'Come in, do the job' Book of Mormon casting director Pippa Ailion on acting tips, career and more
Pippa Ailion is a theatre and musicals casting director who has worked on over 135 productions around the world, including The Book of Mormon, The Lion King, Wicked, Billy Elliot and more. Here she tells Mandy News what makes a great audition, how to write a good cover letter and how she got to where she is today.
Pippa, tell us a little bit about how you ended up casting and how you made it your career?
I trained as a teacher of English and Drama and taught at a girl’s comprehensive school in Brixton, London. My parents were theatrical costumiers so I’ve always been around theatre and as a child I went to drama classes but attended an academic school so you never heard the word ‘drama’ there at all. Then I decided I wanted to act professionally.
In those days, theatre and education was very prevalent and as long you were a qualified teacher and had acting skills then you could join a company and become an actor/teacher. I went to Greenwich Theatre and was part of the theatre in education team for a year. I then got a fluke job in New York through a chance meeting with a very famous playwright named Neil Simon. I had taken my mother to a see a show called Promises, Promises.In the interval three American gentlemen asked me what I thought of the show. It was Neil Simon, Burt Bacharach and Hal David.
A few months later I was offered a job as Neil’s assistant on a new Broadway play and off I went to New York. I didn’t know what to expect and I suddenly got swept up into Broadway. I sat there taking notes, hearing actors lines, and it was all very exciting. I spent six months in New York. I also met a very famous, well-known producer named Manny Azenberg who was producing Neil’s show at that point and who I continued to work with him for many years.
I grew up in Brighton and used to go to the Theatre Royal every week to see all the touring shows and tryouts for London. As a result, I had a great knowledge of actors so was asked to give casting suggestions for shows that were going to transfer from London to New York. That’s where it all started really. When I came back from New York, I did some more teaching and acting at Exeter Northcott Theatre in Education company but then decided acting wasn’t for me. Time went on and, using my American connections, I became a company manager and resident director of a play which became enormously successful called Children Of A Lesser God in the early1980s. It won all the awards in America and came to the UK with Trevor Eve playing the lead role and won all the awards here too.
In those days, the company manager and resident director was one role. It wasn’t so administrative as it is now. I was the director’s assistant, the company manager and had responsibility for artistically looking after the show. I was fortunate enough to direct it in the resident director position all around the world. Then I freelanced as a company manager/resident director in the West End. Of course, some of the shows needed re-casting, so again I was embarking on the casting director role as well.
Eventually, I went to the Old Vic with a very renown director called Jonathan Miller who was the artistic director there. I was his associate director/casting director and we ran a company from 1987 until 1991. All we did were European classics with the most wonderful actors who have gone on to become major stars today. That’s when I really became a casting director.
When that all ended I started my own casting company. To begin with, I did quite a bit of TV and commercials but no musicals for which I’m known now. The only musical I cast was Leonard Bernstein’s Candide with Leonard himself involved when I was at the Old Vic. I also cast Into The Woods with Sondheim too. Two very special shows. I had also been to Dublin with Children Of A Lesser God so I was asked to go and cast quite a lot of musicals there. So my work involved a wide variety of TV, commercials plays and musicals until the Recession hit in the 1990s. I then decided I needed a proper job again.
I was asked to go and run the BA acting course at Central School of Speech and Drama which I did for three years while still doing some TV casting. Manny Azenberg just had a huge success with Rent in New York and asked me if I would cast it for him over here in the UK. I left education again, came back to the theatre, cast Rent, cast The Lion King and other shows for Disney and it’s all rolled on for the last 20 years. I have never planned my career - it’s luck, it’s chance and a great deal of hard work.
If you want to find work within Theatre In Education (TIE) like Pippa did you can find UK jobs here.
For the benefit of any aspiring casting directors, actors or producers out there, describe your typical week/month/year?
It’s never the same. Our year is mapped out with our long-running shows that have to be recast. We have set periods where that happens and our obligation is to fulfil those recasts. For instance, The Lion King always recasts from the end of October through to December so that’s a six week chunk. Then you’ve got Book Of Mormon,Wicked, Motown and then Dream Girls so the year is all mapped out. Then we need to fit in any new shows.
It isn’t just me. I have two wonderful associates who take some of the recast responsibility and I tend to go in at finals now. I’m usually there at all the auditions of the new shows while my associates are at the recasts of the long-running shows. So no week is ever the same. Typically, we are in auditions for about two thirds of the year or more. Then you have meetings with producers and creative teams. You go and see shows and showcases and of course there is office work too so it’s a pretty packed schedule.
We get invited by young actors wanting us to see their shows and we make it paramount to respond to every email. They need a response as it means you have taken the time to read their message and CV.
Are those kind of emails something you encourage?
