Monday, April 11, 2016

Casting Director Joanne DeNaut

Joanne DeNaut with actor Daniel Blinkoff at the Pacific Playwrights Festival.
On Casting Director Joanne DeNaut’s desk sits a crystal obelisk—the Casting Society of America’s Artios Award for Excellence in Casting—one of many honors she has received through the years. Outside her office door hangs an equally meaningful piece: a framed photograph from South Coast Repertory’s 1978 production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, a reminder of the moment that she was introduced to theatre in Costa Mesa.

Brooklyn-born DeNaut was an urban planning major at the University of California, Irvine, when she took a class on Women in Literature and went to see the Ibsen production at a small theatre company—SCR—on Newport Boulevard. David Emmes directed and the production values “totally surprised me. I thought ‘This is a good as New York!’” She became an SCR convert.

But life got in the way: she continued her studies at UCI, worked at a waterfront restaurant, had a 7-year-old and had no time to attend theatre. But SCR stayed on her mind. With a social ecology degree in hand and a job lined up, she realized that maybe she didn’t want to work in the city government. She wanted to do something more creative.

A newspaper ad for an SCR job caught her eye and she jumped at the chance to be an executive assistant to Founding Artistic Directors David Emmes and Martin Benson. Like many others at theatre, she grew her skills by wearing many different hats, what she describes as being “like getting my theatre master’s degree.” She worked closely with Lee Shallat, then a stage director, Conservatory director and casting director, who became somewhat of a mentor.

“She told me that casting is not something you learn, but rather a more innate ability to assess talent,” DeNaut says. "That was my entrance into the start of my career in casting." Being a casting director didn’t just “happen” for her. “It took me many years to develop my skills in the art of collaboration when working with artists and I’m still learning.”

Jenny O'Hara, Arye Gross and Marin Hinkle in Richard Greenberg's Our Mother's Brief Affair in 2008.

Mark Harelik and Paul David Story in the 2016 production of Red by John Logan.

Gregory Sims and Nancy Bell in the 2012 revival of Sight Unseen by Donald Margulies.

The cast of Cyrano de Bergerac in 2004.

DeNaut and Mark Rucker.
What does a casting director do?
There’s a misconception that a casting director chooses the actors for a play, TV or film. That doesn’t happen; I don’t choose who’s on that stage; in my role, I choose the pool of actors from which the director, playwright and artistic director will cast actors through auditions. It’s a collaboration, but ultimately the final choice is in the director’s hands.

I read the play to get a sense of the roles and then have the director tell me how he/she sees the characters. If it’s a new play, the playwright is involved in that process as well. Once I receive his/her notes, I make lists and send them off.

We do many readings each season at SCR, which is a different casting process because we do not have auditions and often there is not a director. After discussion with either the writer or director, I will I send ideas. The writer and director often are not familiar with the pool of actors in the Los Angeles area, so they rely heavily on the information I provide to them. Casting for readings is important since the playwright relies on these actors to tell their story.

What happens in an audition?
We use the description of the characters, called the ‘breakdown’, to choose the actors who come in to audition. Actors will have the script and the scenes ahead of time for what they will be reading. The director and casting team will be in the room and, if it’s a new play, the playwright will be there as well. We provide a reader for the audition, someone who will read all the other parts. Readers are important because they provide assistance to the actors in their scene, while being careful not to steal focus. Depending upon the number of roles left to cast, we will have a 4-6 hour session and then have a day of callbacks after narrowing the choices.

What are the challenges and delights in your job?
Currently, I’m focused on the Pacific Playwrights Festival and this always is an interesting time. This year, there are 25 roles and several of those are particularly challenging. Watching these plays come alive in the readings with those actors is really one of the most thrilling parts of being a casting director.

What are some personal moments that stand out for you?
Working on all the new plays has been the most rewarding, particularly getting to work with major American playwrights such as Richard Greenberg, Howard Korder, Amy Freed and Donald Margulies. There are countless others as well and many have now gone on to be successful writers in film and television.

This season, working on John Logan’s Red, Mark Harelik already was signed for the role of Mark Rothko. Mark is amazing and a favorite of mine. I had seen Paul David Story in productions at several other theatres and really admired his work. We brought him here to audition several times and he always was a contender, but not cast. It was so rewarding to have him earn the role of Ken and be so wonderful in it. The relationship between Rothko and Ken was factor in the success of that show.

The late Mark Rucker was a favorite director for me to work with—well, he was everybody’s favorite: backstage crew, designers, actors...everyone. He smart, a true visionary, a great collaborator and the kindest soul. His production of Cyrano de Bergerac was one of the highlights for me. It was a huge undertaking, with a giant cast, and he rose to the challenge by making everyone want to contribute to its success. It was wonderful.

Experience the result of DeNaut’s work in both staged readings and full productions during the 2016 Pacific Playwrights Festival. Learn more.

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