Ask Playbill.com is a weekly Playbill.com column that answers questions about theatre, generated by readers and Playbill.com staff, every Thursday. To ask a question, email AskPlaybill@Playbill.com. Please specify how you would like your name displayed and please include the city in which you live.
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This week's question comes from Yosi Merves of Boston, MA.
Question: I was wondering, how does one become a casting director? Answer: To find the answer, Playbill.com spoke with Daniel Swee and Jay Binder.
Swee has been the casting director at Lincoln Center Theater since 1991, and has also freelanced for a host of plays and films, including Frost/Nixon and "The Hours." Binder, whose agency has been casting such Broadway shows as The Lion King and the current Grease revival since the 1980s, also cast the film of "Chicago" (dance casting) and performed in-house casting duties for Warner Brothers Television for seven years.
Interview with Daniel Swee:
"My initial interest in theatre when I was a kid was acting," Swee says. "I realized pretty early on that I had neither the talent nor the drive to be a professional actor, but I think that my interest in it very much translated into my interest in casting."
Swee's first job in the theatre was as a general intern for a small company called the Hudson Guild Theatre. After eight months, when the managing director left, Swee was the only one who knew how the books were kept and was hired to take care of them.
"While I was good at that, it wasn't what I was most interested in in theatre," Swee says. "I started seeing all of the other elements of what was involved in producing plays."
The theatre's producing director allowed Swee to start assisting in the literary and casting departments. He started scheduling and watching auditions and constantly going to shows in the evenings.
"The fact that I was doing a lot of script reading was helpful," he says. "Particularly in casting for the theatre, the literature determines a lot of the acting needs of the play. It certainly informs the casting of the play. And I started learning that from the directors I was working with, and basically little by little I found that I had a good eye for it and a good ear for it, and sense for it, and kind of started taking over the casting."
"I liked the creative aspect of it," he says. "I liked being able to make the leap into the words and trying to imagine who you can imagine speaking those words and inhabiting them, and I really liked the relationships you established with directors and writers as a casting director, because it's an opportunity to be involved on a creative level very early on in the creative process of a play."
Swee was eventually hired by the casting department of Theatre Communications Group, which at the time did casting for regional theatres. He spent two years there before getting hired as casting director at Playwrights Horizons. He worked there for five years, until Andre Bishop, the artistic director, moved to Lincoln Center Theater and took Swee with him.
What advice would he give to aspiring casting directors? "Certainly spend as much time as you can going to the theatre, going to films, watching television," he says. "The hardest part is getting a foot in the door and getting a first job. I think the easiest way to do it is to intern, but I think it's a financial impossibility to do that for some people at this point, given how expensive it is to live in the city." After interning, he says, you would "then get hired as an assistant, then as an associate, then as a casting director. You kind of need to work in an office and see other people doing it."
"That said, there are 900 ways to do it," he adds. "I can think of people who work for me, who I've hired as assistants over the years who…just had experiences in other aspects of the theatre, either as directors or stage managers or actors. It depends on what the requirements are for the person hiring you."
Swee says the easiest profession from which to transition into casting is probably directing. "Directors are already thinking about the relationship between the script and an actor," he says. "They're thinking about how to fulfill the needs of a role."
"I think it's only recently that people have started coming out of college saying they want to get into casting," Swee says. "Other people just found it or fell into it." There are more aspiring casting directors "because it's a better-known profession now…There are more casting directors than there used to be."
Still, there is no graduate school for casting, he notes: "I think it's really something you have to learn on the job. I don't think it's something you could go to school for."
Interview with Jay Binder:
Binder started out working as a director in many theatres across the country during the 1970s, especially comedy plays in dinner theatres.
"I was not making enough money to support myself, frankly," he says. One day in 1980, a general manager he knew called him up and told him to go help out the Broadway production of Edward Albee's adaptation of "Lolita." "The first thing [Albee] told me is, 'There's a one-armed actor in my play. Can you find me a one-armed actor?' And I said, 'Left arm or right arm?' and I got the job."
In 1983 Binder plunked down $2,000 to rent out a one-room office in a run-down television studio on 54th Street to officially start his casting agency. For a few years, he mainly cast for regional theatres, such as the Huntington in Boston and the Old Globe in San Diego. "What I learned was [the existence of] a huge acting pool very much the way Daniel did working for TCG," Binder says. In 1988 he got calls to cast the Broadway shows Rumors and Jerome Robbins' Broadway, and his career took off from there.
Like Swee, Binder says that many casting directors come from other areas. One of his associates comes from a dance training background, another from acting, and another from a vocal training background.
Binder was a drama major and musical theatre minor at Boston Conservatory, and recommends that aspiring casting directors get some training in theatre during college or graduate school. Having had his training, he says, "and having had a lot of directing experience, one comes with a knowledge of what good acting is and how to interpret a play and how to interpret what a director wants, because very often a director doesn't sit down and explain to you what he wants, and that's not for lack of them doing their job, that's part of a process."
"In college, one summer, I chose to stay and go to the dance department for three months, so I came to [casting] with a knowledge of what dance technique is," he adds. "You're not at the level of a choreographer, but I know what good dance technique is and what it isn't."
Binder agrees with Swee in saying that aspiring casting directors tend to start out in internships and work their way up. Recently, however, he's started hiring associates who come from other areas.
Of the casting profession, Binder says, "There's no glamour in it I can tell you right now. It's a job, but it's an interesting job." He says it's important to note that "it is a service job. We are here to serve the director, the playwright, the producer."
"It is not our job to make the final decision, but what is our job is to focus the process for the director and the producer, so that they have in front of them a focused pool from which to choose from," he says, "and then to be able to guide them, sometimes, depending on the relationship you have with a director."
He adds, "What I enjoy most about it is being part of a creative family that is doing one thing, and that one thing is everybody working toward what happens when the curtain goes up on opening night."