Interview with Sam Stevenson, Deputy Head of Casting at the National Theatre: ‘We work in the shadows: it’s a dark art’

The first in a new interview series about non-acting professions within the theatre industry hosted by London Student, Anthony Walker-Cook talks with Sam Stevenson, Deputy Head of Casting at the National Theatre. Sam’s career has seen her work at the BBC, RSC and now at the National Theatre having been a co-partner of Hancock Stevenson Casting until 2016. During the discussion, Sam and Anthony candidly discuss some of the positives and negatives of the casting industry, routes into casting and, more widely, working freelance versus in-house.

AWC: Could you summarise the role of a Casting Director (CD) in one sentence?
SS: This is an oversimplification, but we match the right actor to the right role, production and director.

And if you were to provide a longer definition of the roles involved?
We go to the theatre a lot, watch as much television and film as possible and try to understand an actor’s work, their qualities, and follow their careers. When we begin work on a production we think about which actors are right for each role and discuss them with the director. It’s an ongoing conversation throughout the casting process. Very often an actor might be right for a part but not for that director or production. If it’s, say, Romeo, there will be a variety of actors who could be brilliant but who are maybe not right for us. So that’s what we do: we tease out the qualities that the director is looking for.

What was your route into casting?
I started about twenty-two years ago and I thought I wanted to be a producer. I applied for a job at Hampstead Theatre, which was then a prefab building on a spot not very far from where the current building is. The job was assisting Jenny Topper, the Artistic Director, and Richard Wakely, the General Manager. I knew I’d be able to learn a lot in that role. I loved it there, but about two weeks into the job I realised I never wanted to be a producer. Half the job was assisting Jenny with casting – they never used freelance CDs in those days – and that was the part of the job I loved the most. I was there for around two years, before going to the BBC as a casting assistant. After a while I was promoted and started casting Holby City, Doctors and guest parts on EastEnders.After that I did a bit of freelancing and worked at the RSC in long-term temporary contracts. I met Gemma Hancock there and we decided to go into partnership together. Casting can be lonely, working in your second bedroom trying to get on with the job, so making friends and being collegiate is important. We worked together until 2016 when she went to the BBC and I came here.

In the industry, generally, do the majority of individuals work both freelance and with a company or are the majority just the former?
It is still mainly freelance as there are few in-house jobs. There are some freelancers like Julia Horan who is very much associated with the Young Vic and Almeida but that’s a rare thing.

What are the benefits of being freelance?
I loved being freelance and enjoyed working from home; it was the variety and, when finances allowed, saying no to things if they weren’t up your street, which you can’t do when you’re attached to a company. Gemma and I were lucky; we worked in theatre, film and TV and I enjoyed how different each job was. But what I love about working here is being in the building with the actors and directors; I feel much more connected to the work.

What does a normal week as a casting director at the National look like?
The only normal thing is that it’s crazy busy.

How far in advance does casting work? In early October the National is to announce its line-up for the next year: when does the casting for that batch of shows happen?
There isn’t a set period of time. Currently I’m casting a show that will start rehearsing in December, whilst another will begin in April. I’m also working on something for autumn 2019. Much will depend on when the director is available to start or when the project gets greenlit.

How does a casting director become, to use a phrase from Alastair Coomer, Head of Casting at the National, a ‘human encyclopaedia’?
It’s concentration mostly and systems. I keep cast lists from every play and have a database of those actors I’ve seen or met. You do have to be a human encyclopaedia, but it can get harder as you get older and your memory starts to fail. Sometimes it feels like trainspotting; I’m a nerd which helps.

Alastair has said in an interview with Mark Shenton that casting is one of the first departments that gets involved with a production: what conversations happen with writers and directors at this stage and are these individuals often very vocal in their casting choices?
At the start we always want to know, ‘how does the director envisage this production?’ The answer can tell us a lot about the kind of actors you need. Directors can and should be vocal about who they want. They see a lot of theatre and have a good knowledge of actors; they’re usually aware of the kind of people they want to work with.

What is the rough process of casting a show?
Broad-strokes: first, read the script and discuss with the director the essential qualities that each role requires. We’ll then send out a breakdown, usually via Spotlight, so that agents can suggest their clients. We’ll also come up with our own ideas and check actors’ availabilities for the production dates. At a certain point we’ll combine our ideas with the agents’ suggestions to produce a shortlist for each role which we’ll share with the director. From there we’ll work out who we want to meet and set up the auditions. If it’s a new work that hasn’t had a prior table-read or workshop, the audition is sometimes the first time we will have heard the play read and so you learn an awful lot from it.

