Casting for a show is ‘magic’ and ‘chemistry’

Theater directors from our area head to New York for auditions

It isn’t easy to match the right actor to a designated part, but it’s especially challenging when the auditions are taking place in New York City where time and money are limited.

Despite those limitations, an experienced casting director will have the skills required to end up with the perfect theatrical match.

Among the pros are Kevin Moore and Joe Deer who headed to the Big Apple to select four actors for the upcoming production of “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play.” The show, an adaptation of the 1946 American classic Frank Capra film starring James Stewart, will be on stage at the Victoria Theatre, Dec. 3-15, as part of the Victoria Theatre Association’s Broadway series. It’s being produced by The Human Race Theatre Company.

Moore serves as producing artistic director at The Human Race. Deer — who heads Wright State University’s Musical Theatre program — has been directing for the Human Race for the past 16 years.

“Casting is 90 percent of the process. It’s the magic and chemistry,” says Moore, who describes the process as both stressful and fun. “You can have a wonderful script, and a fantastic set but if the actors can’t bring it all to life, it will never achieve the potential for theater magic that great productions fulfill.”

UD grad at the top of the field

University of Dayton graduate Meg Fister is likely to agree. As artistic manager of Actors Theatre of Louisville, Fister has one of the most prestigious casting jobs in the nation.

In addition to selecting actors for both the Louisville theater’s regular and seasonal shows, Fister is also responsible for choosing actors for one of the most important annual play festivals in the world —The Humana Festival of New Plays. The highly acclaimed event has introduced nearly 450 plays into the American and international theatre’s general repertoire, including three Pulitzer Prize winners.

This year’s festival will take place from Feb. 26 to April 6, and Fister has been in New York this week casting for the recently-announced group of new plays. Just before that, she was in Chicago. The actors she selects will be seen by film, television and theatrical producers from around the world in search of new material and fresh talent.

“My favorite part of the casting process is when we select a play and we sit in a room with the director and the design team and hear about the world they would like to create,” says Fister, who majored in art history at U.D. “They describe the world the characters live in and it might range from turn-of-the-century England to astronauts in space.”

Fister, who says her art history background taught her to be methodical, says she reads the script several times and creates a description of each of the characters or actors.

“I try to pick scenes from the script that show the journey of that particular character,” she says. “I love preparing all of this.”

Each show presents special casting challenges.

“The actors for the radio show must be able to play multiple characters,” says Deer. For “It’s a Wonderful Life,” five actors will portray 30 different characters.

How technology has changed auditions

Deer and Moore say technology has changed the audition process dramatically. These days they can screen photos and resumes electronically, and can often check out YouTube to see actors in action.

“When I first came to The Human Race 16 years ago, we got resumes and head shots in the mail,” says Deer. “Today all actors have a website.”

Casting directors typically work with New York organizations and agents who help to get the word out when a show is being cast. The sessions are typically held in studio space that’s rented by the theater.

“It’s usually an empty room with a hardwood floor, and there are buildings full of them” Fister explains, adding that most auditions will run five to 15 minutes in length. She’s accompanied by the director, producer, the playwright.

Fister, who always thought she’d end up working in a museum or an art gallery, says it isn’t easy for actors.

“The life of an actor is rejection all of the time, and it’s really about the taste of the director and the particular show so we hope they don’t take it personally,” she says, admitting it can be kind of scary to be making big decisions that the theater will have to live with.

Preparing for auditions

New York actor Betsy DiLellio, who’ll play the leading role of Mary Hatch in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” says a typical appointment will start with either a phone call or email from her agent. After checking out the specifics, she’ll begin doing research and preparing the music or scenes that are required.

She says every New York audition is different. Some require her to prepare a short scene, others demand becoming familiar with pages of the script as well as music.

“I will go to my vocal coach to work the material, or sometimes I will work on it on my own,” DiLellio says. “For sides (short monologues) I work with my husband, who is also an actor, and we talk through moments in the scene or scenes and try to flesh out a really strong character.”

During an audition, she says, someone may read the scene with her while members of the creative team watch and take notes.

“They may then give you some direction, or have you do it a different way, or they may give you a new scene to read,” says DiLellio. “If there will be a callback, you will either be told in the room, or will be told through your agent. The callback could be later that day, the next day or even a week later. After that — if you have booked the job — they contact your agent with an offer, the agent notifies you and negotiates the salary.”

In the case of a “Wonderful Life,” DiLellio says she is a huge fan of the film and had done a version of the script once before.

“It’s is a bit of a challenge to make it your own, while still being respectful of the film,” she says. “Although an ingenue, Mary is strong and smart and clever, and I’m finding new aspects of her throughout this rehearsal process.”

Gleaning more information

Moore says he tries to engage potential actors in conversation at an audition for a variety of reasons.

“I want to know if they’re high maintenance; if you’re going to spend that much time in a small room with a group of people, you want to make sure you get people you want to work with,” he says.

Preference goes to those with local connections

Moore and Deer say they give preference to local actors and to those who originally came from the Miami Valley.

“We like when we can bring the most talented people back to Dayton,” says Deer.” This is a fertile breeding ground for talent.”

He’s talking about actors like Todd Lawson, a Bethel High School and Muse Machine grad who now lives in Brooklyn and will portray the leading role of George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Lawson says his audition consisted of preparing for three scenes which showed the character of George Bailey at different ages.

“I read through the scenes one time each with the reader,” he says. ” Sometimes that’s enough. Luckily for me, this time it was. I said my goodbyes, grabbed a bite to eat, and hopped on the 3:30 bus back to DC. I got a text a day later from Kevin that I was getting the offer.”

Lawson, who has worked on Broadway, off-Broadway and national tours, insists regional theaters produce some of the best work.

“There may not be all the glitz and glamour of NYC but we don’t have to deal with all the distractions either,” he says. “We can focus solely on the work and we form a tight-knit family in pursuit of telling the story at hand.”

Deer says a lot of actors believe that the people who are casting are hostile to them but nothing could be further from the truth.

“We are desperate for the right person to walk into the room,” he concludes.” It is a huge thrill to be in the room with great talent.”

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