Casting Your Production

Actors are, in a sense, the face of your production.  No matter how good the script or the set or the lighting, without quality actors, the audience is unlikely to remember your show fondly.  In fact, it's often been said that casting well is 90 percent of the work of directing.  That may not be entirely true, but casting well is crucial to your success.  Here, we'll discuss the casting process from start to finish.



Where to Find the Actors
Auditions and Recruiting
Where to Hold the Auditions
Selecting Audition Material
Special Needs of Musical Auditions
How to Evaluate a Resume
Running Your Auditions
Who Can Watch
Callbacks
Understudies, Stand-Bys and Double Casting
Dealing with Problem Actors

Thank You for Flushing My Head in the Toilet and other rarely used expressions, a one-act play about bullying  by Jonathan Dorf


Where to Find the Actors

It's time to cast your show. That means you need to rustle up some actors, though where you look may vary a bit by your venue.

If you're producing a show at a school (assuming your cast isn't drawn from a specific class), consider the following:
1. Announce it in any drama, performing arts or English classes.
2. Place an audition notice in any school-wide announcements, whether that's online, over a public address system or at an assembly.
3. Place notices on any drama bulletin boards, as well as on any other boards that allow for announcements.

At the university level:
1. Flyer as much as possible on any bulletin boards that allow such postings, as well as on the departmental callboard (if it exists).
2. Try to get a listing in any student newspapers (print or online), making sure to give yourself enough lead time. If there's a radio or TV station, try those too.
3. Get students involved in your drama program to make announcements in any relevant classes (assuming the professors will let them—most will).

At the community theatre and professional level, there are some common publicity tactics:

1. Send audition announcements to any local newspapers, being mindful of the lead time required.
2. Send word of your auditions, with a breakdown of your needs, to your email list of members (if you're a community theatre or an ensemble company) or to any past performers (if you have such a list).
3. If you're looking for younger performers for a project, try sending notices to school drama teachers, or local acting teachers.

At the professional level, you might also consider contacting agents and managers (if any) who represent local stage actors, as well as to trade publications like Backstage (which charges for announcements) or online services like Breakdown Express or Now Casting (both of which are free). For the online services, it helps to be near a major city (though it doesn't have to be just NY, LA or Chicago). For those in Los Angeles, there's also LA Casting (also free).

Also, does your city/area have an email list or website for local theatre? For example, in Los Angeles, there is Big Cheap Theatre, an e-list with over 2000 members that focuses on the city's smaller theatres (of which there are many). Philadelphia has the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.

Continue on to read about "Auditions and Recruiting" for more insights and suggestions for getting a great cast.



Auditions and Recruiting

There are few things more important when producing a successful show than finding the best cast and crew, yet that aspect of production is often not given the attention it requires. Merely posting a few notices on bulletin boards at your school or college, or on the web, or in the local newspaper may not suffice. Even running an Equity open call if you are a professional theatre may not fill all your roles. You want to have as much choice as possible for every role and crew position so you should spend a lot of time thinking of all the available places to find and attract talent.

If it is possible to have a good poster designed before the audition then that poster can be used to attract attention and show prospective cast (and crew) that you are running a classy operation and build excitement for your show. There are few things that are more important than the poster (see the section on poster design). In this day and age people have very short attention spans, and are bombarded with images competing for their attention and rarely have time to read the fine print. An attention-grabbing poster - even for auditions - can define your show and make your production stand out from the crowd.

The best cast and crew often have a lot of competition for their services and you want to get the cream of the crop. When advertising alone does not fill all the posts with the quality you require, then you will need to recruit. This requires asking around to see if any of your contacts know of certain types of actors that you need, or are aware of a talented stage manager or set designer. Recruiting is part of the process of being a producer. Don't just passively advertise - be proactive in searching out the finest talent you find. Talk to people at other theatre groups, ask for recommendations. Once you have found the talent it is the producer's job to enthusiastically sell your show to the talent, although everyone should have to go through the audition process as it could ruffle feathers if actors are given parts without auditioning like everyone else.

And don't forget to search out people in allied fields. Check out the art department at your school or college - artists may make good set designers, check out the choir or music department for singers who may also be able to act, or the cheerleading squad for dancers who can sing.

