As Casting Chair of my local community theater, I think a lot about the process of casting our shows. While the goal is always to find the ideal fit between auditioners and available roles, the reality is that we often have to compromise. Unlike Broadway, we usually don’t have the luxury of picking people who perfectly look the part, fit the age range, and have the exact vocal range suggested by the script or score. So, we make do with what we have.
In a sense, casting is like fishing. We cast our line into the water by posting a carefully crafted audition notice. First, we get some “nibbles”; expressions of interest on Facebook. Then we see who we catch on audition day. Many are not “keepers,” and often we have to throw them back (gently) into the pond. But if we keep an open mind, we’ll often be pleasantly surprised by the talent we land.
Fishing analogies aside, here are my casting guidelines and suggestions for community theaters:
1. Process is Paramount: In real estate, the three most important words are “Location, Location, Location.” In casting, it’s “Process, Process, Process.” The casting committee needs to be organized, efficient, and fair, and the best way to convey that is to have a well-oiled process. This begins well before audition day. Make sure your notice clearly states expectations about the audition itself, the rehearsal calendar (especially mandatory dates), and membership fees (if cast). Character descriptions (ideally with speech counts) should include wide age ranges to encourage broader participation.
2. Registration: The registration form should also reinforce your casting expectations. I always include the following questions: (1) Would you accept a different role other than your first choice?; (2) If auditioning with a friend or family member, will you accept a role if they are not cast?; and (3) Are you willing to change hair color, shave hair, or wear a wig? (I once had to argue with a man about shaving his prominent chest and back hair when he was dressing in drag!). The point is, if you set clear expectations, you should get less push-back later on.
3. Readings: After having the director set up each scene, we start reading sides. I prefer short scenes (60 to 90 seconds) with four characters or less. I keep careful track of who has read for which part, and how many total readings for each actor. I try not to cut people off while reading. And unless we have way too many people, I prefer not to make cuts and send some people home early. Again, this goes to the fairness of the process. I want everyone to leave feeling like they had the opportunity to be heard, even if it takes us a little longer to get through the day. If you’re treated fairly, you’re more likely to come back and audition again, or even help backstage.
4. Decision Time: Some directors are so anxious to select their cast that they rattle off their picks like a judge at a dog show: First, second, third, and we’re done. But I really encourage directors to listen first and keep an open mind before deciding. Audiences are very accepting of the characters as presented, even if slightly different from the script, and much can be done with hair and make-up to age an actor up or down. Are there roles written for men that can be played by women? And, can casting be “color blind” to allow for a more diverse cast? (After Hamilton, I would like to think that audiences are more accepting of such variations, even for historical figures.) I also consider myself an advocate for members who help backstage on other productions. Of course, the director has the ultimate decision, but if it’s a close call between a long-time member and a newcomer, why not reward the person who has “paid their dues” backstage. Finally, if at all possible, I want to choose a cast from people who bothered to show up at auditions, rather than beating the bushes afterwards. Ultimately, if you have a fair process and keep people coming back to your theater, you’ll be able to “fish your wish” more often than not.