Throwing out actor resumes at random? How unprofessional! Colo. stage directors say

Photo: Auditions
An audition. (Photo: courtesy Flickr user Tom Vander Well/Creative Commons)

Theater auditions can be stressful not just for an actor hoping to land a gig, but equally for a director trying to fill a role.

I was reminded of this reality lately when reading an article by the British stage director Phil Willmott explaining how he goes about weeding out the thousands of resumes he receives when casting his productions.

When faced with a teetering pile of headshots, showreels and curriculum vitaes, Willmott admits to employing a cutthroat strategy.

"I was still about 50 people over so -- and this is horrible and unfair -- I next cut every third person," the director confesses about the final throes of a recent casting process in an essay entitled "Here's the real reason you didn't get called to audition" he wrote for the theater-oriented trade publication, "The Stage."

Colorado theater directors dismayed

Colorado theater directors I spoke with are dismayed by Willmott’s strategy.

“Weeding out every third resume? That’s not professional,” Denver’s Curious Theatre Company artistic director Chip Walton says. “It’s completely arbitrary. He may have thrown out the best person for that role for no good reason at all. If I legitimately felt that I had 30 percent more people for the role than I had audition slots, I would add more slots.”

But the auditioning landscape in Colorado isn’t quite the same as the one Willmott faces in London, one of the biggest theater cities in the world.

Colorado a different market

Here, the theater market is smaller.

There are no theatrical agents; only agents who handle commercials. So directors, assisted by other in-house staff, often cast shows themselves without the assistance of a casting director.

Even the region’s biggest theatrical producer, the Denver Center Theatre Company, only occasionally uses casting specialists in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago when an actor can’t be sourced locally. The company normally auditions actors internally, through a process managed by producing artistic director Kent Thompson, associate artistic director Bruce Sevy and casting associate Emily Tarquin.

As a result, the casting process for Colorado theater companies often begins with general -- or “open call” -- auditions, where, at least technically-speaking, anyone who wants to take a crack at a role, can.

Also, while Willmott says “even on a fringe profit share production there are over a thousand CVs to consider,” directors here report a pool of prospective performers in the hundreds or fewer.

“Typically, 75 to 100 people show up for an audition,” Miner’s Alley Playhouse in Golden’s artistic director Brenda Billings says.

A daunting process

Even with a relatively small number of resumes to peruse, the audition process is still daunting to many Colorado directors.

Billings says the first round of the process for most of Miner’s Alley’s shows lasts two eight-hour days and then she runs another full day of call-backs. Would-be cast members submit their materials and perform scenes from the upcoming show.

Billings says beyond seeing a performer in action during an audition, she scans resumes to see what they’ve appeared in before, whether they’ve had any lead roles before, and what kind of education they’ve had.

“It is time consuming,” Billings says.

Creede Repertory Theatre director Jessica Jackson reports being overwhelmed by “the amount of headshots and resumes that end up in my inbox.”

Yet Jackson says her biggest worry is not being able to respond personally to each inquiry.

“I know that sounds naive and ridiculous, but I know what it's like to send your resume into the void and never hear from it again,” Jackson says. “So, I try to recognize that all these glossy photos and lists of roles and theaters are proxies for actual human beings. And then I end up feeling guilty for not having the time to treat them as such.”

Directors hire actors they already know

The challenge of weeding through a deluge of resumes, often without the aid of a casting director or agent, causes many Colorado theater directors to lean heavily on hiring actors they already know.

Some organizations, like Curious Theatre, start by looking to see if anyone from the company’s core pool of local performers might be castable.

“We have a company of 28 artists of which half are actors,” Walton says. “We always think first about what roles are good opportunities for our company actors.”

When personal knowledge of an actor can’t fill a role, directors will often next look to recommendations from trusted sources.

“When I look back at the most amazing actors we've hired over the last decade, a very large majority came from recommendations, a respectable minority from auditioning for me in person at one of our general auditions or MFA program auditions, and a tiny percent from unsolicited headshots and resumes,” Jackson says.

Taking a more direct approach

Sometimes though, the perfect player for a part can materialize in a less orthodox way.

Tony Garcia, artistic director of Denver’s Su Teatro theater company, the region’s most prominent Latino performing arts organization, recalls the difficulty of trying to find the right actress to fill the title role in his company’s production of Federico Garcia Lorca’s great tragedy, “Yerma.”

After a fruitless search, the director decided to take a more direct approach.

Garcia went up on stage before another Su Teatro show and simply told the audience that he was “looking for a Latina.”

“After that, we had several calls and one of them was from Yvette Visbal,” Garcia says. “When she came to audition I saw her get out of the car and she was perfect. She’s been a member of our company ever since. I would never have found her if I hadn’t gone up on stage and asked.”