Casting Notes #11: Conducting the Auditions (For Filmmakers)

Posted on October 27, 2014 by admin

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.


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Conducting the Auditions

Filmmakers, isn’t it nice to go to 11?

While this isn’t the only fun part [1], all the work you’ve done up until this point should pay dividends. Indeed, after processing all 500-odd submissions for the Broken Continent and going through the all the efforts to find a good audition venue, I enjoyed the auditions far more than others I have done previously — and I know it was very much thanks to all the prep work.[2]

However, while there’s fun to be had, you need to be prepared for long days and the need to take breaks. The overall audition day will have five parts:

  1. Beginning your audition day
  2. Checking in the actors
  3. The Audition itself
  4. Checking out the actors
  5. Ending the audition day

As we’ll explain, parts 2 through 4 run concurrently. The auditors will be handling part 3 –the auditions themselves– while the check-in staff will be handling parts 2 and 4.

1. Beginning Your Audition Day
There’s three basic tasks that should be done starting a half-hour to an hour before the auditions are set to begin. Due to your team needing to get on the same page  –and some actors invariably arriving early (so as not to be late)– I recommend planning on starting this an hour before the first audition, at least on your first day.

a) Set-up the Space 
As explained in the previous article, there’s a number of set-up functions that you might only be able to do on the first day of the auditions. In addition, on any given day, you will probably need to set up your equipment, make sure you have your WiFi connections, hang signage, etc. Divide and conquer as you see fit, but consider partnering audition veterans with the new folks for efficiency’s sake. [3] Even with an hour’s head start, the time will go fast. You should not be surprised if you start seeing actors 15 minutes before your first schedule audition time.

b) Level-set Expectations
Whether it’s a huddle with the whole team or two separate touch-points with the auditors and the check-in staff respectively, it’s a good idea to let people know how you expect the day will go. For the Broken Continent, I did separate touch-points with the check-in staff and the auditors in my role as the casting director. Even if you’re working with people who’ve done this before, it probably won’t hurt to reiterate some of these points — unless you all were casting last week.

In terms of the check-in staff, you’ll want to make sure they don’t have any questions and are comfortable saying “I don’t know, but I can check.” for any questions they can’t answer. You also want to re-affirm your expectations about the flow of getting people into and out of the audition room. And don’t forget to let them know where the food is.

For the auditors, especially a director who many not have tackled a large casting like this, make sure they’re comfortable with their role in directing the audition and how they want you as the casting director to facilitate. For all the auditors, remind them that the day may seem long and that they should take breaks even if it’s just the proverbial stretching of legs. They also should be told where the food is (though in the case of the Broken Continent, we had the food in the audition room).

c) Check/get supplies and do “pit-stops”
Speaking of supplies, make sure every has the food they need, the batteries are charged (if needed), and the phones (at least in the audition room), are set to silent. At about 5 minutes to the first audition time, it’s time for anyone who’s going to be in the audition room to heed the call of nature and be back so you all can start on time.

2. Checking in the actors
Even as the auditors are getting ready for the first auditions, your check-in staff will likely be greeting actors. This will continue throughout the day and be a ‘rolling’ activity. Some actors will be very early and some will be very late due to traffic problems, parking problems, and other fun reasons.

By scheduling actors into half-hour blocks, it’s easy to take actors as they come for their half-hour slot. And if you make sure you don’t overbook your half-hours, you can easily plug in an actor who comes late. Nothing relieves an actor more than knowing they don’t have to rush and they will be seen. They also may be subconsciously happy to hear you’re on schedule. (For more details on the how we scheduled by half-hour, take a look at Part # 8: Deciding Who to Call In with particular attention paid to Section 4 about ‘Initial Scheduling’).[4]

Just as with Stonehenge, Team J takes pride in actually being on schedule. This often surprises and confounds actors, who are very used to filmmakers “running behind” by as much as two hours or more. Even if running late might be objectively ‘normal,’ we urge you not to find it acceptable. If you’ve done your ‘triage’ well (see Part 7 about processing actors and Part 8 about deciding who to call in), you should be reasonably confident about who’s coming through the door.[5] Incidentally, when it comes to projects done under a SAG-AFTRA agreement, you can’t be so cavalier about keeping actors waiting, so you might as well aim to be on time now.

