Casting Notes #9: Finding the Right Audition Space (For Filmmakers)
This 20-part series, written by Team J’s Bjorn Munson, covers the lessons learned during the casting of The Broken Continent web series pilot in 2012. You can find the full Table of Contents in Part 1.
This series is meant to help other independent filmmakers, primarily those who are casting a large ensemble (10+ speaking parts, multiple background actors, etc.). Individual articles may be useful to production companies looking to cast other work such as commercials. There are also a number of articles specifically for actors on how to better submit for auditions, do the auditions, and deal with the statistically inevitable rejections.
The lessons learned have been applied to Team J’s Stonehenge Casting service, an online tool for producers to find actors and actors to find work.
Finding the Right Audition Space
Filmmakers should note that, while this is Part 9, it is by no means step 9 in your process. In fact, you should know where your audition venue is before you even write your casting notice; however, the next article on organizing the audition space naturally flows from this article.
Finding an audition space for the Broken Continent proved way harder than we expected. However, finding the right audition space is critical to one of the top two things to remember for casting: the right audition space sets the right tone with actors (and not coincidentally makes the audition process easier for you).
Finding the right audition space can be broken down into four general steps:
- Estimating the audition time needed (allowing a ballpark budget)
- Getting audition space options
- Evaluating audition space criteria
- Sealing the deal (and setting the budget)
1. Estimating the audition time needed (and getting a ballpark budget)
Before you book a space, you need to know how long you need it, right?
Before you even get to Part #8 and deciding who to call in, you should know how long you need the audition space. There’s an easy guideline to use. Going back to the example of 10 roles getting 10 initial submissions, you’ve got at least 100 actors of whom you’re calling in no more than 50 of them (and might well call in less). Therefore, if you book a space to accommodate 50 audition slots, you’ll be fine.
If you estimate 4 actors per half hour as discussed in the last article, you need 6.25 hours. That easily means a day. For each day you hold the auditions, you should add a 1/2 hour for set-up and a 1/2 hour for take-down. Every full day should also include about an hour for lunch. Therefore, for the example above, you can rent a venue for a single 8-9 hour day and be confident you have the time you need for the first round of casting.
If you can’t find a space for the full day or if you have enough roles that you need to do the initial casting over a single day, be sure to budget the set-up and take-down times as well as meal times you need. 
Note that you can easily estimate your callback audition time at this point: You’ll be calling in 2-3 actors per role (and that’s a maximum: you might find the right person for a role in the initial round).  From the previous sample, that means you’ll be calling in no more than 30 people, which means budgeting another 3.75 hours, or about 5 hours with the aforementioned set-up/take-down time.
You also might want to calculate what additional audition time you need as we needed for fight auditons (See Part #nn on the details there). However, as we’ll discuss in that article, the requirements of the fight audition space may not match what you’re able to get for the regular auditions.
In both these cases, if you don’t have to book the audition spaces yet, you may not want to — though if you’re able to get them all at the same place, you might get some volume discount.
So having said all this, what’s a good ballpark budget? In 2012 dollars, we found that estimating $50/hour for the audition budget was a good ballpark guideline. As you’ll see in Step 2, audition venues will vary wildly in price. The $50/hour guideline comes from aiming for $35/hour for the venue itself with the other $15/hour meant to cover the additional expenses including, but not limited to :
- Parking fees
- Staff costs
- Snack costs
- Meal costs
- Signs and Supply costs
Remember, you don’t need to spend extravagantly on any of these additional items to make the auditions more comfortable for both yourself and for the actors auditioning. Of course, you’re probably still concerned with how thrifty you can be about your audition venue which leads us to…
2. Getting audition space options
Now that you have a budget estimate, it’s time to go and get sticker shock. Starting with some internet searching and following up with phone calls, you’re going to check and see what spaces meet your requirements.
For the DMV area, you have an invaluable resource in the DC Space Finder. This online, searchable database includes audition, rehearsal, and performance spaces around the area. You can search by several different criteria including price. We used it for The Broken Continent and I highly recommend it.
