Theater Around The Bay: The Audition and Casting Process (Stuart Bousel, Lana Russell)

Peter Hsieh brings us Part One of a two part interview series taking a director’s eye view of the casting and audition process.

Auditions. Casting. Been there, done that.

Auditions. Casting. Been there, done that.

Before I started seriously writing plays, I was an actor and the thing that baffled me the most, gave me the most palpitations were auditions. Part of what made me so nervous about them was that I didn’t really grow up doing theater and didn’t really have any friends in theater or any connections within a theater community. I also hadn’t the slightest idea about what the casting process was like from the director’s and producer’s stand point and in my ignorance and insecurity, attributed being successfully cast as to having connections, having an impressive resume stretching back twelve years to your stage debut as one of the kids in Children of Eden to your critically acclaimed performance as Romeo in last summer’s production of Romeo and Juliet, or being incredibly talented/having years of training. A few years later I found myself on the other side of the table, as a locally produced, playwright/director with whom people saw potential in and as a result got to take part in auditions and casting for some of my plays and became more familiar with this process that years ago was such a terrifying mystery to me.

Nowadays I rarely take part in auditions but I still have great respect for all the work that goes into auditions and castings from both sides of the table . As I’m writing this article, a lot of plays are being cast or already have been cast, from college productions (a lot of the UC’s have just had theirs cast I believe), to a few upcoming festivals like the San Francisco Olympians Festival, and I find myself thinking back to a younger version of myself worrying about auditions and how much better it would have been if I knew more about the process or if I had a few director friends I could talk to. In this article I talk to two very awesome directors, who go to auditions and are involved in the casting process, directors that I look up to and whose work I deeply admire: Stuart Bousel, the Director of New Work Development at Custom Made Theatre Company, the Executive Director of San Francisco Theater Pub, and the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Olympians Festival, really, a man who needs no introduction in these parts (and on this blog), and who you’ve (if you do theater in San Francisco) probably auditioned for and my friend Lana Russell, a New York based freelance director and the artistic director of Story People Theater Group, whom I met (and auditioned in front of) at UC Irvine where we both matriculated. In addition to talking about the audition and casting process, Stuart and Lana, both involved in producing new works, also addresses what it’s like to work on new plays and how what it is like to cast a new play.

So to the actor who got nervous before their audition, or are thinking about auditioning, to anyone who has ever wondered about the casting process and what transpires after you leave that stage (or room, or wherever your audition takes place), to myself years back when I was auditioning for the first time as a college freshmen who decided to take a shot at theater, this one is for you.

Tell us about your experience with new works. What do you enjoy about them? Why is it important to support that avenue of theatre?

Bousel: I’m a playwright, so I create new work, so of course I think it’s important, but as a director and as an audience member I’m just really into stories- old ones, and new, so an interest in new work development stems from a desire to constantly be creating and listening to, seeing, new stories. Surprise is, to me, one of the key elements of good theater- revelation too- and while I think both of those things can be present in older works, obviously the potential is greater in new work, and it’s important to support new work for the same reasons it’s important to support learning new things or making new friends: it helps us grow as human beings, and we should never stop growing.

Lana Russell. Her workshop production of Gibraltar at UCI was one of the best plays I saw there. I saw A LOT of good plays there.

Lana Russell. Her workshop production of Gibraltar at UCI was one of the best plays I saw there. I saw A LOT of good plays there.

Russell: For me, there is nothing more exciting than getting to be a part of telling a story that has never been told in exactly that way ever before. A playwright creates this raw, beautiful, terrifying thing that has the power and potential to develop into a story so full of life it cannot help but be told. When a new work gets dropped into your hands as a director I truly believe that no matter what is on the page, there is this thrilling possibility of what it could become. Offering support to the playwright in early stages by giving them the space to hear their work aloud, in front of a supportive and inquisitive audience is immensely important. Plays aren’t written to sit in twenty drafts on a google drive, they are being written for people to hear, see, react to and empathize with.