For the actual check-in, you want to make sure the actor has the requisite number of headshots and resumes (whatever you asked for during scheduling). Even if you don’t know your production dates, it’s a good idea to collect the actor’s current conflicts in the date range you think you’ll be shooting (e.g., you’re pretty sure you’ll be shooting in June-July, so ask them for all their conflicts then). For Broken Continent, we filled this information in on the spreadsheet. Now, we’d ask them to update their availability in Stonehenge.

If your check-in staff are knowledgeable about the production details, you may want them to to ask the actors if they have any questions about the project (e.g., the shooting dates, rehearsal dates, SAG-AFTRA agreement, key personnel, etc.). This can lead to fewer detail questions in the audition room, however, the risk is similar to the game ‘Telephone’ where your staff may paraphrase something that leads to more confusion or questions in the audition room.[6]

Regardless, the check-in staff should note that the actor is “here.” For the Broken Continent, we used those modified spreadsheets with the audition call times for all the actors. You can easily create the same thing using Google Drive. Since we had a mobile hotspot, the check-in staff were able to mark every actor as “Here.” on the same spreadsheet we could view in the audition room. They could also update if someone was delayed and, importantly, when they were done and “checked out.” [7]

I highly recommend using some variant of this system: it improves communication, reduces paper, and gives the impression that your production is actually in the 21st century.[8] In the audition room, we had a better sense of where we were in our day, and who we had seen — and it was very reassuring.

In addition to that very real, technological “check-in”, your check-in staff should make sure the actor knows:

  • Where they should hang out (i.e., within eye-shot of the check-in desk in most cases)
  • If they’ll be asked to find their own way to the audition room or be guided (I recommend guided)
  • Whether or not they need to check out (Again, I recommend at least a ‘light’ check-out).
  • Where the bathroom is (along with any other amenities, like water, water fountains, power outlets, etc.).

As mentioned in the last article, your check-in staff are a critical part of setting the tone for the audition. Friendly, but firm people who can exude a “Don’t Panic” vibe will absolutely help your audition day be a success.

3. The Audition Itself
There’s nine steps to this dance. While there’s nothing I can say here that will address all the variables you may experience and all the tricks you might employ (that’s a whole workshop in itself), following this procedure itself is not difficult and I think you’ll find how to make it work well for you.

a) Get the actor into the audition room
You’re ready for the next actor. As mentioned before, for the Broken Continent, as the casting director, I went out and got the next actor, but the guide could be a casting assistant like a reader.

Rather than have one of the check-in staff point the way, I do recommend having someone guide the actor from the waiting area to the audition even if it’s obvious where the audition room is. This gives you another opportunity to make the actor feel welcome and exude the “Don’t Panic” vibe.

Remember, you want the actor to feel comfortable and make this environment a safe one for them to play and experiment in: all while they’re dealing with a special level of job interview stress. After all, most standard job interviews don’t involve you actually performing the job — they just talk about it.

Having that personal guide also allows you to easily transition into the next step.

b) Perform introductions and preliminary questions
As you lead the actor into the room, the guide can pass out the headshot/resumes and make the introductions.

For the Broken Continent, I would make the introductions, then hand Francis and Kelley the headshot/resumes. By the time I walked around the desk to sit down, they would have had time to scan the resume and possibly have questions. If not, I always had some questions about their experience with a particular show, working with a director I recognized, or asking them to elaborate on some interesting special skill listed. If one or more of you know the actor, it can be a chance to catch up collectively.

Don’t dismiss this as purposeless small talk. I know for some directors, this is the epitome of their job interview. [9] After all, you are deciding whether or not to work with this person. If you think audition stress is bad, what about a 12+ hour day on a difficult location shoot? Will you get along? What’s their personality like?

All of this can be light and quick and take less than two minutes. Maybe one minute. As the auditors, we found a natural flow with each other and, case-by-case, with each actor.[10] This small talk eases the actor into the room and assures them, even if it’s only subconscious, that they can open up in front of you. The final question from you should always be something along the lines of “Do you have any questions before we start?”

