Last week, the Casting Society of America (CSA) issued a press release announcing a new committee to study the issue of CD-led workshops. Specifically, the committee will “seek to preserve and enhance the educational value of casting workshops” while fostering “increased awareness and understanding among CSA members of the Casting Workshop Guidelines created in collaboration with the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office.”
It is within the new Workshop Committee’s mission — let’s be clear — to keep workshops alive. Lawful, but alive. Even as it was formed in the face of sharply negative press from the Hollywood Reporter on the fundamental ethics of the workshop model, and the ensuing, obligatory slaughter of a sacrificial lamb — Scott David, casting director and workshop business owner, leaving (or being forced to leave, industry rank-and-file aren’t privy) his longstanding relationship with Criminal Minds.
But maybe workshops should just go, with no one happier than CDs to see it happen. There’s enough oxygen being taken up by the argument over whether workshops are pure, old-fashioned payola or smart, here-now actor marketing. (Anyone hoping to find that here is invited to go elsewhere on the Internet, literally anywhere else, to find it.) Instead, let’s focus on five good reasons CDs should want to end workshops no matter what they are.
#1 This is not the road to Oscar.
The press release announcing CSA’s new Workshop Committee includes a wonderful word: “alchemic.” It’s true — a great casting process is mysterious and powerful and above all, creative. There’s vision involved in meeting an actor in one type of role and having the fullness of imagination to see their potential across stories and genres and scripts and characters. No other entity in the casting chain is as responsible for bringing that to the table.
Bluntly, there is nothing about the current workshop process that develops this imagination. If anything, workshops stunt it — reducing CDs’ field of vision to content they know and to safe, easy fits vs. the groundbreaking ones that get you hailed in documentaries years after you’re dead. Sacrificing exposure to a fuller variety of performances, energies and “it” factors comes at creative cost that seems oddly underestimated.
Sure, having just led a workshop might help winnow the field to cast a TV co-star role that’s shooting tomorrow. But if your highest ambition is to become a better traffic cop, don’t expect the Academy to recognize you for creative achievement.
#2 This is not the road to fair compensation for your work.
The casting industry offers fewer and fewer secure, salaried, in-house positions at studios and networks. Life as an independent contractor requires sharper competitiveness based on price, and no one can deny the pinch. But it’s past time to inject smarter business sense and standards. Hiding true costs from producers will only speed the race to the bottom.
If a casting office cannot offer competitive pay to its own employees for casting — pay that covers the time and effort to find, meet, screen and audition new talent — the office is operating at a loss and the business model will not prove sustainable. As arguments go, the slippery slope is usually a weak one, as it assumes no one involved has common sense. But with workshop profits now underpinning the livelihoods of CDs and staff, it seems past time to sound an alarm.
CDs should heed the same warning actors hear from their cheerleading career coaches: no one else will value you if you don’t value you. CDs don’t need to supplement their income with workshops. They need to stop lowballing their contribution.
#3 Hollywood already has enough of a diversity problem.
What actors pay for workshops is its own issue, especially in light of the industry’s widely-lamented lack of diversity. As more and more production expenses get pushed down to the actor (the one party that doesn’t actually have the job yet), the point of entry into the field becomes more and more expensive. That’s not great for anyone, but do we really need to revisit the statistics to know which demographics get hit the hardest?
The same industry that needs actors available on a dime — tied down by only the flimsiest and least-lucrative of day jobs — now demands costlier multi-look headshots (again, imagination: use it or lose it), self-tape capabilities (video and VO, even when actors are local), and, increasingly, the readiness to provide wardrobe for every type they could conceivably play. Never mind the encouragements to “create your own work,” i.e., find the additional resources and skills to self-fund as a filmmaker.
In the context of these trends, paid workshops displacing free generals and CDs’ attendance at showcases is devastating. Disparate impact is real. Casting hardly controls every obstacle to diversity, but CDs should raise their hands to disown this one.
#4 Everything that is accomplished with workshops can be accomplished without them.
Workshops’ most passionate advocates cite their educational benefits. Inexperienced actors learn what to expect in the audition room, along with the preferences of various offices regarding communication, self-submissions, etc. CDs and talent can get to know one other and develop a rapport outside the pressure-cooker of an actual casting scenario. Insights into the industry prepare actors to achieve greater success in their careers.
The audition process itself is remarkably consistent across casting offices (be timely, be prepared, be friendly; slate, read, maybe take an adjustment, give thanks). But educational altruism will always be welcome. Many insights and preferences can be shared on a CD’s website. Actors devour blogs and videos. Training programs and acting studios would kill to have more CDs visit to prepare their serious students for realities of the professional world.
Of course, there’s nothing like spending one-on-one time with great talent that you discover. Try seeing plays, catching film festivals, going to stand-up nights, attending improv shows, watching YouTube — and inviting talent that intrigues you in for a general. Want to keep seeing an actor and helping them grow? Keep calling them in. Offer that second take.
#5 The legacy and future of the Casting Director is at stake.
In his incisive book on acting, The Actor and the Target, UK director Declan Donnellan challenges actors to “split” the stakes in order to understand them. Anyone struggling to grasp the urgency of their situation needs to consider not only what they want and how wonderful it would be to get it, but also what they fear, and how terrible it would be to see that fear realized. It’s the taught tension between hope and fear that motivates action.
The stakes here are serious. If CDs sacrifice creative vision for expediency, participate in the devaluation of what they do, contribute to Hollywood’s ever-more-chafing resistance to diversity, and withhold the simple acts of mentorship that every other professional doles out freely to junior workers in their midst, they undermine the case for their own dignity and existence. If the possibility of casting disappearing doesn’t motivate change, what can?
We need casting that is yes, alchemical. Unexpected. Delightful. Boundary-shattering. Let no one forget Marion Dougherty’s advocacy for Danny Glover to join Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon, in a genius pairing that defined a franchise. As covered in the HBO documentary Casting By, the breakdown didn’t specify that Glover’s role should be played by an African-American. Dougherty’s imagination saw not race, but relationship — brilliantly.
To survive, casting as a craft must be safeguarded. It can reclaim its place as a creative art form, worthy of real compensation and hopefully one day, the highest awards. Or, CDs can continue to dilute their specialization for short-term gains, teaching the very producers they need to survive to see their role as administrative (cheap, replaceable) vs. visionary (inspiring, priceless). The profits from workshops could never be worth this cost.
Is change unsettling? Yes. Many seem to believe that workshops are so deeply embedded in industry practices, eliminating them at this point is impossible. But let’s not allow a failure of imagination — of all things — to kill casting. The profession is worth more and deserves better.
It’s in the hands of CSA’s Workshop Committee to determine casting’s future. Here’s hoping their vision is expansive, befitting the legacy of a craft that gave us Dougherty, among so many others. The past, exactly as it was, won’t be prologue. But by eliminating workshops before they do any more harm (PR-based or otherwise) and advancing a conversation about what comes next, CSA has the power to choose a more positive fate for its members.
Anne DeAcetis is an actress, singer and writer based in New York. www.annedeacetis.com