Casting – the couch or the net?

With the Upstairs/Downstairs casting issue at Belvoir Street it seems timely to talk about the hoary chestnut of the industry: casting.

Director, the Late Richard Wherrett, often said to me that direction is 90% the casting. After many years, I have to agree with him.

It is the role of a Director to cast a show. Period. He, or she, casts a show, based on what is presented to him or her, and the roles available. It’s a no-brainer, IF the Director gets to choose from what is available. It’s a big IF.

In Music Theatre, with many directors coming in from overseas not knowing the local talent pool, it makes sense to have a professional casting director put together a laterally-thought through list of auditionees for the director to see.

But, what if the Director has potential cast members withheld from their view? Are they casting the BEST people for the job simply when they are, perhaps, ignorant of the possible others? Those artists who are possibly perfect.

The Casting Directors are the people who are responsible for who the director sees and who the director doesn’t. It’s a very powerful position with potential disaster (also potential success) for all those artists trying to make a break into the business. Yes – these Casting Directors are charged with the job of ‘short-listing’ the folk that the director sees – that’s their job.

So – before you have shown your uber-notes in chest, your mighty male Bb, or your exquisite extension, or your unique relationship with the role, you are left with the decisions of a person who may be making those decisions solely based on your photo & CV as to whether or not you even get an audition. They may be making decisions based on their knowledge of your work history, too. Worse, they may be making those decisions based on personal taste or other personal issues with you. They could also get you ‘over the line’ and into an audition based on the leverage your management has. If the casting director knows you and your work, you have an advantage.

(NOTE: In Australia, many of our theatre casting directors have previously made their careers out of Film and TV casting).

Then, we also have the artist’s representatives. Agents ALSO ‘shortlist’ their clientelle based on the casting brief and the availability of their artists. They suggest those that THEY think fit the brief, and, many times (I am told), those that don’t.

I have two issues here. Is the Director getting to see ALL the possible answers to the casting quest? Does he or she really need 2 screening processes prior to the audition room?

But there is another, potentially more sinister, aspect to all of this. For obvious reasons, they don’t like talking about this, but there are some performers that these casting directors just won’t show a director. Now, to be fair, there are actors who have for whatever reason ‘blotted their copy book’ and will need to let there errors heal, but I really get concerned when taste gets in the way of a fair go.

Happily, for the most part, casting directors get as well-informed as could be expected and as budgets will allow. They are often flown to see the overseas product that they will cast and, if at all possible, have lengthy discussions with the director themselves. But, I imagine myself in this position, I get flown to NY to see a show, I look at the way I would cast it, and of course the folk whose work I like, will pop to mind.

I am not slating the role of the casting director here. I am really saying that these ‘short lists’ are probably just that – short. Too short.

A casting process in Music Theatre is not cheap either: First Class Airfares for all key personnel (often with partners), accomodation, audition venues, audition pianists, stage managers, internal domestic flights, and the casting director themselves. And of course, by that stage, the publicist has already gone into ‘Warp Factor 4’.

Yes, it is costly. BUT, it’s my firm belief that a positive and superbly-run audition process is about the best advance publicity that a show can get. Regardless of their audition outcome, if you can get practitioners leaving the audition buzzing about ‘how well they were treated’ or ‘the pianist was brilliant’ or ‘they really worked with me’, this augers well for the vibe about the show before the GP publicity machine really kicks in.

In the best scenario – the casting director reduces the number of ‘Thank you’s’ that the performer needs to endure. Why go in for something for which you are not going to be cast anyway? It’s all such a leap of faith, isn’t it?

Not so long ago, I was told a horror story. A very talented colleague (a graduate of a prominent MT academy), who was syndicated on TV every week at the time, spent a great deal of time with his vocal coach preparing the material he had been given, went in to audition for this particular musical. He had been asked if he would mind his audition being taped – he said ‘no’. At about 5pm, he walks in. The producer was on the phone, 2 of the panel were eating their very late lunch, the MD was packing up all their materials, indeed the video camera was being packed away. The actual director was not there. They were on their way to the airport. After a few moments with the pianist, he went to start his audition. After an embarrassing time standing there, the panel noticed him. (By this stage is photo and CV had also been packed).

He started singing. Then, the packing continued. After one rendering of 5 pieces of material that had been sent him, he was told that that was all they needed. We all know that we can tell if we have a job for someone or not, but this performer was not looked at. At all. He walked over to the pianist who said, “I am so sorry”.

I have no reason to believe that this story was embellished in any way.

So, how could this artist believe that he had been given fair consideration for the role for which he was auditioning? It is the casting director’s job to ensure that this does not happen. Unfortunately, the casting director was not there to prevent it.

In film and TV, I know of a National audition process that is taking place for 2 roles. Over 600 actors are being seen. This is casting the net wide and I like the flavour of this much more.

The casting director’s job is sort of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’, but in the position of director, I would like to have time with the casting director and all the pics and CV’s and to be able to ask, “Now, why am I not going to see this person?”. If a compelling argument comes back to me, I would go with my counsel. If it doesn’t, and I have a good feeling about the artist in question, then – I would like to see the artist. Period.

If you have any audition stories, the good-the bad-and the ugly, send them into me and I will do an article. Rest assured, you will all remain anonymous: [email protected]

At the end of of last year – 2008 – our population was 21,819,181 (Australian Bureau of Statistics). Almost 22 million.

Equity boasts 22,000 members – .1% of the Australian population

How is this related to my chosen topic for next week? I am asking, do we have the population to support a healthy music theatre industry in Australia?

I’d love to know your thoughts!

Till next week…

Please feel free to shoot me YOUR ideas for topics to : [email protected]

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