Casting Notes #10: Organizing the 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.
Organizing the Audition Space
Okay, so you’ve gone through the pain and suffering of finding an audition space that not only meets your logistical needs, but won’t break your budget.
Now that you’re probably at the stage where you’ve been figuring out who to call in, you need to make sure your audition space is ready. This isn’t rocket science, and many decisions may only be made the first day of auditions, but here are the things you should be doing prior to actors walking through the door:
- Confirm your staff and staffing needs
- Do a “Walk toward/walk around/walk through” of the audition space
- Check the waiting area
- Check the audition space proper
- Decide on food for you and your staff
As you may realize, some of these considerations you were at least subconsciously assessing as you were trying to find the right audition space. Whether you did already or not, it’s time to tackle these issues now: a well-organized audition space is key in setting the right tone with actors. 
1. Confirm your staff and staffing needs
Understanding the case study we’re working under, that of an indie film or web series looking to cast many roles, the production team is likely wearing multiple hats already.
For the auditions, you need people to wear the hats of auditors, a videographer, and check-in staff.
Your auditors should at least include the director and the casting director. For the Broken Continent, all three of us producers were there because all three of us were invested in the creative direction of the series — and the casting decisions made here could potentially impact our team. You don’t want to have too many people in that room, but you do want the people whom the actors will report to. By having the three of us there, we covered the writer, director, and casting director hats — and on a wider level anyone who should be making hiring decisions for the project.
Having stated that you should look to limit how many people are in the audition room proper, you may want to consider having a separate videographer. The reason for this is they can just focus on the technical aspects of the audition: is the audio and video good? For the Broken Continent, one of Francis long-time collaborators and accomplished camera wranglers was happy to volunteer his time. It’s very possible for your given project, you might already have a crew member who is willing to do this task whether for the promise of free food or part of their overall fee. 
If you don’t have a separate videographer, you don’t need to fret: just have your steps down for starting and stopping the camera. Otherwise, the one audition you really wanted to review will be the one you forgot to record.
Check-in staff, on the other hand, are both critical and can’t really be the auditors (though I, as the casting director, would come out and get the next actor during Broken Continent auditions). I’m sure you’ve heard many a tale of good, bad, and ugly customer service. Now you’re providing a form of customer service with the check-in process. Don’t you want to make a good first impression? With that in mind, pick your check-in staff carefully. I’ve seen family and friends often employed in this capacity and that’s fine, just don’t discount their importance in setting the tone you want. Here’s some things your check-in staff should do.
- Be the calm in storm. This is Above All: even if they’re not the most chipper, extroverted soul, they should be friendly and exclude a “don’t panic” vibe
- Have answers to common questions like where the bathroom is as well as the basic stats of the project (who the production company is, who’s the director and writer, when you’re shooting, etc.)
- Feel comfortable saying “I don’t know, but I can check.”
- Be the voice on the other end of the phone. In other words, if you’ve provided a phone number for the auditions, they should have that phone 
Besides their invaluable role in being able to empathize with actors without authorizing things, they take care of whatever process you’ve created to check people in. Sometimes they’re taking the headshots and resumes to take to the auditors before the actor comes in. Sometimes, they’re simply making sure the actor has the requisite number of headshots and resumes to provide to the auditors.
Often, the check-in staff have actors fill out an additional information sheet. Given the electronic tools at our disposal these days, I would strongly encourage using a web form — even one developed in Google Drive or a similar resource. For Broken Continent, we used a modified version of the sorting spreadsheet described and shown in Part 7. It worked wonderfully, though in the future, I might see how much Stonehenge can do — at the very least I’ll have the check-in staff ask them if their availability is up-to-date in Stonehenge. We’ll talk more about what the check-in staff do in the next article.
2. Do a “Walk toward/walk around/walk through” of the audition space
Ideally, your hard work has resulted in a space that is accessible by Metro, has decent parking, or both.
Whatever the case, one or two of you should walk toward and then around the building where your audition is, thinking of where the actors may be coming from (e.g., if the Metro stop or bus stop is one block north on Elm Street, look at the approach from Elm Street). Place your signs at intervals where nervous actors can see the next signs — and make sure to draw the all-important arrows in the right direction or have enough signs with printed arrows going in both directions. Do this all the way into the building and to your waiting area. You might even want a bathroom direction sign, though your check-in stuff should be able to handle that. Remember, wherever the Metro or parking is, someone will come from the opposite direction for reasons you will never understand. That’s where you post “[Name] Auditions – Entrance on other side of building” or whatnot and make some stressed actor that much more relieved.
Did you catch that the signs should be printed, not just be some piece of copy paper with some message scrawled on by marker? As you probably guessed, we advocate spending that time, even if you find you need to use the aforementioned marker to get the arrow direction correct for a couple signs. We did this for Broken Continent and several actors were thankful for it. Even if it’s subconscious, you’re telling actors you are prepared and this project will have a level of attention to detail they’ve found sorely acting on other projects they’ve had the misfortune to work on.
You certainly can do this the walk-around as late as the first day of the auditions. After all, we recommend only posting the signs the day of and taking them down after the auditions that day. Especially if you haven’t cased the building first, print at least two more signs than you think you need — and make sure you have duct tape as well as masking tape (duct tape will be overkill and potentially obnoxious on glass doors, but will be very necessary on stone or masonry).