While I’ve always had a passion for new plays, the work really began after moving to New York in 2010. I had the opportunity and great pleasure to work for Primary Stages as their literary assistant for almost three years. So in addition to building a freelance directing career I was reading a bajillion scripts, seeing readings all over the city and assisting in Primary Stages Dorothy Strelsin New American writers group. A literary position was a great fit for me and it allowed me to learn about the wealth of writers constantly putting their work out there in New York and regionally. The writer’s group would meet once a week while the playwrights (all RIDICULOUSLY AMAZING writers) brought in new pages of the play they were working on which would then have a reading at the end of the term. Primary Stages offers such a generous home to their writers and an opportunity for audiences to come and see a work that is brand spanking new. I offered dramaturgical advice and hopefully emotional support in addition to administrative tasks for the group, their reading series and our annual writers retreat in Bennington College. I also have held literary internships and producing fellowships at LCT3 at Lincoln Center and Naked Angels, both companies dedicated to the development and production of new and exciting works.

What are some of the challenges of casting new works, especially for a festival or evening of multiple plays?

Russell: The festival especially had its challenges because instead of producing one new play, there were seven each with its own writer, director and cast. For me, casting for a new play is actually easier than one that has a range of previous productions. It can be more difficult because no previous type has been set for who plays this role but that is what I find most creatively stimulating. For an actor this is a huge opportunity to lend your voice and help create the persona of a brand new character. Readings are also great opportunities to try certain casting ideas and actors out. It sounds silly to say but scheduling is another major challenge. Since so many readings of new plays are unpaid and based on the generous volunteering of time from the actors, casting can get down to the wire and it becomes a game of commitments and getting people in the right place at the right time. Actors, the quicker you respond to an email, the quicker we can cast you.

Stuart Bousel. I owe at least three of my plays being produced to him. For Reals.

Stuart Bousel. I owe at least three of my plays being produced to him. For Reals.

Bousel: The big challenge with casting new work is that many actors are really no different from producers, directors, or audiences, and are just partial to what is familiar, perhaps even slightly distrusting of new work. Ask an actor what roles they want to play and they all have a list, which is understandable, they’ve grown up reading and seeing shows they want to be a part of themselves, but I wish I heard more actors say, “A role that hasn’t been written yet” or “A role I don’t know”. The right actors get super excited when they come across something they haven’t gotten to do before and nobody else has either, and they recognize it as the opportunity it is: to really be part of the creation of that character, because they absolutely will be, all roles are influenced by the actor who originates them. But it definitely takes a creative, smart actor who is willing to do that, and many artists, like many audiences, play it safe when push comes to shove, or can just have a hard time seeing how an opportunity they didn’t anticipate is still an opportunity.

There are a lot of people for and against pre-casting. There are a lot of practical reasons it is done (i.e. Writer/ Director had a specific actor in mind), but a lot of people bring up the arguments against it as well. What are your thoughts on pre-casting, and as producer/directors what would you say to Directors and actors in regards to this?

Bousel: I think it really depends on the role and the production. As a playwright, I have written roles for certain actors and I’ve never regretted that. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s almost always an interesting result. That said, all roles should be able to be played by someone other than the person they were originally written for (assuming they were) so obviously pre-casting is going to postpone that test at least until a second production. Generally speaking, I think it’s okay though for a director to go into a production with some sense of what they want, so long as they remain open to having their mind changed. And so long as they haven’t promised a role to an actor ahead of time. Telling someone they have a role and then taking it away for purely “I found someone I like more” reasons is not at all classy and yes, I’ve done it, and so I’m speaking from experience when I say you just end up feeling like a giant douche bag when you do that- and it’s cause you are. Go into auditions with all the ideas in the world- but save the promises until you’re ready to make a real offer.

