Booking It! Casting Directors Duncan Stewart and Benton Whitley Talk Headshots, Audition Room Energy, Actor-Musicians and Social Media

Originally posted on Playbill.com on November 7th, 2014 as part of their BOOKING IT series. 

Screen Shot 2016-11-29 at 2.44.08 PM.png

Playbill.com's new feature series Booking It asks leading industry members to share professional insights, need-to-know tips and essential tricks of the trade for up-and-coming and established theatre artists. This week we speak with casting directors Duncan Stewart and Benton Whitley, who are represented on Broadway with PippinOn the Town and Chicago.

Stewart and Whitley are the owners and lead casting directors at Stewart/Whitley, which they founded together in May 2011. Among the shows on their roster is the critically acclaimed Broadway revival of On the Town, as well as the Tony Award-winning revivals of Pippin and Chicago (now in its 18th year on Broadway).

They also cast the celebrated Off-Broadway production of Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, the Tony-winning 2008 Broadway revival of La Cage aux Folles in addition to The Radio City Christmas Spectacular, the North American tours of We Will Rock You, Flashdance and Anything Goes.

Projects also include The Band Wagon at City Center Encores!, the new Maltby/Shire musical Waterfall at Pasadena Playhouse/Seattle 5th Avenue Theatre and the new musical in development August Rush directed by John Doyle.

Stewart and Whitley also regularly conduct seminars and intensives for universities, colleges and various acting studios, which focus on auditioning, finding representation, scene study and more. Visit stewartwhitley.com for more information.

Below, Stewart and Whitley speak candidly about what they're looking for in the audition room, the process they go through when casting long-running shows, how to nail a successful callback and the ellusive "it factor" that can make you stand-out.

*

Talk about presenting yourself and dressing for an audition. How much is too dressed? What is underdressed?
DS: I think it's important for an actor to consider three factors when thinking of what is/is not appropriate "dress" for an audition. 1) Aside from being an actor, you're also a business person (you are selling yourself and your art in the room) and a business person dresses accordingly: smart, professional, clean, etc. In a way, an audition is no different than a job interview. 2) As an actor, it is vital that you consider the "world" of the play/musical you are auditioning for. One should come into a Chicago audition dressed very differently than coming in for another show such as Maltby & Shire's upcoming Broadway musical, WaterfallChicago is a sexy, slick and sophisticated show. Actors need to be able to show off their bodies and give off both a physicality and sensuality through what they are (or are not) wearing.

Waterfall takes place at the beginning of the last century in Asia. Actors coming in to audition for this show, should consider the period, country, etc. Jeans and a t-shirt would not be appropriate. I should mention that we are not looking for costumes here, but rather an appropriate "outfit" that gives a hint or semblance of character and world of the play. Unless asked otherwise (in La Cage aux Folles, we asked the men to bring in full drag outfits should they be kept to do the final "catwalk" round), keep it simple. 3) Benton and I believe fully that an actor should always maintain a sense of authenticity when dressing for an audition. Let what you wear reflect… you. I should add, and it's a sad fact I guess, but sometimes the men can come into the room looking like they've just pulled themselves out of bed and "book the job," whereas, you know, the ladies have spent hours in front of the mirror in preparation, doing hair, make-up, etc. It's not fair I know, but there you go.

BW: No doubt we all know this, but you need to look good – real good! You need to wear what makes you and your body type look good and feel like a million bucks. If you look great in heels, wear them; if they make you look like you're walking around with cinderblocks on your feet, don't. It's important for your clothes to be clean and crisp. Only wear character shoes in dance calls – wearing them in non-dance auditions makes you look like a dancer or actor, and not a person. You should hint at the world of the show, but no need to wear a costume.

What are you taking note of when an actor enters the room? How important are first impressions?
DS: First impressions are (almost) everything! In those first few moments when an actor enters the room, I am looking for confidence. Note that I did not say cocky or arrogant: Yhis has an opposite effect. I love actors who own the room and give off the sense that it is their "playground." Make strong decisions (I always say to actors "be right, be wrong – just don't be 'vanilla'!") and don't second-guess yourself. Present your authentic self and art as well as understand that there is an alchemy that exists in the room between you and the audition panel. Develop the ability (and granted, this takes time) to read the room and pay attention to the vibe of a panel. Picking up on the spirit of the room will help guide you through your audition from beginning to end. When an actor walks into the room, I pick up on everything: attire, confidence level, professionalism, business savvy, and efficiency of working with the accompanist/reader, etc. Make sure you're on top of your game for the energy that radiates from that place is both attractive and remarkable. I remember reading this quote from the author of "The Buying Brain" where he talks about novelty and what stands out – "Novelty recognition is a hard-wired survival tool all humans share. Our brains are trained to look for something brilliant and new, something that stands out, something that looks delicious." We want this to walk into the room.