Incidentally, you may be concerned that all these signs might lead some curious passersby wandering into your audition check-in area, perhaps hoping it’s an open call they can audition for — or perhaps even worse, “they’ve always been interested in movies” or “have this great idea for a movie.” Well, that is a risk. Bear in mind, this recommendation is based on the Broken Continent case study. If you have a known audition location (e.g. you’re doing casting for a series over the course of a season or seasons and actors know or should learn where you are) OR if you have a very small group of people you’re seeing (possibly for a smaller project or for callbacks), then perhaps you have few if any signs. However, remember that the trade-off with fewer signs will be that your check-in staff will get more calls.
3. Check the Waiting Area
This is more of a checklist. Before the day of the auditions –or at least on ‘the day of’ before the facilities manager disappears to deal with other matters– make sure you have these questions answered:
- How do you control the lights?
- Can you control the temperature? If so, how do you do it? (And if not, what if it’s too hot or cold?)
- Where are the outlets for your laptop or tablet or recharging your phone? 
- Speaking of the phone, do you have cell phone reception here?
- While it’s not expected, if there’s WiFi, how do you log onto that?
- Do you have a table/desk for check-in or do you need to bring one in? 
- Are there enough chairs?
- Bonus: Is there a place to get water? Either a water fountain or sink? 
- Bonus: How do you get to the bathroom from the waiting area? Do you need signs or is it simple?
As stated above, it isn’t rocket science, but it’s all good to know.
4. Check the Audition Space proper
This is markedly similar to number 3 above. Many of the questions are similar, but make sure to answer them too:
- How do you control the lights?
- Can you control the temperature? If so, how do you do it? (And if not, what if it’s too hot or cold?)
- Where are the outlets for your laptops/tablets and camera and lighting?
- Do you have enough outlets for your camera and lighting without tripping the circuit breaker?
- Do you have tables and desks for the auditors?
- How are you going to mark the floor so actors can hit their mark for the camera?
For The Broken Continent, our audition room was one of those classrooms that had two entrances and a partition — so we found we needed to explicitly mark the exit door lest nervous actors got confused at the end of their audition.
5. Decide on food for you and your staff
Even with the format of regular half-hour breaks, most likely you’ll find the day is packed, so you’ll want some snack food and drink on hand for all your staff.
Team J’s default is usually some variant of Cliff bars, fruit such as apples, bananas or grapes, and the wonderful combination of protein and sugar that is Peanut M&Ms. It’s easy to overdo it on the carbs though, so be mindful. We just go with water on the hydration side.
Also, in maximizing your audition time, you might not want to go out for lunch. That means you have to decide whether it’s best to figure out delivery or if one of the staff will go (the auditors probably can’t). One advantage of the classroom with the partition was we were able to have a meal on the other half of the classroom. Even if you can’t exit the venue, switching up the scenery from the audition room is surprisingly energizing (well, at least until the mid-afternoon slump).
So there you have it. Compared to the travails required to find an audition space, organizing the audition space itself is not earth-shattering. However, you’ll be glad you did — and it will leave you that more focused on our next topic: conducting the auditions themselves.
FOOTNOTE #1: Yet again, I will happily point out that an audition is a job interview and a job interview works both ways. The actors you most want to woo will notice the effort you put into a well-organized audition.
FOOTNOTE #2: We have no problem with people being paid, though I understand if producers are being thrifty in this pre-production phase. Still, there’s a reason that them thar money stuff is commonly used in exchange for people’s time, so consider that when you’re considering your pre-production budget. And if audition staff are volunteering their time, do make sure their food and parking/travel expenses are met so all they’re donating is their time.
FOOTNOTE #3: Invariably, some actor is going to be late because of traffic, the hunt for a parking space, or some stranger circumstance. The phone number in this case is an escape valve and here your check-in staff serves their role as the empathetic “don’t panic” person admirably. It doesn’t disrupt the auditions you’re running, and they can update you during a break before the next audition.
FOOTNOTE #4: This is probably an opportune time to mention your check-in staff should be comfortable being friendly, but firm with any passersby. It’s a private event and it’s closed to “walk-ins.” That language alone usually shuts down discussion (needing a headshot and resume usually blunts things too). They may be disappointed, but I’ve never seen anyone become hostile — and if they seem to want to linger, the facilities manager –who’s probably on hand wherever your renting the space from– may also be useful as backup. By the way, if you are planning ahead, you can make the signs a bit more vague and let actors know exactly what the phrasing is. However, then you’ll still deal with that actor that didn’t pay close enough attention. And you can never eliminate the curious.
FOOTNOTE #6: Team J invested in several roll-up camp tables that are roughly 3 foot square when unfolded. They travel easily and have proven to be invaluable investments for our auditions and for film shoots.
FOOTNOTE #7: As mentioned elsewhere, our audition space had a sink/kitchenette space within the waiting area which was really quite nice. As an added bonus to the actors, I made sure to provide little paper cups for water. I had the option of the more expensive Dixie cups or the cheaper, but just as good store brand. Plus, the store brand had dinosaurs on them. As a casting rule I just made up, you don’t want to hire any actor who doesn’t appreciate a dinosaur cup. We went with the dinosaurs (and received complements).