How long were you with the Royal Court Theatre for?
Just over two and a half years.
And from there you became head of casting at the National Theatre in London, correct?
I did. My time there was incredible.
You must have seen some brilliant actors through those doors?
Yeah. Amazing. Because that particular venue has three operating theatres, and operates by a repertory system* there is always three shows on at any one time. So shows are always in rehearsal, opening or running at any one time. The average cast size generally includes 25 actors.
*(A repertory theatre is a company that presents several works regularly or in alternate sequence in one season).
Were you responsible for casting all those shows? And all three at the same time?
Yeah, absolutely. And of course! In England when I was there, actors were reluctant to commit to any more than three or four months ahead, so at times we were casting right up until the first day of rehearsal. In Australia, I’ve found this is slightly different. Actors tend to want to commit anywhere up to the following year in advance so they can slot in opportunities for work prior to, or after that particular engagement. And this tends to be more common here when TV casting is involved. If a play is locked in, dates and other commitments are worked around that season. So it’s a slightly different way of working here, compared to England.
Why do you think we see this trend here?
I don’t cast for other mediums so I can’t comment on their trends, but because jobs in theatre are relatively few and far between here, if people want to work in theatre, they tend to commit to it because they may not be asked for another year or so. Again, it’s a slightly different take on it. But with that, it’s also put in very high regard, both by the actors themselves and their agents, but also by the industry itself. As a rough gauge, we probably have about 150 parts, give or take, that we cast here a year, and generally in a year we might see one, maybe two people withdraw from these positions due to other commitments they may deem better. So the average is very, very low in regards to the length of time actors tend to commit to work here in Australia. I think it’s extremely admirable, both to the attitude people have towards the theatre as well as the quality of work here. It’s extremely high and people should be proud of that. It’s a gift. And I know that when I’m making an offer, it’s going to be a lovely experience, a good job and artistically fulfilling for that actor.
Have you found that you develop relationships with actors that come through your doors?
It’s not necessary. I love actors, and I love what they bring into the room, but you don’t have to be best friends with them. It comes down to whether they are right for the part or not. What is important, especially in theatre, is forming a company. My job when I’m casting for a director is to find actors that are sympathetic to the writing. To the text. It doesn’t mean they have to all be the same, there just has to be a coherence in terms of the piece we are casting… I’m objective. I don’t have to be best friends with them to do the job well.
From the National Theatre in London you took up Head of Casting at the Sydney Theatre Company in 2003?
That’s right, yeah.
What inspired you to move to Australia?
I was married to an Australian man. I was actually offered the job from England. I had two children, and I thought it might be better for me, better for them and better for life at that point. Serving a repertory at the National Theatre is enormously demanding. You have to go out to the theatre every day to keep up your knowledge. And I was starting to wear out, having two small children at the time. Whenever I used to come here and visit my husband’s parents, I often use to have nights off and would come and see shows at the STC. I was quite familiar with the company’s work so when I was offered the job, it just made sense. I was lucky when the opportunity arose, it was the right time.
Did you enjoy the move down under?
Yeah, I loved it. Very different way of working and way of life, but enormously gratifying.
Have you had a favourite piece that you’ve cast?
I don’t know that I have? I’ve been so lucky to work on such varied plays – amazing repertoire we put on here [at STC] so no, I think each piece brings its challenges and excitement but I just love the plays: I’m a theatre animal through and through!
What’s harder to cast? Classical texts or contemporary pieces of theatre?
It only becomes harder on the younger actors because they don’t have the experience of Shakespeare or classical texts. I suppose the classics are more difficult. Because of the technical requirements. Classical plays require more experience, I suppose.
Do you think its wise for young actors to train?
Yes, I do. Especially if they want a career in the theatre. Well, training in one way or another… training and practice. Practice, practice, practice! If they get the opportunity to pick up their own work or work in smaller productions, I would suggest that. The theatre is the training: working on your craft. There are loads of actors who have started in television and can work brilliantly in that medium but it all comes back to the theatre. It’s technical and classical study of the text that’s especially important. It really does help if you have had that training. It gives you a confidence. It’s not at all easy as you well know. That I do!
Serena, when it comes to casting, and walking into an audition room, do you have any tips for young actors starting out?
Mostly here, people are actually really well prepared. We give the scripts in advance and tell people what they have to prepare. I’m very impressed by the way people prepare themselves. Preparation and feel the flow in the room. Take it seriously. Generally people do that here. I’m not sure if Australians learn that by osmosis or if they learn it in school but actors here are very reliable.
MM: I agree. I think young actors here realise its quite a gift to be cast in a show, a celebration, a triumph. Every audition is valuable.
SH: Undoubtably! It’s a gift.
Yes. I worked on Tim Minchin’s Matilda and Cameron Mackintosh’s Les Miserables since I’ve been here.
Is their a difference between casting a musical and casting a play?
Totally. 100%. It’s quite interesting in my experience, actually. An actor coming to audition for a play will need to read the entire play to put the scene they are auditioning with, into context. Whereas a musical theatre actor tend not need know the entire context of the piece to do a great audition. I was slightly bemused when working on Matilda for example, where the director actually had to explain a little bit of the story line to the actors. You don’t always need to know it’s context, to nail a music theatre audition. However, I strongly recommend – for whatever you’re auditioning for – that you know the entire context and body of work. Preparation!