Can you talk about the "it factor." What is the "it factor"?
DS: Ah – the elusive "it factor." The question is something I think we all ponder on. Does someone have to be born with "it" or can "it" be cultivated, grown and developed? Can an actor have the "it" factor in one audition and then not have "it" in the next? If I had to articulate it now, I would say that the "it" factor is an attractive blend of talent, mastery, execution, intuition, unique/surprising choices and (here's that word again) confidence in oneself. In the audition room, we often note when people come in with this type of energy saying he or she "has it," is "a star," or "a standout." I believe that the "it factor" is a gift, but a gift that can indeed be fostered and nurtured over time. There are many times when we see younger actors who may be a little green or new to the business and yet have that certain something which nobody can deny. We are constantly on the lookout for such diamonds-in-the-rough, and it's exciting when we find them.

BW: Confidence. For me, it's all about confidence. A definition and benchmark I've been using for a few years now is the definition of the word talent, which is "executing skills with confidence." We go see a Broadway show, the lights go down, the curtain goes up, and the number begins. We sit there in our seats and think, "Oh, I don't like that person's voice," or "I don't like the way that person dances," or "That person is a star." That's called taste - we all have it, but what's not disputable is the level of confidence onstage. It's quite high! That's Broadway. That's heightened reality. That's entertainment. We think it's important to come in and deliver the same consistent, confident, prepared person every time you enter the room. It's probably safe to assume you're not right for everything, but you're also right for a ton. If you can trust that every time you come into a room, and prepare properly, you'll ultimately book jobs.

Let's talk about rep books. What kind of variety or specifics are you looking for that actors should have prepared in order to show range?
BW: When starting out in this business, I think it's important to have a song or two for every style of show out there. It's also important to sing material that makes sense for who you currently are. The carpet should match the curtains. When you open your mouth and sing/speak, it's incredibly important for the words and subject matter to make sense for who's saying them. Song choice is so important. Make sure the song you sing in an audition makes sense for what you're auditioning for. Be a smart actor and investigate! If we say don't sing pop, don't sing pop!

Can you talk about headshots and résumés? What are some dos and don'ts you have seen in the audition room? Can you give actors some pointers on the best way to present themselves?
BW: Headshots are not glamour shots. They should look like you; the way you are and will be when you actually walk in the room. They should make you look like an interesting person and not a hot model. Save the vanity shots for Facebook!

DS: Plain and simple, headshots need to look like you. It's frustrating when we've put out an appointment to an actor (based upon their headshot and résumé) for a specific role, only to find that on the audition day, someone "else" walks into the room. Make sure that what you're selling is, indeed, what walks into the room on audition day. Regarding résumés: Don't over-play them. No need for hundreds of extraneous credits or names (unless you've worked with the best) and no need to attach highlighted reviews (as many young actors do). Less is more here. It's okay to be an actor new to the business or just out of college – we understand this – so no need to apologize for all the white space by adding unnecessary details. Finally, a note on special skills. I'm personally not a fan of the silly (Tarzan Yell and Wiggle Right Eyebrow) and if you put down that you play a musical instrument, make sure you are very proficient at it. For example, one year of tuba doesn't cut it for me.

What are some common mistakes actors make at their initial auditions - or things they should keep in mind to have a successful audition?
DS: Common mistakes at initial auditions: Not being prepared enough (a.k.a. deciding to be in-the-moment and winging it); being too prepared (it's a turn-off when you can see the actor "working" at the sides/scene too hard, or when you see a certain technique in play such as Meisner, The Method, etc. – this can cause an actor to lose a sense of him/herself); worrying more about the memorization of your sides, as opposed to coming in with interesting choices; second-guessing what the panel wants to see as opposed to taking a risk and coming in with ideas of your own; not understanding that the monitor in the hallway and accompanist are on your side (they, too, want you to do your best work in the room!) and that it behooves you to treat them well and with respect; and finally, arriving to the audition with a sense of urgency or desperation ("Oh God, I need this job!"). You must walk in and out of the room, head held high… as a winner, regardless of the outcome.

