‘When you see the truth in front of you, it’s the right person’

The popular image of auditions today is defined by the cruelty and cringe of reality television. “People expect Nicole Scherzinger to say, ‘You’ve gone to judges’ houses!’ and Rylan is crying,” says independent casting director Jatinder Chera, one skeptical eyebrow raised. In the media, heartless rejection and impossible dreams seem to be the currency of projection. “But there’s a lot more to it than people really know.”

So casting directors get a bad rap. They are seen as gatekeepers, rejects and ghosts. When Bryony Jarvis-Taylor, deputy head of casting for the National Theatre, mentions her job to a newcomer, she’s often asked if it’s fun to be. “That couldn’t be further from what I try to do!”

Their job is to find the best people for a show. “If a show was a painting,” says Chera, “we’d do the first sketch.” He recently directed James Fritz’s kaleidoscopic period 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 not an art; a task that combines gut, head and heart. “It’s this unexpected moment,” Chera says, “when there’s just something about their quality on stage that’s so interesting and engaging.” The great joy of the job, says Jarvis-Taylor, is that “there’s rarely a person wrong for a role”. She compares it to parallel universes: “It’s just a different version of a character in a different version of the play.”

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

More than ever, casting is being recognized as an essential creative art in its own right. The Black British Theater awards were the first to recognize 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’ exquisite football drama Red Pitch.

So how does Basten know when she’s landed on the right person? “There are a lot of moving parts before we can get to that moment of gut instinct,” she warns. “We draw on years of knowledge and experience: the people we’ve met, the acts on our radar, the established names and the talent we’re trying to break into the industry.” She reflects on the moments when it clicks. “When you see the truth in front of you,” she said, “you know that’s the person. Our job then is to create a strong pitch for that person” – the director or producer, who will often have the say.

For Red Pitch, a show about loyalty and brotherhood, the success of the three leads was crucial. Basten held a series of workshops where potential performers were mixed and matched until the perfect trio was found. “We ended up with three great actors who are now very close,” says Basten, who chose Kedar Williams-Stirling, Emeka Sesay and Francis Lovehall. “I think you can understand that the chemistry is real.”

When it comes to a casting star, the decision making may sit more centrally with a director or producer. While some stars are attached to shows in advance, that was not the case for Elton John’s new musical adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada, which will star Vanessa Williams opposite Miranda Priestly. “We all had long Miranda lists,” says Jill Green, the prolific casting director behind musicals including The Lion King, Kinky Boots and Jersey Boys, “but then Jerry called.” Jerry Mitchell, the director of the Tony-winning show, talked to Williams, who was interested. “That was very exciting!” So the lists became packed 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 about setting foot there.”

When you have a core part like this – or a “tent pole”, as Jarvis-Taylor explains – it can often set a rough rule for how the rest of the show plays out. Joseph Fiennes’ portrayal of Gareth Southgate in James Graham’s Dear England set the precedent of a certain physical resemblance for the show’s performers. “Suddenly I had to worry about heights in a way I never had to before,” she says, “because everyone knows what the England team looks like, and Harry Maguire has to be the one highest on that stage.”

Street casting for stage plays is rare, but Jarvis-Taylor admits she found a point in Dear England where “I was going around thinking, do with you does Raheem Sterling look like?” Basten, who works across TV and theatre, is more used to finding strangers in unusual places for roles. “I’ve scouted at boxing clubs, community centers and more.”

The path to becoming a casting director is not clearly marked. After starting out as an actor, Chera grew tired of the two-dimensional stereotypes he was seeing. “I was lucky to get auditions,” he says, “but at some point I realized I was always auditioning for the same role.” He knew his brand: he was the funny one. But it emerged that his race was perceived as his defining feature, defining how he was perceived during auditions. “It was en vogue at that point to cast him as a terrorist,” he says dryly. “If we as a community of minority activists are always defined by those roles, how are we going to find that separate role?”

Chera switched sides of the trial room table and entered the casting. Now he is eager to find new or unheard voices. “The projection should not be defined by stereotypes or preconceived ideas of a particular community,” he says. “There will always be a solution option that feels safe, and an option that feels radical. I am interested in the latter.”

All the casting directors I talk to say that diversity is now at the forefront of their minds. But all four agree that change is not happening fast enough. “A lot of times I’ll be sitting in auditions or workshops and I’ll see that there’s a huge lack of diversity in all the teams that work on the shows,” says Green. “People want to change things but it has to happen faster.”

But incremental progress is worth celebrating. Green talks with joy about winning the WhatsOnStage award for best casting direction for The Little Big Things, a show she believes is the first major musical starring leading actors who use wheelchairs. “It was exciting to discover this incredible amount of talent that was untapped 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 uses a wheelchair, as the playwright and associate director. It’s really important to have experience as part of the creative team to truly tell a story.”

But in addition to making dreams come true, casting directors also disappoint many actors. “We released the casting guide yesterday for War Horse,” says Green. The play is set to return to the British stage soon – “and in 24 hours we had 4,500 submissions.” Her staff make sure they let people know as soon as possible if they have a role or not, and auditions are rarely thrown out completely, with every good actor placed on a color-coded list somewhere. “You have this 100 continuous shots that live in your head,” says Chera. But it’s constantly being refreshed with new talent — and Chera is always surprised when he hears older casting directors talk about finding people on TikTok.

“It never gets easier to say no,” says Green, who has been in the industry for nearly three decades. “I’ve never understood treating people in that old-fashioned hard way. I know it still happens because actors tell me, but creating good energy is about getting the best out of everyone.”

Courtesy goes the other way, too. “There’s so much competition now, so you want to work with nice people on and off stage,” she says. “If you find that someone is having trouble being in the room with him, then…” she throws up her hands at a name thrown from a color-coded list. “Life is too short!”

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