conversation, interview, My own plays, Theatre

danny delahunty in conversation: on casting, balance and sharp elements

Danny Delahunty is one of my most beloved and trusted collaborators. He is co-artistic director of Attic Erratic, an outstanding director and producer and he owns too many pairs of shoes. He is also exceptionally good at casting. One night last week we sat down in a park to talk.

Ingredients: A clear night, trams, horses wearing feathers, random tourists and two slightly tipsy theatre makers.

Photos by Sarah Walker

All photos by Sarah Walker, as usual

Fleur: Now we’re going to try and talk about casting in a way that doesn’t name names or make us feel uncomfortable. So you cast for TV and adverts as your job but this is a separate thing. This is casting for your own theatre. How are these two roles different?

Danny: When you are casting for screen (and what I do for screen is TV commercials, that is 95% of my job) you’re casting essentially for a look and a moment. As a casting director, you are trying to get the actor to hit that single three to five second moment absolutely perfectly. And it has to ring exactly as it does in the director and the producer’s head. If you get that then it is done. When you are casting for a theatre show, you’re looking for a sustained effort over many minutes if not hours of performance. It is a very different set of skills and outcomes.

Especially with TVCs it is such a quick turn around: within a few days of auditions you cast and within a couple of days of that they’re shooting. So you are casting a finished product. With a theatre show you are casting the prospect; what could grow into the finished product. You want someone who has the perfect mixture of styles and skills that can grow into what you need.

Fleur: Do you have an image in your head when you’re casting theatre?

Danny: Always. Always. With the exception of casting for a devised piece where you are just looking for the right brains to work on a project. When you’ve got a script – something with fully fledged life already in it, which is what a good writer should hand you over – you should get a feel for who these people already are. They’re not just words on a page. They are characters. The thing that I love when I’m casting is that person who completely changes my idea. They need to fit into my concept but if they are exactly what I want, then it is going to be boring because they’re not going to be challenging my own artistic idea. The actor brings a lot of themselves into the role. They need to be 80% what I expect and 20% completely left of centre and something I would never have thought of myself.

Fleur: Have you had someone who has been 80% not what you were expecting and only 20% what you were expecting? Has that kind of ratio ever worked?

Danny: Yes! Sometimes it does work like that! They’ve got a tiny little element of what you’re thinking this character should be and everything else is completely different. On occasion you go ‘that’s the right person for the role’ and then you completely re-orientate every other character that you’re looking for in order to balance them out. The more change they bring, the more you have to adapt the other people that you want to cast. Every actor has to balance out the other actors on stage. If you get someone who is completely changing your concept then the others should probably be changing as well.

From Sarah's CLUTCH photo series

From Sarah’s CLUTCH photo series

Fleur: You talked about balance quite a bit when you were casting The City They Burned. You were talking about the actors in terms of ‘cool’ and ‘warm’. Can you explain a bit about playing with that balance?

Danny: I can try! When I think about directing a piece it’s not all about narrative or storytelling. So much of it is about feeling the rhythm and the pace of a piece and the innate elements of a person – not even the actor! The person behind the actor – the things that make up their personality that they can’t change, hide or alter. So much of that is going to show in the finished product. An amazing actor can have their three-plus years of drama school and another five or ten years of performance experience but perhaps there is something in their core personality that doesn’t fit in with that particular role or doesn’t balance out with the other actors. If you have all the actors on the stage and they have a very similar feel to them then you are going to end up with a block as opposed to a lot of contrast. Sometimes you want that and sometimes you don’t.

When I was talking about that with The City They Burned, I was specifically looking for actors that would contrast each other. It was a play that was a lot about tension and control and you needed to have differences in the room in order to establish sharp elements. There was a jagged feel to that piece. If everyone involved were a little bit warmer or a little bit cooler, that jagged, sharp tension would have been a little bit more contrived.

Fleur: Okay. So suddenly you’re standing here with a megaphone in front of all the actors in Melbourne. What do you most want them to be bringing into an audition? Regardless of the project, what do you hope to see?

Danny: So they’re all arrayed before me?

