Offering roles to known actors isn’t rigorous; relying on just a few minutes of monologue and sides is a leap of faith.
After initial screenings, call back actors for longer periods of time to see how they work together.
Finding actors who are the right fit; discovering new talent; building ensembles.
This is a time-consuming process, so scheduling must be carefully managed.
Casting more “impossible to stage” plays.
Auditions. That vexing, terrifying and thrilling process. That sea of names and faces. That necessary evil before rehearsals begin. For actors, auditions are a chance to showcase two minutes of talent—never mind the accompanying nervousness, racing heart, or dry mouth. For directors, auditions can be an opportunity to find a fresh new actor perfect for that unusual role. But auditions are usually a dizzying multiday process with dozens of actors who aren’t right for the part, resulting in a fatiguing brain scramble: Who was that actor who could juggle, sing and speak fluent Russian and who I might be able to cast next season?
Of course, there’s another approach altogether. If you’ve been in the business for some time, you can simply call upon the talented stable of folks you already know. You may have an actor come in and read for a role as a formality, or perhaps you offer a part flat-out. It feels good to give work to friends, and you’ve just saved yourself and your team a zillion e-mails about time slots and conflicts (not to mention those long, back-to-back, monologue-filled days).
But there are problems with both approaches. Relying on talent you already know can run the risk of compromising your casting choices. Your mind may go straight to an actor you know and like: Sure, he’s technically a decade older than what the role calls for, but he’s so fun to work with and reliable as hell, you reason. He’s not a perfect fit, but he’ll be really good. On the flip side, a typical casting call can be burdensome and still not yield exactly the right actor for a particular part. So you either have to do it all again, or cast someone who isn’t 100-percent right. And, truth be told, if you’re depending on a combination of monologues and sides, you may miss key capacities actors have that wouldn’t normally come out in an audition setting.
Company One in Boston recently produced She Kills Monsters, Qui Nguyen’s comedic romp into the world of fantasy role-playing. Typically, Company One begins the casting process with a few days of open calls posted through the Boston theatre e-mail list and database StageSource. For She Kills Monsters, Company One drew up a specific call to target the show as a showcase for nerds, geeks, dorks and the like.
AUDITION CALL: Company One is looking for dynamic, kickass actors of all ages and ethnicities to join us in bringing Qui Nguyen’s She Kills Monsters (a Dungeons & Dragons mash-up) to the Boston stage. Stage combat skills and agility with a battle axe are a plus.
But She Kills Monsters required more than just dweebs with acting chops. “We needed actors who could not only carry the words of the script, but also the movement required for the many battle sequences, and the skill to do it all safely only feet away from the audience,” says Company One artistic director Shawn LaCount. Moreover, the company was interested in getting together “a band of monster-slaying friends that would be as diverse as the city is around us,” says LaCount.
A multilayered audition process was envisioned. After an initial round of monologues, Company One decided “to first run acting callbacks and then move on to fight callbacks,” says artistic associate Corianna Moffatt. Actors read with each other and worked with director Shira Milikowsky. After that round, a select group of actors were brought back for another round of fight callbacks. “Rob Najarian, the fight choreographer, and Shira Milikowsky were not expecting experts in stage combat. Instead, they were looking for actors who were physically aware of themselves and others, who were centered and not afraid to hold a broadsword,” says Moffatt.
Whistler in the Dark, another Boston-area ensemble, also takes a more time-intensive casting approach. “We do a lot of brainy, text-heavy shows,” notes artistic director Meg Taintor. “Having been an actor, I’m very sensitive to people’s time. I hate making people travel all the way in for a callback if we’re only going to read four minutes of sides with them.”
Taintor and her group have developed a more complex approach that usually involves calling in eight actors for a two-hour time period. The callback begins with a group warm-up and group exercise, and then often sends pairs of actors to do a bit of independent scene work together that then gets presented. “I find it a much more effective way of casting,” says Taintor, adding that she has become increasingly keen on casting actors for a project before assigning specific roles.
For She Kills Monsters, Company One had a final round of callbacks for the sister characters. “There is an inherent danger with any show that is fast, fun, dangerous and magical—that we lose the heart of the story,” LaCount observes. The center of the play is the relationship between siblings who have been unable to connect in real life but bond through D&D. “We ended up casting two real-life sisters, Jordan Clark as Tilly, the younger sister, and Paige Clark Perkinson as Agnes, the older one,” says Moffatt.
LaCount admits that a multitiered casting process is time-consuming. “Especially with fight callbacks,” LaCount warns, “because everyone needs to be seen, and the fight combinations need to be completed safely.” Moffatt chimes in an additional warning: “In physical callbacks, adrenaline can start rushing and actors are more likely to get hurt than in a show they have been running for three weeks.” Fortunately for Company One and its hopeful actors, no one got hurt.
Taintor also points out that filling in slots for callback times of two hours can go on and on. “We ask people when they are available, and we really want to see everyone that we call back—but for our last show callbacks lasted for a total of 15 days. That was too much!”
Still, the benefits of this longer kind of casting are many. “All acting is physical—or it better be,” posits LaCount, adding that the detailed process puts an emphasis on authenticity and collaboration. This wasn’t the first time Company One has had a challenging casting breakdown. For Aditi Kapil’s Love Person, the theatre group worked with the deaf community and a number of mentors to find the right combination of actors. “Mia Chung’s You for Me for You took three months to cast. Kristoffer Diaz’s The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety took a full year; we auditioned WWE wrestlers,” LaCount says with pride.
Company One is a small, non-Equity company and, LaCount notes, “We embrace our role in the Boston theatre community as a place larger theatres look to find new, talented artists.” He encourages theatre companies to not shy away from “impossible to cast” plays. “It’s definitely hard work and requires unconventional thinking, but having the right artists in the room from the start of a process makes everything else a thousand times easier.”
Taintor concurs. While she is interested in working with new actors, she also puts importance on building an ensemble. “When I’m casting, I always think of that saying, ‘I don’t want to cast someone I’d want to have dinner with, but someone I want to know for the rest of my life.’”