Challenging the casting conventions

Sarah-Louise Young

Sarah-Louise Young

Years ago, my agent told me my CV was too diverse and unconventional. I wasn’t famous enough to get away with doing so many different types of work, they said. “You’re confusing. Casting directors won’t know where to put you.”

I had only just changed agents and wanted to make a good impression, so I bowed to their greater experience. We trimmed down my credits, cut out the improvisation and puppetry, the devised theatre and tentative steps into comedy and focused instead on my ‘elfin-shorthaired-girlfriend-of-the-lead’ roles, which was my TV casting bracket at the time.

And it worked, for a bit. I got put up for more of the same types of roles but the gaps between filming were getting longer and I kept looking to the work I could create off my own back to keep myself mentally and creatively fulfilled. It’s true the jobs didn’t always pay well, or at all, but I felt a sense of agency and although I didn’t know it at the time, I was building confidence and contacts for the future.

I was used to being told I didn’t quite fit the norm. After studying drama and English at Bristol I pursued practical training in musical theatre at Mountview. I would regularly be met in audition situations with quizzical looks and tilted heads. Apparently being interested in tits, teeth and Tolstoy was too baffling a concept.

So where does this obsession with compartmentalizing performers come from? Surely being able to play a range of parts across genres, shape-shift and, well, ‘act’, is a plus?

The industry is over-saturated. If everyone is versatile that means the task of finding the right person for the right role gets even harder. This author believes that casting should be more inclusive and less exclusive. This is not about me wanting to take up space which isn’t mine.

Let’s open the doors and get less represented people in the room. Let’s open our minds to performers from different socio-economic backgrounds, ages, ethnicities, physical appearance ­let’s challenge ableism and sexism and let’s keep doing it, over and over again. This is also a challenge to the casting director whose reputation is on the line if they bring in anyone they can’t wholeheartedly vouch for.

Ask any casting director and they will tell you they receive hundreds, if not thousands, of e-mails a day. I think it would do performers the world of good to put themselves in the shoes of casting directors for a moment to see why they might not be getting a reply to their ‘please see me for this role’ message.

A lot of performers thrive on our diversity. I have always loved playing multi-character roles where I get to slide from one accent and physicality to another. After a performance of my show Cabaret Whore where I played four different divas over the course of an hour, I heard an American lady remark to her friend; “Why didn’t they all come out for the bows at the end? I thought that was rude.” I smiled, knowing I’d done my job well.

Over the years I started making more of my own work and going up for fewer and fewer conventional castings and that’s okay. It’s more than okay. It’s given me my USP: my versatility.

Sure, I haven’t done television for ages and it’s always a treat to be part of a theatre company working on someone else’s vision for a while. But mostly I employ myself. I have made a virtue of my wider palette of skills and interests.

I no longer have an agent, by choice. I’m not ruling one out, if I can find someone who will respect the body of work I have made and not give me a hard time when I am that most heinous of crimes, ‘unavailable’. I refuse to pay commission on a project I have written, funded and produced myself. If they touch the contract they make their 15%. If they open a door I cannot, I’m happy to pay. But if they aren’t adding to the equation then why are they earning money off my back?

Now the barriers to putting your own work out there are beginning to melt. But then, precisely because of the ease of getting ‘content’ out there, alongside the rise of reality TV and semi-scripted shows, there are more people than ever shooting for the hoop. Having a big online profile can uncover opportunities which might have otherwise passed you by. But for most of us, our followers are our friends and a handful of loyal fans who have supported our work over time. A million likes is not something we expect or covet. We just want to work and tell stories. 

To the many artists out there who feel there might be something more, there is. Make a show, rehearse it in your living room, book a space, turn up and start the conversation. There are no guarantees other than that if you don’t try, you’ll never know.  The future of your creative happiness could lie in your own hands.

Sarah-Louise Young is currently on tour around the UK with her hit show An Evening Without Kate Bush.

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