Meet the Broadway for Racial Justice Casting Directive Cohorts
In March, the first cohort from Broadway for Racial Justice’s Casting Directive graduated. The nine-week program was created to help BIPOC theatre professionals gain experience in the casting industry and provide enough experience so that trainees could begin work as entry level casting assistants.
The BFRJ Casting Directive was led by Rachael Jimenez, Sujotta Pace, Danica Rodriguez, Xavier Rubiano, Gama Valle, and Victor Vazquez.
Get to know the 11 graduates below—and read on to find out some unique truths about the industry and why young professionals should consider a career in this corner of the theatre world.
Meet the Broadway for Racial Justice Casting Directive Cohorts
What do people not know about the casting industry?
Malkia Stampley: I believe most people do not realize how much the casting profession has an impact on our lives. Stereotypes, expanding the ideas of what a president looks like (a Black president was played on the hit television show 24 just a few years before Obama rose to stardom), who is beautiful, who is not, who is smart, who is not. From fashion models, commercials, voices on the radio and movies to Barney or Sesame Street, casting professionals influence how we see the world, what it is, and what it can be. That power is heavy and can be used to change the status quo or keep us stuck in tradition and only viewing the world through the lens of a few individuals who do not look like the majority of the world population.
Eric Quang Gelb: A common misconception about working in casting is that it is “identifying performers you think would be a good fit for a show in audition rooms” and “providing input.” In actuality, when casting is doing their job right, they set a precedent for the entire production process. Casting is typically involved in every person in the production’s very first day. For the creative team, they set the tone for that exciting, goosebump-inducing first day of auditions by bringing in a great set of performers and making sure the space is ready. Or the final callback sessions, which is the “egg hatching” moment for the performers who ultimately get cast, as it is their first time speaking the words and singing the lyrics to a role that may later change the course of their career completely. Those moments are special and precious. So, by being present in these rooms during these times—when we lead with grace, when we lead with intentionality in every single word we use in our character breakdowns and emails—we have the opportunity to turn a process that many see as tiresome or terrifying into rewarding and extremely special. Even in those moments where we see a performer slip up in their inevitable mistakes after they crunched time to memorize five pages of material that has never been performed on any stage before besides this audition process.
Afsheen Daniel Misaghi: What I have learned during the casting directive that I did not know before is how critical communication and collaboration is in the casting profession. Casting professionals have to be at the top of their games, both creatively and administratively. Additionally, they have a massive influence on who the performers are that get seen across the globe. Whether it be a 15-second commercial, a Broadway musical, or an international blockbuster hit, they have an impact on who is being seen and how they are being represented.
Dena Igusti: Equity in the arts doesn’t start and stop at surface-level representation of marginalized people on screen and stage. For years, and unfortunately even still, the casting industry has been predominantly white and cisheteronormative, hence why there's still poor casting choices that lack the intricacies of marginalized communities. Artists and actors that are not taken care of in the audition room and beyond create a toxic power dynamic between actors and casting professionals. Just because there are slightly more roles for queer and trans BIPOC, doesn’t mean they are actually being taken care of when they are not in the limelight. But as the casting industry becomes more inclusive, these practices are starting to change, with care, respect, and understanding for artists becoming the main focal point.
Natalia Borja: It’s more than just putting people together and finding something aesthetically pleasing. It’s about finding those who can tell the story and honoring how that story should be told. It’s about stepping out of your comfort zone and being willing to take time to find the people that could potentially add to the project.
Regina Strayhorn: I don’t know if people realize exactly how old school the casting industry is. It’s built on apprenticeships and mentors passing on philosophies and work styles. You can’t really go to school to learn how to be a casting director, someone has to believe in you, and take you under their wing. There’s a very clear hierarchy. You grow from being an assistant to an associate to a director. There is, of course, a dark side to this, because people can perpetually only choose mentees that remind them of a younger version of themselves, resulting in an inequitable echo chamber. On the flip side, there’s ample opportunity for casting professionals in power to make big moves and hire people they truly believe in, regardless of how much direct casting experience they have. The industry is, at its core, about seeing potential. It’s my hope that more casting offices will extend their love of giving opportunities to not just actors in front of the table, but more BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ folks behind the table as well.
Josca Moore: I think many people don’t realize how small the casting industry is. Because of an archaic apprenticeship format (which so many professionals are working diligently to change), securing a job in casting is by no means simple.
Peter William Dunn: People have a feeling about how white-washed the entertainment industry is, but I’m not sure they know JUST how white-washed. It’s a cycle. Casting directors seem to tend to hire what they know and honestly, what they look like, even in their own offices. That cycle then trickles down into casting decisions, or ideals as to what is “normal” or “castable.” That’s why it’s so important for us to put in the work of breaking down some walls of inclusivity and making sure that casting offices put their words of the past year into action. We need BIPOC faces behind the table in various roles in this industry, and we need to make sure accountability is put in order. There is literally no valid reason that major casting offices in NYC's teams are entirely white. It’s jarring, and it’s tired.
Jorge Acevedo: I think something that people don’t realize about working in casting is that it is such a multi-faceted industry. It is both a creative and artistic outlet, but also requires strong administrative skills and assets. Casting professionals have the unique perspective of oftentimes being the liaisons between creative teams and actors. It is the job of the casting director to find talented individuals that fit what creative teams are looking for, but also to push these creatives to think outside the box and be open to new possibilities when going through the casting process. Casting professionals should also serve as advocates for actors.
