Director’s Notes: Auditions

As we prepare for A Journey with Jonson auditions, our Artistic Director shares her thoughts on the process from a director’s point of view.

There is a fascinating documentary about the casting of a revival of A Chorus Line, called Every Little Step, which is well worth a watch for some insight into an audition process. Of course, it deals with a major Broadway musical production, a process which is months long and a much more complicated situation than I’ve ever had to face. What I like about it, though, is that it gives you just as much perspective from a directing and casting standpoint as from the actors’, and you realise how much is a sort of visceral reaction to a combination between the specifics of each character (and how well the directors have to know those nuances) and the unique things that various actors bring to the part, which may or may not work as desired.

The context HIDden usually works in is considerably less prolonged and arguably less complex. Still, as I’ve said in the past, I find auditions to be the single most nerve-wracking part of an entire production. In addition to the high stakes nature of them, there is the fact that nobody seems to agree on the “Best Way” to cast a show. Every possible option comes with benefits and drawbacks.

In contemplating auditions as a system, I pulled a few of my old university textbooks off the shelf to see what they had to impart as far as “advice” on auditions, and this was when I realised one of the other reasons that auditions are such a nerve-wracking process: almost everything that is written on the “how to” of auditioning is aimed at performers. One of my directing textbooks doesn’t even include a mention of auditioning, which strikes me as overlooking something rather significant: casts don’t just appear onstage, fully formed, from out of nowhere! A quick search of a large online retailer also resulted in a similar dearth of textual discussion – lots of “secrets of casting directors for actors”, not much on “how to make the most of auditions for a director”.

For such a crucial part of the directing process, one would think more attention would be paid to it. I suspect that the reason it seems to get glossed over is precisely because there is no “Best Way” (and why it’s sort of nice to watch something like a documentary which shows the vicissitudes of the process). It’s not something you can really reduce to paper, to a checklist of how to. I’m not entirely sure it’s something that can be taught at all. The truth is, an awful lot of casting comes down to instinct. Which is not to say that directors shouldn’t be able to give actors fairly concrete feedback, reasons why they did well, or maybe even more crucially, ways that they can improve and things they should work on; just that, ultimately, there is something indefinable that makes one particular person work for a part and someone else not quite fit it as well.

As I suspect is true of most directors, I’ve evolved a process that seems to work, very much based on the particularities of the kind of theatre that HIDden does. One situation that we’ve often faced is that actors have to get their heads (and tongues) around archaic scripts; even translated, they can be rough going for people who haven’t done much historic drama. This has been a big factor in the evolution of the system that we use, which tends to include asking actors to bring a reading from something they’ve performed in the past: I want to see people doing something familiar and comfortable, when they think they’re at their best, rather than only when they may be hampered by challenging language on top of a new script and character. I like to see auditions as the question “what can you do best?” rather than “what can’t you do?” The hope is that this pulls out enough information for that sixth sense to go to work and whisper “this person will fit well in Part X”.

But no matter what system is in place, ultimately that’s what it comes down to, that little interior voice that can’t quite be quantified. And that’s why I don’t hold my breath for a book to appear on the “Best Possible Way to Audition Actors for Historic Drama”. It will always be a balance between intellectual rationale and gut instinct. That probably doesn’t offer much wisdom or insight for actors, but maybe it should be read as encouragement: if I can’t tell you exactly what will work, your best bet is just to do your best.