The Self Production Series with Anna Nicholas: # 9 Finding Your Actors…

# 9. Finding Your Actors… or Do you Need a Casting Director?

by Guest Blogger Anna Nicholas 

When you’re preparing the perfect meal, you need quality ingredients to make it turn out the way you want, right? A play is not much different. Without actors who can bring your words to life, you’re going to get a soufflé that won’t rise or gnocchi that won’t gnock anyone’s socks off.

So, in a word, yes, you need a casting director; although there are several exceptions: If you’ve written a one-woman show for your best friend who says she’ll do it no matter where or when, you’re set; if you must use the member actors of the theatre company you’re partnering with, ditto; if you are intimately familiar with the theatre scene where you live and know all the actors by their work, and (often more importantly) their work ethic, you may also not need one. But a casting director can open up the range of choices in so many ways; especially if you have to find specific types of actors (e.g., little people with perfect French accents and the ability to juggle fire) whom you have limited knowledge of. A good casting director will organize your open call (should you have one), post a breakdown, as well as organize auditions, call-backs, deal with agents—should there be any—determine an actor’s availability AND he or she will often know whether a given actor is a team player or a diva who could make getting your play up and running—a process that should be fun—an ordeal.

Initially, I had hoped to partner with a theatre company. Our deal was to be that five of the ten actors required for Villa Thrilla would be company members, which seemed a fair trade-off for what the company would be bringing to the production—reputation and cash. We agreed we’d network among our contacts to find the other five. But as mentioned in an earlier post, “artistic differences” put a kibosh on the co-production and so when we parted, I was in a time crunch and needed help.

Even though I knew a lot of actors and considered myself knowledgeable about the casting process—I’d auditioned and been hired (and rejected) enough to pick up a few things—it was not so simple. I figured I’d just call my friends, Facebook friends and acquaintances, ask them to do it and adhere to the 99-Seat plan!(which could be going away. See #8 in this series). But three things soon became apparent: (1) I knew far fewer people who were right for the play than I thought, (2) most of the people I thought could do it were unavailable and (3) casting the play was a big job that I was ill-equipped to do alone. So I took a look at several playbills I’d saved and there were a few casting directors whose names appeared over and over. One of them was Raul Staggs. Raul had cast me in a new play a couple of years earlier and I liked him. He was personable, professional and I knew he knew the Equity Waiver scene in Los Angeles as well as anyone. So I called him up, we talked, settled on a fee (CDs can charge anywhere from a few hundred to $3000 for an Equity Waiver show, depending…) and that was that.

Raul was wonderful to work with, well organized and he did all the heavy lifting. The director and I only had to show up for auditions and make choices, which was hard enough. He provided a buffer between us—Producer and Director—and the many actors we saw, keeping things moving and on schedule. Having Raul on board also increased our credibility factor. Actors and agents know him and his reputation. Having his name on the project made it appear more legitimate, which made actors and agents more open to submitting. This was vital, especially with respect to those actors who were hard-to-find. We needed to cast a wide net beyond our circles, to find them.

One pretty cool thing happened during casting, which requires a little backstory: Early in my TV career (or late given what didn’t occur after), I worked with Doris Roberts in the waning days of Remington Steele. On that show, we had a fight over an urn. “Back off Blondie,” she told me. “That’s MY urn!” Doris got her urn and I went to jail. But when I first began writing Villa Thrilla and created the role of Camilla, the toilet bowl heiress, whose voice is heard in the play, it was Doris’ voice I heard in my head. Other actresses had read the role but I couldn’t move forward with casting anyone else until Doris had said “No.” Through our publicist, Lucy Pollak, I contacted Doris’ managers. Then I wrote Doris a letter and was floored when she said she would be the voice of Camilla. She’s a fan of small theatre and wanted to help. Raul was the one who encouraged me to ask her, proving you never know.

And this has some bearing on celebrities generally and trying to get at least one of them in your show. We’ve all heard about how TV networks, web series, video game producers are all vying for “eyeballs.” Theatre in LA is no different, though we use “butts in seats” as our goal. There is a lot happening and it’s tough to put BIS and pull the eyeballs away from all the other options. On Villa Thrilla’s opening weekend, as many as 10 other shows opened, which means we struggled to get one of the more influential critics to see the show and hopefully give it a good review so we could use it for promotion. Well, we never got that influential critic, not over the entire run. Having a known entitiy—read celebrity—in your show elevates your chances of getting not only critics to see your show, but paying audience members in those seats. So, note to self: Next time, should there be a next time, get someone in the cast who people will come out for. As Tim Wright, Artistic Director of Circle X Theatre and Producer of the current hit, Trevor told me, “Get Laurie Metcalf and everything else pretty much falls into place.”

Next Post: Choosing Your Design Team

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