Pursued By A Bear: “How do I tell actors I’m recasting the roles they developed?”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.

“My questions are: what kind of involvement in casting is appropriate from a playwright, and how much input should a playwright expect over casting, especially when working with major theatres? And how do I gently tell actors that I’m taking a play they’ve helped create on without them, or that I’m going to re-cast their roles, especially if they’re the only role being re-cast?

I’d prefer to be anonymous, if that’s okay.”

As a playwright it’s normal to feel some sense of loyalty to the actors and directors you’ve worked with. We often cross paths with fantastic people who put in maximum effort learning lines and attending rehearsals for little more than their expenses and a bottle of wine. This is the reality of working in theatre for many people as they first start out, and it’s difficult not to like people who work their arses off to make your play great.

When you start to get a bit of success the situation inevitably changes; you’re presented with more opportunities and (if you’re any kind of decent human being) you feel the urge to help those who helped you on the way there.

If you’ve had a play on at a fringe venue, or even just a reading, which has taken off and propelled you to that coveted next level, are you obliged to bring along the actors and director who made that success happen?

A lot of us feel we should at least try. These people have worked very hard for us with little reward. Their skills are part of the package we presented to the theatre that picked up the play. And often, in our minds, they have become the physical representation of the characters we dreamt up (even if we originally imagined them very differently). Although I read a couple of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels and had the image of the title character as a towering giant in my head, after seeing the film I now can’t imagine anyone other than Tom Cruise in the role (even though he’s clearly nothing like the physical description of Reacher in the novels).

Because of the highly collaborative nature of working in theatre, plays have a tendency to develop into mini communities. Bonds have been formed over your script and it’s very difficult to divorce the people from the words.

As usual reality has other ideas.

The larger theatre that has picked up the play likely has their own director they want to use. This director has a relationship with someone at this theatre, probably in a similar way you have a relationship with your actors. It’s easy to resent the fact you don’t get to choose your own director, but again, bonds have been formed.

This director who works with this theatre also has his/her own group of actors. They’ve worked together on previous plays or they trained together or whatever.

The first important thing you have to understand working in a collaborative industry like theatre is that everyone has people they want to bring up with them.  We all have people we’ve loved working with, people whose talent we greatly admire or people we owe a debt to for one reason or another.

Essentially, it’s natural for us to want to help our friends.

From this point on I guess (cynically speaking) it becomes a bit of a power struggle. Whoever has more control over the production ultimately gets to pick. The person in control tends to be the person with the more established career. If you’re a playwright who’s just starting out you will most likely lose this battle (if you choose to fight it) with a seasoned director who maybe has a long-standing relationship with the theatre or company.

Again, that director has hopefully worked very hard to get to that position and perhaps earned that privilege. You may not feel that way, and it’s certainly not always the case, but I try to be objective about these things. Later in your career, you may well find the ball’s in your court and you get to pick and choose whichever actors you want for your plays, overruling the choices of your up-and-coming director.

That doesn’t mean to say you should.

Actors you’ve worked with may be incredibly talented, awesome and lovely people but that doesn’t mean they’re the right actor for every role in every production. And remember, just because you don’t know the actors your director wants to cast doesn’t mean they’re not every bit as brilliant as your chums.

Don’t be like Tim Burton and try to cast Johnny Depp in everything you make. Maybe the two of you are bestest buds in the whole wide world, but for everyone else that shit wears itself out.

Of course, I will say if you absolutely, positively feel your mate Tristan is just perfect for a certain role in your new play you should try to make that happen. Unfortunately sometimes all you can do is get Tristan an audition, but if you’re right and he truly is the physical and spiritual embodiment of the character, your director will hopefully see that.

Now comes the awkward part.

If you’re unable to have any say whatsoever in the casting process, how do you let your actors and director down gently?

It feels like an awful thing to have to do. However, most actors will recognise it’s beyond your control. A lot of them will understand how these things work already, and if they don’t it’s a lesson they’ll have to learn at some point. The fact you’ve got this playing on your mind tells me you’re trying hard not to be a dick about it. At this moment in time a polite heads-up is technically all you owe them.

They’ve enjoyed working on your play, it’s given them a bit of exposure and they’ve made some new contacts.

It won’t feel pleasant for you or them, but if they’re really good people they’ll be happy for you. And beyond that they’ll understand (or come to learn) it’s not always possible to cast ideally for unpaid readings and development work. It’s very common to settle for someone, however talented they might be, who just isn’t right for the role. In these cases it’s only natural to recast when a professional production opportunity comes along.

Hold your horses though, although it may feel like it at this particular minute, all is not lost. I’m sure you don’t intend to stop writing plays after this run of early success. As I mentioned above there may come a day you have more influence over the casting process. In anticipation of that hallowed time you need to keep in contact with any actors and directors you feel are great at what they do.

Build yourself a network. Invite your people to things you do. Involve them in rehearsed readings of your new work. Meet up with them for a drink or cup of tea or whatever you want to do every so often. Befriend them on the social media and follow their antics. Go and see other readings or plays they’re involved in and hang around after for a catch-up. Recommend them to your other writer friends when they’re looking for actors.

It’s always worth keeping in touch with talented people. You might be able to give them a role in future. They might recommend you for something you otherwise would never have known about. If you ever do end up going down the self-production route you will need a pool of actors to cast from and an extremely reliable director whose judgement you trust implicitly.

The best thing about keeping a good network is that you’ll all be more invested in each other’s work. When you do end up working professionally together you’ll have a great relationship which will inevitably carry over into the rehearsal room. You’ll know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, you’ll be able to create something far stronger together.

The industry as a whole isn’t loyal, but you can be.

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Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via CC license

4 thoughts on “Pursued By A Bear: “How do I tell actors I’m recasting the roles they developed?””

  1. Bill Rosenfield

    I had this happen recently with a two character play of mine, one actor ( the older one) was generous and lovely and had a complete understanding of the situation and when he came in to re-audition came very close to getting the job. The other (younger) one was understandably angry, but also unsympathetic and when he came in to re-audition was rather snarky about it. Needless to say he left a bad impression on our new director. Later I reached out to him but he didn’t respond. The older actor though said something to me which made a lot of sense: “There are 40,000 actors in the greater London area and you have only one play. Your obligation is to your play and not to one of the 40,000. As actors we have many more options for work than you do as a playwright – we can act anywhere in anything. You have to sit in a room and start from scratch each time. When the opportunity for your play comes along, your play MUST be your priority.

    1. Totally agree! Really good commentary here on the awkwardness and difficulty playwrights face in these situations.

      As actors we have many more options for work than you do as a playwright – we can act anywhere in anything. You have to sit in a room and start from scratch each time. When the opportunity for your play comes along, your play MUST be your priority.

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