Confessions of the Casting Process

Last year was a big year for Zest! With 4 national tours on the road, plus Lost Village we employed 49 Artists in 2017 - 29 of those were actors. The process of finding the right people to bring those roles to life can be pretty labour intensive. Here, Fiona confesses all about Zest's casting process.

Let me take you back to last summer. Seems like a long time ago, right? Summer is a busy time here at Zest HQ, we're always busy prepping for our Autumn season of work whilst getting set for our biggest annual project, Lost Village Festival. 2017 was no exception. During that time we were on the hunt for our cast for both Lost Village and our new touring production, What Once Was Ours. Between May and July I sifted through about 2000 CVs and headshots for 11 different roles. This gives you an idea of the sheer amount of work involved. Each time I go through a casting process I learn a little bit more about how to do it well, and why, in such saturated times, it’s so important for actors and agents to represent themselves and their clients positively. 

Casting is one of those areas that can often be a mystery to actors. When you submit yourself for something and don’t get shortlisted, or indeed when you attend an audition and don’t get the gig, it’s very easy to assume it’s because you weren’t good enough. Although this may sometimes be the case, a lot of the time it can come down to so much more than that. People used to tell me this when I was an actor and I never believed them. Having seen things from the other side, I can understand how, by producers demystifying the process of casting, it allows actors can approach it with a knowledge that can empower them to put themselves forward in the best possible light.

The Process

So let’s chat about what actually happens when we need to cast an actor. We will create a breakdown and put it on all the major casting websites. Zest are really public about their castings. We love meeting real people, and feel that actors can get a rough ride, so will always shout about any roles we have available. And then we wait. Within minutes, suggestions will start to pour in. It’s not unusual for us to get upwards of 600 applications for just one role. I usually start to shortlist before the deadline to keep on top of it, but will consider every application that’s submitted.

When shortlisting for any castings, I have numerous criteria in my head. Whilst these will vary depending on the project, I go through a similar methodical process each time. I do an initial sweep based on headshots where I discount anyone who is majorly off what we’re after or who doesn’t fit the brief (for example if we're casting a Female with playing age 17 and a Male Actor in his 60's applies – don’t laugh – it’s actually happened before!). Then I start to look at CVs and sift into Yes, No and Maybe. This can be based on a number of things, but, generally speaking, I'm looking at the 'look' of the actor and the credits and/or training (but more about these later). Occasionally, if I can’t decide on someone, or if they look particularly interesting I’ll watch a showreel. Over the next week or so, I’ll revisit all three piles several times, move people around and generally make sure nothings been missed. I’ll then consider the yes pile, which always has too many people in it, in detail and invite people for audition.

The amount of people shortlisted for audition is often down to practical restrictions. In an ideal world, we’d love to see loads of people to give us the most choice, but in reality, it just isn’t possible. If you have a morning to do first round auditions for a role and give each person 15 minutes, you are limited to a maximum of 12 people. That’s 12 out of over 600! I hope you’re starting to see what I’m getting at when I say it’s a ridiculously hard job and it can be something tiny that shifts you from one pile to another. A lot of the time it’s something beyond your control, however there are some really basic things that you can do (or avoid!) that will give you the best possible chance of getting seen.

Our Tips

Get Proper Headshots
It might seen obvious, but don't send Selfies, or photos of you with your friends cropped off, or photos of you against a white wall in your house. Think about the company you are applying for when approaching your submission. Model shots of you in your underwear probably aren't suitable for a young person's theatre company. I'm looking for professional photos, taken in a professional studio, by an experienced photographer who knows how to show your castability. They can be pricey, but they’re the first thing someone who’s casting will see of you, and first impressions stick, so it’s worth saving up for. You would be unlikely to buy a dress online if the picture doesn’t show it well, or if it’s all creased up or poorly lit; similarly I immediately discount anybody who applies without a proper headshot. Also,  I want to see what you were to actually look like if you were to come to audition - so show me!

Cover Letters
Contrary to what my friends say, I’m a pretty normal person. Zest is a small company, and like a lot of producers in small companies, casting is only a small part of my job. When faced with literally hundreds of applications, I don’t have a lot of time. If you are emailing your CV and headshot then you'll probably feel the need to write a few words to accompany your submission. So when writing your cover letter, ask what you would want to read if you had to read it 600 times. Keep it short and professional, no more than a paragraph or two; we don’t need detailed life stories or in depth analysis of your work, because the reality is we simply won’t read it. Content is important too; I personally find sob stories a little unprofessional, as are ‘quirky’ applications with phrases such as ‘pick me’ or ‘I want this so much.’ Don’t compromise who you are in order to try to get work. You’re much better than that. I know you are.

Reading The Brief
You want to work and that’s admirable. I get it. But submitting yourself for something you are wildly inappropriate for is just a waste of your time and you may stick in caster's minds in future for the wrong reasons. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a difference between being an inch or so too short and chancing your luck and being the total wrong look, age or not having the skills required.

Google Will Find You Out
If I'm trying to whittle down my Yes pile theniIt’s not unusual for me to Google credits, companies and people that actors say they have worked with. Whilst it can be tempting, don’t exaggerate your experience or list skills you don’t really have. Have integrity, if you don’t play the drums, don’t say you can and just hope a mate can teach you. It just causes frustration on both sides if you are invited to an audition and I personally would be unlikely to want to see you for future castings.

Training Matters – And It Doesn’t
Here at Zest we aren’t elitist when it comes to casting, we cast the net wide. But, remember those 600 applications? Sometimes it comes down to quality control. When I only have a CV and headshot to go on and only 12 audition slots, it’s crucial that the right decisions are made and those slots aren’t wasted. I need to be sure I’m calling people that can bring a certain standard of work, and with more and more applications each time we cast, an easy way of doing this is through looking for decent, recognisable training.  It’s like trusting a brand name when you shop. That said, we realise that this isn’t an option for everyone, and we regularly cast people in our shows that haven’t had this. But if you want to make it to audition stage, it can really help. The best advice is, no matter where you train, to keep up your craft through short courses, masterclasses and the like to give you as much chance as possible of being short listed.

Be Available
This is especially important if you don’t have an agent to do the work for you. We understand you have a life, but try to reply promptly to calls and emails, especially those inviting you to an audition! Try to check your emails and reply within 24 hours. A real bug bare for me is having to chase people to see if they got your invite; it takes up valuable time, makes me think you aren’t bothered about the gig, and puts me off wanting to work with you! If you are no longer available or can’t make it, the polite thing to do is send an apology and thank the person for their time.

On The Day
If you’ve made it to the audition stage, I hope you now congratulate yourself after reading this and realising that is an achievement in itself! There are however several more things you can do to help you along. The top one for me is preparation; make sure you know your lines and the background of the company / show you are auditioning for. If you have an agent then ask them for this info, so often agents don't tell their clients about the show / part / company they are auditioning for. Other than that, just try to relax and be yourself. We want to find the right person as much as you want the job. We are willing you to do well, so try not to let nerves take over. All auditions are a learning process, so just enjoy the experience!

Overall, a lot of the casting process is just common sense. Try to put yourself in the caster's position when sending your application and ask yourself how you would feel if this was the 100th application you'd read that day. Though it can be hard, the best thing you can do is be professional, be prepared and keep trying to improve your craft. Good Luck!