BW: Preparation. That's the most important part of auditioning. Of course, prepare the material – that's a no-brainer, but also prepare other aspects. For example, take care of yourself and be in good health; know the show and its style; know the creative team, their body of work, and thus potential taste; be nice and professional. Make us think when you leave the room we want to sit in a rehearsal room with you for weeks-on-end creating art. 

Following a successful initial audition, what are some common mistakes you see actors make during a callback?
DS: You were given a callback based upon what you did and what you brought into the room for the initial round. Trust that what got you the callback is enough! I have seen many young actors ruin all that was delicate and perfect in the initial round by coming back and trying to "nail it" with extraneous choices, additions, new insights/revelations about the scene or song, the costumes, etc. When this happens, the callback lacks a certain levity, lightness and spontaneity of the initial round. Sure, go over your sides from round one and flesh things out a bit, but no need to re-invent the wheel. Again, what you presented initially is what got you back into the room.

How beneficial is it to have your sides memorized for a callback?
BW: Very. We more often than not notice that the most successful auditions are the ones where actors have sides memorized. It allows their eyes to be off the page and looking at their scene partner. We do, however, encourage you to hold your sides in your hand at callbacks, as this gives you that extra security blanket when your nerves are high, and it also gives the visual illusion to all in the room that your read is not a finished performance, but rather a work-in-progress in which a director can easily dive in to and give direction.

DS: For film/TV, it's imperative to have the sides memorized for the callback, but for theatre this is less true. It's a delicate balance for me, as I want the actor to be able to be thoroughly familiar with the sides (and be able to lift the character off the page) but, at the same time, if I see memorization as the priority (as opposed to the actor coming in with wonderfully nuanced and surprising choices), then I am left cold and uninspired. This being said, an actor's eyes cannot be fully focused on the page either, or they are unable to connect to the reader or the person they are speaking to in their sides. On a final note, if this is your final callback for the lead role (the callback package for Leading Player in Pippinwas 38 pages long!) and you have been in multiple times before, then yes, please have everything solid and memorized for the team.

Do you put more weight on actors who have appointments through representation or have high-profile managers?
DS: Not really. I am looking for the best actor for each role. If a person doesn't have representation but has the talent and look necessary for the role, I bring them in – period.

BW: Talent is talent. Some of the most high-profile agencies could represent people that I don't respond to, and vice versa. What's important is that you, as the actor, believe in the agent/manager that's working for you and that they, too, believe in you. On a regular basis, we hold open calls for our projects, take pride and look forward to discovering unrepresented talent. From these sessions, we love sharing these discoveries with creative teams.

spang.jpg

You two cast the long-running show Chicago The Musical. What do you look for in actors coming in for a long-running show? Someone to fit the mold? Fresh, raw talent? What advice can you give an actor going in for Chicago?
BW: I think one of the most important thoughts going on in our heads when in the audition room for Chicago, 18 years in, is upholding the original integrity of the 1996 show that Walter Bobbie and Ann Reinking crafted so brilliantly. So, I do think it's important for all folks coming in to know the piece, which is pretty easy to do these days with the internet! But at the same time, it's important to remember that these characters were created and based on the original people who played them, so we want actors to bring themselves to the role, while still inhabiting the original structure of what was created and put in ink, within the script, score and direction.

DS: When casting Chicago, I don't think we ever go for the "fit the mold" routine – as this suggests a cookie-cutter approach. Sure, there are certain "types" that we may look for in a Billy Flynn, Amos, Cellblock girl, etc., but the emphasis is (and has always been) on finding unique actors, singers, and dancers that bring a strong POV to the table. With almost no set or costumes (save for a few bras, panties and fedoras) everything rests upon our cast to deliver the story. We need bold, arresting, fierce and precise actors up there. Aside from our aim of having every look, style and ethnicity represented on that stage, we search for actors who can still, after 18 years in, catch us by surprise with fresh ideas and original choices that bring these fantastic roles to life while still serving and maintaining the integrity and tradition of the production. Over the years, we've put in many wonderful actors that manage to find some new way to deliver a line or turn-of-phrase that catches us off-guard. Christopher Fitzgerald, currently starring as Billy Flynn (and before that, Amos Hart) is one such example. Quite frankly, his Billy is a revelation: a wise-cracking, mercurial Jimmy Cagney-type who balances perfectly the charm, charisma and danger in the role – it's just wonderful.

You two cast the dance-heavy show On the Town this season. What is important to know for actors coming in who may not be the strongest dancers?
BW: Casting the dancing ensemble for Josh Bergasse's choreography in On the Town was a beast. His style comes from a very heavy ballet background while still feeling very fresh and current, so if you haven't already, jump into a ballet class ASAP! What's important for almost all dance auditions is paying attention to the details and ultimately being able to deliver the steps you are given as a person/character and not like a machine. Step outside the mirror and get out of your head; research the style; and have a personal point of view while still keeping intact the choreographed steps.

