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Career spotlight: Casting director

Richard Watts

Empathy, objectivity and a great memory for faces are among the skills you’ll require if you want to work in casting.
Career spotlight: Casting director

Rehearsals for the MTC's production of Skylight. Photo by Deryk McAlpin.

Often the middleman – or more likely middlewoman – between Directors and Artistic Directors on one hand, and actors and their agents on the other, casting directors play an invaluable role in the performing arts.

Reading scripts, discussing the requirements of key roles in each upcoming production, sifting through headshots, and regularly seeing performances by other companies in order to stay aware of new talents: casting directors have a demanding but rewarding role.

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But how do you become a casting director – and what does an average day entail in such a role?

‘I worked for a theatre publicist – that was my first job out of uni. And then I went to work for Marriner Theatres as a PA and while I was there they were working on a production of Showboat and we had some American casting directors who came over and worked on that, and I kind of got thrown into helping them out in terms of setting up the casting sessions... I was just kind of something that really gelled with me,’ said Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) Casting Director Janine Snape.

Having known casting directors who’ve come from a variety of different backgrounds, including actors and even a former company manager, Snape compares the process of becoming a casting director to an apprenticeship.

‘One way into casting is really to perhaps start off as a casting assistant with a casting director who can train you up – and that’s what I mean by referencing it as a sort of apprenticeship. So you’ve got to have that background and love of it but also empathy, and a really good mentor as well, just to be around and learn as you go,’ she said.

Serena Hill is the Casting Director at Sydney Theatre Company (STC). Like Snape, she came to the role by a somewhat roundabout path.

‘I came to it through working initially as an assistant to a theatrical agent. From that I became Casting Director at the Royal Court in London for two years before becoming Head of Casting at the National Theatre of Great Britain for 16 years before moving to Sydney in 2003,’ said Hill.

‘I’m not aware of any formal training for casting,’ she added.

Casting: a dark art? 

At Queensland Theatre Company (QTC), Artistic Director Sam Strong – who signs off on any casting choices that are made by other directors, as most Artistic Directors do – describes the process of casting as ‘a kind of dark art’.

‘It’s one of those things that potentially gets reduced in an attempt to explain it,’ Strong told ArtsHub. ‘In some ways it’s the same as acting; there’s a very natural overlap there, in that objectively talking about acting is a very difficult thing to do, and to make appraisals about the quality or otherwise of someone’s performance is a bit of a kind of dark art – and I think that’s equally true of casting.

‘When I’m casting a show I will tend to rely very heavily on my instinct of who I think will be right for a given role. I think what’s important though in casting – whether it’s been generated by a casting director or whether it’s an individual director casting – is to be exhaustive and to be lateral. And by exhaustive I mean attempting to think about as many possible people who could fulfill that role as you think, to make sure that you haven’t missed anyone – and obviously that’s a “how long is a piece of string” question – but I think it is important to try and be exhaustive, to make sure you haven’t missed anyone.

‘And I think it’s also important to be lateral and that’s when great casting directors will come up with that suggestions that surprise you or are outside of the box of what you might expect, and I think great casting does both things: it covers the field but it also throws up some wild cards as well,’ said Strong.

A day in the life

Snape laughs when asked to describe a typical working day for a casting director.

‘There isn’t really an average today to be honest! It’s a really varied job and you often don’t know what’s going to crop up from day to day, because you’re dealing with people – who can be unpredictable,’ she said.

‘A typical day could include reading scripts, meeting with directors to talk about casting ideas, working on lists of ideas for shows, setting up and attending audition sessions, negotiating deals with agents, attending a show, checking in on the welfare of the acting company. So it’s a job that fluctuates between thinking creatively and more logically/administratively and being able to multitask/work to a deadline.’ 

Hill describes her commitments similarly. ‘An average day might comprise the following: a catch up with other members of STC’s artistic team responding to issues emerging with shows currently in rehearsal and production; liaison with a director about ideas re actors/creatives he or she is putting together for a forthcoming show; checking availabilities for various actors and creatives for specific projects; arranging auditions and sending relevant information to agents; negotiating contractual details for actors and creative team members; meeting with  a visiting artist from interstate to talk about what opportunities exist at STC; attending a programming meeting to discuss plans and ideas for the following years’ subscription season; and inevitably attending a show in the evening.’

What’s your skill set?

One of the key skills anyone working in casting needs is a great memory for faces and names – and the ability to think laterally, not just keeping in mind someone for a current role, but remembering for a role that crops up three years later.

‘And also, I mentioned the word “empathy” before – you’ve got to be able to connect with people emotionally and be a good listener. And I think it’s a lot about reading people and understanding how they tick psychologically,’ said Snape.

‘We work with a variety of different directors, all of whom have different personalities, and a range of different plays – so every production is different, even if you’re working with the same director on a different production; it’s a whole other adventure in a way. So it’s very much about understanding the mindset of the director and then sort of matching them up with the actors you think they might really gel with,’ she said.

‘So having a good perception of people and being quite open minded as well. When I start a casting process I try and think outside the box in terms of creative ideas that I think a director might respond to. It’s about offering opportunities, I think, for the director and the actors.’

Diversity on stage

Ensuring the actors on stage reflect the cultural diversity of real world is an ongoing issue in the performing arts.

‘Casting directors, the MTC and every casting director I know will always encourage directors to meet people of all different backgrounds, diverse backgrounds. We need to be very open-minded about it and be actively aware of and keep moving forward on,’ said Snape.