I want to make it clear that it’s absolutely fine for them to have no questions whatsoever. Indeed, many an actor might reply with “No, let’s go!” (in fact, several did during Broken Continent auditions). This question is a final “escape valve” for the actors. Perhaps they’ve been really wondering about an accent or an assumed bit of backstory. They’re conflicted about making a choice themselves and again, even if it’s only subconscious, this conflict will stop them from doing their best or connecting to the material to the fullest. Your answer might not help, but it might just give them the permission they need to make a bold choice. You want them to be bold.[11]

c) Let them perform
Steps C through E are what you could spend a solid workshop on, so I won’t go into great detail about all the tactics you might employ. Suffice to say Step C is where you let the actor take their first stab at the script you provided. While I always ask “Do you have any questions?” in case they need that background to take the flying leap into their read, I most enjoy seeing what choices they brought to the script with a minimum of direction.

What you’re looking for here is how well they connect to the character — and sometimes they connect to the truth of the character in a way you recognize as true, but hadn’t imagined. That’s always a delight, but don’t depend on it happening with every actor.

Regardless of whether they connect to the character in an expected or un-expected way, the important thing is that they do — and this is why it’s so important that the portion of the script they’re reading is that critical character moment: whether it’s where their essential nature is revealed, where they’re most vulnerable, where they’re honest, or where there’s a transformation. That character is in your script for a reason and there’s some point in the script where they sell the audience on who they are, why they’re there with that tone they have (e.g, bitter, banter-filled, brooding, buoyant, other adjectives not beginning with ‘b’). The script side need not be long and after many hours of auditions you’ll be glad that is isn’t, but the main thing is: you need to test the actor on that moment.[12]

d) Have the director make adjustments
Odds are, you’ll have many actors who didn’t quite connect with the material — you need to give them direction. Other times, what they did was fine, and you want to explore the character and their take on said character further.

However they perform, it’s good to be neutral to positive. For those of you new to being an auditor in audition rooms, this is why you hear directors and casting directors saying “good” or “nice” so much, as if they were giving out free candy. The reason they do this is because the average actor –even the veteran actor– has “self-doubt demons” looking for any excuse to come galumphing into his or her psyche and spoil the audition. You want to keep the energy up and the demons at bay to get the best audition: you want the actor to succeed. If someone does a great job, you don’t need to hide it, but the floor is always upbeat at the very least. When the director is giving adjustments, it’s because of a new possibility, something new and fun to tackle. Call it a conceit if you must, but don’t discount it helping you get what you really want: actors performing their best. [13]

By the way, I say the director here, because they’re the person who’s going to be needing to direct them on set. Depending on your project, several of you might be directing different episodes of a web series, so you can feel out how you want to give directions, but it is good for the director to work directly with the actor here in giving them notes (and even in the case of multiple directors, I would recommend the showrunner/pilot director be the one giving notes).

Incidentally –and this is something that I always make clear to the director when I am the casting director prior to the auditions– even if you think the actor has absolutely connected with the character, with the scene, or what-have-you, I always make adjustments. If they did a scene standing, I ask them to try it seated. If they did it seated, I might ask them to stand. If they did it big and worked great big, can they make it small and still work well? If they did it small and it was exquisite, how big can they make it and keep it true? You get the idea: it’s time to play.

For actors (and directors) who obsess about “nailing the audition,” they wonder “Why?”

Find a reason. Make a bold choice. Because if you think having to suddenly do the scene sitting in a chair is odd during an audition, just wait until you’re on set and you need to re-block, re-work, or re-costume a scene for any of a number of reasons so you can make your day. Often there’s 30+ people on set who are working to shoot X number of pages that day.

The ability to play and experiment in the audition room often translates into the ability to problem-solve on set — and in the most wonderful, creative way. You’re not having the audition for the actor to “nail it” or for the director to be absolutely sure the actor can “take direction.” You’re there to see what kind of magic the actor and director can create together.

