Casting director workshops. These three words as an actor will either make you very excited or absolutely miserable, depending on your experiences with them. Over two years ago, I wrote two different articles on this: one that favored casting director workshops, and on the other side, an article that showed the dark side of taking them. I bring this up because in the past two weeks, major shifts have happened in the LA casting world as The Hollywood Reporter wrote an article about casting workshops and from that, Scott David got relieved from his head casting director duties on Criminal Minds. About a week after that, The Vampire Diaries head casting director Greg Orson cancelled his classes in Atlanta.
It’s safe to say that at this moment, casting workshops are seen in a rather dubious light and throughout this time, I’ve had a few actors ask me what I thought of all of this. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how extremely difficult it was to see where I truly stand.
Let the records show that I cannot deny I’ve had some success as an actor because of casting workshops. Let it also be known before I get into this that I have the utmost respect for casting directors. They are some of the most unappreciated folks in the industry and having several friends in that world, I know the long, grueling hours they commit to getting the BEST actors they need for the projects they are casting.
So to be fair to all sides of the argument, I might as well start from the beginning:
I first moved to LA in February 2010 and for almost 2 years, I’ve had difficulty getting a theatrical agent because I had no credits and being an average looking Asian dude didn’t really have any exciting factors for theatrical talent reps to have me. And so I took casting workshops because it couldn’t hurt to at least meet these casting directors in person. Starting around April of 2011, I started to take a LOT of them as I had money from my commercial bookings to do so. From this, I managed to book my first primetime costar without an agent and it was from that I was able to at least get a small boutique theatrical agent.
At the time I wrote the two opposing casting workshop viewpoint articles 2 years ago, casting director Billy DaMota reached out to me on my blog and we began to have an argument on this particular matter. We didn’t quite come to pleasant end to the argument (right now, we’re totally cool) but his words stirred within me a larger awareness of how much power an actor truly has as well as re-evaluating in how much I advocated for workshops.
So earlier when I said I took a lot workshops, I wasn’t kidding. We’re talking somewhere in the $1000-$1500 range from mid 2011 to end of 2012. And during this time, I did have some great workshops where the casting person actually gave a crap. But after that, many others ranged from mild interest to flat out I Don’t Give A Fuck. The worst ones, however, were within the I Don’t Give A Fuck category. Within that terrible realm, I had one experience where I was told that I had a great headshot but then after the 1 on 1 reading, I was given 1 out of 5 in the Headshots category for quality rating. In another workshop, you couldn’t have had a more disinterested casting director who watched every scene the actors performed and gave the same feedback: “Good job”. That was it. As awful as those two experiences were, I am very well aware they do not reflect all of my experiences taking workshops.
And for some time after that, I worked at a workshop facility and I saw how much these casting directors would get paid. For the most part, the paychecks were usually $200-$300 (given usually to associates) while the head casting directors for major primetime TV shows were given $700-$800. Wow. That’s $700-$800 PER workshop and many of these head CD’s would do 1-3 workshops per week. If one does the math, that’s a lot of pocket change in addition to their hired work in casting.
Even worse, some of these LA casting directors would charge an EXORBITANT amount of money for workshops outside of LA. If $40-70 per workshop seemed expensive here in LA, it was far worse in places like NY, Atlanta, New Mexico, and so on. Over there, it could go up to $100-$150 per workshop or sometimes even $1k-$2k per workshop seminar. Talk about serious cha-ching.
It was probably around this point that my advocacy in casting workshops started to slip big time, not just in recommending them to other actors but also for myself to even take them.
As more and more workshop facilities set up business in the LA area, it became painfully obvious that more and more casting directors will resort to that than watching a play, an improv show, checking out that Youtube short, and etc. Why take a chance and support an actor in their show when you can just have actors come to you AND you get paid? I can’t however stereotype ALL casting directors as there are those who do the hard work in seeking out actors and not rely on workshops as a easy paycheck.
But not many, thanks to casting workshops (I must interject now and say this is of course excluding the SAG Foundation workshops as those are entirely free to union members).
Now even though I say all of that, I still hold firm to the belief that casting workshops are not illegal. I do not believe that they are ALL Pay-To-Play. Because I do believe that some of them are the genuine good ones where an actor can get a valuable insight on what to expect in an audition and how one should audition for a guest star as opposed to a costar. I do believe that some of them are indeed educational.