DS: Here's the deal about dance-heavy shows like On the Town, Chicago, Pippin, etc. The choreography for these shows is both specific and demanding. As Benton mentioned, Josh Bergasse brings a lot of classical technique to his choreography (utilized in all the numbers and not just the ballet sequences), so when casting this show we couldn't afford to bring in anyone that wasn't an A+ dancer. "Movers" just wouldn't/couldn't have cut Josh's choreography. With Pippin and Chicago, it's obviously all about the Fosse style. We've brought in many wonderful dancers over the years that are truly superb, but many simply cannot execute (with specificity and precision) the Fosse choreography. A lot of people think Fosse is easy; it's not. With the aforementioned examples, you either have the required technique or you don't; you either have the "style" or you don't. While I do believe that actors (who are not the strongest dancers) should get out there and take dance classes (one should always be working on all areas of one's art), I don't subscribe to the practice of such actors quickly rushing into a ballet, Fosse, tap etc. class at the last minute with the hope that they can walk into an audition that demands a certain level of craft and book the job. That's unrealistic.

What are some challenges that actors face now that are new to the industry as it evolves?
DS: Social media presents an interesting conundrum for actors. On one hand, having an online presence is relatively easy now with websites, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter etc., but managing such online presence can be tricky. Make sure that what you put out there shows you off in a good and positive light. Content does, indeed, get read and seen by us – the industry. If you put work (your acting and/or singing) online for all to see, make sure it is good. Use common sense.

BW: Riffing off of what Duncan said, let's assume that we Google you (and we do), make sure that everything we find about you will only help in the hiring of you for work. Make sure that your online presence is up-to-date and there are not old videos of you 10 years younger, or 30 pounds heavier or 1,000 voice lessons earlier. If these are still floating around, it confuses us as to what you're all about.

How do you feel about social media? Are there pros and cons? Can someone's social media persona negatively impact their professional goals? Are there times where an actor's social media presence may "precede them" in a negative way? What are the plusses?
DS: In this day and age, having a strong presence in/on social media is imperative to one's business – no matter if it's the actor representing him/herself or the casting director representing his/her office. Cultivating a positive, professional and "vital" online presence is key to: a) attracting people to your brand and b) getting industry people interested in what you are selling (which, by the way, we're all selling, all the time). Benton and I regularly maintain our company's website along with our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages. I think the rules we created for ourselves can apply to anyone – actor or otherwise. Keep things positive (we are not in the habit of bitching and find it unattractive). Show your authentic self. Be interesting – make people want to follow/read/like you and what you're putting online. Make yourself relevant. How do you do this? Provide a need and remember, it's not all about you. Online presence should be win-win. People should walk away after reading one's posts, seeing one's pictures or viewing one's links with a sense of having gained something. In terms of how all this can back-fire, well, it's fairly simple. When one doesn't keep things positive and posts without thinking through all of the consequences, it can hurt you. Drunken Saturday night pictures on Facebook don't necessarily help you when they're viewed by people who may be casting a national tour; doubt is placed in their mind as to your character for such behavior could impact a touring cast/company.

What trends are you seeing that actors coming up in the business should be aware of?
BW: Learn how to read sheet music. Often callbacks are given out to actors with less than 24 hours notice and often in these callbacks, we're asking folks to learn new/original material. The actors who are confident in the music department, and even have a bit of piano under their belt, are the ones that have the upper hand in delivering a confident performance in the audition room.

DS: We work in the world of entertainment, and producers/directors are always searching for every means imaginable to create unique productions that serve to delight our audiences. The audience has now become accustomed to wanting more and more so… Pippin now has acrobats and fire-throwing circus folk; Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 required actors to play accordions, guitars, violins and piano; The Tempest, which we cast for American Repertory Theater (directed by Teller of Penn & Teller), needed actors with Shakespearean chops plus singing, instrumental and magician skills. We've just completed our first round of auditions for August Rush (directed by John Doyle), and I was so impressed by all the actors that could sing, act and play five to six instruments! It's all about being a multi-faceted artist. So, keep up the singing/dancing/instrumental/magic lessons because you never know what is going to be required of you!

(Adam Hetrick is the editor in chief of Playbill.com. His work also appears in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on twitter @PlaybillAdamH)