Casting: tips for directors

Some theatres begin casting earlier than two months before the beginning of rehearsals, particularly if the casting involves looking for very experienced actors or ‘names’. Some directors are still casting the week before rehearsals, which is not ideal, but two months before rehearsals is a reasonable mean. If the casting process begins much earlier than this, actors, and their agents, may not be prepared to commit, putting the whole process on hold.

Many producing theatres begin casting two months before rehearsals, but they have well-oiled machinery and are well-practised, and as the sequencing of auditions and offers is critical to the process, if you are working on your own or casting professionally for the first few times, you may wish to begin three months rather than two months before rehearsals.

Casting directors

Depending on the theatre, or the budget, there may be a casting director involved. They can do anything from just suggesting a list of names for each character to overseeing the actor searches, sending out the production and casting information (called breakdowns), to booking the audition room and the actors, liaising with agents and making offers. Casting is an intricate, delicate, often protracted process, so it is well worth having a casting director if you have not auditioned or cast professional actors before. There is the Casting Directors’ Guild, which has a website and contact details of its members, whom you can contact directly to ask about levels of service and fees. […]


Searching for actors

Even if you cannot afford a casting director, there is one service that you cannot do without for professional casting: Spotlight. […] Almost every working actor and every agent subscribes to Spotlight, which is a searchable database of actors with each entry including a photo, or photos, and possibly a voice or showreel; a selected list of stage, TV, film and other credits, which may include the theatres worked at and directors worked with; personal information including age bracket, hair and eye colour, etc.; information about skills, such as accents, horse riding, vocal range, instruments played, fighting and dancing abilities etc.; and, of course, the agent’s contact details. […]

The other important half of the service is that it allows you to send out a breakdown of the production and the parts you are casting, and even the pages of the play you wish actors to read at an audition (called ‘sides’ as in sides of pages). This breakdown can then be sent via the website to every agent who subscribes, or to a list of agents and others you compile, and the replies will come back to your Spotlight account pages, and from the submissions you can compile further shortlists. The breakdown pages guide you through the information required, but you will need to know the production company, venue and production dates; who is directing and producing; the casting dates; and the type of contract or payment.

Writing a breakdown

You will also be able to write a brief breakdown of the play and of each role you are casting. Agents are busy people, so keep descriptions brief and pithy. […] This may not be the perfect breakdown, but if you give too little information clients won’t pop into an agent’s mind; give too much and you might be cutting down possible suggestions. Ideally the suggestions will give you a fair range of actors to see.

Timing is all with casting: you may wish to allow two or three days for agents to respond and then give yourself a week to go through the (many, many) submissions and schedule the first auditions to begin about ten days after the deadline. If you do not get what you are looking for you can send new, refined, breakdowns. I regularly received as many as 100 submissions per role for productions at Harrogate Theatre, and that takes a long time to sift through. […]

Drawing up audition shortlists

Auditioning costs money: the hire of the room, the travel, and the time of other collaborators in the auditioning. In TV casting it is normal to see perhaps four actors for each role. If you are being employed by a theatre and the theatre is paying for the room, the travel and the time of those involved you might be allocated a certain number of audition days.

To begin with, a rule of thumb might be to select six actors to see for each role. However good a Spotlight search and submissions process might be, you only have the information about the actor that has been supplied to you. Ideally every director will have their own database of actors whose work they have seen and whom they would like to work with. There is no substitute for seeing actors’ work: an actor might be much worse at auditioning than they are on stage, or they might not display the qualities in an audition that you have seen them display in a part.

For the same reason, although you may subscribe to Spotlight, the input of a casting director can be invaluable, as they will have seen many productions and auditioned hundreds of actors in the past year or so. If you only have six ‘slots’ for each role, the more information you have about those you select, the higher the chances are that they will be worth seeing. Take suggestions from directors, actors and designers you know: if they have worked with someone they will know them as a person as well as an actor!

Sometimes directors and casting directors leave only a week between the closing date for suggestions and the auditions, but by the time you have selected the actors, phoned or emailed the agent, the agent has contacted the actor, and the actor has dropped out or is not available for the time and date you have chosen, and you have gone to another actor, and the actor has received the pages to read for the audition in good time, seven or ten working days have whizzed by.

Keeping an open mind

The first auditions might be the first time you have heard the play read, and although you have made certain decisions about the characters, and how the characters will relate to each other, in choosing the six actors to see for each part you might wish to choose six who, so far as you can tell from their submissions or from seeing them before, will bring different qualities to the role. […]

It is often the case that a director’s understanding or conception of a character is significantly changed by meeting actors and hearing the part read for the first time, so do not limit your own thinking and possibilities in choosing the actors. It might be that meeting the first actors makes you realise that you have been looking at the part in the wrong way and that you need to see another three actors who bring different qualities to it in a second round of auditions.

From Directing: A Handbook for Emerging Theatre Directors, Methuen Drama (Bloomsbury)