A very long ramble about casting. Make tea first.

Over the last few days I’ve told a few actor friends various bits of this and they have asked/ requested me to put it into a form that can be shared more widely. Apparently I’m interesting.. Who knew?.. After the 43rd page it may be less interesting. Here goes.

I should probably start with the caveat that much of this is applicable mainly to smaller scale jobs, certainly the big musical casting machine operates in a big musical casting machine kind of way so all of this can be disproved, none of it is gospel, but potentially interesting and maybe useful in some small way.

We spent the latter end of last week casting a new musical which will play for a month over Christmas at a really nice venue in North London. It’s by a talented young writing team who’ve already enjoyed considerable success this year and although I’m probably biased, I think the creative team are pretty good too!

We put out a casting breakdown on Spotlight asking for submissions for our five roles, and within a week we had 487 applications. Many more female than male, and almost half of them were for the leading character.

Spotlight. I know how much my actor friends struggle to pay out for Spotlight every year, but my experience of it is that it’s very user-friendly. It keeps everything together, it all looks the same, you can create lists and forms and sort submissions by agent, by role, by name – very useful for us to keep track of everything. Save the money throughout the year and pay it, is my advice.

When you submit to Spotlight, there’s an opportunity to write a personal message which then comes up in the preview screen. However, it only shows the first line or two. This is your headline. ‘Recently played Willy Wonka’ or ‘Known to creative team’ are stronger headlines than ‘Dear Sir, I’d really love to be seen for this musical as….’ (run out of preview..).. It’s not essential to put something here but it can help jog a memory or give an interesting factoid. Keep it concise.

Sorting submissions. Spotlight has a system where we can traffic light people, green, orange, red. You can change the coding as often as you like, and when new people come in, they aren’t coloured at all so you can see who’s arrived since you last logged in.

I did a first sweep to look for people I knew – both in person and whose work I have seen. I’m very lucky to have a good memory for names (this works in actors favour until the day they decide to not show up for an audition, and then becomes problematic as their names are already in my mind…!) so I was able to immediately green a few people who I know would be right for it, and orange a load more who needed longer consideration.

In spirit of fairness, I had asked everyone who contacted me personally to submit through Spotlight as well – more on this to follow – so I looked through those and colour coded them first. One of the other reasons I ask everyone to submit via Spotlight is because it makes them talk to their agent about the show in advance. There’s nothing more frustrating than casting a fantastic actor in a role and then them declining because their agent knew nothing about it and doesn’t want them to do it.

<steps off soapbox>

Knowing the team. One of the most common complaints I hear from actors is that they can’t get seen for things. I try to tread the fine line between being loyal to actors whose work I know and love, and expanding my network of people to get to know new talent. We had a total of 60 audition slots. I could easily fill those with the submissions from people I know but that doesn’t seem right on two counts – firstly, it doesn’t give anyone new a chance. Secondly, knowing actors work puts me in a strong position of being able to have a good instinct about whether or not someone might be right for it. I’m always pleased (and a little bit flattered) when someone writes to me and tells me they’d like us to work together – especially if we’ve worked together before, it makes me think they had a nice time – but I have to be careful not to overpromise as even if I know I’d cast them in a shot, I am one member of a five strong team who I trust and rely on to get the casting right. Usually I ask everyone to submit via Spotlight then the whole team can look and everyone is being considered fairly.

Our job is to cast the right people (which sometimes means we don’t get to cast our favourite people) – sad though that can be, it’s for the good of the show – and so I give careful consideration to submissions and the demands of the piece. As someone who coaches and teaches actors, I know how much preparation goes into an audition, the hours spent (and money spent!) on singing lessons and travel and choosing the perfect outfit and getting the iron out of its cobwebby home at the back of the cupboard.. If I already know that an actor is not right for the show then I don’t see it as a kindness to bring them in to audition. I can see the value in just being seen (for future projects, same producer, etc) – but two days of auditions is squeezing it tight and my preoccupation is with casting THIS show.

I suppose the next question would be about us being open minded and letting actors prove us wrong about what we want. There was a bit of this last week actually, and many of the orange-coded people ended up coming in and showing us completely new and brilliant versions of the characters that we hadn’t considered. But I know the composer / the type of voice that suits the music, and the book writer / the type of energy that suits the text. The wonderful thing about actors is that they are all so unique and good at being individual – skill is necessary, being the perfect fit is what will swing it. One of my close friends asked to audition. We weren’t sure he was right for it but we gave it a try. He was amazing in the audition but he still wasn’t right for it. He didn’t get the job. (I texted him to tell him, he was fine. We are still speaking.)

I’m still waffling on about the task of colour coding submissions. If someone has submitted for more than one role – when the roles in this show are so different from each other – then my suspicion is that they aren’t right for either.