Yes, that magic should pertain to the character at hand. Yes, you should be confident that the actor can take direction, but it’s worth noting that even though this is a job interview, you’re in this business to do more than make widgets or hire good widget-makers. If the audition is all about checking off a box, we have some exciting medical paperwork job opportunities for you… [14]

e) Let them read another character (if applicable)
Given our case study, it makes sense at this point that you might have a second character you want them to read for. Or perhaps you’ll ask them if they wanted to read for another character (don’t discount this, as sometimes you’ll discover the perfect actor for a given part). [15]

The process here is similar to step (c), give them enough background so that they can jump in — and let them have at it.

f) Have the director make adjustments there
This is essentially the same as step (d). Have fun working on some “alternate takes” as it were. You probably won’t have time to do more than one or two adjustments — and in some case, feel free not to do any (see step (g) below).

g) The auditors agree that they have what they need
Eventually, which is to say about five to seven minutes after step (a), you know you need to wrap up. The given format of 4-5 actors per half-hour means you can’t keep on working out a scene with one actor: the main idea is to know whether you want to call them back and doing the initial read followed by a read with adjustments should do that.

Bear in mind that you could always mix this up and have 4-5 actors per hour, giving you ample time to work with each actor in turn. However, given the cost of the audition venue rental and thinking of our case study of trying to find and cast 21 roles, we think you’ll find large casts may require a rather full initial round followed by call-backs (we’ll talk about the more leisurely pace of the callbacks in that article).

h) Conduct a wrap-up with the actor
Here is where the one of you wearing the casting director hat goes over the logistics of next steps. For us, this included:

*How callbacks would work. We were careful not to promise them to anyone and made sure they would hear from us regardless at the end of casting (i.e., we would actually close the loop — something most people never do).
*How fight auditions would work for those interested (this is a separate audition, which we will describe more in Part 14)
*If they were interested in background work (we’ll do this differently in the future, but we’ll describe this in detail in Part 15)
*When the shoot dates were.

In addition, we gave them another opportunity to ask questions that any of us could answer. We fell into a pattern of which ones I would answer as the casting director (more of the logistical/business ones) and which ones Francis would answer as the writer/director (more of the artistic ones).

This is, in some ways, an optional step because it constitutes something of a “Check-out” process, but we found it was reassuring to the actor to have Francis, Kelley, and I answer the questions directly, further establishing trust.[16]

Finally, before they head out the door, we thanked them again for coming out.

i) Judgement time
We can and should be as nice as possible to the actors and make the audition room a safe and fun place to play in: but after they’ve left, you gotta judge them.

There’s no way around that this is the best time to do a parallel to the ‘triage’ you did when figuring out who to call in. Was the actor you saw good, bad, or ugly? Besides that, did they connect with the character and the material? Did they take direction well? Did your spider sense tingle?

All of these questions and more may spring to mind. You don’t need to answer all of them or create a checklist, but the auditors definitely need to discuss what they thought.

For the Broken Continent, we sorted them into a similar red/yellow/green system as we did for calling people in, only we made sure to put post-its on each headshot resume as to which character they were red, yellow, or green for. In addition, between this and the callbacks, we devised a new category that might be more in line for people doing web series: Future Episoders. These were actors that we thought were great, but didn’t really fit any of the characters we were reading for — or as well as another actor for that character. Still, we knew we’d love to work with them.

This entire conversation usually takes less than a minute, and then your guide is off to get the next actor.

Remember, these nine steps will be happening four to five times every half hour if you’ve scheduled as outlined in Part 8 — and some of those half hours you’ll want and need to take a break. Usually the time evens out as the actors you really want to try new characters take a bit longer and the ones who are sadly duds take less. However, the time only evens out and you only stay on schedule if one of the auditors is willing to be the slightly bad cop. If the director is having a lot of fun directing the actor and they’re really connecting to characters, that’s your clue that they’re a callback candidate.

4. Checking out the actors
After all the energy inherent in an audition, this part isn’t nearly as exciting, but it’s part of closing the loop. Generally, you’ll want the actor to let the check-in staff they’re done, especially if you have actors waiting to audition multiple times as you may do during callbacks or however you’ve structured the auditions. This also gives the actor another opportunity to ask some logistical questions they may have forgotten to ask.

Once the actors were done, our check-in staff turned their green “Here” to a blue “Done” in the spreadsheet which helped us in the audition room know where we were in our day.

So make sure your check-in staff have a FAQ or cheat-sheet to answers, and know how to let the actors leave on a good, friendly note.

