A Beginner’s Guide to Common Casting: or Why We All Look Sleep-Deprived

by Madeline Smith

I remember meeting a friend of a friend last September. She very politely asked how the semester was going, and I replied, "Well, you know, Common Casting is stressful. But everything’s coming together."

She stared blankly. "What’s that?"

I choked a little on my Honey-Stung Chicken. Then came a cosmic epiphany: Many at Harvard, most even, have no idea what theatrically-inclined people put themselves through in the name of art during each of these Shopping Weeks.

Common Casting is the system by which Harvard casts roughly 20 plays, musicals, operas and films at the start of each semester. The basic principle is: Regardless of where in the semester a production falls, all shows are auditioned during one exhilarating, terrible week. Every production staff casts its show, accompanied by lists of alternates. If the first choice for a role does not accept it, the role goes to his or her first alternate, and so on. I find the system to be generally fair. It creates opportunities for those less experienced, because those more adept probably won’t accept all the roles they are offered. Although they could, and lose their minds.

This semester, I am music directing a musical. My roommate is music directing and composing original music for a play. Our other two suitemates are directing a musical and directing a play, respectively. There is something pleasantly symmetrical and balanced about this coincidence. But there is nothing balanced about the lunacy that we found ourselves devolving into by the end of last week. Here is a brief overview.

Monday-Friday: Preliminary auditions. Sometimes 3 hours a night, sometimes 6. The time passes remarkably quickly, being behind the table (or in my case, usually behind the piano). A GoogleDoc allows our two directors, two producers, stage manager and me to centralize comments quickly between each audition, which we’ll review later.

Friday, 8:53 PM: With 7 minutes of prelim auditions remaining, we’ve had 98 auditionees, and desperately (/delusionally?) call in friends to "audition" so that we can hit 100. The final auditions of the night are a rap about ice cream, written by the auditionee in 5th grade, and a rendition of Cee Lo Green’s F**k You, sung in French. (Thanks again, guys!) We submit our callback list and hypothetically get some sleep.

Saturday: 6.5 hours of callbacks for us today, which is actually pretty luxurious. (One suitemate had 10, consecutively.) We’ve called back auditionees by character, listening to different interpretations of the same songs over and over. The creativity and unique qualities that my peers bring to the material makes this day so enjoyable, although I already fear the impossibility of choosing favorites for each role.

Sunday: Another 6 hours, including a dance call. Watching the laughter and smiles of the 47 auditionees who learn and perform a short excerpt from one of the dance numbers is a testament to how supportive and laid-back this crowd is. I don’t see a single competitive glare dart across the room. Everyone seems happy to be here, and so am I.

Sunday, 11:00 PM: We begin casting the show.

Monday, 3:30 AM: We finish casting the show.

Monday, 9:58 AM: The futon in our suite is now nervously crowded as we all receive and silently read the PDF that lists each show’s first-round cast. In 7 hours, we must submit our lists of alternates—probably the most strategic moment of the week. No one knows what a given actor will choose to do—one show, five shows, no shows—and having confidence in the ability of your alternates is key.

Monday, 5:30 PM: Cast lists are posted publicly. Actors have until 6 PM tomorrow to make decisions about the semester ahead. Of course, all I want is to give each of my potential cast members a sales pitch for the show, but the Common Casting gods wisely prevent this. I am not allowed to contact anyone on my cast list, although we may discuss if someone contacts me first.

Tuesday, 6:11 PM: From 4-6:00 today, actors report to the Loeb to officially sign for the role(s) they have chosen. Alternates wait with bated breath, and several will "bump up" into roles that were not originally theirs. The rest of my staff went to the Loeb 11 minutes ago to retrieve our list and see who will be in our cast, but I was too nervous. Instead, I receive an ecstatic phone call from our director, reading off the names of those who have signed for our show. Celebration ensues, involving the whole suite, as we congratulate each other on the amazing casts we’ve each been granted.

And suddenly, the semester ahead seems to take shape. Our cast has freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. Some of them would say they mostly dance, or mostly sing, or mostly act. Some are friends. Some are strangers. But by the end, an entirely new entity will exist under the label of one, unified "cast."

And so, the magic begins. But first, a nap.

[Caption: PHOTO: Sarah Reid]