If the breakdown says age range 30-40 and you are and look like a 20 year old then it’s unlikely to go your way. Submit for things you are right for.

If you haven’t ever done a musical before and you have no singing skills listed in the music and dance section of your CV then I wonder why the sudden calling to musical theatre.

If you have listed every single option in the special skills section then I will be intrigued and fascinated but might think you are crazy. Chartered Accountant? Well done. Cake Designer? Cool. Angle Grinding? Kinky. Hypnotherapist? Lookintomyeyesandgivemethisjob.. Barista? White Americano please. There’s even an option to list as highly skilled at milking a cow. Maybe consider being selective. A few weird skills are interesting. The more there are, the more suspicious it seems..

A few hours later, and the submissions have been wrangled into green (10 – 15 per character), orange (our backup category if lots of green people cancel) and red (not right this time around.)

So what will get an actor into the green or orange category? The truth is that there is no hard and fast rule about this. It’s more a case of the stars aligning to give some indication that you might be a good fit for this role in this show with this creative team. Some of the things I might look for are

– training, where and when

– previous experience

– vocal range

– height, particularly as we were trying to cast three generations

– agent, maybe – I might look slightly longer at a cv from an agent I know

And for this show particularly

– evidence of a strong constitution – Edinburgh Festival or similar

– previous children’s theatre? / not essential..

– regional accents (a preoccupation of the writer)

– having played a similar character before?

I’d love to be able to be more defined about what I look for but it’s more about how what’s on the page combines to give a sense of the actor. I always look through all the photos too.

Then our lovely lady in the office got onto putting in the calls and getting the days of auditions together. The creative team didn’t do this themselves so had no idea how it was going. Had everyone declined? Would we have enough people? I had an email from more than one person to say that they hadn’t heard anything, and were they going to be called in? Some of them weren’t going to be called in – others were on our green list! What had gone wrong?… This is depressing but it’s true – when dealing with large numbers of anything, there will always be a couple that slip through the net. I have no idea where the chain came unlinked, somewhere in the middle of our office and the agents office and the actor… I suppose the good thing that can be taken from this is that sometimes NOT being called in for something might not be deliberate? Is that of any comfort?

There was also a lovely actress I know who wrote to me and asked for an audition. ‘Submit via Spotlight’ I said (while rubbing my hands together with glee, she’s a wonderful lady and would be perfect for the role). ‘Done.’ She Said. A few days later, an email pops into my inbox from her agent asking if we are going to see her. Something had gone wrong and her submission wasn’t on the Spotlight list. I had to ask the agent to resubmit. Who knows how and where that went wrong but even technology isn’t foolproof. One poor boy wasn’t given the message by his agent and only turned up on the day (several hours late) because a friend of his had seen on the list that he was due in and had sent him a text to ask if he wanted to go for coffee afterwards.

Audition day. We allowed ten minute timeslots to give each person time to be nervous, calm down, have a chat, sing a song and read a bit of text that we sent in advance. We had asked for one contemporary musical theatre or Disney song – upbeat if possible. The reasons for this are simple: there are no ballads in this show. Not one. Even the songs that you think will be ballads are not ballads. There’s a mixy voice quality that our composer loves which is more usually found in upbeat songs. The characters in this show are all hopeful and characterful. Some people brought ballads and they were wonderful, but we needed to investigate further to find the things we were looking for. Fine if there’s time in the schedule – but once things start running behind it can be easy to just think ‘Oh well, they aren’t right for it..’ and move on. I’m about to contradict all of this advice in the next paragraph and tell you that it doesn’t matter what you sing but if the stated requirement is something upbeat you can really do yourself a favour by going with that.

After last week I’ve formulated a new theory on song choice – which is basically that the song you offer first should be the start of a conversation rather than an end point after which your life

a) ends – if it didn’t go according to plan

b) begins, if it went so well you cast yourself on the spot and start writing an Olivier acceptance speech.

Relax. Bring a song. Bring a few more songs if possible. Make sure they are in fairly decent shape. If you’re feeling ok, let the panel look through your options and pick – they know the demands of the show and most audition rep so can make a judgment on what will help you to show what you can bring to it. Don’t freak out about which one to do and end up doing a half hearted version of something – we aren’t looking for the most perfect performance ever of Live Out Loud from the Secret Garden (x4, all amazing) or Corner of the Sky from Pippin (x3, each one a delight) – we are looking for an essence of the character we have to cast and an indication that you know how to hold a tune and make it sound nice. We will ask for more if we need it. The most enjoyable auditions last week were the ones where we got to ask for a bit more of something else and it led to conversation about rep and songs and ‘can I do a bit of this one from the piano?’ (Answer: of course. We have heads that are able to turn and look at you singing in a different place in the room. Aren’t we TALENTED?!)