5. Ending the audition day
At the end of the day, you want to have one of the check-in staff go and collect any and all signs posted for directions to the auditions. Meanwhile, the auditors check and make sure all the actor headshots are properly marked and sorted and the videographer does a spot check of the footage.

Then, all of you can go around the audition area and make sure you’re leaving the space nicer than you found it, Scout-style.

If you’re coming back the following day and you have a place to store materials securely, by all means do so. In our experience, we’ve always needed to pack up everything.

Breaks
From the schedule discussed in Part 8, you can potentially have breaks every half hour, but the truth is you both won’t want to and you won’t have time. You will be running over from time to time and you’ll use that buffer time to get back on track.

However, occasionally for sanity or basic biology, you can and should take a break –and any of the auditors should feel free to heed the call of nature whenever the need arises. You can easily inform the check-in staff you’re in a holding pattern and everyone will be happier in the audition room because of it.

For lunch, as mentioned in the last article, even if you’re eating in the audition venue (which you probably will due to time constraints) being able to sit someplace else in the venue other than the audition room has a great psychological benefit. Just do it out of potential earshot of any actors wandering upon you as the temptation to discuss some of the auditions of the day thus far is only natural: this is indeed an integral part of the lunch break.

Speaking of breaks, filmmakers can now take a break as we switch our attention to the actors for next article and go into what they should be planning for and doing on audition day.

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FOOTNOTE #1: As we’ll discuss in Part #17, being able to offer actors a part and hearing them accept is very much fun.


FOOTNOTE #2: By the way, for any of you just popping into this article now, ignoring the previous installments, you really should at least skim some of the other articles. There’s a reason conducting the auditions is Part # 11 and not Part # 1 or even Part # 2. Neither the captains of industry nor the generals of the battlefield have your back. Most of them agree that plans are often worthless, but planning is essential. There’s plenty of planning discussed between Part 1 and now.


FOOTNOTE #3: For example, if one of your check-in staff hung the signs yesterday, have them walk with the other person to hang the signs today. Now you have two people who know where it works to hang signs (assuming there’s a third day of auditions). Is your director going to be very particular about lighting? Have them work with your videographer to get that squared away on the first day so the videographer knows for future days. When it comes to delegation, there’s empowerment and there’s dumping — and for whatever reason, I see more dumping than there should be within the film industry. Much of the devilish details mentioned in this article and others in this series are dependent on filmmakers not embracing hierarchy for hierarchy’s sake.


FOOTNOTE #4: It was mentioned in Part 8, but I’ll mention it again now: we scheduled people to be 5 per half hour, but doing it again, we’d probably try 4 per half hour. Perhaps we’d do 5 for the first half hour and 4 for the second half-hour, hoping the 9 total for the hour would balance out. The trick is to find a manageable balance. As you’ll see as you go through all the nitty-gritty details of the audition itself, you’ll know some actors will not work quickly, others you won’t be sure, others you’ll want to spend more time with (hint: you can with callbacks!). Usually, it all averages out.


FOOTNOTE #5: For Broken Continent, we had many actors who didn’t connect with the material — perhaps because it’s something of a heightened fantasy world. Nevertheless, we were able to find our requisite number of actors we were excited to call back.


FOOTNOTE #6: As it happens, I rarely see check-in staff be pro-active and try and answer actors’ questions, for the reason that many times, the check-in staff, while capable, are last-minute additions: they really don’t know the information. In the case of the Broken Continent, I had worked with many of the staff before — and we also had created a FAQ about the project that we had sent to actors. We had a printout of that for the check-in staff. If you have any print-out, where your staff can check what is actually written down, you should certainly see if they can answer any questions. And remember, your check-in staff should always feel comfortable saying “I don’t know” or “That’d probably best be answered by the [casting director/director/producer].


FOOTNOTE #7: In some cases, especially with callbacks, you may want an actor to read with other actors, or read for additional characters. So, you do the initial audition, but ask them to wait for a follow-up audition or read that day. While we didn’t do that for The Broken Continent, it is a common enough occurrence and an excellent reason to use the computer-based/check-in system. Just remember, you shouldn’t leave the actor hanging out all day.