You’re also going to want to ask your peers: possibly both before you begin your research and during to expedite which places are worth site visits.
Bear in mind as you search that every production has different needs and there’s tradeoffs with every audition venue, but in general you’ll want to consider:
B. The Audition Space itself
For the Broken Continent, we knew a downtown DC location would be ideal. We found a space near Mount Vernon Square and the new Washington Convention Center which therefore offered several options in terms of parking, bus routes, and Metro stops.
While you may not feel the need for quite so central a location, giving consideration to how people will get there is important, especially if, like the Broken Continent, you have many roles to fill and not top dollar to pay them. You’ll also want to consider a location that all of your team has no problem getting there early enough for set-up.
Bear in mind that you should have many options in DC, Maryland, and Virginia. Public and commercial buildings are re-assuring to actors just as private residences and hotel rooms will send red flags. 
Having held auditions in many a ramshackle production office before, I must say it was much nicer to hold the Broken Continent auditions in a church classroom. As one might expect, they keep their space clean.
Just like having access to mass transit is nice for the location, “clean” and “clean bathroom” is absolutely preferable for your audition space. The audition room itself doesn’t need to be large. A classroom or conference room will often do. You want space for you and your fellow auditors to be comfortable. You also want space and power for your camera and any computers you’re using. 
Don’t overlook the waiting area. A clean, well-lit waiting area with space for your check-in staff to set-up helps set a good tone for actors right from the beginning. We were lucky enough to have a sink in the area too, so we provided cups for water (even though we know most people carry water bottles with them these days). 
Good venues are in demand, so it is not uncommon for you to find the right space that has some limitations in terms of availability. The rental coordinators I talk to are generally quite up front about what times cost more than others — and know when their busy times are. They want your business, but they don’t want headaches.
Bear in mind, for most theaters and performance venues, their “bread-and-butter renters” are going to be companies that are renting for the run of a show, which often includes rehearsal time in the same or a related space.  That can often mean renting various spaces for eight weeks. For the Broken Continent and similar projects, you’re only looking for 2-5 days of rental. Savvy venue coordinators prefer longer rentals and take care of their regular customers. 
One of the things you’ll find as you search online and call around is that many venues are theater spaces and many can easily climb upwards of $100/hour. Sure, there’s business space rental places, but they often don’t have a dedicated waiting space you want.
In our experience, rental coordinators were pretty up front about when their busy times were — and their peak times also can come with peak prices. Those times, often weekend afternoons, are often ideal for indie producers to hold auditions.
This is one of the reasons you don’t want to try and call everyone in. This is also why many productions go for the more run-down audition location.
At the same time, there’s a reason we arrived at the $50/hour ballpark: we wanted a nice venue for the auditions. If you find a deal through connections, by all means take it. But don’t start your project already in the poverty mindset. 
3. Evaluating audition space criteria
Eventually, you will hopefully have a two or more options. I’ll be honest, even with the DC Space Finder and recommendations from peers, you’re going to not only going to need to do some legwork to find options that fit availability and price, you’ll find it’s not particularly easy to hear back from venues. Really. I can speculate, but it’s clear to me some venues find taking your money is an inconvenient use of their time.  Budget your time accordingly and you should find some okay options.
Odds are any space you have will have some of those tradeoffs mentioned above. It’s a balancing act, but just as you’re figuring out who the best candidate is to call in for a role, you want to start with the venue that seems to filling your needed role as Great Audition Space best.
4. Sealing the deal (and setting the budget)
Contact them and find out the particulars they need for finalizing the rental. For the type of venues you want to rent (i.e., the nice ones we allude to above), will almost certainly ask for the following:
- A signed rental agreement or the equivalent
- A security deposit
- Proof of insurance
For the rental agreement, definitely review it to make sure there isn’t anything crazy and feel free to ask their rental coordinator questions. In our experience, the agreements have been all about limited their liability and there aren’t wacky conditions, but occasionally, there are some assumptions or language built into the contract that might not make sense (e.g., that assume you’re a rehearsing show or the like).
