Casting Online: being relevant... before being relevant

(2022 update: original article published February 7, 2013)

I was a dancer for about 27 years, of which about 15 of it was as a professional. I was a talent scout for dance at Cirque du Soleil for 16 years, and in my experience there is something that stands out to me about the way that many dancers approach job searches: dancers seem to wait until they see a casting call to act. Their career management strategy is generally to wait for a role or a position to open up, to wait for opportunities to come their way.

General good management practices, however, dictate that leaving actions to the last minute are usually a poor planning choice for just about everything. Acting last-minute means that people end up having to go with the only choice available, instead of increasing the odds of obtaining the ideal choice. Dance career management often falls under this last-minute type process. Part of what talent agencies actually do is to manage this last-minute industry model.

Since most people tend to make choices that favor situations they know— situations with the least amount of perceived risk— many hiring choices will be made with the tried and true: if a hirer knows whom they’re hiring already and has a good idea at the outset what they would be getting into by hiring the person, they will have a tendency to go with that person.

Napoleon Bonaparte is quoted as having said, “Ability is nothing without opportunity.” I would follow up by saying, “Intelligence and vision create opportunity.” One needs to create an environment where opportunity is most likely to visit. Part of that is being proactive and not reactive; letting people know who you are before a job opening even exists. There is the general impression among employers that familiarity means less risk. So let employers know you’re there. The truth is, many times when a casting call is advertised—when an audition is posted—it is, in actuality, already too late.

But it is an art to let people know you exist and how you dance without harassing them. Overselling is as bad as not selling at all.

Since I spent the better part of two decades casting for Cirque du Soleil, let me put this into context. Cirque went so far as to set up its entire casting system on this preparatory principle. Most auditions (what we call “general auditions”) are done simply to get to know you and what you do—and to get the best of that on video. When the casting call comes… well, Cirque too, goes with what they know: they pull out videos of people who have already auditioned.

Think about it: a very slow casting year at Cirque du Soleil would be to cast about 1500 artists. If they were to go about casting in the traditional way – that is, post the casting calls as they come, then hold an audition to fill the call – they would be doing a minimum of 1000-1500 auditions per year. That’s more than three auditions per day. And with the reputation of having some of the best artists in the world in our casts, statistically the odds are not in their favor that the best artist for the job would always be available for an audition on the exact day of the audition. That is, IF they happen to be in the same country as the audition.

It doesn’t take an experienced casting director to know that this does not make any sense, neither time-wise, nor economically. So they hold general dance auditions for every dance role possible all at the same time, videotape it for the electronic database, and make preliminary casting choices when the casting calls come using that same video footage. That way they can hold one to five auditions per discipline family per year, instead of 1000 or more.

And when no pre-auditioned dancer in the database fits the casting call? Then they look at the video demos of artists who are waiting for the next audition—hence, the importance of actually submitting one, not when you see a casting call, but as soon as you’re ready to show what you’ve got.

But nothing can replace seeing people dance live, right? True. But a first choice by an artistic director can easily be made on video (no matter what a lot of them might say ;-)). After that, a follow-up audition would already be a first callback. Much less hassle and much less expensive for everyone involved, both for the company hiring and for the performer(s) being considered.

Moses Pendleton, artistic director of Momix, was quoted by Dance Magazine in 2011 as saying:

“Technology is going to develop in ways that could radically change the audition process. I imagine a time when there will be an international web registry of dancers. We could draw from a wider pool, and it would be more democratic. Right now, we are limited by who can actually fly to an audition. We would like to be able to hunt for talent much the way Cirque du Soleil combs the world for the best gymnasts. In the future we will be able to do that via the web.”

He was absolutely right. And now, post pandemic, the rest of the casting industry is beginning to catch on too, scrambling to find online solutions to cast their shows and performance projects. Some are finding out the hard way that collecting submissions by email is a bad idea. Others are beginning to realize that the development of online casting tools was left by the wayside a long time ago, and that we are all feeling the pain of their absence now.

Moses Pendleton had the wisdom to recognize the future of casting 11 years ago, by observing a company that had already been doing it for at least 10 years before that. But little did he know then that a decade later, it would take a tiny virus to make a huge impact on the industry. An impact significant enough to spur on a long awaited evolution. That is, if we allow it.

Better late than never, as they say. But to simply return to “normal” after this experience that we have all lived would be a step backwards. It would be to ignore an opportunity to which we have been presented, a way out. We know too much now to be “as you were,” so to speak. What has happened has happened, and nothing we can do can make it un-happen.

The question to ask ourselves then is, now that the unthinkable has happened, what do we do with it? Do we lock it up into our memory closet as a bad experience that we’d like to forget, or do we leverage it to take a giant leap forward?

— Rick Tjia

5 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All