FOOTNOTE #8: Just in case we had battery failure or WiFi problems, we did have a printout of the audition call sheets, so if we needed to go manual, we could.


FOOTNOTE #9: I have heard this repeated in many different venues, from courses in directing theater to books on directing theater and film to Hollywood directors saying how they like to cast. Even where an audition is part of the overall job interview, they find simply talking with the actor for a few minutes is just as valuable to know if the actor will be a good fit. In fact, I’ve heard some actors and directors saying they just prefer a 10-15 minute conversation as the job interview for casting rather than the auditions. The directors often are interviewing an actor they feel can do the job and are just confirming fit –and the actors, especially established character actors– often feel that they’re a known-enough quality and being called in for a reason, so do ya wanna use ’em or not? I won’t discount this methodology, but I will suggest it might not work as well for the indie projects indicated in this case study, as you may not have a surplus of character actor veterans with 20-30 years’ experience and the budget to pay their fees. In addition, as I’ll explain in later articles, I have had parts which I wrote with specific actors in mind — and they didn’t connect with the material. So for me personally, I always like to have even my favorite actors audition. Nevertheless, you should feel free to have that conversation (I always want to have that too).


FOOTNOTE #10: Believe me: You’ll pick up on red flags or even if something feels “off” even if the actor doesn’t. It could be subtle, but their attitude towards you, the material, or the questions they ask may raise a flag that you recognize means this will not be the best fit.


FOOTNOTE #11: This “Do you have any questions about the script?” inquiry is all the more important if you’re doing something set in a fantasy or sci-fi world or otherwise looking for an unconventional tone.


FOOTNOTE #12: If you don’t have that moment for the character: you write it. For a web series, it makes sense that you may not have it, because you haven’t written the episode where the character in question had their reveal or whatever. In that case, write that scene. I’ve done this for a couple projects now: writing scenes for characters even though I wasn’t going to shoot those scenes anytime soon. But it helped me cast the right people for when we did have those scenes. If you’re doing a feature and you don’t have a scene that really illustrates the character, ask yourself: why is the character in that script? (Note: it’s perfectly acceptable to cast ‘one line day-players’ without creating needless backstory and scenework for them. Just know what your test and criteria are).


FOOTNOTE #13: If the director knows the actor and has the rapport, they may feel free to ask, “How did that feel to you?” or perhaps “Okay… you didn’t seem comfortable [at this point]. Do you want to try that again?” but in this case, it’s because the director and the actor have trust and have that rapport. This is something that is far easier to do on set because you’re not in a job interview situation. When you’re in an audition, the director and other auditors are automatically in an unequivocal power position. Yes, a power position is arguably (and almost always legally) the case when an actor is on set — and yet the ability to have that franker dialogue is always easier there. So look to the questions above: even there, being franker with an actor you know, you’re still engaging them in a dialogue, you’re both working on a solution together. If you’re looking at the audition as a test to pass or fail, you won’t have a chance to create an atmosphere of trust. Because it’s so hard to get that stronger atmosphere of trust with a complete stranger (i.e., the actor who’s just walked in the door), that’s why you don’t force the issue. There will be time to judge in Step I. For now, their read is what it is.


FOOTNOTE #14: There’s another reason I personally always love to give actors adjustments and generally play during auditions: I’m in it for the long game. Any actor I see audition now might be an actor I want to work with as director down the road — or might be a great actor to call in through my role as casting director for another feature. There are always friendly, inventive, excellent actors I encounter who simply don’t happen to be the right fit for the character we’re calling in here and now. I’m doing both them and myself a disservice by not taking this opportunity of working with them, if only for a couple minutes.


FOOTNOTE #15: Both for the Broken Continent and other projects, I have had an actor say they really wanted to read for a part that we didn’t call them in for. For the Broken Continent and at least one other project, they got that part. Be humble and know that an actor may have really hooked into what makes a given character tick. After all, there are some things that don’t occur to you when you’re reviewing an actor’s headshot and resume — even when you know the actor.


FOOTNOTE #16: Remember, you haven’t sealed the deal yet. Especially if they’re new actors you know you want to call back and are pretty sure you want to cast, the wooing isn’t done.