The security deposit should be expected, and this is where having a corporate bank account is nice to keep the venue feeling that much more comfortable renting with you (it’s a weird thing, but true).
If the thought of having a company bank account made you break out in a sweat, then proof of insurance probably made you cry out in terror, “How can I get that?!?” You have many options. Assuming you do have insurance, ask the rental coordinator for all the info that needs to be put on the certificate and how they want to receive it (yes, some still like via fax). Then call up your insurance copy and make sure they send a copy to your email. If you don’t have insurance, than there are various places that are happy to give you some private event insurance with the liability limits that will please the venue (and it is a private event, unless you ignored all our advice to this point about avoiding open auditions, right).
If you’re not comfortable handling all these obnoxiously un-artistic dealings, please make sure someone on your production team is. As mentioned above, the right venue sets the right tone with actors — many of whom will be getting to know you for the first time at this location.
This also assumes that you’ve found a user-friendly rental coordinator, but if you’ve made it this far, hopefully you have. Remember what I said about the rental coordinators wanting your business, but not wanting headaches? You want to come across as, and then be, the low-key, stress-free rental. Hopefully, this isn’t your only project. Now that you’ve found the right place, you want to use it again, don’t you?
Now that you have a good audition space, we’ll focus on how to organize it in the next article.
FOOTNOTE #1: One consideration for indie production is what days of the week to consider holding the auditions. Strictly commercial enterprises will almost always do weekdays and many indie productions will do nights and weekends for auditions.
For the Broken Continent, we looked to have auditions Saturday, Sunday, and Monday — Monday being the traditional day off for many theater actors (and as you probably know, DC has many theater actors). At the same time, DC also has plenty of actors who have a dayjob, so there was still value in having weekend auditions. In addition, we made sure audition times were during the day and night to accommodate the maximum number of actor schedules, another subtle way to try and be nice to actors.
FOOTNOTE #2: We’ll get more into this into the article about conducting callbacks, but it’s okay not to be certain about roles until callbacks. With almost all projects, you’re not simply casting roles in vacuums. You’re casting an ensemble that needs to play off one another and have a similar skill level and sensibility.
FOOTNOTE #3: While hotel rooms send a classic skeezy red flag, hotel conference rooms may be an option. Depending on the layout of the hotel, a hotel location might feature a reasonably public waiting area, with good access to transportation.
FOOTNOTE #4: For The Broken Continent and most audition situations, I always plan on bringing one to two surge protectors and a number of extension cords. All three of us producers had computers or tablets. Team J also provided a mobile hotspot so we could coordinate the electronic check-in list with the “Front Desk” in the waiting area (which, given the time we were there, we kept plugged in).
FOOTNOTE #5: Purely for needless detail, I should note that we did not get the classic Dixie cups because the Giant brand was not only cheaper, but had fun drawings and facts about dinosaurs on them. Why would anyone not opt for dinosaur cups? Several actors noticed this as well and correctly deduced that we wanted them to get into a spirit of play.
FOOTNOTE #6: Many theater spaces will have a rehearsal space with the same approximate dimensions as their stage space. As mentioned earlier in this article, just a classroom or a conference room can do for the audition space, but a rehearsal space could be another option.
FOOTNOTE #7: If a shared space has “resident companies” they often will have priority. This can translate into blackout periods when venues will not want to book the space
FOOTNOTE #8: I have encountered way too many productions that “don’t have any money for casting.” This strikes me as would-be chefs having “no money for ingredients” who nevertheless want to cook up a world-class meal. There’s thrifty and there’s cheap.
FOOTNOTE #9: In several cases I called and emailed the contact listed on the DC Space Finder, in addition to cc’ing the general info address, and never got a reply. It’s clear many of these venues know they ought to be renting out their spaces and they’ve made efforts to do so on paper. However, it’s clearly fallen apart in terms of the execution whether the core reason is uninspired staff, disinterested organizations, or a dispiriting combination of the two.