How does casting, say, Follies differ from The Lehman Trilogy? (And do you prefer casting large or small shows?)
Wendy Spon, Alastair’s predecessor, cast both those shows. There’s a bigger creative team on a musical so the choreographer and MD, as well as the director, will all have input into the casting, so casting a play is usually a simpler process. Follies is particularly complicated because, apart from having a large cast, we have to find two matching actors to play older and younger versions of the character: Imelda Staunton and Alex Young for example played older and younger Sally respectively. It can be one step forward, two steps back. Lehman, has three actors but is no less complicated because they need to be actors with immense variety, intellect and technical skill. What do I prefer? I love all of it, I don’t think of it in terms of big or little, just whether the writing, acting and direction are good.

The Lehman Trilogy is in the Lyttelton Theatre until the 20th October before transferring to America. Photograph: Mark Douet

How has the National tried to improve the diversity of its casts?
I’ve only been here for just over two years so I don’t have a broad historical view but being representative is integral to the casting process.

The National Theatre has committed to providing all actors with a yes/no outcome to their auditions. What does this shift represent?
I don’t see it as a shift. It has genuinely been the aim and policy of most CDs to let actors know the outcome of their audition (as they should). Because the YesOrNo campaign made it into the press and is being widely discussed there is probably a sense of something being shaken up.

By being in casting, what do you learn of and about theatre?
Every experience, every job is a chance to learn and to start afresh. It’s always evolving; it’s an ephemeral thing without rules.

How much of the text will you work with throughout the process?
I go back to the text a lot. When you start auditioning you find new details in the material, and the wonderful thing about meeting actors is that they show you aspects of the writing and the character that perhaps you hadn’t discovered before.

What are the benefits of the career, and, to be candid, what are its negatives?
At its best it is creatively satisfying, especially when you’re working with brilliant directors and writers. Giving someone their first job is always lovely. What’s hard is the relentless exhaustion; the hours are long as you’re either in the office or going to the theatre. And sometimes, if you’re having difficulty casting a role, the pressure can be overwhelming.

You’re a committee member of the Casting Directors Guild, which in January announced the Casting Awards for 2019. What will this mean for the industry and why is the work of casting directors only now being recognised?
I wasn’t on the committee when the planning of the awards began and I think we’ll find out what it means for the industry when they take place. I’m not entirely sure that CDs are being recognised (by others at any rate) which is why the Guild wants to celebrate our work.

What are you working on at present?
Courage Everywhere, a season of rehearsed readings, which mark the centenary of the start of women’s suffrage in the UK. Plus several plays that haven’t been announced yet …

Part of your job is seeing lots of theatre: could you name three of the best shows you’ve seen recently?
Perhaps it’s a cliché, but I loved Hamiltonand was genuinely impressed. There was so much craft and hard work from the cast; they were completely committed to the show.The Inheritanceat the Young Vic was full of beauty and pain, with a company of brilliant actors. And I finally got to see Sea Wall; nothing beats watching a great actor alone on stage with no set.

‘For a long time I’ve wanted to cast Ciarán Hinds so all my wishes came true at once when he agreed to play Hugh.’ Hinds in Translation at the National Theatre. Photograph: Catherine Ashmore

What would be your dream show to cast, and who might you cast in it?
I’ve already been given my dream show – Translations. I saw it years ago here in the Cottesloe and I loved it and it has always stayed with me. So I was elated when I was given it to cast with Ian Rickson directing, but also terrified because I didn’t want to mess it up. For a long time I’ve wanted to cast Ciarán Hinds so all my wishes came true at once when he agreed to play Hugh.

How might someone go about trying to become a Casting Director?
Being an assistant to a CD is a great way to learn but it can be hard to get your foot through the door. When considering assistants we might look for experience in other aspects of the industry; stage management and assistant to an agent for example. It sounds boring but really good admin and organisational skills are important. Watch as many plays and shows as you can. If you can’t afford to see much, stay aware of what is being produced, who the actors and directors are. Watch TV and film and engage in an active way; reflect on the qualities of all the actors – especially those in the smaller roles.

London Student would like to thank Sam Stevenson for taking the time to talk with Anthony and to Ruth Greenwood, Interim Head of Press, for organising the interview. The next in this series will be with Ross Macgibbon, Camera Director for the National Theatre Live scheme.

Feature photograph: Philip Vile

Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL and is the Theatre editor for London Student. His interests include theatre adaptation, early modern drama, classical myths made modern and all things eighteenth century. For more information please contact: @AntWalker_Cook

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