I do encourage that. Whenever I talk to students, I always tell them that they have to take charge of their careers. If you have an agent, that’s great, but you can’t rely on them to do the groundwork. The actor has to do it and inform the agent what shows and roles you would like to be seen for. Of course this may not happen for whatever reason despite an agent’s best efforts.
I just think it’s important as an actor to push yourself forward. We get so many unsolicited CVs so we decide if there is a show / role they could be appropriate for and then we pass it on to the appropriate casting director within my team.
Is there a recurring type of role or one role in particular, from memory, that was especially challenging to find an actor for?
Quite a few actually! I do a lot of the shows that tend to be challenges. The original production of Billy Elliot was very challenging; trying to find those big, burly miners who could also sing dance, tap, etc. The original Lion King was very challenging too. It was 20 years ago but we just didn’t have as many BAME actors as we do now and that continues to be a big search. We used to go all over the world holding auditions to try and cast that show.
Spring Awakening was also very difficult due to the very young cast – who are now all doing exceptionally well, I might add! Glinda was a big challenge at the beginning. Once a show is up and running, it’s much easier to cast. People know what the show is and the demands of a role. In those days, there was very little internet so you couldn’t pull up YouTube and look up the show. Every show presents challenges. One show sticks in my mind though. It was at the Hackney Empire and it was called Slam Dunk. It was set around basketball players who had to be black, rap and play basketball to a very high level. That was certainly a challenge!
Does that mean when you’re doing a new show, everyone has sources and reference points?
Everyone has access to material. If you do your research, you should be able to come into an audition knowing who you are and what is required of you. Obviously you want to give your own interpretation and don’t want to be a replica of what has been before but everyone has a reference point today.
Presumably if someone does a good job in a role then it wouldn’t hurt to recast it with someone not too dissimilar?
When you start a project, you do a casting list with your own ideas of actors who could be right for a role. It’s amazing how diverse that list is. As long as they have the essence and ingredient of the character then there are lots of different types who can play the same role. Then it becomes a matter of the director’s choice. All in all, it’s a very interesting process.
Who are you most in contact with on a production?
You are most in contact with the creative team and the producers. The producers tend to leave you alone until the end. You begin and end with them and in the middle is the creative team. If you’re doing a show with a British creative team then they usually work with you throughout. If you’re working with an American creative team then you do all the preliminary auditions and they come in at the end of the casting process for Finals.
It begins with the producers, the director, the casting director and then the team begins to grow.
Is there a difference in approach to casting for a show on the West End vs a tour or a regional production?
No, it’s the same process but West End productions tend to be a longer process. My team and I cast the net very wide. It’s really important not to just use the people you know and love.You have got to find new talent. There is plenty of wonderful talent out there, you just have to go and look for it. You have to remember people you’ve seen in shows and those CV’s you were sent.You can’t just rely on agent submissions. The process is still the same: you pre-screen, you work with the actors, you bring in the creative team at the right time and you get to finals.
If you’re doing a regional production, it’s a much shorter process as the finances are limited. If I’m doing a West End show then I would expect at least six weeks of constant auditions whereas with a regional show, it’s usually all done within a week. I don’t think actors realise that every day you do an audition and you’re booking a space and accompanist, you’re spending £500+ before anything else. Auditions are a very expensive process.
You cast Book of Mormon in the UK. Did you cast the original Broadway production for Book Of Mormon?
No, I only did the London production but we do send actors over to New York. There’s quite a lot of cross-fertilisation.
With Book Of Mormon being a hugely successful award-winning show in the US, what was the process like when setting up it properly over here in the UK?
First of all, there’s the pressure to get it right. American producers don’t believe we have the talent over here to match theirs until they come here and meet our actors. Most of the directors and creative teams I’ve worked with from New York – and I’ve done a lot of shows that have transferred – are very open to what British actor brings to the table.
Every show presents it’s challenges but I don’t think it’s as ever quite as impossible as some of the American teams think. If they don’t know our talent pool here they think we’ll never find the right actors here. I’ve had to start casting some shows a year to 18 months in advance because they don’t think we’re going to find a suitable cast. We always find them because we have such exciting talent here.
What makes a good casting director?
First of all, I love and respect actors. I think they do an amazing job and it’s very hard to be an actor. Secondly, I believe I have an understanding of actors and I have an overall understanding and experience of the whole process of putting a show together. I’ve worked in nearly every discipline from acting to producing to directing to casting. I know, from my directorial and teaching experiences, I can work with actors and move them forward.
I think it’s very, very important to create a safe working environment so when an actor comes in for the audition, they feel comfortable, they feel relaxed, encouraged and supported. It’s the only way they are going to do their best work. You want them to do well. You have to have a very good vocabulary of actors in your head, you have to go and see shows and remember people. It’s all those things put together.
I’m sure you have a wealth of stories from over the years, are there any good ones you could share with us? Perhaps a really bad audition but still getting the role or something like that?