Russell: I don’t think there is a director out there (especially one who is also producing) who when planning to do a play doesn’t have some ideas in their head about who could play at least the major roles. In larger institutions, especially on Broadway, star names are many times attached first before the choosing of the actual play, or the play is only produced if there can be at least 1-2 “names” on board. I don’t love this but sadly it is necessary to help with financial instability. Most directors I know have a circle of actors in the back of their minds but I at least always ask other trusted director colleges for recommendations. Sometimes I do an “invited audition” based on recommendations only when something needs to be cast quickly. Yet, the hopeful artist in me also believes in the possibility of finding that right person amidst the crowd when least expecting it. The best thing actors can do to embrace the amount of pre-casting that does occur is to work with and get your name involved with as any circles of art makers as possible. Make it so that when considering a play, your work and reputation for the caliber of work that you do is something producers and directors cannot ignore. More often than not I cast someone based on recommendation or a show I saw them in as opposed to just a cold audition. Also, a good website with a range of material is SO helpful.

What are some things actors do that make you want to cast them, conversely what are some of the things they do that make you not want to cast them?

Russell: The best thing an actor can do is make a choice. Any choice. A bold choice. A choice that you have thought deeply about. This means really knowing the play you have pulled the audition piece from. Also, I love actors who are able to show me who they are in an audition. It sounds so cliché but be yourself, have fun, and have pride and confidence in who you are. The people behind the casting table (at least in my opinion) are not “above you” they aren’t to be feared or make you feel less than. The casting director, director, producer etc. need someone to fill a role the same way that you need a gig. Lastly, be flexible. Be open. And be kind to everyone involved in any creative process. That is what I look for. I don’t want to cast any actor with an ego, someone who is inflexible and cannot play or make adjustments, and as I said before someone who doesn’t make a passionate choice in one direction even if it is the “wrong” direction.

Bousel: I like working with smart people who have a solid sense of who they are, know their boundaries, and are able to politely communicate them, but are also willing to take risks, try something before they shoot it down, collaborate, and contribute to the conversation while we craft a piece together. They need to know we’re in it together- and that “we” means them too. Actors who turn me off are ones who only want to go by the book, so to speak, and say “no” instead of “okay, let’s try it and see”. Actors who are not team players, who think they are above anything or anyone involved in my production, from their fellow actors to the box office people, are also not welcome on my shows. They are always, always, always backstage poison and the damage they cause is never worth whatever talent they possess. I will take a solid, if not “incredible” actor who is friendly, on time, and game, over an exquisite asshole any day. Love your ensemble, not your diva, is my slogan.

Cate Blanchett is smart and makes bold choices. I’m pretty sure of that.

Cate Blanchett is smart and makes bold choices. I’m pretty sure of that.

Monologue you’d be okay never hearing again.

Bousel: None, really, but advice I’d give after seeing hundreds of auditions: never do a song from RENT or TICK TICK BOOM, and never do a monologue where your character is crazy, ranting, or telling a story that isn’t about them.

Russell: Any monologue that is vastly age inappropriate, or any monologue where you play an actor doing a play or even worse a monologue about an audition. Also, I’d love to put a ban to monologue books. Those speeches get overused and as an actor it helps you so much to have an entire play as a tool to understanding your character. A monologue on its own can be way too general.

Some higher power has made you Supreme Overlord of Theatre. Cast your favorite play with any cast you want. I’d do Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love” starring Jessica Chastain as May, Sam Rockwell as Eddie, and Jeff Bridges as the Old Man.

Russell: Peter, do you know Sam Rockwell is in Fool for Love on Broadway right now! Your wish is the theater’s command. OH MAN this is tough. I would have to cross time periods and eras. A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, has been and always will be my favorite play. I would keep Marlon Brando as Stanley, though in when she was age appropriate Meryl Streep, (great minds think alike) Jessica Chastain as Stella and again if we could jump to times in their life when they were age appropriate I’ve always wanted a young Robin Williams to take on Mitch.

OMG! My wish is theater’s command. Swag.

OMG! My wish is theater’s command. Swag.

