Before I started directing and producing, I always wondered what was happening on the other side of the table during auditions. It can be nerve-wracking as an actor, trying to figure out what a director is looking for and what will make you stand out and win the role.
Now that I’ve run and sat in on a large number of auditions, I want to give an insight into what’s going on in my mind when I’m casting a show. This is my personal process, but most directors I’ve worked with think very similarly. There are some aspects of this that pertain specifically to community theater, which might be different at professional theaters, but in general, the same principles apply.
I look at casting as having two different phases. The first phase is proof of competence and the second is ascertaining ‘fit.’
The first part is really easy as a director (and harder as an actor). Usually this is covered by the audition requirements. Can you sing? Can you dance? Can you emote? Can you memorize a block of text? The actor should come in prepared to prove that they can competently perform whatever role the director thinks they would be best in. (Or at least the range of roles they are willing to play. If you aren’t going to accept a dancing role, you don’t need to prove you can dance, etc.)
Once an actor (a term I’m using in an ungendered manner) has met the basic qualifications, it should get a lot easier for them. At this point it become a question of ‘fit,’ meaning there isn’t a whole lot more an actor can do than be kind and do good work. Sometimes perfectly capable actors are passed on for reasons they have no control over, and there’s no sense beating themselves up over being too tall or a bad fit with another actor.
But I digress… let me explain ‘fit’. Fit (with your permission, I’m going to stop using the quotation marks) is everything else that a director uses to determine who would be best in a role. These things are usually judgment calls and, in most cases, don’t reflect poorly on the actor.
When I’m casting, once I’ve narrowed the field down to those that are capable of playing a role (including availability for rehearsals and shows), I usually look at the following things, generally in this order.
This might seem odd to be at the top of the list, but remember that I’m speaking specifically to community theater. We are not The Beatles making Let it Be, or Bernstein, Robbins, Sondheim and Laurents creating West Side Story. For the most part, everyone involved in the production is volunteering. This is a hobby. You know what makes me quit hobbies? When the hobby stops being fun. The people you cast need to have a good attitude, show kindness to the rest of the cast and crew, and be willing to put in the work. There isn’t room for divas who are going to make everyone want to quit.
- Quality of performance
This is your standard, run-of-the-mill, this person is a better actor, singer, you name it. I do want to point out again though that this sits lower on the list than ‘not being a jerk.’
- Their ‘take’ on a role
This is very similar to quality but pulls it in a bit tighter. A ‘take’ is just the background and direction an actor gives a character. Acting is sometimes very similar to the phrase “I didn’t say I took her money.” You can stress each of the seven words and it tells a different story. A good actor can do the same with the lines their character says. When an actor can come in and surprise me with their take or give an additional depth to the character, it gives them a leg up on getting cast.
I put this at the bottom because I try not to be swayed by how a person looks when I cast them. However, sometimes it does come into play. Body-types do have associations, for better or worse, so casting too far outside of that means that special care is taken to address it in the production. Some plays (and often some actors) aren’t able to overcome that which would make them a bad fit. (And yes, some parts call for a specific race or gender or body-type, but I would consider that to be part of the first phase.)
Hopefully this helps calm your nerves a bit and gives you the confidence to come in and do your best at your next audition. Remember the director wants you to do great; they aren’t rooting for you to fail. It is way more fun to decide which of the amazing actors to cast in a role than to figure out which one is a good actor that doesn’t audition well.
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