One of the primary functions of a producer is to spread enthusiasm and excitement about the upcoming project. This enthusiasm will attract people to your cause.

Put the right people in place and your job as a producer will be much easier and your show much more successful.



Where to Hold the Auditions

If your theatre company has its own space, or you're producing at a school or university, chances are you will either hold your auditions in the theatre itself, in a second stage (e.g. a black box or other smaller theatre) if you have one, or in a rehearsal room.

While there's something to be said for having actors audition in the space in which they'll be performing, it's not all that necessary and may be intimidating if it's a cavernous proscenium. Sometimes a smaller, more intimate space is easier.

Of course, if you don't have your own space, then you'll need to rent audition space in the same way that you'd rent performance or rehearsal space. Some common qualities of good audition venues:
1. The space is reasonably soundproof and not surrounded by other areas that could generate noise or foot traffic that could cause a distraction or otherwise interfere with auditions. For example, you don't want a band playing next door.
2. There should be a waiting area for actors, parents, etc.
3. The venue should be easily accessible, easy to find and well marked (even if you have to put up signs yourself).
4. It should be clean, with clean restrooms.
5. Ultimately, if you don't have your own space, while there's nothing wrong with thinking out of the box, it's typically a better idea to obtain a space that is used to hosting auditions and rehearsals. It's more likely to be properly equipped and safe (for instance, with proper floors for theatrical movement).

We strongly recommend not holding auditions in someone's home. While it might be convenient or save a little money, not only does it look unprofessional, but it opens the door to all kinds of liability issues. A simple, clean theatrical venue is best.



Selecting Audition Material

When auditioning actors, you need to find out not only whether they may be suitable for any given role, but also how they take direction and work with others.  What sort of material should you use?

You might ask actors to audition with prepared monologues.  A prepared monologue can show off an actor's range without worrying that they may be tripping over lines they don't know.  At the same time, ask yourself if the show is one that has many monologues.  If not, having an actor audition with a monologue may not be the best choice.  Also, make sure the monologue choices are consistent with the period of the play.  Don't have an actor audition with Shakespeare if it's a contemporary play, and vice versa.

Most of the time, you'll want to have actors audition with sides (i.e. short scenes) from the play, roughly two pages maximum.  If at all possible, allow them to have access to the materials ahead of time.  Asking them to cold read sides is not a fair test of actors' abilities, as not everyone is a good cold reader.

Another possibility is to have actors improvise as a supplement to the sides or monologues.



Special Needs of Musical Auditions

When you're producing a musical, your auditions become slightly more complicated, because you need actors to see actors do more than just act. You’ll want to hear them sing, and depending on the show, quite possibly see them move as well.

So not only will you need to do everything you would normally do for a non-musical (aka “straight”) play, but you’ll also need to budget time for singing and potentially choreography. Make sure your announcement asks actors to prepare at least one song (you might want a ballad and something more up-tempo) and to bring sheet music. You’ll need to hire an accompanist to play with them, and you’ll need to make sure your audition space has a tuned piano.

If your musical requires movement or dance, it will be important to evaluate these skills as well. However, given time constraints of auditions, it may be best to focus on the actors’ acting and singing skills in the initial audition, and for those who make the cut, save choreography for callbacks.



How to Evaluate a Resume

A resume exists primarily as a device to reduce the number of artists to be interviewed for a particular production position.  This differs from other professions where the strength of a resume is a significant factor in the selection of applicants.

Doctors and lawyers all have similar education requisites.  The paths to efficiency in theatre arts are varied, and so an enormous significance is placed on the interview, work sample and recommendation.

A good resume contains recognizable and verifiable suggestions of an artist’s competence.  Things like specific roles and the level of theatre are telling.  (An actor portraying Julius Caesar at theatre camp means less than another playing Little Man in the one hundred performance premiere run of Roll Of Thunder, Hear My Cry at Seattle Children’s Theatre.

The play, the role, the director and/or the theatre are essential information.  “Has this actor played a role of equal weight and complexity to what is demanded in your production?”
Next, the description of training and skills should be considered.  “Is this a well rounded actor with university credentials?”  “Is there stage combat and martial arts certification?”  “Does the actor speak multiple languages or claim an ability to perform various accents?”
Finally, are there clues to the temperament of the performer?  An actor who has repeat bookings in prominent theatres in a single city suggests some level of professionalism.  If there has been employment in a resident company, this again suggests the ability to play well with others.

