Colorado by Josh Hartwell
Taking a break from writing about writers and writing, I decided to jump on board for this casting issue. And although I have cast a bunch of plays as a director—and have been involved with the casting of shows that I’ve written—I wanted to get a professional’s perspective.
My dear friend Sylvia Gregory is a Denver-based casting director with a strong background in theatre: she received her undergraduate degree in acting from Cal State Fullerton, studied classical theatre at London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and earned a Masters at Alabama Shakes. So she came to the casting arena armed with an impressive knowledge of acting and understanding of the craft. She is also kind, funny, and a wonderful member of our community.
Colorado has healthy theatre and on-camera communities. Some of our actors and actresses do get consistent work in both, but there always seems to be some kind of separation.
One of the distinctions Sylvia points to is the difference in pace between the two processes.
“On-camera happens so fast,” she said. “It can be a week to two weeks from start to finish. It’s incredibly stressful and easy to make mistakes, but you can’t make mistakes because there’s so much money involved…dealing with agents, SAG offices. A lot of people we’re communicating with need answers yesterday. So it’s super stressful but lucrative. It’s fun to get actors work that’s gonna pay them a lot of money. The actors shoot for a day or two.”
With theatre, it is a different vibe. Sylvia also casts for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder, which she compares to a big puzzle.
“We’re not just casting one play; we’re casting four. But we have more time. We start generals in October or November with callbacks in December, so we get some casting done before Christmas. Once I submit the talent pool, then my job is to facilitate. With theatre stuff, I get a lot more input.”
Given the collaborative nature of theatre, it makes sense to have more input from more smart and proficient artists. But casting Shakespeare and the classics is one issue. Most living playwrights likely have the same question: “What about new works?”
“I cast the Denver Center’s New Play Summit for a couple seasons,” Sylvia said. “Maybe it’s changed, but when I was doing it, we had fewer independent contracts so we tried to cast within the company. If someone was in a mainstage play, we tried to cast them for the summit…we were trying to cast five play readings with actors who were already here.”
At the New Play Summit, it was also the case (as it often is everywhere) that some of the playwrights knew certain actors for whom they would advocate. And, of course, playwrights always will and should write parts for actors they know. Even if the opportunity to cast certain favorite actors doesn’t materialize, it’s good to set the stage for potential familial collaboration.
“Guidance from playwrights is very helpful and always welcome. They’ve made their creation and put it out into the world. That process is about finding a cast that can assist the playwright. It’s not about the actors; it’s about the playwrights’ needs…Playwrights have better ideas of what they want for their roles than we do.”
Those are always refreshing words for us playwrights to hear. And more good news from the casting world is that we are moving towards greater diversity.
“People are trying now to be more inclusive than they were even five years ago. And that’s across the board: theatre companies and on camera…it’s much more open than when I started. Any theatre company that you can name is trying to do more inclusive casting. It’s time for that to happen.”
Because this is an article for the Colorado region, I wanted to close with how we might differ here from other areas. When Sylvia first started casting in Colorado, production companies would often tell her that they wanted to shoot in Colorado but weren’t sure about the talent pool. But she is hearing much less of that lately.
“Actors have moved here for quality of life,” Sylvia said. “I like that people are really willing to learn and study. I think that is always important. Even if you’re established with 40 years under your belt, when you stop being willing to learn, you’re done. A lot of actors are taking classes and auditioning repeatedly just to get the experience. That shows me that actors here are really willing to grow.”