“If you see the truth in front of you, it’s the right person”

The popular image of auditions these days is defined by the brutality and groaning of reality TV. “People expect Nicole Scherzinger to say, ‘You’re on the judges!’ and Rylan to cry,” says freelance casting director Jatinder Chera, raising a skeptical eyebrow. In the media, heartless rejections and impossible dreams seem to be the currency of casting calls. “But there’s a lot more to it than people really know.”

Casting directors get a bad name. They’re seen as gatekeepers, rejecters and ghosters. When Bryony Jarvis-Taylor, deputy head of casting at the National Theatre, mentions her job to someone new, she’s often asked if it’s funny to be so mean. “That couldn’t be further from what I’m trying to do!”

Their job is to find the best people for a show. “If a show were a painting,” Chera suggests, “we would do the first sketch.” He recently cast James Fritz’s kaleidoscopic costume drama The Flea at the Yard in London and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ The Comeuppance at the Almeida. Finding the right person for a role is an art, not a science; a task that combines feeling, mind and heart. “It’s that unexpected moment,” Chera says, “when there’s just something about their quality on stage that’s so interesting and compelling.” The great joy of the job, Jarvis-Taylor says, is that “very rarely is someone wrong for a part.” She likens it to parallel universes: “It’s just another version of a character in another version of the play.”

When a casting director first reads a script, they compile an initial list of actors for each part. And they get similar lists from the director, producer, and sometimes writer, which are added to a master list. Then the casting brief, which describes the role and its requirements, is posted on Spotlight. This is “like LinkedIn for actors,” Chera says — a database where agents can see what roles are available to audition and submit their actors. “A casting director can also put out an open call,” he explains, which “opens up the pool to untrained actors, or unrepresented actors, who might miss the opportunity through more traditional routes.” In the audition room, the actor will perform for the play’s director, casting director, and perhaps writer.

Casting is increasingly recognised as an essential creative art in its own right. The Black British Theatre Awards were among the first to recognise the role with an award – and it has also been announced as a new category for the Oscars. “It’s a great step for us as casting directors,” says Heather Basten, who runs her own casting agency and was behind the casting for Tyrell Williams’s stunning football drama Red Pitch.

So how does Basten know when she’s got the right person? “There are a lot of moving parts before we get to that gut feeling moment,” she cautions. “We draw on years of knowledge and experience: who we’ve met, the actors on our radar, the established names and the talent we’re trying to break into the industry.” She ponders the moments when it clicks. “When you see the truth in front of you,” she shrugs, “you just know this is the person. Then it’s our job to make a strong pitch to that person” — to the director or producer, who often has the final say.

For Red Pitch, a show about loyalty and brotherhood, it was crucial that the three leads fit together. Basten led a series of workshops, mixing and matching potential actors until the perfect trio was found. “We ended up with three great actors who are now really close,” says Basten, who chose Kedar Williams-Stirling, Emeka Sesay and Francis Lovehall. “I think you can feel that the chemistry is real.”

When it comes to casting stars, the decision-making may fall more squarely on a director or producer. While some stars are attached to shows in advance, that wasn’t the case for Elton John’s new musical adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada , which will star Vanessa Williams as Miranda Priestly. “We all had long Miranda lists,” says Jill Green, the prolific casting director behind musicals like The Lion King , Kinky Boots and Jersey Boys , “but then Jerry called.” Jerry Mitchell, the show’s Tony-winning director, had spoken to Williams, who was interested. “That was so exciting!” So ​​the lists were packed up and the secret had to be kept for months. “I didn’t even tell my husband,” says Green. “We have so many secrets, I’m so nervous to put my foot in it.”

When you have a core role like this – or a “tent pole,” as Jarvis-Taylor explains – it can often be a rough guide for casting the rest of the show. The casting of Joseph Fiennes as Gareth Southgate in James Graham’s Dear England set the precedent of a certain physical similarity for that show’s performers. “Suddenly I had to worry about my height in a way I’d never had to before,” she says, “because everyone knows what the England team looks like, and Harry Maguire has to be the tallest person on stage.”

Street casting is rarely done for plays, but Jarvis-Taylor admits that in Dear England she got to a point where “I was walking around and thinking, do you like Raheem Sterling?” Basten, who works in TV and theater, is more used to finding strangers in unusual places for a role. “I’ve scouted at boxing clubs, community centers, and more.”

The path to casting director is not clearly marked. Chera started out as an actor, but grew tired of the two-dimensional stereotypes he was perceived as. “I was lucky to get auditions,” he says, “but at a certain point I realized I was auditioning for the same role over and over again.” He knew his brand: he was the funny one. But he became aware that his race was seen as his identifying characteristic, determining how he was perceived in auditions. “It was en vogue at that time to be cast as a terrorist,” he says dryly. “If we as a community of minority actors are constantly defined by those roles, how do we get that breakthrough role?”

Chera switched sides of the audition table and went into casting. Now he’s dedicated to finding new or unheard voices. “Casting should never be defined by stereotypes or preconceived notions of specific communities,” he says. “There’s always going to be a casting choice that feels safe, and a casting choice that feels radical. I’m interested in the latter.”

All the casting directors I speak to say that diversity is now at the forefront of their minds. But all four agree that change isn’t happening fast enough. “Often I sit in auditions or workshops and see that there’s a huge lack of diversity in all the teams that are working on the shows,” says Green. “People are trying to change things, but it needs to happen faster.”

But there is incremental progress worth celebrating. Green talks fondly of winning the WhatsOnStage award for best casting direction for The Little Big Things, a show she believes is the first major musical to feature wheelchair-using leads. “It was exciting to discover this incredible amount of talent that wasn’t being tapped into for musicals,” she says. “It was only possible because we had an accessible theatre [@sohoplace]because our producer, Michael Harrison, kept saying, ‘Yes,’ and because we had Nickie Miles-Wildin, who is in a wheelchair, as dramaturge and associate director. Having life experience as part of the creative team is really important to telling a story authentically.”

But as well as making dreams come true, casting directors inevitably let down plenty of actors. “We put out the casting brief for War Horse yesterday,” says Green. The hit play is returning to British stages soon – “and within 24 hours we had 4,500 submissions.” Her team makes sure people know if they’ve got a role as early as possible, and auditionees are rarely rejected outright, with every good actor being placed on a colour-coded list somewhere. “You’ve got 100 headshots that live in your head at all times,” says Chera. But it’s constantly being replenished with new talent – ​​and Chera is always pleasantly surprised when he hears older casting directors talking about finding people on TikTok.

“It’s never easier to say no,” adds Green, who has been in the industry for nearly three decades. “I’ve never understood why people get treated in that old-fashioned, hard way. I know it still happens because actors tell me, but by creating a good energy, you bring out the best in everyone.”

Politeness works the other way, too. “There’s so much competition these days, so you want to work with nice people, both on and off the stage,” she says. “If you find out someone is hard to get along with, then…” She throws up her hands at a name crossed off a color-coded list. “Life’s too short!”

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