Ultimately though, it is wise to find someone who can authoritatively confirm the stability of the artist.  I still remember reorganizing the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte rehearsal schedule of Nobody’s Listening after learning that an actor was so addicted to nicotine that he simply could not remember his lines after 60 minutes without a cigarette break.
Youth theatres, particularly those in school-based programs, often require child abuse and criminal background record checks. Rarely are similar searches performed in the adult theatre, but a call to a former director or cast member may avoid major potential production problems.

At the school level, student actors will likely not have formal resumes, but this doesn't mean they can't provide you with information about their past experience (see Running Your Auditions on this page for a form you can use).  If you're coming into a school situation as an outside director (i.e. you don't teach there), you may be able to consult with a teacher or administrator at the school to be sure that the students you are considering are academically eligible and don't have any other issues of which you should be aware.

The typical solution to difficulties involving casting is to engage a male and female general understudy.  Actors most often are on their best behavior when they know that they are not indispensable.  More on this in Dealing With Problem Actors.



Running Your Auditions

You'll want to work out a rough schedule for auditions, so that you know how much time you have for each audition slot.

When actors arrive, they should sign in with a monitor, who will be in charge of sending actors into the audition room.  At the professional level, you'll likely have headshots and resumes with contact information.  At the school or amateur level, you'll want to prepare a simple audition form that asks for the following information:
Name
Contact Phone Number
Contact Email
Any Known Conflicts
You may also wish to leave space for a short summary of previous credits and any other comments.

Here is a link to a form I used back in my days running the theatre program at The Haverford School.  On it, you'll see the basics, as well as a question or two that was meant to provide a bit of "color."  The students tended to look forward to that one, as it changed with every show.  Want one in Word that you can modify and make your own?  Click here.  Or for another take on an audition form, click here for the form used by Cambridge-Isanti High School for the premiere of Rumors of Polar Bears.

When the monitor brings the actors into the room, he should give you their information forms or headshot/resumes, or the actors can hand you their information themselves.  To help you remember them, particularly if you see a number of actors, you may want to make notes on their printed material about what the actor is wearing or other descriptive information.

Back in the day, I was very lucky to work with my good friend Scott Schwartz, both at Harvard and later when we co-founded a summer theatre company.  One of the things that always struck me about how Scott (who has gone on to direct both on Broadway and off) conducted auditions was that he always made it such a positive experience for the actors.  By treating actors with professional courtesy and making them feel comfortable and valued, not only are you more likely to get better work from them, but even actors who ultimately aren't cast are more likely to see the production in a favorable light.  It's never too early to create a positive buzz.



Who Can Watch

Normally, the only people who will be in the room during the auditions are members of the creative team:  the director, assistant director, the author (if the author chooses) and potentially the producer.  If it's a musical, the musical director and an accompanist will need to be present, and potentially a choreographer.

It is always a good idea to have more than one person watching auditions.  One, because it never hurts for the director to have access to a second opinion/sounding board.  Two, because particularly at the school level, having more than one person in on the decision (even if it's mostly for show) may serve to insulate you from protesting parents.  And three, it's a good idea in these litigious days to have a third person present in any room, so that it's not simply the director alone with an actor.

No one else should be in the room:  no friends and no parents.  It's not fair to other people auditioning.  But they should feel more than welcome--particularly in the case of auditioners under 18 who need to be accompanied by an adult--to wait in the waiting area.



Callbacks

First round auditions are generally a time to separate the good from the bad, the possible from the impossible.  From there, it's often necessary to hold callbacks, when you can look at actors more carefully.  You'll want to allot more time for each actor, and chances are you'll want to select new sides.  Again, try to make them available ahead of time, so that the actors can prepare.  You'll definitely want to make sure with this new round of auditions that the actors can take direction.

Callbacks are also a good time to discuss any specific questions of schedule or conflicts.



Understudies, Stand-Bys and Double Casting

Coming soon.



Dealing with Problem Actors

Coming soon.