Casting director for theatre

 27 July 2011

Stuart Burt is associate casting director at The Ambassador Theatre Group, one of the UK’s leading West End theatre producers.

Casting directors have only become a big part of acting over the last twenty years.
Casting directors have only become a big part of acting over the last twenty years.

The role of a casting director

The role of the casting director is fairly new. It’s only become a big part of acting over the last twenty years. “I remember speaking to some wonderful older actors in their late sixties who just didn’t believe in the notion of casting directors.”

"I can identify straight away who are going to struggle. This is the tough bit, because these are people’s dreams."

Casting directors are certainly real now. It’s their job to select a number of actors to audition for a given part. Directors say what they’re looking for, casting directors make suggestions, approaching agents as well as using their own knowledge of who is out there.

“I work purely in theatre. To be a casting director, I think that you have to have a love for theatre or TV or film. You require a kind of extreme hunger and love for the work. Almost an arrogant self-belief in your own taste. So you can argue with a director or a producer to state the case for why you think this person is right.”

That’s something you either have or don’t have, Stuart believes. It can’t be developed. What you can develop, though, is your knowledge of theatre. That helps inform your taste and strengthens your opinions.

“The more you do, the more you see, the more you have to compare it with. You feel what works, what touches you emotionally, what works within a dramatic context. You have to have a very strong instinct.

"Within the first thirty seconds of someone walking into a room, you have to almost instantaneously judge what they require for you to give pointers and directions in order for them to give you what you are looking for.”

Working with the acting industry

As a casting director, Stuart is effectively a gatekeeper to acting work. The necessity for instantaneous judgement can lead to perceptions of arrogance. Casting directors are often the focus of hostility in the acting industry:

  • Actors complain they don’t get seen for auditions.
  • Agents feel like casting directors don’t take enough risks on talent they haven’t worked with before.
  • Directors grumble that they see the same people over and over again.

“I know that many actors think that the casting directors are big, bad, scary animals. But every casting director wants the person walking in the room to be perfect, so that the search ends.”

“The amount of actors in this country is mind-boggling. Directors cannot possibly know all the talent pool out there. That’s my job. My job is sifting.

“It’s very important that actors realise what they’ve already got through for their first meeting. Very recently we were doing Legally Blond the Musical and received over three and half thousand submissions for a cast of twenty eight. That’s tough odds!”

Too many actors, not enough roles

"It’s important to value that the actor is there and that they’ve put the work in. From whatever route they’ve made their way into the room, you can give them something back.”

The hugely unfavourable odds of getting cast are a problem for actors, and also for Stuart’s job.

“Anyone who is a jobbing actor right now knows there isn’t a hell of a lot of work around. Probably about ninety nine percent of the acting population would agree with me. Competition is high.”

Stuart feels that drama schools are partly to blame for this, by churning out more actors every year into an already crowded market. 

“I go to a lot of the showcases and I can identify straight away those who are going to struggle. I’m basically saying it’s a lack of natural talent

“This is the tough bit, because these are people’s dreams, it’s what they really want to do. That’s all started with the X-Factor thing - I think that’s a whole different kettle of fish. This is a job, it’s a way of life, it’s a career.

“We’ve got to be realistic. In every drama school I go to, more than ten percent of the people I see would potentially not earn money from the acting profession. I think that throwing out these people into an already saturated market makes my job more difficult.

“Ultimately it makes these people’s lives more difficult by giving them almost a sense of false hope. Let’s not forget that many drama schools can charge way upwards of £10,000 a year for tuition fees.”

Getting into casting

It’s very rare to see casting jobs advertised. “Casting is one of those strange elements of the industry where it’s almost like a closed shop.”

“With most freelance casting directors or commercial theatre companies, jobs won’t necessarily go on the open market. It will all be done through people that they’ve met.

“Because these jobs are hard to come by, I’m well aware that there’s probably four or five people who would happily slit my throat for my position. That’s why I work all the hours that I do!”

A common way in is working as an agent’s assistant. Contacting casting directors to offer your services as an intern can be a good way in. But there’s no set route. People enter it from all kinds of related roles in the industry.

Stuart’s opportunity came through meeting the head of casting for The Ambassador Theatre Group while he was working as a production assistant for Billy Elliot the Musical.

“No-one at school at seven years old goes, ‘I want to be a casting director’! I was originally an actor myself. I think that’s massively informed the way I like to conduct myself and my audition room.

"It’s important to value that the actor is there and that they’ve put the work in. From whatever route they’ve made their way into the room, you can give them something back.”

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