Bousel: I can’t really answer this because I’m about to direct my favorite play, SIX DEGREES OF SEPARATION, for the first time in 2016, and I’ve just cast it and I love and am really excited about my cast. So… there you go. I suppose if we’re just playing the Hollywood game, I would really love to see Cate Blanchette and Tilda Swinton cast as rival sister queens in a fantasy epic. I don’t know why this hasn’t happened yet.

Lana, you have a new theater group through which you recently produced a festival of new plays, tell us about it.

RUSSELL: I have a theater company (in development) called Story People Theatre Group. Story People Theatre Group seeks to create bold, imaginative art inspired by the diverse stories of the people around us. We are focused on documenting stories and forming a conversation between an artist and their community. Story People produces the summer Rooftop Readings program where new plays are presented in outdoor spaces (if it’s in Brooklyn where we are located chances are the space is a roof) and following the reading, discussion and intermingle of artists conversation wine and snacks takes place. Additionally, this year we held our first annual “Strangers” New works festival of short plays. This was an open submission process where writers were given the prompt “Strangers”. All seven pieces were presented with simple staging or in a more traditional reading format for the first time in front of enthusiastic audiences. I was thrilled by the range of diverse and unique voices we produced (some of which I directed) and the hope is that these plays continue to have further lives.

Supreme Overlord of Theatre.

Supreme Overlord of Theatre.

The really exciting thing about this particular festival is that the plays are incredibly new, performed or read for the first time in front of an audience and openly embrace that they are in the first stage of a developmental process. There is no pressure for perfection, just an opportunity to listen, craft, think and question. Story People will continue its programming next summer 2016 with a soon to be announced full length play, devising workshop and the usual summer programming of Rooftop Readings and hopefully another “Strangers” style festival. Story People is always in search of new collaborators so if you consider yourself an artist or storyteller of any kind please get in touch!

Sadly a website is in development and is not up yet so please get a hold of us at or Lana at

Tune in Next Week for Part Two where I ask the same questions to more awesome directors/producers.

Stuart Bousel is the Director of New Work Development at Custom Made Theatre Company, the Executive Director of San Francisco Theater Pub, and the Artistic Director of the San Francisco Olympians Festival, which opens on November 5th this year ( He is also a playwright, and his play Pastorella is currently nominated for OUTSTANDING WORLD PREMIERE at this year’s TBA Awards, while his play Gone Dark is set to open at Otherworld Theatre Company in Chicago on Halloween.

Lana Russell is a New York based freelance director and the artistic director of Story People Theater Group. Selected credits include: The Offer by Bella Poynton (Sam French OOB Festival Finalist) Cloud Tectonics by Jose Rivera, (New School for Drama), The Coming World by Christopher Shinn (Under St. Marks), Pizza Man by Darlene Craviotto (Red Room Theater) and Gibraltar by Octavio Solis (Nixon Theater). Assistant directing: The Model Apartment and Poor Behavior (Evan Cabnet, Primary Stages.) Lana is a member of the Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab and pursuing an MFA in Directing at The New School for Drama, 2017.

Peter Hsieh is a playwright from San Jose, California. Recent credits include his play Interstate at the Detroit Fringe Festival and T. Schreiber Studio, Argus at the San Francisco Olympians Festival, and Maybe at Brooklyn College as part of GI60 2015. Additionally, his works have been produced and developed by Hollywood Fringe Festival, Piney Fork Press, Douglas Morrisson Theatre, NYU Performing Arts Club, Nylon Fusion Collective, Actor’s Company, Brooklyn College, North Park Playwright’s Festival, Viaduct Theatre, SPROUT, San Francisco Theatre Pub, World Premiere Weekend, City Light’s Theater Company, GI60, San Jose Rep’s Emerging Artist Lab, West Valley College, and Fringe of Marin. Peter is a graduate from the University of California, Irvine.

Everything Is Already Something Week 19: Don’t Go Elite-ing My Heart

Allison Page will not be silenced, no matter what kind of woman she wants to be. 

