BY MADI TAYLOR
The process begins – casting a show.
It seems that the cast of a show is one of the most important elements in its becoming a popular production. Whether there’s a well-known celebrity playing the lead or a friend in the ensemble, feeling connected to the cast of a show makes us more invested in going to see it. Casting is therefore incredibly important to a show’s success. In the professional world, this process involves a casting agency holding either closed auditions for select actors in consideration for lead roles and/or open auditions to find fresh talent to round out their casts. Here at Harvard, however, our approximately twenty shows that take place each semester are cast through a crazy and wonderful week-long set of festivities known as Common Casting.
Common Casting takes place the first week of each semester. In the month beforehand, a schedule is finalized assigning each show to anywhere from two to four auditions slots throughout the course of the week in a space in one of three theater venues here on campus – the Loeb Drama Center, the Agassiz Theater, and Farkas Hall. Auditions are then held from six p.m. to twelve a.m. every night of the first week of the semester (so much theater!), followed by two days of callback auditions that weekend before the cast lists are finalized. It is a hectic and amazing week that, for me this fall, resulted in lots of amazing theater and very little sleep as I helped hold auditions for two shows. You might be wondering how exactly this audition process works; what do the actors have to do, and how do the directors decide who to cast? Having been on both sides of the production staff’s table in the audition room, I can give you a glimpse into what exactly happens behind the closed door.
When I decided to audition for shows my freshman fall, I remember being extremely nervous. Not only was I overwhelmed and amazed by the sheer number of shows taking place (trying to figure out how to make it to all of their auditions was it’s own adventure), but I had never auditioned for peers before. Yet I soon discovered that the unique fact that Harvard theater is entirely student run, directed, produced, designed, etc. is a wonderful attribute, because as many students here both act in and staff shows, everyone supports you and can both relate to your nerves and offer you very helpful advice. The whole theater community, newcomers and old-hats alike, comes together to support each other for this week celebrating all that Harvard theater is and can be. As an actor, the directors want you to succeed and to feel comfortable, and this environment makes auditions not only much less nerve-wracking than I had expected, but fun! All that’s asked of you is to try your best and make choices about how you will approach the character you’re asked to play and stick to them. No preparation of monologues needed or an expectation you’ve already been in twenty professional shows (phew!).
When you enter the audition room, you’re immediately greeted with excited welcomes from the production staff and lots of candy. After telling you a little bit about the show and the characters, the director will then give you a side (part of a scene from the show) to read — either a monologue to perform by yourself, or a scene to work on with a partner. You then have five to ten minutes to prepare the side and decide how you want to present it before you come back into the audition room and give it your best shot – that’s all there is to it! Using sides for auditions instead of asking actors to come prepared with a monologue is a really great idea, in my opinion, because it both puts everyone on a level playing field in terms of their familiarity with the script, and allows the director to see the actors actually playing the characters in the show instead of a character from whatever play their monologue might have been from. While Common Casting may at first seem a scary or anxiety-provoking event, it is truly an exciting time for actors to see all of their theater friends, make new ones, and have fun taking chances with material from some pretty amazing shows. In fact, having spent lots of time on the production side of the table, too, I’d say that the whole process is probably more nerve-wracking for the staff than the actors!
For directors, stage managers, or producers, preparation for common casting begins weeks in advance. You have to choose sides, buy candy (everyone wants to be the audition room with the best snacks), and figure out how to best explain the plot and characters of your show to the actors walking in the door. Before every audition, the excitement and nervousness of the staff are palpable in the room. We don’t know which actors are going to walk through the door, how they are going to read the sides (will it be like what we imagined in our heads when we read the play on our own? Will they do something completely new and exciting?), and who will end up in our cast. And every time an actor walks back into the room to read their side, there’s a new wave of excitement — is this the one? Since I am stage managing and producing shows this semester, I got to watch so many talented auditions; unassuming people took on larger-than-life roles and blew us away, others threw aside their inhibitions and took chances on characters far outside of their real personalities. This is the beauty of acting: actors are able to adopt completely new personas and breathe life into a character so different from themselves.
By the end of the week, we generally have seen anywhere from forty to one hundred auditions. Then comes the tough part — sifting through all of the notes we’ve taken during auditions, connecting names back to faces we saw, and deciding which actors seemed to best fit the roles. We then invite several actors to come to callback auditions for each role over the weekend to give them another chance to read sides for us, perhaps with new partners, so that we can see which people and relationships between characters bring the show to life. After a week of incredible theater, constantly shifting ideas about what our show can be, and so much excitement, the producers and stage managers give the director their final thoughts as the director makes final decisions on which of the many actors are the best fit for the show.
I had never experienced anything like Common Casting before coming to Harvard, but I’m so glad I’ve had the chance to take part in both sides of such a unique and exciting event. It is a chance to appreciate our peers and their talent and to remind us of the beauty theater brings to our lives. While just about everyone is quite sleep-deprived after a long week of auditions, I wouldn’t miss a minute of it. A single week brings a whole community together to celebrate doing what we all love — making wonderful art. And having seen the amazing cast lists for all of this semester’s shows, I know it’s going to be a season of theater to remember!
Madi Taylor ’16 (firstname.lastname@example.org) hopes you’ll check out some shows on campus this semester and come audition during Common Casting in February – everyone is welcome, no experience needed!