Curses & Cures of Community Theater Casting

Danon Middleton

The theatre can be a vicious industry. Competition is intense. Rejection is rampant. You can nail the audition and not get the part leaving yourself to question what could have gone wrong, what could you have done better? Of course, the answer to both questions could be nothing, you did everything right. The director just had a different vision for that particular production and you simply didn’t fit that ideal. So, dust yourself off and on to the next audition.

A director’s vision is often a cruel mistress: one day you are loved above all others, the next day you are dismissed with the masses.  Thick skin and inner confidence are the antidotes to the ups and downs of an actor’s life. As actors, we must respect the concept a director has regarding a production. Every director has the right to cast a show the way he or she sees fit. However, sometimes that subjectivity can be corrupted. In order to maintain a welcoming environment and an above-board reputation, there are three principles to which directors and community theaters should adhere.

What follows has been culled from many years of experience in the theater as both a director and actor. In order to preclude possible discord and rancor, I have omitted specific names, locations and identifiable aspects of various scenarios and kept examples as purposefully broad in order to be universally applicable. While this topic is a sensitive one, the intent here is to help raise the standards of local theater and protect reputations. By no means is this list comprehensive, but it does create a solid foundation of best practices when it comes to casting for the community theater stage.

Avoid Favoritism at the Casting Table

This may sound like common sense but the uninitiated would be surprised by how much favoritism exists in our local theaters. It is an unfortunate fact. Professional theatre enjoys a great deal of latitude in such practices. A prime example is Stephen Sondheim and Bernadette Peters. Sometimes scripts are written specifically for chosen actors. The producers of the Broadway revival of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown created the role of Sally Brown specifically for Kristin Chenoweth. However, Community Theater serves a different purpose. By design these organizations are non-profit and exist as a place for the talented hobbyist. Further, they rely on a constant influx of new talent and volunteers to entertain audiences. For better or worse, the mission of a community theater must preclude any such partiality in casting. Unfortunately, that is too often not the case.

The first type of favoritism is when a director casts close friends and family in lead roles. Examples of this are multiplying. Sometimes the directors are even open to admitting the preference and see nothing wrong with it. They are mistaken. Granted, each instance is a case-by-case scenario and at times the best friend of a director is indeed the best choice for a role. However, the perception is the role was pre-cast based on personal relationship rather than the genuine intersection of actor talent and director vision. When this happens routinely, the perception becomes antithetical to the stated mission of a community theater, which is to provide an inclusive environment for artists and produce the highest quality theater for a paying audience. One cannot be inclusive when reserving the most coveted roles solely for one’s friends. And a theater cannot produce the highest quality show when many talented actors are dismissed at the outset. The result is damaged reputations for theaters and lower turnout of artists and volunteers.

Another example of favoritism is when a director casts him- or herself in a production. This creates many problems. First, a director's job is to watch the show from the house to make sure it is playing properly from the audience's point of view. That cannot be done from onstage. How can one give objective feedback to oneself? If this occurs repeatedly, the image of the theater changes from openness to being an exclusive venue for a director’s showcase performance. Therefore, a director should avoid casting himself in a production unless absolutely necessary and all other means of finding a suitable actor have been exhausted.

There is yet a third sort of favoritism and is illustrated when one or two actors repeatedly get the leading role.  This example is not limited to just directors as production staff often return again and again in various capacities. On the surface returning staff can easily be seen as a boon to the quality and cohesiveness of productions. However, when the same production staff work on shows together and cast the same actor(s) in lead roles, the perception becomes one of exclusion. Talent turnout goes down because if there is a favorite in the hall, actors who may otherwise be interested in auditioning perceive that chances of being cast are low. Once again, the reputation of staff and theater is damaged.

Leave Personal Feelings Outside of the Theater

Sometimes favoritism takes an opposite form: the grudge. The director refuses to cast a particular actor out of personal spite. To be fair, some actors are hell to work with and a director has every right to not cast an actor in order to elude the predictable acrimony that actor may be known to cause. That is both acceptable and appreciated by everyone who exudes a more amenable attitude on the stage. However, some directors and production staff go too far and purposefully exclude actors for vindictive reasons.

As with the previous examples, this too is personal and seems to happen regularly in our local theaters – exclusion based on personal feelings rather than legitimate needs of a show. The question directors must answer is whether some prior offense is worth excluding an otherwise talented and useful actor? What damage does this do to the theater’s reputation when a director or production staff bases decisions not on positive needs of a production but negative emotions of a personal nature?

A theater production should be a place that builds camaraderie among cast and crew. At times some members of a production may not like one another but the devotion to the art must always come first. One has to put aside personal feelings and put the needs of the show above the needs of one’s ego. This is even more the case for the director when making casting decisions. When a director or production staff member acts in the opposite manner, eventually the seed of that one grudge will grow into a forest of poor choices and a reputation that precludes quality performers from working with you.