I’ve noticed a trend I find disturbing. (Don’t worry, it has nothing to do with twerking.) There’s an awful lot of talk about feminism in relation to theater going on lately. I’m all for more roles for women. I mean…I AM ONE, so yeah, that would be cool. When I talk to sketch writing classes, or any group of writers or theater makers, or an overly chatty cab driver – I always stress the importance of expanding roles for women in comedy and just in theater and art in general. We’re not just wives and mothers, right? Right. We’re all kinds of things. Just like men are all kinds of things and people are all kinds of things. But the mistake, to me, is saying that because a female character has a relationship with a male character that it means she’s not a good female character. If she focuses at all on the male whom she is in some sort of relationship with, or maybe that she’s just having a sexual relationship with, or that she had some relationship with in the past – suddenly someone’s going to pop up and say “HOLD ON, THAT’S NOT A STRONG FEMALE CHARACTER! SHE CARES TOO MUCH ABOUT DUDES! ANTI-FEMINISM, YA’LL!” Alright, so…is the message that women who are in relationships with men are not interesting? Are not strong? Can’t be feminists? Don’t have stories to tell? That the stories they do have to tell, or are used to telling, are not as valid or compelling? That they’re not important? BOLOGNA. BALONEY. BOTH OF THEM.

Stories are not for one person, or one kind of person. There are stories for all people. There are stories about all people. I’m hard-pressed to think of a heterosexual female I’ve encountered in my life who has never had a part of their own personal life story be related to a man. Hillary Clinton is married. If you wrote a play about Hillary Clinton, very likely there’s going to be something about Billy Boy in there, right? It’s feasible to think she might have a thing or three to say about that guy. He’s kind of interesting.

Hills and Bills and Chels

Hills and Bills and Chels

Does that mean that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t make a strong female character? How about when you factor in Monica Lewinsky? Because it’ll turn into a story about two women and one man for a minute. Does that mean Hills isn’t a woman for other women to look up to? It seems recently that a question people are asking themselves about their feelings toward female characters is “How much is she focusing on a man? Is it too much?” which, to me, is a little absurd. It’s like the idea of having more diverse women on stage has somehow over-directed into having more female characters that have nothing to say or to do with a man.

I’d call that narrowing the funnel. It’s a term used at the gaming company I work for, I don’t know if other places use it but I wouldn’t be surprised. When we say something “narrows the funnel” we mean that some factor has made the feature accessible to fewer people. (It’s not a good thing.) In this case, the funnel seems to be narrowing and squeezing out a great big bunch of people. You can see that either as a good or a bad thing, depending on your perspective.

But how realistic is it? When people go to the theater, they’re going to experience something. They’re going to watch a story unfold, to watch characters go through some shit and also to see something they can connect with. They want to see something of themselves up there. Something they can relate to. You know what a lot of people relate to? Complex relationships. Love. Anger. Betrayal. Happiness. Comfort. Heartache. Sadness. Regret. Most of those words don’t specify anything about other people being involved, but if you read them and visualize them I’m willing to bet you might be picturing another person with you in, or causing, those situations. They don’t often exist in a vacuum.

A vacuum in which women do not live.

A vacuum in which women do not live.

Aside from that, it’s just sort of insulting. Yeah, we’re not all wives and mothers – BUT SOME OF US ARE. What’s wrong with that? (I’m neither, by the way. That shit scares the hell out of me.) It seems strange that someone would say “Why did that character have to be married? She didn’t need that man there.” It’s like saying “Why wasn’t that play just about someone else entirely?” which sounds an awful lot like you’re not reviewing a play or taking it in – but instead just thinking about some other show which doesn’t exist. Maybe you should just go home and write it. Some of the bigger realizations about myself that I’ve had in the last 10 years (I’m 29, so…there were lots and lots of ‘em. It was a big decade.) had at least some relation to other human beings. Plenty of them men. And I don’t see why if I were, for instance, writing a story about my own experiences, they shouldn’t be given any importance. And if they were, why that would make me…I don’t know…”less good” or less interesting. Or less feminist, for that matter.

