Casting Director Workshops

If you’re like me before I moved to Los Angeles a year ago, then you have absolutely no idea what casting director workshops are. In short, they are places where you pay anywhere from $30 – $50 (or more) to meet a casting director, and perform a scene they give you there or a scene you have already prepared (depending on the workshop location). Basically, you are paying to audition for the casting director, although that language–paid audition–is central to the recent crackdown on these CD workshops. There are a large number of workshop locations around the city with various formats, but in most all cases a casting director, associate, or assistant comes in to the workshop for a couple hours and watched anywhere from 15 – 30 actors perform. It should be noted that while the CD does indeed receive money, oftentimes the majority of the money goes to the workshop place itself. The community has been split for a while on the merits/legality of these workshops, and the recent controversy has sprouted some spirited discussion and opposition to the new law.

Rather than go into great detail on workshops, workshop locations, and the like, I would like to offer you an email response I sent to a recent discussion that started on Hollywood Happy Hour (side note: if you are not on this email list then you are truly missing out). For more information on workshops themselves, please check out this post from Brains Of Minerva, or this incredibly informative post by Bonnie Gillespie on the issue (note: her post was written after I first published my thoughts below, and includes excerpts from it).

So, here it is. Some of my thoughts on CD workshops…

I think the topic of Casting Director workshops is extremely important to our community, and wanted to add my two cents.

Let me start by saying that I have attended dozens of workshops and have, in general, been quite pleased with the result. I have met a number of people in casting I would not have otherwise met at this juncture, and have formed a number of strong relationships that will certainly carry into the future. All this to say that I have no bitterness whatsoever towards workshops, though I have had some growing concerns…

It seems the core of this issue is the idea of paying for a job interview. To me, that it’s illegal is almost beside the point, because so is speeding and tearing that tag off my mattress, and I don’t find the legality of either activity particularly compelling reasons to avoid them. The issue here, though, is that if anyone in a field is allowed to PAY for a job interview, the playing field suddenly becomes very lopsided, and unfairly so. Should Rich Kid Sally have a better shot at that coveted office job with flexible hours, high pay, and an understanding that you’re going to need to leave for auditions over Poor Kid Joe merely because she could pay for a job interview? At that point, we are no longer looking at merit (or even connections, social intelligence, whatever) as a reason for hire. Suddenly the well-to-do are able to (ostensibly) move to the front of the line simply because of money. Restricting this practice does not come from a motivation of restricting choice, but rather to protect large portions of the population as well as attempting to have as level a playing field as possible. It’s the same reason why politicians are allowed to buy advertising, but not actual votes. :)

Now, some have argued that workshops are not paid auditions, to which I have to wholeheartedly disagree. Yes, there are actual classes and other one-offs that are more educational, but I have not been to a *single* workshop in which the VAST majority of attendees were there primarily because the CD could potentially give them a job. If the workshops were run by writers instead of casting directors, I have no doubt that workshop attendance would dramatically decrease (which is ironic, because writers probably have more power to hire actors than CDs do, but that’s a whole other Oprah). Even the top-rated, most legitimate workshop places I have attended speak tongue-in-cheek about the “educational” value of the workshops. Everyone knows that in the end workshops are (primarily) a way of attempting to procure future employment. Yes there are exceptions, yes workshops can be good audition practice, and yes some CDs are more edifying than others, but I find it hard to believe that if CDs were suddenly stripped of their hiring power that ANY actor would attend these workshops.

When looking at the actual laws being put in place, I think it’s important to look at who they affect as well. To be honest, I’m not really worried about the actors who are on top of their game, doing their research and everything else in their power to forward their career (read: the actors who most benefit from workshops anyway). It’s the countless masses of others who are unaware and are more apt to need protection. I moved to L.A. about a year ago, and started doing workshops because it seemed to be “the thing to do.” I never thought twice about it until this controversy arose. That concerns me. If we as a community proffer that paying for job interviews is the standard, then it will indeed become so. I recently encountered an actress who had just started acting about 6 months ago. She was deep in research over all the workshop places because that’s what everyone else was doing. I guess I’m less concerned about a law keeping her from attending a workshop, and more troubled with the fact that workshops were her default method of moving forward. She was surrounded by a community of intelligent actors; why was no one saying that perhaps she should get a little more training or do some more research on what workshops actually were before diving in head first? This is the actor who needs protection–be it provided by the law or from her peers.

The bigger question for me, is how we want to be viewed as an acting community. Why is it that we demand for our right to pay for what used to be free? I’m certainly not advocating nostalgia over the “good ol’ days” of general meetings and play attendance (I’m too young to do so anyway :p), but when was the last time someone even asked for a general meeting? We claim to be a community of creatives, and yet when it comes to the business pursuit of our careers we often become myopic, doing the same things as everyone else. We live in a time where there are more ways than ever to get on the radar of anyone with the ability to hire us. From social media to self-submitting to self-producing to web series to networking events to more television shows on air than ever before to good ol’ fashioned phone calls–there are so many myriad ways to get ourselves and our work in front of people on the other side of the desk I worry when there is an uproar over not being able to pay for the privilege. In a day and age where an email or even a tweet can deliver a reel of our best work to anyone instantaneously, I am reticent to think that actors cannot get their work seen by CDs in any other way than a workshop. What if actors simply started dropping off hard copies of their demo reels to casting offices. How much more effective and efficient might that be than paying $40+ and 2+ hours to see a CD for 5 minutes? I would wager that if actors called casting officers saying that they couldn’t afford/were opposed to CD workshops, and asked to send/drop off a demo reel that they would have a 90% success rate in getting it viewed. Don’t have a demo reel? Well get together the 20 actors who were going to go to the workshop, pool the $40 a piece, and take that $800 to hire a full crew (DPs, writers, editors, the whole nine…) for a day to film reel material for everyone. Or take the next $800 from everyone’s next workshop and produce a showcase, or a web series, or a play, or whatever…all ways to get your work seen. Or hell, if it really is about the educational experience, then take all that money and hire one of these CDs to come direct scenes for 2 hours, or see a play, or critique demo reels, or be filming something and have the CD show up to direct/critique. What better way to get Casting Directors to know your work than to invite them onto a set to see how people work…?

I understand why actors do CD workshops. I certainly know why I’ve done them. It’s one of the very few guaranteed ways to get your work in front of a legitimate casting person. More than anything, workshops make me FEEL like I’m part of the greater, more legitimate acting industry in the city. And if I’m honest with myself, workshops are easy. It’s far easier for me to plunk down 40 bones and know that I’m at least starting an industry relationship than it is to pick up the phone and cold call a producer.

I would hope that we wouldn’t need a law to protect us from ourselves. And again, I honestly don’t care that much about the law itself, but I also don’t buy that actors will do workshops no matter what. The same was said about no one wearing seatbelts, or hockey players not wearing helmets. Interestingly, in both those cases the community-at-large desired the law, but broke it individually. When polled, professional hockey players said they wanted everyone to wear helmets, but without a guarantee that everyone would, there was an individual disadvantage to do so. It wasn’t until it was mandated that ALL hockey players wear helmets that they did so…and happily.

If I’ve learned nothing else in my year in Los Angeles, it’s that the community of actors truly is brilliant. People are smart, supportive, and caring. Whether we decide to do workshops or not, I just hope that we can take a hard and honest at look at why we do them, and if they are indeed the best thing for our community AS A WHOLE. We’re all in this together…

Thanks for reading one actor’s opinion. =)


As always, we invite you to add your comments and discussion below.

Ben Whitehair is the Los Angeles contingent of this blog. Find out more information and view his materials on his website, or read the rest of his blog posts.