Casting the show is the most immediate decision you, as a director, must make. Of course, many factors add up to make a successful show, but the talent in the rehearsal room determines the overall energy of the production. The stakes are high from the second the actors begin to audition for you. However, no matter the weight of the stress you feel in making sure you find the best fit for each part, the casting process will go smoother if you follow these three tips I’ve used to great success. And before we begin, remember to focus on finding actors who’re willing to make bold choices to advance the story because that’s when the magic happens.

Casting the Show

Before the show can go on, you have to cast the production. These three simple tips will bring success!  

Tip #1 for Casting the Show: Focus on personality over chemistry

Chemistry is hard to define but let’s use this working definition: how well the actors play off each other. For example, in a comedy, actors with strong chemistry feed off each other’s energy and improvise to create funnier moments for the audience. Actors with instantaneous chemistry require less character development work to deepen their understanding of the relationships between their characters. However, not all actors have immediate chemistry, at least not in the audition process. If this is the case, look for actors who seem willing to learn the material and dive deeply into the character. This willingness is a strong indicator of how actors will perform during rehearsals and beyond. Like it or not, chemistry can fade once the real work of rehearsal begins.

According to T.J. Thomas, a theater teacher at Ralston Valley High School in Arvada, Colorado, “… a lot of times, [having chemistry] is just a learned skill. Sometimes, unfortunately, you get paired with people you don’t even care about. But good actors will create that chemistry for the time they’re in front of the lens or on the stage.” So, instead of focusing on something as nebulous as chemistry, try to pay equal attention to the actor’s demonstrated work ethic.

Observing how actors treat others in the audition room, such as fellow actors or technicians, shines a light on whether the actor will be a team player in the rehearsal process. Part of your director’s job is to choose theatre makers that’ll create an environment in which all company members feel comfortable taking risks, being raw, and experimenting with new ways of performing. Actors who don’t appear engaged with others in the audition room may struggle to contribute to this positive culture in the future. It’s possible to teach actors how to play off each other onstage. It’s significantly more difficult to work with an unresponsive actor.

Tip #2 for Casting the Show: Keep emotional range in mind

Each actor has a unique emotional range in their ability to portray different emotional realities. For example, some actors may have a natural gift for comedy, while other actors may be able to cry on cue. An actor’s apparent range doesn’t prevent them from doing work outside of that range, but it often provides clues as to how the actor will play off other actors in the cast. Range also hints at what nuances the actor will bring to the role.

To check an actor’s range, look over their theatrical resume and notice if they gravitate toward certain types of shows, such as musical comedies or straight dramas. Next, consider the character you need to cast. Would casting an actor outside of the character’s emotional “type” add nuance to the characterization, or would it create confusion? Casting an actor who adheres too strongly to the character’s type runs the risk of creating boring characterization. Why? Because actors who tend to “type” themselves learn to approach a script a certain way, which can be both positive and negative depending on the role they’re playing.

Adding that actor’s perspective to a character who is far outside their “type” creates an added level of nuance that, when done well, ultimately creates more engaging energy onstage. Nothing grabs an audience’s attention faster than an actor making bold, unusual choices that result from them being pushed out of their comfort zone. As Thomas puts it, “… we look for actors that take chances because if they can go beyond timidness, then we know they can rise to the occasion for whatever character or role you put them in.”

Tip #3 for Casting the Show: Trust Your Gut

Sometimes, gut decisions are the most authentic form of casting. If you’re leaning toward a specific actor, auditions may not even be necessary. This is because so much of casting is nebulous. Many decisions are made based on a director’s judgment of what effect actors will create onstage. There’s no strict science to casting, and part of the joy is following your instinct toward an actor and seeing where it leads.

There are many methods for testing your instincts. For instance, during auditions, try having actors read three scenes from the play that represent the emotional peaks of the story. Actors who can tap into the emotional energy of the scene, even with no prior exposure to the script, can do the same on production night. Embracing actors who land close to the emotion of a scene, even if they don’t always get it right, is your best bet for finding a good fit for your show.

To sum up all these tips, casting a show relies on fit. The fit between the actor and the director, and the fit between the actor and the role. Focusing on fit gives you, the director, the opportunity to be surprised and engaged as the actors do their work. 

Dylan Malloy is a playwright and director whose first play, The Rocket Man, was adapted from a short story by Ray Bradbury and premiered in March 2021, after Dylan acquired performance rights from Mr. Bradbury’s estate. She’ll be attending Emory University as a playwriting major, with a double major in business on the arts administration track. You can find her on Instagram @dylan_writes.

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