It seems everyone’s got their own definition of feminism. Well, I’m 100% about equality. Not “anything men can do, women can do better”, just “men and women are both equally capable.” I understand it’s not as catchy and it’s not likely to inspire a show tune, but it’s where my brain lives. I am of the belief that a woman doing just exactly as she pleases is feminist all by itself. If that woman wants to be a single astronaut for the rest of her life – by all means do it. But if a woman wants, of her own free will, out of nothing but her desire for this life – CHOOSES – to marry, to raise children, and to open a real estate business, or be a housewife – by all means do that. Valuing one type of female character or female person over another based on their ideas about love doesn’t feel feminist to me. It feels elitist. It feels insincere. Most of all, I think it feels unrealistic and out of touch.

I’m not saying the story about the asexual astronaut wouldn’t be fabulous – it totally could be. (“SOLO IN SPACE” STARRING TILDA SWINTON.]

In space, no one can hear you Swinton.

In space, no one can hear you Swinton.

But so could the story of a homemaker turned real estate agent. [“SHIRLEY SELLS SEA HOUSES BY THE SEA SHORE.” STARRING MELISSA LEO.] Those facts alone will not determine whether or not these are “good” characters – whatever the fuck that’s supposed to mean. I’m not saying cut out those female characters whom aren’t strongly connected to a husband or boyfriend or girlfriend or wife or anybody – I’m just saying we should consider embracing women in general. Both ends of the spectrum and everyone in between. Stories about 8 lesbians in a hay stack, stories about a single mom and her 9 daughters, stories about a lady farmer and her stay-at-home-dad husband, stories about a woman trying to cure cancer, stories about a mom who runs a daycare full of alien babies, stories about the first woman to smoke a cigar – stories about us all. Because we are all worthy of stories. I stand for the equality of women both real and fictional, and not for the division of us by ourselves.

I wanna sell you a sea house! And my son's a boxer!

I wanna sell you a sea house! And my son’s a boxer!

I had a conversation with a playwright friend of mine recently where we both expressed a concern that the inclusion of certain male characters in both of our upcoming plays would be poo-pooed by someone who would say that their existence makes our leading ladies seem less valuable, somehow. In my particular case, I’m writing something very much focused on two women. They are essentially the only people there for each of them, and they’re sort of codependent and unhealthy in that friendship. Things had to come to a head eventually, and they finally do. It’s Some Guy who finally helps to bring that about. (His character’s name is Some Guy, I don’t even want him to have a name.) The truth is, it would have had to happen some time, in some way – but because neither of them could quite make it happen without some sort of outside catalyst, Some Guy is what’s needed to bring about the explosion. The last thing I want is for someone to see it and say “Ohhhh it’s just two girls fighting over a man! How anti-female.” Because that’s just NOT WHAT’S HAPPENING AT ALL. It’s possible that I’m over-thinking that, and I’m sure someone will say “Well, it’s good that you’re thinking about that. That’s something you should be thinking about.” But I feel like what I should be thinking about, is how to tell the best story. Because after all the clutter is cleared away, that’s what the hell we’re doing here, isn’t it? We’re all raconteurs. And like I said before, there isn’t just one type of story, and there isn’t just one type of woman. In a time when the theater is always striving to bring more people in, to get more butts in the seats, the last thing that would ever help that would be to limit the types of stories we think should be told and poo-poo on the everywoman. In a time when some theaters seem to be going above and beyond to be elite (see Marissa Skudlarek’s most recent blog) I desire to go away from that in favor of the everyman and definitely the everywoman. We need her. She’s important. She is so many of us and she has a story, too.

Allison encourages you to see the San Francisco Olympians Festival – three weeks of staged readings of new plays by local playwrights based on various aspects of the Trojan War, starting tonight. Allison’s “The Golden Apple of Discord” plays with several other shorts on November 20th. She’ll also be writing and reading at Write Club SF’s 2 year anniversary show at the The Make-Out Room, November 19th.