How does AWT cast its shows?
I don’t actually get a lot of questions about AWT casting before people sign up for a show. What I do hear about are a lot of reactions after cast lists come out. And when I say “hear about” I mean, people rarely come to me with their thoughts, questions, feelings or concerns, but the AWT grapevine is strong and has many branches. It’s totally ok, casting is a touchy subject. It creates the feeling that you’ve been assessed and assigned accordingly. In reality, it’s not that simple. Our casting process is challenging to really grasp and internalize unless you’ve been in the casting room, but I’m going to try and shed as much light on the process for a typical Mainstage Musical in this blog post.
First I want to state what my job is in the casting process. I am present as an equal member of the team to represent AWT’s casting philosophy and commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s important to AWT that we break traditional theater norms in casting, and that people have a light shined on them in a way that differs from how they experience the rest of the world. These norms include casting specific types for roles, and also the way specific individuals are constantly featured, while others have a harder time getting their foot in the door.
We talk about the show.
Several weeks if not months before Launch Day we ask ourselves: What are the parts considered to be the lead or principal roles? What are the ways we can feature more people in the show? How many dance numbers are there? Are there big back to back moments that will require different groups of people? Are there roles that we want to cast in a certain way to honor the integrity of that character’s story? And on and on.
We gather the information collected from the participants.
What is everyone’s age, ethnicity and gender identity? Who has absences that require them to be in a specific cast? Who specifically doesn’t want a big part? Who is uncomfortable playing specific parts or identities? Are there any physical or medical conditions we should know about? Is anyone requesting to be in the same cast as another participant?
We gather the information we already know about participants.
Who is new to AWT and who is a returner? Who had a lead or principal role in the last show they were in? Who has never been a lead or a principal? Who has been featured a lot over the course of many shows, and who has been featured rarely?
At this point Launch Day hasn’t even happened yet. But then finally the big day arrives!
We gather even more information on Launch Day.
Participants sing, act and dance for us. We get a sense of who is game for what. If someone can’t attend, they send videos. We have everyone take a selfie and drop it in a Google Drive folder, so we can remember who all 80 people are.
And after an intense, joyous and productive two days, we make it to the casting room.
We name our biases.
We verbally share to the rest of the casting team any specific relationships or histories we have or had with any of the participants, as well as any general biases we can identify. I believe this exercise both decreases the power those biases have over our decision making, as well as helps us hold each other accountable.
We identify some decisions that all of the above has already made for us.
Who has to be in a specific cast? Who had a lead or principal in their last show? Who wants to be in the ensemble? If there are any parts that have been determined should be played by a specific identity, who is now in consideration for that?
Now we start the giant sudoku puzzle that is casting the show.
Usually, there is a post-it with everyone’s name on it, and it might be color coded to indicate if they have to be in a certain cast. It might also be coded with identifying information to ensure equity in casting. If our Stage Manager is extra, they will print out the participant’s selfie and affix it to their post-it. Then the Director and Music Director start throwing people on the wall and begin to tackle the giant puzzle.
I’m going to pause here. I’ve just laid out a lot of information, and we’ve only just now started to actually cast the show. Is any of this surprising? If you are a participant, all you know is that you filled out a couple forms and attended Launch Day and (hopefully) had a lot of fun and made some friends. But the process above started wayyyy before Launch Day, and requires a lot of thought and consideration. And then multiplied times 80. The rest of the process, while time-consuming and tedious, happens mostly in one night.
The team has their thoughts and desires of seeing specific people in specific parts, but I’m there to give them plenty of other things to think about. They actually have a document with some guidelines for casting, that I’ll just share verbatim right here:
- Determine early which parts require a specific identity in order to honor the integrity of the story. Our DEI Coordinator is on hand to discuss this with you
- When separating into two (or more) casts, avoid either cast having an “identity.” In other words, no cast should be identifiable as “the newbie cast,” “the older cast,” “the POC cast,” etc. This doesn’t mean you have to separate groups of friends, if they want to be in the same cast
- Acknowledge to yourself and your team members what your biases are about any specific participants, so you can actively avoid them affecting your casting decisions
- Avoid traditional casting norms for certain types of roles. For example:
- White leads with POC supporting players
- Romantic parts played by thin and “attractive” (by “traditional” beauty standards) performers
- Older parts played by performers with larger body types
- Do not cast specific roles by “type” in any way. This includes ethnicity, age, body type or gender
- Maintain gender equity in casting. We tend to have mostly female participants. Traditionally male identifying roles can either be gender fluid/swapped or played by non-male identifying people as a male. Those who identify as male should not be over-represented in lead or featured parts due to their gender
- Make note of participant needs with respect to physical limitations. For example if they have trouble being on their knees, taking stairs or carrying heavy objects. Stage Manager should track these things and remind the Director when relevant
I’m going to wrap up here, and ask readers to reflect on their experience being cast in an AWT show. Did you ever read a cast list and think that we have not followed our own guidelines? The reason you may have felt that is, there is no hard and fast rule about casting because it’s way too complicated. Some parameter or guideline is going to conflict with another at some point, and we have to make a choice about what’s more important. Everyone in the casting room is going to concede one debate in order to win another. But the thing we are all committed to is making sure that no matter where someone ends up on the wall, we create a fun and rewarding experience for everyone involved.
Odds and Ends:
- This phenomenon is too common not to share. There is always a person who has a very solid audition and has no reason to not have a big part, who gets considered for just about every part and ultimately doesn’t get one. There are 80 people to consider, what can we say?
- The only times I’ve ever been cast in big parts is when I didn’t really care where I ended up on the cast list. Have I ever wanted a part before? Sure. Did I get those parts? Sure didn’t.
- Ensemble tracks are challenging and BIG. It takes more to create something on your own than to follow something already spelled out on the page for you. Our audiences tend to remember the person really making a meal out of their invented side story. Often there’s a person that has impressed the team so much that they are given a specific smaller part to see what they do with it.
- This one’s important: AWT doesn’t view parts in shows as currency. In other words, they are not used as a means of giving recognition or thanks for any reason, and nobody is entitled to a part in exchange for something they’ve done, given or for a role they play in the organization. We think the experience is equally rewarding no matter what happens in casting.