Hill agreed, saying, ‘It’s incredibly important. And yes, though there is a way to go, I think we are seeing improvements. Training institutions play their part and increasingly we see graduates that more accurately represent contemporary Australian society.’

Strong said there was a great awareness of the need for greater cultural diversity on stage – as well as casting actors with a lived experience of disability rather than paying non-disabled actors to “crip up” for a role – but also acknowledged that such changes were perhaps taking longer than many in the sector would like.

‘Anyone involved in casting that I’ve been involved with, and I can only speak from my own casting processes at the various companies I’ve been involved with, you’re always very mindful of trying to create more diverse casts and to try and get what’s on stage to be a closer representation of what’s in the rest of the world. You’re always trying to do that,’ he said.

‘I think that’s taking time, I think across Australia it’s taking longer than it should be taking, but I think we are making advances and I think we’ll be making many more advances in future.’

When asked why he thought the process was taking so long, like Hill, Strong pointed towards our training institutions.

‘I think it’s partly about our training institutions, which have got much better about having more diverse people and actors of colour going through the institutions, because in a way training institutions do tend to – for right or for wrong – tend to feed the profession. And it’s taken some time for training institutions to catch up,’ he said.

‘I [also] think that one of the great challenges is still volume of people. If you go into [the casting website] Showcast and look at people of a particular cultural background, it’s still true that the vast majority of people on there are white. And I think that needs to take time to change – but it needs to be led from the front, by companies as well.’

Snape also noted, as a member of the Casting Guild of Australia, that she adheres to the Guild’s recently announced unified Diversity Policy: ‘As members of the creative performing arts community, we all have a role in creating stories that reflect the diversity of the world in which we live. To that end, and in an effort to deliver more diversity in Australian film, TV and theatre, CGA members will, wherever possible, include and engage with diverse thinking and actions in all aspects of the casting process.’

Highs and lows

Every job has its own specific rewards and challenges, and the casting field is no different.

‘Being aware of the greatest range of artists who are available to service the plays we do at STC is both a huge challenge and incredibly rewarding,’ said Hill. ‘Similarly, having to deliver bad news is an occupational hazard, and while giving good news is wonderful, you do much more of the former than the latter.

‘One of the challenges involved in casting is remaining objective. You invest a lot in every show, but it’s the director’s vision you’re there to help realise and they ultimately make the decisions.’

Trying to find the right balance of actors within a company is one of the greatest challenges a casting director can face, said Snape.

‘When you’re casting an ensemble, particularly if you’re under time pressure to get it done … you might start off with a large list of ideas and on paper that would be great if you can get everyone the director might have in mind. But it’s about getting all your ducks in a row and where to start really in terms of building an ensemble. For example, if you make an offer to an actor and they say no, it might upset the balance of what that ensemble might be. So it’s about time management I guess and trying to work out which order in which to build the company,’ she said.

‘You might have a particular couple of actors in mind who you think would be a great paring together, but if you offer them both at the same time and one says no, that might then also impact on how you go with the rest of the casting of the ensemble.’

Conversely, one of the greatest rewards of her role is seeing an actor and a director really click, Snape continued.

‘The greatest delight is probably when, for example in an audition scenario, you have someone in mind who comes in and just does a brilliant audition with the director. And seeing them really communicate well with each other and work well, even just within an audition process – and that’s quite a short amount of time in comparison to how long they might be in a rehearsal room together – but often it’s really palpable. Some people just come in and you just sort of know the role’s theirs from the moment they jump into the scene. Everyone’s on the same page and that’s really exciting,’ she said.

Hill also nominates the chemistry of auditions as one of her role’s unique joys.

‘I love being in auditions and I work hard to ensure the best circumstances are in place for actors to do their best and give a good audition, which can result in being cast in a role that can be life changing. I’m constantly reminded in my work what a huge privilege it is to be so closely associated with a vital component that leads to what we ultimately enjoy on stage. And of course watching artists develop over time, developing a kind of ‘shorthand’ with them and understanding how they do their best work, is another great reward,’ said Hill.

Final advice?

It’s always helpful to know what advice successful people in their field have for those who are just starting out, and casting directors are no different.

‘Some exposure to how agents work can be useful and experience of production, particularly stage management, is often an advantage,’ said Hill. ‘See as much theatre as you can, make yourself as familiar as possible with plays – the canon as well as the work of emerging playwrights. Do what you can to understand how actors and each member of a creative team work.’

Snape is also happy to share advice which was useful to her at the start of her own career.

‘I went over to London and decided I was going to work in casting over there. I was travelling and thought that was something I might like to try out. And obviously I didn’t know the landscape over in Britain so I was lucky enough to work with a really great TV casting director in my first job, who really just said to me “Go out and see and much as you can, just completely absorb it, throw yourself in there. Get to know as many actors as you possibly can, network, get out, talk to people.”

‘I actually started off doing some ushering over in London just so I could immerse myself in the industry and see a lot of actors in very quick succession. As I think I said before, it’s got to be something you’re passionate about and you need to be quite open minded and I think it takes a bit of effort so I think you’ve got to have some determination there.

‘Just immerse yourself and do as much as you can to get to know people and find your way into the industry in that way. And being personable and approachable too I think is a good way to jump in there,’ she concluded.

Previous articles in this series:

Career spotlight: Stage manager
Career spotlight: Costume designer
Career spotlight: Contemporary jeweller

Career spotlight: Floral artist

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's Performing Arts Editor and Team Leader, Editorial; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R.

The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the board of literary journal Going Down Swinging and on the Committee of Management for La Mama Theatre. He is a former member of the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel, a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts

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