Fleur: Yes, they are.

Danny: And I’ve got a megaphone?

Fleur: Yes. The horses, the cars, the trams and all the actors of Melbourne.

Danny: Oh hey! I’d say come in as prepared as you possibly can and be prepared to throw that out the window the second you step through the door. Having an actor come in unprepared is so obvious and so frustrating. You know that they are wasting your time because if they can’t prepare for an audition you can’t expect them to prepare for a rehearsal, let alone a performance. It’s like a job interview: if you can’t step up at that part of the process there is no trust that they will ever be able to do it. Unless you’ve worked with them before, you just have to go ‘they probably won’t be able to get to a rehearsal or make it all the way through to opening night.’

But at the same time, you want to be able to play with them as much as you can in that audition room. You want to see how they react to your direction. If they can throw out everything they’ve prepared when you say ‘okay, that was great. Now do it this way’ then it shows that they’re easy to work with. That’s all you need to bring: proof that you can prepare and proof that you can play.

From Sarah Walker's photo series, CLUTCH

From Sarah photo series, CLUTCH

Fleur: There were two things that I really learnt from The City They Burned casting. One was that we’re so aware of whether or not the actor is tuned in to what they’re auditioning for. Come in and show that you get what a new work is and what contemporary Australian writing feels like!

Danny: Yes. Don’t bring in a classic monologue for a contemporary work because it just shows a misunderstanding of the work itself or that you have such a narrow repertoire that all you have to rely on is this piece of Shakespeare. Again, it comes down to preparation. Come on! Give yourself a few hours at least to work on something contemporary! And we didn’t say ‘bring a contemporary monologue’. We said ‘bring a piece of your choice’ but if it is a contemporary performance piece, you should bring something that rings true to that.

Fleur: The other thing from The City They Burned auditions – and this was perhaps quite specific to that show – was that we wanted to find a group who would look after each other. Everyone we cast was someone who walked in and made the room feel easy. It was clear that they would work as a group and would bring so much joy, love and support to the process.

Danny: Absolutely! Part of that was the content of the play. We needed to make sure that it was a safe space because there were the elements of sexual violence within the piece and then just – bloody hell! – we had a four-month period in front of us! We had one month of creative development, two-and-a-bit-months of rehearsal and THEN a month solid of performing. It had to be the right group of people who had perseverance, the right constitution and –

Fleur: Weren’t cunts.

Danny: And weren’t cunts. When it comes down to it. (To invisible assembled actors) Hear that?

Fleur: Don’t be cunts.

Mind you I was talking to Bridget Mackey the other day about my new script, Blessed and I said “it feels like, who you want for this role is someone you fear is going to drop out halfway through the process. Someone you just spend your whole time going ‘will they to make it to stage?’” That’s totally not a realistic way to cast but in my head there is something of that.

Danny: You need someone who can feel like that but isn’t that. The rookie mistake in casting is to cast a boring actor to play a boring person. Hell no! You have to cast an interesting person to play a boring person.

Fleur: Any parting words to our assembled actors?

Danny: I’d say to all these actors gathered around my megaphone –

Fleur: Hi guys. You’re all very pretty. It’s a bit intimidating.

Danny: I have so many actor friends out there who think they nail an audition and then don’t get the part. The fact of the matter is you probably did nail the audition. It’s not in your head. You probably did freakin amazingly. Everything I’ve ever cast has come down to the person next to you, not you. You may have been one of the two or three or four people I’m considering for that role. You getting it or not has nothing to do with what you did in the room. It is entirely about who happens to be cast as your brother or your boss or your daughter. It all works in tandem. Nothing is isolated. You can’t be cast as a silo; you’re going to be cast as an entire farm.

Fleur: Love a silo analogy.

Danny: Yeah. Let’s end on the farm. dannyflying Massive thank you to Sarah Walker who first suggested that I record Danny’s thoughts on this. Her years of documenting Danny’s life (they are housemates) also meant that I had the most entertaining time choosing photos for this post. Considering what was available to me, I think I was actually quite restrained. 

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