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How casting directors are coping with the theater shutdown

As theaters on Broadway and elsewhere remain dark, Broadway casting directors are continuing to work in the hopes that the shows will eventually go on.

Tara Rubin and Bernie Telsey, center, at the Casting Society of America's 33rd annual Artios Awards. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

As theaters on Broadway and elsewhere remain dark, Broadway casting directors are continuing to work in the hopes that the shows will eventually go on.

Bernie Telsey and Tara Rubin, the heads of two prominent theatrical casting offices, said they have been receiving self-tapes and conducting auditions virtually since Broadway closed down last Thursday and other theaters followed suit. Though they continue to work on shows for next season, both have seen cancelled projects and are struggling to plan for the future as the timeline of COVID-19 and its impact on theater closures remains unclear.

Further, they note that while other members of the theater industry have been able to band together with their unions to ask for aid, both on a federal level and from the Broadway League, casting directors on Broadway do not have that option. Theatrical casting directors had previously attempted to unionize with Teamsters Local 817.

Telsey, whose office also casts film and television projects, and Rubin spoke with Broadway News Friday morning about how the uncertainty is affecting their casting offices as well as actor availability and the timeline of future projects.

Edited excerpts:

Broadway News: How has this impacted your work and your office?

Tara Rubin: It’s devastating to our offices, but we’re also carrying on. We’ve been doing auditions for several shows through self-tapes and we’re just on Zoom all day. We are trying to keep projects that are planned for the future going, and we’re trying to make sure that we continue our work on things that are projected for next season. This is typically the time of year when we would be doing that. Casting is always one of the first steps taken on a project, so we’re trying to make sure that when things resume, we’re ready to go.

Bernie Telsey: Right, especially since all the shows for the fall, whether it be Off-Broadway or regional theater or Broadway, those schedules have not shifted, as of yet. So the casting has to continue.

Broadway News: Have you seen any jobs canceled so far because of theater shutdowns?

Telsey: In the commercial theater, no. I would say the things that have been canceled have been nonprofit productions that were scheduled to happen between now and June. Those have been officially postponed or officially on hold because they’re not commercial shows, so they can’t just move four weeks, because a lot of the nonprofits had another show scheduled.

Rubin: And in regional theaters, we have had productions that have had to be canceled, because they were scheduled to happen in the second half of the spring. That’s going to have a devastating impact on those institutions that are losing a good portion of their season.

Broadway News: Have either of you seen a financial impact to your business so far?

Telsey: Yes, when there’s no film production, or there’s no Broadway performing, then we don’t get those maintenance checks. I mean we’re not singled out in that way, but there definitely is money not coming in for all casting directors, film, TV and stage.

Broadway News: Is there any kind of relief effort directed at casting offices?

Rubin: There are casting directors who have staff and there are casting directors who are individuals who are self-employed, and so as self employed people, what is their eligibility for unemployment? If there is funding, how do we get it to them? And that’s something that we’ve been talking about. We don’t really have that voice; we don’t have a union to represent us. And so we are really going to have to figure out how we find resources for members who have to be out of work.

Telsey: We’re hoping that even though we don’t have a union representative in the theater world, whatever collectively is decided for the entire community, we’re part of.

Broadway News: Do either of you have an operational plan should this continue longer?

Telsey: We keep making one and it changes every hour. And we compare notes with one another, but I have in front of me here five different plans, since, you know, a week-and-a-half ago. You can make a plan when the Broadway and film industry say we’re coming back on March 30. And then you have to make a new plan if they’re coming back April 30, another new plan if they’re coming back May 30.

Rubin: I think our industry will really depend on whether or not there are emergency funds made available to entertainment workers, because I can’t see any way forward if there aren’t. It’s a complete shutdown of income for an entire industry.

Broadway News: Have all of your auditions been virtual since last week?

Telsey: We’ve been doing Zoom auditions. Our office just held them for Williamstown, where the members of the creative team were all on and scheduled and timed with the actor. So, you can call those “live” auditions, just like the way a live meeting can happen on Zoom.

Rubin: At least it’s interactive and we can, in some way, simulate the idea of an audition situation by discussing and commenting and having a dialogue between the artists.

Broadway News: What’s happening to college showcases?

Telsey: We’re all reaching out to all of the colleges who are supposed to be doing their March, April, May showcases. That’s how we see the new talent who have been working their butts off for the last four years in college. And we’re coming up with ways to keep that happening, whether it be virtually or communicating to the schools.

Broadway News: With the shifting schedules, is this affecting the casting of big stars?

Telsey: Everyone’s availability is up in the air now because, you know, is that actor going back to that television show? Is that movie happening in October like it was supposed to? But if it was, then they’re no longer available for the play that was happening this summer. There’s no such thing as an availability check, even though we’re all talking to agents every day on the phone. Everyone’s availability is up in the air because nobody knows.

Rubin: What is the world truly like after this? I can’t think of a time where there was more uncertainty about what will happen throughout the country in all areas. What will the entertainment business be like after our country goes through this? I think about that too much.