Callback Confidential: Inside Secrets of the Casting Process

Callback Confidential: Inside Secrets of the Casting Process

The Silent Struggle Behind the Scenes

Heart thumping. Palms sweating. Gut twisting. Adrenaline pumping. That’s what it feels like to walk into an audition – a dimly lit room with little fanfare and no audience. Long before the show you pay to watch, this is where key decisions that determine who gets a role begin. This is where the challenges that lead to lack of representation on stage are front and center.

In some cases, auditions can make actors from marginalized groups question if there’s a space for them in the industry, given the discrimination and exclusion they face. Actors walk in to be judged by a few select people behind the casting table, which often includes the director, casting director, and a producer. They have the power to hire an actor. There’s often a lack of diversity among this group of decision-makers when it comes to race, sexuality, gender, or physical disabilities.

According to a study, in the 2018-19 season, 93% of directors on Broadway were white, and 78% of people in director positions off-Broadway were white. The lack of diversity behind the casting table can have a profound impact on what we see on stage.

The Audition Process: A Minefield of Uncertainty

As an actor, every audition is a minefield of uncertainty. There are no universal expectations for how actors who need accommodations or come from marginalized backgrounds are supported. While unions like Actors Equity Association require theaters to meet certain audition guidelines, those standards are a baseline that only apply to union members or actors who choose to work under a union contract for certain jobs.

For those who want to become a member, they must prove they’ve been paid to work professionally as an actor or stage manager. This creates an additional barrier for aspiring actors who haven’t had the chance to break into the industry yet.

Marianne Galloway, a hard-of-hearing equity actor with transverse myelitis, a neurological condition, recounts one of her “audition horror stories.” She spent countless hours practicing her 16 bars of music, researching the theater, and knowing which performers worked there in the past.

But when Galloway walked into the audition, she felt “thrown off a cliff.” The director was video-chatting from New York, making it hard for her to read his lips. The pianist sat far away in the dimly lit room, making it difficult for her to coordinate. When she brought up her concerns, she felt dismissed with “it’s fine” and “don’t worry about it.” Galloway left the audition in tears, feeling “utterly powerless.”

Tackling Typecasting and Bias

The lack of diversity behind the casting table also affects the types of roles actors from marginalized groups are considered for. Mark Quach, a Vietnamese American actor, has struggled to be cast for lead or romantic roles with substance. He’s often been type-cast as the “comedic relief kung fu expert or villain.”

As a larger-framed Asian American actor, Quach doesn’t fit the “cookie-cutter mold” that directors seem to have in mind. He’s seen a slow shift in recent years, but says it’s “long overdue.” Bismark Quintanilla, a Salvadoran American actor, has had similar experiences, often landing co-star roles with a single line or background parts.

The problem extends beyond race. Christine Sanders, a non-binary actor who uses they/them pronouns, was once told that the casting team was “afraid of offending any of the actors who use they/them pronouns” with the offer of a male or female role.

Towards a More Inclusive Future

Efforts to make auditions more equitable have come in starts and stops, both locally and across the country. Metrics, transparency, and accommodations have been the focus of these conversations. But as actor Sanders points out, the metrics don’t go deep enough. Theaters may boast about the number of diverse actors they’ve worked with, but the real question is, “What’s your retention rate of those groups? Do they stay past a year? Do they come back?”

Casting director Ally Beans recognizes the influence she can have as someone usually behind the table at auditions. She’s not afraid to challenge biases, asking directors to explain why a role “has to be” a certain race or gender. Often, they can’t come up with a good answer.

Actors Equity’s diversity and inclusion strategist, Danee Conley, says the union is encouraging performing arts organizations to work with cultural and intimacy coordinators. These third-party advocates can help theaters address blind spots and make the audition space more inclusive for actors, even when the casting table lacks diversity.

At the end of the day, performers want a focus on who’s behind the casting table. Monalisa Amidar, a Filipino American actor, director, and choreographer, wants audition notices to list who will be shaping the production and include their photos. This gives performers a sense of agency in deciding whether they want to be involved.

As an actor, the audition process is a never-ending cycle of preparation, uncertainty, and hope. But with more transparency, accommodations, and a concerted effort to diversify the decision-makers behind the scenes, the future of the musical theater industry can be more inclusive and equitable. After all, the magic that captivates audiences starts with the courage and talent of the performers – and they deserve a fair chance to shine.

If you’re interested in exploring the world of musical theater further, I encourage you to visit, where you can discover educational programs, performance opportunities, and a community of passionate individuals dedicated to the art form.

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