“Sides” Of Casting

By Dino S. Ladki

Dino S. Ladki is a private acting coach, a former casting director and an audition taping expert. Among his accomplishments as a CD are originating and heading MTV’s casting department (scripted series), two pilot-to-series projects for ABC / Carsey-Werner, the critically acclaimed independent feature films “The Lost,” based on the popular novel by Jack Ketchum, and “Baby,” an Asian gangland drama set in the mid-eighties. He has worked for Warner Bros., Universal Studios, Showtime, NBC, and FOX. Other projects include the independent film, “Harrison Montgomery,” starring Academy Award Winner Martin Landau and Melora Walters, and the Sony-Tristar feature, “I Know Who Killed Me,” starring Lindsay Lohan and Julia Ormond.

There is no shortage of advice columns for actors. And nothing against them; this happens to be one. But you know the one column you never see? Advice for Casting Directors (CDs). Nobody ever has advice for them.

I’ll bet a lot of actors think that CDs are somehow all-knowing. Of course, that is not true. They’re human beings and, just like the rest of humanity, there are smart ones and dumb ones; nice ones and mean ones. Some are real artists, others are merely casting facilitators.

This piece was originally intended to be a one-off variation from the standard column but, in writing it, it has become clear that there are currently so many things wrong with the casting process that it will take several columns to cover it. So consider this the first in a series.

I will be giving this “advice” (i.e airing these grievances) not to disrespect the hard- working, talented professionals who make-up the majority of CDs, but rather, to let actors know that it’s not just them when it comes to these frustrations.

Now then. The first subject we’ll tackle is…

Sides (audition scenes) and how they are marked and disseminated.

The way casting offices issue sides these days leaves much to be desired. Needless to say (or needed, hence the column) this hinders an actor’s ability to give his or her best performance.

First. The secrecy issue has gotten way out of hand.

Sometimes obtaining and learning sides is akin to Mission Impossible: Often talent has to log-in to secretive programs that can sometimes only be accessed once (and often on only one device).

These allow actors to see the scenes but not to print or share them in any way. This denies them the ability to make notes on their scenes (as most actors do) or to prepare them ahead of time with a coach and/or the person who will read opposite them in a self-tape audition.

If the material is that secret then, I say, just pick “dummy” sides from something that has already been shot and released. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find a scene or two that will show you what you need to see. This isn’t a novel concept and is much easier for everyone involved.

Second. Sides are often “cut” (picked from the script) and marked-up very irresponsibly.

a) Sides should never be longer than a few pages.

Actors often come to me with auditions that are sometimes in excess of fifteen pages, complete with large paragraphs of dialogue. Nobody needs to see this much in an audition. CD’s and/or producers/directors usually know if the actor is what they’re looking for in less than a minute. Sides should never be longer than eight pages, maximum (1 to 3 pages is best). It’s understandable that you want to see different aspects of the character but you never need more than three scenes to accomplish this. All too often there are four, five, even six, scenes assigned. I have seen sides that encompass literally the entirety of a fairly large role. You don’t need to see every sentence that the character says in order to discern if someone is right for the part and/or capable of performing it.

On a similar note. Self-tape auditions are often nothing more than, what I call, a ‘pre- pre-read.’ Meaning that, in the CD’s mind, the actor’s resume doesn’t rise to the level of an in-person pre-read* audition, so they request a self-tape instead, as a screening mechanism. If that is the case, don’t give the self-taper more pages to learn than the more experienced in-person auditioner just because you can watch the tapes at your convenience and aren’t required to watch them all the way through (or at all).

An example of this is when sides contain, say four scenes, but those auditioning in- person are instructed to pick two of them, to save the CD time, while those relegated to self-taping are required to learn and tape all four. This is not fair. It would make more sense to give these less-experienced actors fewer pages; perhaps just one small scene, to see if they have talent and if they’re right for the part. And, if so, then have them learn additional pages for an in-person callback.

b) Don’t unnecessarily obscure text.

If there are sections of the sides that you don’t want performed then unobtrusively cross out those areas without marking through the text in a way that renders it illegible. Actors need as much context as possible. Though they may not be reading those portions of the scene(s) there could be information there that would inform their performance, if they were allowed to see it.

Any casting office that is sending out sides with text-obscuring ‘watermarks’ is doing a disservice to everyone involved in the casting process.

This goes for obtrusive watermarking as well. This is yet another secrecy measure that gets in the way of an actor’s best work. Watermarks that contain either an actor’s or agency’s name are often placed on sides to keep track of who is receiving the material as well as to deter unauthorized sharing.

Theoretically, if the material is leaked, the watermarks would reveal a culprit. But often, because of improper photocopying, they obscure dialogue and stage directions that are meant to be part of the audition.

By the same token, no matter the method of obscuration, don’t ever hide page numbers. They let you know at which point in the grand story the audition scenes are taking place. This can help actors calibrate tone and stakes, among other things.

c) Don’t make an actor guess what’s going on.

If a section of the script that’s not in the sides provides context to the audition scene(s) then provide those scenes as FYI pages (clearly marked as such). If you are unable to do this, then provide that information in the form of a note to the actors that is issued along with the audition. (Of course, providing the entire script would solve this issue. But unfortunately that is not always possible).

d) Don’t merge different scenes together haphazardly.

Too often scenes are strung together in a way that doesn’t make logical sense.

Ostensibly this is done to save time, but the time saved is negligible and often at the expense of the intent of the scenes. Just pick scenes as they are written. If one scene has two lines and the next has ten, maybe you don’t need to see the two-line scene.

But, if you do, then let actors perform it as written instead of Frankensteining it with another scene.

This concludes part one of Advice for CD’s. Next time we’ll talk about behaviors in the audition room.

*pre-reads (or pre-screens) are auditions performed solely for the casting director so that they can determine if the actor should be seen by the producer and/or director.

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