Reach Out to Your Community

Here in Hampton Roads our community theaters suffer from a diversity problem. Including the Southside, Peninsula, Isle of Wight and Gloucester County, our region boasts a population that is slightly more female than male and a full one-third African American. Yet a disproportionate number of area productions feature mostly white and male-dominated casts. Our theaters are leaving out a large segment of artists and theater benefactors with such a practice and can have unintended consequences.

For example, a theater produced a show requiring a diverse cast and not enough women or actors of color auditioned to provide ample choice to the director and production staff.  The result left the director either casting from the few choices available or scrambling to find suitable options to fill out the cast. This happens more regularly than local theaters would like to admit. It is also an avoidable problem with stronger organizational relationships and targeted placement of audition notices.

Our area contains several highly rated performance academies, two HBCUs, and several colleges and universities. It is up to local community theaters (or directors) to do the legwork and establish relationships with other organizations not only to bring in the new talent necessary for quality productions but also to purposefully include a wider diversity of performers, volunteers and patrons. If you are a director and too few actors of color audition for a show, ask yourself why. Was it the theater’s fault? What steps did you take to ensure the talent would turn out? What must be done next time to ameliorate the obstruction?

An example of appropriate and successful community partnership is the Virginia Stage Company, who recently produced The Wiz in conjunction with Norfolk State University’s theater department to great reviews. Not only did VSC reach out to NSU but auditions were held months in advance to guarantee casting availability. The population of Hampton Roads is growing, as is its diversity. Virginia Stage is on the forefront of remaining relevant to the changing dynamics and is successful in doing so. Community Theaters should model that behavior otherwise there is no excuse for poor turnout among actors of color in a region with over half a million African American residents.

So what can be done to put a check on directors who rely on favoritism or personal vendettas when casting? How can a theater counteract or entirely prevent damage to their reputation if an exclusive environment arises when their sole purpose is the exact opposite? It is one thing to describe a behavior and point an accusatory finger while proclaiming it is wrong. It is another to propose solutions. One way to mitigate the presence of favoritism is to utilize a panel of objective uninvolved professionals.

For instance, an odd-numbered panel could be comprised of the director, local theater teachers, a visiting board member from a non-competing theater and one member of the production staff chosen by the director. In so doing the casting process still involves the director but the decision is taken out of the hands of just one or two people. This creates a more open and fair method in which talent alone becomes the single driving factor every single time. It also prevents accusations of favoritism or personal grudges by those actors not chosen because they had the same opportunity regardless of personal feelings.

Of course, this option creates an onerous task for volunteer board members and runs afoul of the independence and autonomy directors have grown accustomed to. As an alternative, Boards of Directors could write into their bylaws that prohibit both favoritism and exclusion. If a director or production staff violates policies of inclusiveness, then protect the theater and bar that individual for the next season. If they do it again, do not invite them back. If an actor complains about a director, take the grievance seriously until proven otherwise. Further, a Board could require that they must approve casting decisions. This would at least present an opportunity to review any conflicts of interest prior to the start of the production. Regardless of the route a theater may take, it is imperative to ensure a fair and open process for everyone.

The bottom line is that violating these principles affects the bottom line. The audience notices when they see the same faces on stage in multiple productions. The audience notices when they see the director is the same as the leading man. The audience notices when a show lacks diversity. Ergo, audience levels decrease and revenue follows suit. Anecdotally speaking, revenue levels of our theaters have dropped over 20% in recent years and are still sliding. While that is not entirely the fault of casting issues, it is related. The fewer the actors that volunteer, the less likely a theater can produce as high quality show as it could otherwise. Declining revenue forces a theater to spend more of a limited budget on advertising to get new patrons. Revenue goes down and costs go up. What’s worse is that the decline is not exclusive to revenue.

Unofficial evidence also shows that director submissions are down almost 50% from five years ago. Where once a couple dozen directors would submit to direct for a theater now applications are in the single digits. Actor turnout is down on average by a similar amount. Where once 85 or more actors would audition for a hit musical, now the numbers hover around fifty. Volunteer levels are down the worst with theaters often requiring a disproportionate number of board members to build sets, work lights, soundboards, staff the concession booths and usher during performances just to continue operations. Why? Can all of the blame be assigned to casting issues? No, of course not. There are many factors that contribute to these issues, but casting needn’t be one of them. Local theaters are run by an abundance of highly qualified and genuinely inclusive individuals but there is an old cliché about one rotten apple that is apropos.

Artists and audiences deserve our best. While directors have the right to cast their production the way they see fit, legitimate concerns arise when those decisions create conflicts of interest. Thick skin and inner confidence only extend so far. Committing to the principles outlined above would go a long way in restoring and strengthening the reputation of our community theaters. Build the foundation of trust - the trust of actors, the trust of volunteers, and the trust of a loyal audience.  Do this and watch your bottom line roundly rise.


Danon lives in Williamsburg, Virginia, with his wife and their four cool kids. He attended AMDA, is a performer and director and has three graduate degrees. He currently teaches High School English.  

Photo: Missoula Community Theatre