I’ll tell you a story which I often tell students which goes back a long time. Back in the days when I worked at the Old Vic, you had to be a full member of Equity to work in the West End. If you were a provisional member then you couldn’t work in a West End venue.
We had quite a prestigious company at the time and there was a young actor who wanted to be in one our shows and he kept ringing me all the time. I told him that I’d love to have seen him for an audition but he wasn’t a full member of Equity therefore could not work at The Old Vic. This went on for a few weeks and one day I was called to the stage door which was three or four flights down from the rehearsal room. At the stage door was a motorbike rider with a helmet on and a parcel. The guy whipped off his helmet and said “It’s me!”. He gave me his CV, we met and talked. I couldn’t cast him then but I followed his career and cast him several times since.
That’s what I mean when I say you’ve got to take charge of your career and make yourself known. Even if nobody responds, eventually someone will respond. So it’s just a little story that shows that if you persevere and don’t fear rejection then you will succeed.
What advice would you give to a young actor about a cover letter when applying for a role?
The cover letter is unimportant. What is important is your CV and photograph. The cover letter should be as brief and succinct as possible. You should have done your homework as an actor and if you’re applying for a specific role then mention it.
I’ve had letters six pages long. I’ve had letters that have contained glittery stars, flowers, chocolates and teabags. Don’t do any of that. You’re wasting your time and money on letters. I know when that letter comes through with your CV and photo that you want a job, that’s why you’ve sent it to me!
What about in the actual audition then? What are the dos and don’ts?
Just come in and do the job. The audition is not a time to tell stories and talk about how ill you are. If you’re too ill then don’t come. You won’t do your best work and it’s usually always possible to reschedule. Preparation is everything for an audition. If you haven’t prepared other people will have and you’re at an immediate disadvantage. You need to walk in that room with confidence and as though you want the job. DO your research. You can’t afford to be casual. Do the job and then leave politely and quickly!
If you get a recall then that’s the time to be more chatty. Most directors want to know if you were hired you would be a good company member. There are ways and routes of finding that out within the audition process. An audition is a passport to a job and a job could be a year’s worth of work. Especially in musical theatre.
In terms of the casting process, what’s changed over the years? Is there something you’re not particularly fond of nowadays?
We have to film a lot more of the auditions these days. It takes up a lot of time to upload, edit, etc. I don’t particularly like it as it doesn’t give a true representation of the actor in the room.
On the positive side, we don’t get flooded with CVs through the post anymore as we can zoom through them all online. Before, the postman used to literally come with sacks of mail. It took an assistant half a day to open the mail and sort through them all. We do far more printing as a consequence. My process hasn’t really changed over the years regarding auditions, it’s the extra work surrounding them that is different.
What’s next for you?
I’ve just been doing the musical version for Twelfth Night for the Young Vic which is Kwame Kwei-Armah’s first show there. I’m also doing a very successful Broadway show called Come From Away at the moment. There are a few other projects on the horizon which I can’t talk about just yet. Motown is having a tour so the auditions for that have just started. There is always something going on!
What excites you about casting?
What excites me is finding new talent and watching people grow. I’ve been doing this for so long now and I’ve given many actors their first job. You nurture them, work with them and give them a job and in five to ten years they go on to do big things. Like Matt Henry for example. He reminded me recently that it was me who gave him his very first role in The Lion King. He’s gone on to get an Olivier Award and an MBE for his work and that’s thrilling.
Matt and I were both receiving our MBEs on the same day coincidentally. I love watching how these actors develop and become leading actors in the West End. That’s the best thing about my work.
Is there a certain quality you see in actors like Matt that you might see in others?
We do so many shows that require BAME actors we have to explore everybody out there. I’ve been known to have asked taxi drivers if they can sing!
There is a young actor at the moment who has had no training but she has an amazing voice and is hugely focused and committed. I believe that with more experience she is going to be one of our biggest stars. She’s got work to do and we’ll help her.
There is another actor who is playing Nabulungi in the Book Of Mormon at the moment. That was her first job! About three years ago, she wrote to us and we auditioned her and there was just something very special about her. She didn’t get the role as she wasn’t experienced enough but I started bringing her into other auditions and working with her and that helped her to grow.
We brought her in to a Book Of Mormon audition when the American producer was with us and she liked her and remembered her. Six months later, we got a call asking to take her over to the States to play her very first role as Nabulungi in the Book Of Mormon US tour and then later she returned to play it in the West End.
It’s about believing in those actors even if it takes years and years of nurturing. With The Lion King, we have people auditioning for five years or more before they get the role.
I always tell students that being an actor is very different to having a 'proper job' as those people do their job every day, continuing to develop their skills and improving. Whereas an actor will work for few weeks and then there is a gap between jobs and if you’re not doing something in that gap to further your own skills then you’re never going to grow or succeed. You have to do it every day, even it’s 10 minutes of singing at home.Tags: