Ok, hands up .. who likes auditions? No one? Well, there’s a surprise! I absolutely hate auditions. As director I always want to give everyone a part, preferably the part they want.

finding your cast

What makes that so much worse is that there will always be a significant number auditioning for the ‘best’ role. After years directing in youth theatres I can honestly say that most people do not find the idea of the ‘character cameo’ very appealing – they want lines and appearances. Some people count the lines – presumably so they can see just how good their part really is. I can’t complain I suppose, I do remember auditioning for the part of Juliet in Romeo & Juliet at school and no other part would have been on my radar (yes, I did get it – I was very determined). As an actor of course, the whole process is nerve racking and fraught with horrors. Not getting the part you want may result in tears and tantrums, or just bitter disappointment and profound silence. Getting the part you want results in wild celebrations and much screaming – which makes the the ones who didn’t get the part feel SO much worse (yes, I have worked mostly with the unbridled emotional responses of teenagers and children). So why on earth do we do it? Why don’t we just handpick pick the cast we want and bypass the horrid audition?

Answer – because as director your first responsibility is to the production. I always have the production itself at the top of my list of priorities. I want it to be the very best and because of that I will cast the absolute best possible combination of actors that I can. An audition allows you to see your potential cast working with each other – and there are always surprises in store! It is usually essential to cast the group as a whole – not just a succession of individuals. In fact out of the 6 people auditioning for the lead role it could be that all 6 are very good and appropriate for the part, but only one really works well, has the right chemistry etc with other key characters you want to cast. You have to find the combination that works best. It’s like a jigsaw where there’s no picture (create your own) – or maybe one of those jigsaw pictures of baked beans (a deranged mind conceived that idea).

Talent or turn?

I very often hear other directors, in schools and youth theatres in particular, talking about giving everyone an opportunity to play the lead, or taking turns. I don’t do this for a few very good reasons.
Number One: I put the production first. This is a vital step in getting a really good show together and everyone benefits from being part of a really good show.
Number Two: Not everyone can, or should, take a lead role. Partly this is a talent issue (see Number One) and partly it is not helpful to an actor to take on too much too soon or to be expected to punch way above their weight. My expectation for any show is that everyone involved improves to some degree (including me) so I like to give everyone a part that will help them to achieve this. Leaping from ‘3rd spear carrier’ to Hamlet may do more damage than good.
Number Three: I like to be honest and realistic with my cast (of any age). I need to believe in them and they need to believe in me. Telling someone they are capable of playing Hamlet when really you’re jusy giving them a ‘turn’ at a big role is unfair and dishonest. Don’t go there!

So … a few pointers?

  • Intelligent casting is VERY important for the show – so cast for the right reasons
  • Allow your potential cast to see a decisive and confident director who knows what the play is about and who the characters are
  • Try and make sure the audition sections you’ve chosen are available at least a week before the audition. Many people are poor sight readers and that will go against them in an audituon – but you might be missing a real gem!
  • Don’t read in parts yourself (in fact don’t EVER do that in reheasal either). The director needs to watch everything on stage very carefully
  • Make sure you try various combinations when auditioning – an actor will change depending on who they’re acting with
  • For your lead roles try and find someone who has humility and is prepared to work at the role. Good characterisations don’t grow on trees, neither do they appear as if by magic at auditions. (By this I mean that an actor who walks into an audition and indicates that they already know the part and how to play it isn’t leaving much room to be in your production – so be wary.)
  • However tempted you are, don’t give anything away when watching a good audition … you don’t know what’s coming next. Keep your cards close to your chest!
  • This possibly doesn’t need mentioning, but DO get your cast to read from the play they are actually auditioning for. I have seen people do otherwise but usually when the director is not familiar with the play – and that is just bad directing (your cast will notice this…).
  • If you have someone else helping you cast make sure they are not related to anyone auditioning! This is particularly true for youth theatres or schools and can cause huge problems (there are many levels of ‘objectivity’, mostly they are called something completely different). Personal preferences and agendas should be left at the door. Allow yourself to be surprised!
  • Try and get the best possible combination of actors you can. Look at the cast as a whole.
  • Don’t allocate parts immediately after the audition (unless you had 4 people auditioning for 4 parts!). Leave a few days so you can be certain of your choices

Finally … your possible cast need to go away feeling that they have just engaged with something that is going to be exciting, fun and challenging! Let them know the outcome as soon as you can.

PS. Worth mentioning to your cast when you actually give them their parts that they could prepare for the first read through by just reading the script and thinking about the play. It really isn’t necessary for them to ‘work on character’ just yet…

Next in series Offbeat Directing 6: The First Awkward Read Through

Offbeat Directing Ideas 5: Trial by Audition!