Thursday, March 8, 2012

From the desk of the Casting Director

In one of my favorite TV series, Slings and Arrows, Oliver Welles (the Artistic Director of the New Burbage Festival) bemoans the nature of his work, "It's lonely at the top." I've always laughed at Oliver's rather melodramatic attitude at this line ... so it pains me just a little to admit: I think he's right.

Slings & Arrows, Acorn Media.
Maybe I'm being a little melodramatic, too. But here's why a few times a year I feel ... well ... I'm not sure exactly how to describe it except: Lonely.

Like Oliver Welles, I too am an Artistic Director. (Although I prefer to identify with Geoffrey Tennant...)

And I am responsible for casting each of the Adirondack Shakespeare Company's shows.

Our Company is young. We began producing plays in 2008. We began producing a Summer Festival in 2010, so this year marks only our third annual summer season in upstate New York.

Each year for the last two years, we have received around 1,000 resumes from actors around the country. We schedule around 100 people for in-person auditions, and receive dozens of video auditions. I then have to cast only 12 actors for each of our respective projects. For this winter's Justice Project, that meant 12 people to cast in two shows. For this year's Summer Season, that's 12 people across three shows. For this fall's Kingship Cycle, that will be 12 actors across four shows. FOUR.SHOWS. (I think my head may just explode...)

I used to be an Actor. I used to travel to different cities to audition for any company that was producing Shakespeare. I used to wait and wait for casting offers and often never received a response. I used to commute hours to rehearsals and performances for the chance to work with great companies on great shows. And then I would go out and do it all over again. And again. And again. I've been through the ringer of auditioning, so believe me when I say, I get it. I know what it's like to be on your side of the table.

I also want you to know what it's like on mine. As an actor, I truly did not appreciate what it was like to cast a show. I had absolutely.no.idea. After I sat in the casting seat, I walked into the audition room with a completely different sense of the "other side" of the table. So, Actors, here are a few things I would like to share with you about what it's like sitting in this particular hot seat.

1. It's not personal.
This is an incredibly difficult decision with a lot of different factors weighing in -- artistic, professional factors. It's like constructing a giant puzzle. There's 1,000 pieces in front of you, and you have to find the 12 that go in the middle. Those 12 pieces have to make two different, seamless pictures. (I know! It hardly makes any sense!) Choosing those 12 pieces really can't be a personal decision. It's a decision based on finding and upholding the artistic integrity of the work. I have to choose the 12 pieces that go in the middle, fit perfectly together, and also make two-pictures-in-one (or three- or four-pictures).

I do realize and appreciate how personal this work is. Great actors will come into the audition room and share the innermost part of themselves with you. It's an honor and a privilege to be the recipient of that. Yet while the work you share with us must be personal on some level, my decision really cannot be a personal one. Perhaps this is the hardest thing to communicate, most especially to actors who are also my friends. I work really hard to keep these decisions strictly professional. What is of the utmost importance is the artistic integrity of the work. I know my friends (who are also amazing artists) can understand the importance of not compromising that work. It's never easy mixing work and friendship. But my casting decisions are professional, not personal. I don't love you any less. Please don't love me any less.

2. It's time-consuming.
It takes me weeks to cast an ensemble. I want to get back to everyone quickly, and I know it is frustrating and agonizing to wait on tenterhooks, but I cannot expect every piece of the puzzle to fit into place. I have to start with a single piece. Sometimes the piece fits, and sometimes it doesn't. If it fits, I can move on to the next piece, but if it doesn't then I have to go back to the drawing board and re-think the picture of the ensemble. A single "No, I'm sorry, I have already been hired on another contract" will set me back hours, even days in the casting process.

3. I value your time.
I know many companies have a policy of only contacting an actor if that person is cast. When I was auditioning all the time, I hated how dehumanizing that felt. That was something as a casting director that I didn't want to do. I value the time you spent in my audition room and the personal nature of this work. So I am going to try my damnedest to get back to you as soon as I can. I don't have a staff to do this for me. I personally send out each email that says, "I'm sorry, not this time." (And believe me, this is the worst part of my job.) It's important to me to have that personal connection with each actor: I know your headshot and your resume. If we've never met before, I try to remember your name as you walk into the room. I know your name when you send me an email. You aren't just a number on my list, and I refuse to spend less than an hour getting to know you and your work in the audition room. I really appreciate that time you spend with us. It's important, so I am going to spend time for you as well.

4. Not this time really means not this time.
One of the hardest emails to write is the one to actors I have worked with in the past. Amazing actors, who are not only incredibly talented but also really spectacular human beings. But here's the rub: not every actor is right for every show. We have more and more people coming into our family, and there just are not enough roles to go around. Everyone has to sit out sometimes. There will be another time. Hang in there.

This message also goes out to actors who keep on coming out for our auditions. I am always happy to see you! I keep inviting you to audition, because I am really interested in working with you. Sometimes it is hard to find the right project to begin our work together. Thank you for continuing to be interested in us, as we continue to be interested in you.

I wish we had the budget and the demand to be constantly producing shows, so that I could cast a hundred shows and hire every one of you wonderful people! In the meantime, keep coming out. Keep in touch. Keep things in perspective. And most importantly, keep valuing yourself. You're worth it.

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