That’s the problem though. It’s only some.
Most do not have any interest to educate but only to take. And we as actors provide them the reason to continue doing these workshops. In some ways, it almost feels like a plague that has swept over this expensive town and as such, perhaps this intense scrutiny on the purpose of workshops initiated by THR (but really started by Billy DaMota many years before that) may actually indeed be a good thing. Because if they want to find their actors, they will now have to get them by actively seeking out talent. The downside to all of this is that at least with workshops, we as actors can have the power to reach out to casting directors personally and have them see our work. We can take that initiative. So by taking that away because casting workshops are now considered uncool, what is an actor to do, especially if they have no credits and no agent?
Being an actor is tough. Being an actor in LA? Even more so. As flawed as casting workshops are, they at least provided some form of control that actors can take. For me personally, it played to my advantage because I’m an Asian actor who has a bizarre unique marketing strategy with Cinnabon. My early success as an actor did have a part with me taking workshops but even as I write this now, I am uncertain whether my success had to do with workshops or because of my marketing campaign to be known as The Cinnabon Actor. Perhaps it’s because of the workshops, doing well in them, and then following up with a Cinnabon postcard/letter was the answer. Or perhaps not. Perhaps it was just because they needed an Asian guy to say a one-liner to fulfill a show’s diversity quota. It is really hard to tell what the magical formula is.
What do I think of workshops now? I’ve stopped taking them for almost 2 years now and I don’t see myself ever needing to. Not to say that I’ve made it (because I certainly haven’t) but while I don’t think they are the most evil things on the planet, an actor should not rely on them to start and/or maintain their career. And if, let’s say, we get to a point in the future where ALL casting workshops are banned. As in they aren’t even classes anymore (which a lot of casting workshops are doing as they rebrand themselves) but just gone completely. To repeat the question from above: what IS an actor to do?
Here’s my answer to that and it comes from a place where you don’t see acting success solely because of the TV shows or agents you get but because you are a beautiful creative person who wants to make a difference in this world with your art:
1. You must remember that you are a product. And because you are one, you must advertise yourself in a way that is unique and true to who you are. If you make postcards, make the postcards say something special about you, rather than just a headshot and contact info. Use a photoshoot that speaks volumes in just one picture. My way is Cinnabon and because of my tireless efforts over 4 years marketing myself with them, I now have a relationship with the company and their CEO where not only am I in a studio indie feature playing as the Cinnabon guy, but I had the fortune of being interviewed by them as well in their first Facebook Live video.
2. It’s been said so much to the point that it’s a cliche, but create your own content. Network with like-minded fellow artists. Go to film festivals and hang out with the creators afterwards. Exchange business cards. Followup. Create content with such professionals. Learn how to pitch. Learn how to produce. Submit to film festivals or on YouTube and get it out there.
3. Always self-submit. Submit to graduate/thesis level student films. Submit to that indie film that has a badass premise. Always keep working and make new contacts and get footage. This should never stop until you reach to a point where you’re on a series or you’re so busy with high level paid acting work that you just don’t have the time. But most of us do have the time. So get busy.
4. Reach out to everyone you’ve ever worked with, whether it was that student film you enjoyed doing or that TV show you did a 2 liner for. Follow the steps on this post and do it consistently.
5. A lot of industry folks, whether it be casting, writers, or directors, are on Twitter. Engage with them in a genuine interested fashion.
6. Put more challenging scenes up in your acting class. If you’re not in a class challenging yourself, go do so. You’re an artist, don’t get complacent with TV procedural crime style acting, strive yourself to be Breaking Bad/Hamilton/just sheer awesome level.
7. Drop by at your agent’s office and wish them a happy birthday (for starters, you should always find out when your agents’ birthdays are. It’ll do you wonders.) They’re people too. See how they’re doing and have meetings in a timely fashion to discuss your next strategy as an actor. If you can’t even get that meeting with your agent, drop them. You don’t got time with talent reps who don’t got time for you.
8. If you don’t have an agent, do make it a point to submit every 4-6 months. Refer to this guide on how to best write an email to get their attention and don’t give up. While getting an agent should not be the pinnacle to your acting success, at SOME point you are going to have to get one.
These are the 8 things I can think of for now but it’s enough to get any actor busy. So in the case that workshops are truly dead, all is not lost. An actor has more power than he/she thinks. So embrace that power and get to work.