Allyana Abonador: I think a big part of why authentic and identity-conscious representation in casting has not been more prevalent is because of the severe lack of BIPOC casting professionals. There are significantly more white casting directors (most of which are white women) so I believe that the urgency to cast more BIPOC actors has not been of the utmost priority. Additionally, throughout this training experience and my mentorship with the CSA BIPOC Alliance, I’ve learned that casting professionals need to be very adept at the administrative aspect of casting. Casting directors are not just people who cast actors—they are leaders, business-people, producers; great with technology; excellent communicators (just to name a few); and they are artists. Also, I’m not sure where this myth that casting directors have more stability came from, but I’ve learned that casting professionals live very similar lifestyles to that of an actor. If you aren’t tied to a network or an institution, casting professionals are always looking for the next project or gig. Furthermore, because of all the work that casting directors do, I think it's so important that casting professionals are compensated and recognized justly for the work they do.
Christopher Thomas Washington: Before participating in the Broadway for Racial Justice’s Casting Directive cohort, I was truly unaware of how immense of a challenge it is to cast a show. There are so many talented actors in this city (a lot of them represented by passionate agents and managers) and a casting director is charged with communicating and scheduling dozens of auditions each week. Therefore, a casting director must not only possess the creative acumen to correctly cast a show, they also require phenomenal organizational skills.
Why should young professionals and theatre students consider working in casting?
Eric Quang Gelb: I don’t think that young professionals and theatre students consider a career in casting because it feels so unattainable. I get it. It’s not the most accessible career route. However, I think that young people who do feel that they have the gall and the gas in their tank to fight the good fight, should. There is a TON of work to be done. Given the racial reckoning our country is going through, and the immense amount of recalibrating each casting office is going through... I finally think it is our time. The impact that the choices that casting makes are some of the biggest ones in our industry. When we talk about “representation mattering,” we need to be there to advocate for what is acceptable (and what is not) in 2021. We need to be there to make sure we are being thoughtful and kind in something as sensitive as casting, where for so long body type, hair type, and skin shade has come into unnecessary play. It’s our time, y’all.
Malkia Stampley: I believe anyone from the theatre community, of any age, should consider working in casting to deepen their knowledge on how theatre works. That will help inform how to approach their passion and hopefully introduce a new one in casting. Casting has a natural hierarchy built in so the potential longevity and growth opportunity is endless. Also, the diversity of opportunities! You like dogs? Cast dogs. You lean towards voiceovers (radio or animation)? There’s room. There is also such a big administrative arm to casting that also makes it such a well rounded career, using your creative, analytical, time management, and problem-solving skills. What BFRJ has done to prepare young and transitioning theatremakers for the casting profession is invaluable and will help change what casting looks like. It’s very exciting!
Dena Igusti: In order to cultivate a healthy environment in the arts, more young people need to be a part of the casting industry to bring new ideas and remove harmful casting practices and expectations for artists. In addition to their current art practices, young people should consider the art of casting, the research that goes into portraying roles as accurately as possible, and the dedication to bringing new narratives to life.
Afsheen Daniel Misaghi: Young professionals and theatre students should consider working in casting because there needs to be fresh and diverse voices making decisions and lifting up other voices that deserve to be heard.
Natalia Borja: I’m just starting, but I absolutely am excited for this part of my career. I love the audition room and the adrenaline that comes with it, as many of you do. It’s incredibly rewarding to help others get a foot in the door.
Regina Strayhorn: Remember the scene in The Devil Wears Prada where Andy scoffs at Miranda Priestly’s belabored decision over what belt to feature? She’s quickly reprimanded by Miranda and reminded that the decisions they make in that room reverberate and have massive effects over the future of the fashion industry. It’s a massive waterfall effect that touches everyone. Casting has the same effect. You will be touched by the decisions made in casting one way or another, so why not consider being in the room where those choices are made? Why not consider being the one that makes them?
Josca Moore: Many casting professionals are older and have been in the business for decades, but I believe younger people would have such an advantage working in the highly energetic and rewarding environment of casting. Easy access to television and film has raised recent generations, and theatre students, in particular, often have specific value when it comes to knowledge of up and coming talent.
Peter William Dunn: I believe we all need to be active in creating the change we want to see in this world. If you find yourself as someone who loves helping others thrive, if you find yourself not seeing a stage or screen looking like the world that you live in, step up and be a part of that change. I promise you: you will find like minded people who believe in your passion and that very necessary shift in the entertainment industry. The whole idea of casting is working on the sovereignty of fixing those problems at the root, but the department needs the voices and souls like us that are going to put in the work. It may be far from easy, but the possibility of success and change is endless, and outweigh the hard days. Representation and advocacy are simply priceless when you think about how effective they can be in the future of this world. You will feel so inspired and full to have played even a small part in that change.
Jorge Acevedo: Working in casting is extremely fulfilling. One of the many joys of working in this field is connecting with the actors and building meaningful professional relationships with them. It’s always so great to see these actors grow and evolve as performers over time. Working in casting is a collaborative process. There is a big sense of community in the work that we do, which is unlike many other aspects of the industry. It also provides opportunities to be connected to the art both through the projects you are working on and through the great exposure to theatre that you get because of it. I strongly encourage young professionals to consider a career in casting.
Allyana Abonador: Younger voices are so important! Casting is a very direct way to create transformative change in the industry, and I think young people can sense how urgent and important it is to cast more BIPOC actors. The demographic of casting directors in the CSA are older women, so having younger voices who understand an entirely different world will be very beneficial! I also think that casting is a great option if you want to learn about producing and the development of projects.
Christopher Thomas Washington: If you have a passion for not only the theatre but also for all of the amazing people involved in this industry, then casting might be for you. A casting director has the opportunity to work intimately and build relationships with hundreds of actors while also collaborating on exciting productions with stellar creative teams.