The song you choose to lead with will not make or break your audition. It’s just the start. Obsessing and stressing out about it definitely WILL.

A short thought on timings. Out of our 60 audition slots we had 6 cancels – either on the day or the day before, and 8 no shows (as discussed – not all the fault of the actors!) The way to make sure that time doesn’t get wasted is to overbook the day like an Easyjet flight – but the flip side of that is that when everyone DOES turn up, we get very behind, very fast.

A short thought on panels. We are very lucky to be a creative team of good friends who’ve worked together LOTS and have an easy shorthand. We are generally quite friendly people and it’s natural to us to be nice and upbeat to new people coming into our gang, even if it’s only for ten minutes. We’re also in a strong position of having done this show before, so we feel quite confident in being able to ask specific and pertinent questions. Not all panels operate like this. I know a lot of creatives who are naturally quite serious people. It doesn’t mean they don’t like you, or you aren’t going to get on – just that in order to do their job, they need to be quite considered. If they are a new team (to each other) they might be more reserved too – and if it’s a new piece then everyone is figuring it out together. Take control of your audition time. Make things easy for the panel. If they ask you a question, think of it as the start of a conversation. The panel want everyone to be brilliant and right for the show. If someone asks you about a previous show that you have been in, beware of slating it – it’s quite hard to keep a conversation going along negative lines and it can make the panel uneasy – if something goes wrong on this show, would you slate us to someone else? Weep.

Recalls. On the first day, we were able to do the whole OKTHANKYOUVERYMUCHWEWILLLETYOURAGENTKNOW routine and send out emails later in the day to invite back to a movement call. On the second day we had to be brutal and ask in the room if people would stay for the afternoon. I hate doing that but there it was.

The movement call was fun. We had a great time. I think the actors did too. They were smiling and laughing a lot.

FYI – things the creative team are doing in a movement call that has NOTHING TO DO WITH STEPS OR TECHNIQUE:

– Learning names. Even if an actor isn’t successful this time around, once they’ve got this far, we want to remember you.

– Looking at heights and combinations of people to play parent and child/ friends/ lovers (hopefully not in this show)

– Observing for things like listening, detail, supporting other people in the room.

– Checking out how different people react to being given steps – even if you can’t get them right, evidence that a dance rehearsal is not going to require a trip to the doc for Xanax afterwards.

– Sense of play. I want a cast who will PLAY in rehearsal and who will be FUN and LOVELY and who I can eat cake with.

– Occasionally texting another director who’s on an actors cv from a previous job to ask if you are really as amazing as you seem or if it’s all an act (this happens a lot. I get about 3 or 4 a week. Play nicely.)

– Worrying that the song is too high/ too fast/ thinking about things that have nothing to do with the people learning a dance in front of me.

– Wondering what to have for dinner tonight.

So who gets the job? Here’s where it gets really annoying for actors. It’s all about combinations. We have to have all the voice parts covered, even if it’s a different way round from how we imagined. Two people that might have a lot to do together should work together well as a pair (sometimes difficult to know if you don’t have the luxury of getting them to read together beforehand, you have to make an instinctive guess) and any quirks should be able to co-exist happily. We make this decision based on the knowledge that whoever we offer to will DEFINITELY say yes – so it can be really annoying to spend ages and ages working it all out and then an actor says no and the next choice would have been good in a different combination yada yada. This is the interminable waiting time that I know actors hate. Sometimes choosing who’s going to be offered first is painful, if two actors are both so brilliant. If the first one says no we get to offer it to two people so everyone’s a winner really, I suppose..

We made sure that all the people we knew were definitely not right for it were told straight away. It took me about two hours to email their agents. I’m quite sure that each one of them spent at least that time preparing to come and meet us so it was a small thing for me to do really. We had sixty people to get in touch with and I feel strongly about investing in actors. If we’d had a hundred and sixty and this week was one of my busy weeks then it definitely wouldn’t have been possible to do a personal email to each one. Maybe Spotlight could build in a ‘release’ function so that you could tick a box once you know it’s not going to go in an actors favour and they can book flights to New York or arrange a Christmas spa weekend.. There’s a thought.

I wrote to each of the actors we recalled via their agents and asked them to keep in touch – it’s so easy to natter on Twitter and suchlike and lovely to see people doing well and being in shows. I often can’t go to them as I’m too busy making my own but it’s always nice to be invited. New colleagues for the future. They haven’t got this job but there will be another one.

So there. From 487 to 5. And we start rehearsal in 8 weeks. Tick Tock!

Come and see us, it’s going to be a lovely show.