West End Producer: ‘The secret to first-night presents’

WEP_6717_mattcrockettIn this second extract from his new book Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting, theatre impresario and Twitter phenomenon West End Producer lifts the lid on the thing that can make or break any actor’s career: the first-night present. 

Many people in the industry get their priorities all wrong. As soon as they get offered a job they spend the next few months preparing for the role, doing research and learning their lines. Whilst this effort is not completely wasted, it is certainly a shame that they don’t spend more time concentrating on the real priority. Namely, the first-night present.

The first-night present is a tradition that dates back many, many years – to one of the most memorable and theatrical nights ever. That first Nativity performance when Jesus was born in a stable was a monumental piece of theatre. It was lit so beautifully by the Star of Bethlehem, and had a wonderful set designed by shepherds. And when the Three Wise Men presented Jesus with gold, frankincense and myrrh, it marked the beginning of the ‘first-night present’ tradition.

A first-night present can change everything. People are judged on many things – the most important being the size, value and originality of the present. Of course, now that times are hard and some actors are forced to take work that pays as little as £0 a week (or minus figures if it’s a ‘profit share’), it may become necessary to remortgage your house to participate in this touching and important discipline. And I think, in time, you will realise it is money well spent.

When choosing a present it is essential you consider what is expected. There is no point buying someone a bra and panties as this could be deemed inappropriate. However, if the bra and panties are branded with the show’s logo then you could become the most popular person in your company. There was a time when all that was expected was a card. And in some companies this is still okay. But there will always be an air of disappointment and bitterness if everyone else goes to the trouble and expense of buying a gift and you do not. It can take years of buying drinks in the pub to make up for this error of judgement.

You don’t have to buy everyone a different present – and often this is a wise decision, as favouritism will then be judged on the expense of the gift. In fact, it can be very sweet and thoughtful if you get everyone the same thing. However, if you do this, you must make the cards personal.

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WEP with his Miss Saigon blow-up doll – apparently it’s been ‘surprisingly useful’…

No one likes a card that reads ‘It’s been great working with you.’ This smacks of insincerity and lacks any sense of personality – indeed, you could be writing the card to someone you’ve only just met. It is essential you remember something funny that happened in rehearsals, or if that fails, just make something up.

If you are extra keen on the present and card tradition you could take the ‘stalking’ route and find as much information about every cast member as possible by asking their friends and ex-partners, or by reading their diaries. Of course, this will take up a lot of time – and may result in you getting a restraining order, but you will be very well-respected for your ‘first-night initiative’.

Some of the most bizarre first-night presents I have received over the years include:

  • A full-body massage by six members of the male ensemble.
  • A pet snake called Cameron.
  • Fifteen signed copies of Craig Revel Horwood’s autobiography.
  • A year’s membership to the Fiddler on the Roof Appreciation Society.
  • A signed sculpture of John Barrowman’s willy.
  • The greatest hits of Marti Pellow.
  • A Miss Saigon blow-up doll (which has been surprisingly useful).

Never make the mistake of only buying for the cast. This is highly inappropriate and will get you a bad reputation with everybody else involved in the show. There are so many people to buy for – backstage crew, wardrobe, dressers, stage-door keepers, lighting designers, resident directors, musical directors, cleaners, wig-makers, writers, second cousins of the director, the director’s children, the musical director’s wife and, most importantly, the producer. Be certain that no one is left out. Obviously it is most important to buy for the director, casting director and producer – as they are the ones who will be hiring you again. This is essential to remember – always be thinking of your next job, dear.

WEP book

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting – £10.99

NHB are thrilled to publish West End Producer’s book Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting (But Were Afraid To Ask, Dear). Packed with wit and marvellous indiscretion, full of gossip and insider knowledge, and with enough savvy advice to kickstart a career, it’s a practical – and sometimes deliciously impractical! – guide to everything you need to know about showbusiness.

To get your copy at a 25% discount – no voucher code required – click here (discount valid until 31 December 2013). Copies of the book ordered through our website will come with a free exclusive poster, available while stocks last. 

To read the first extract from the book, where WEP reveals how casting actually works, click here.

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West End Producer: ‘Auditioning from my side of the table’

WEP_6717_mattcrockettWith his striking good looks, sharp wit and genuine love of the industry, theatrical impresario and anonymous Twitter phenomenon West End Producer has taken the theatre world by storm, amassing a devoted following. As his book Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting is published, here’s an extract to whet your appetite, dears.

The casting process is a long, arduous and exhausting business, particularly for the people doing the casting! I equate it to building a rocket out of chocolate – it’s hard to do, but when completed is very tasty. Casting directors and directors feel immense pressure to make sure they find the right actors for the job, and in some cases feel just as nervous as the people they are auditioning. So how do we go about casting a show?

One of the most important things we have to remember is what show we are casting. It’s no good casting Othello if the show is actually Annie. This is a vital thing to remember, and one which I often have to remind my casting director about. I knew a director in the eighties who once assembled a fine cast of young actors, only to realise that he actually needed dancers as he was casting a ballet. What a silly prat.

So, after we’ve decided on the show, we have a few other decisions to make before the casting begins – we have to book a venue, book a lighting designer, have a set designed, assemble a front-of-house team, taste the ice-cream flavours, market the show, drink some Dom, go on a team-building weekend, read Craig Revel Horwood’s autobiography, and meditate. Basically we do everything we can to put off the chore of casting until Equity get in touch, slap our wrists and threaten to take our diaries off us unless we start. So, apprehensively, we do.

The next step is in the hands of the casting director. Casting directors are usually very nice people who like drinking far too much alcohol, and mostly during the day. The ones that don’t drink usually have other habits, which can’t be discussed here – but often end in them being discovered on a bench outside Waterloo Station at 5 a.m.

Jean Valjean teddy

WEP’s Jean Valjean teddy – “he ensures I am never ‘On My Own'”

The first thing the casting director does is to release a ‘breakdown’. This doesn’t mean he sends out photos of himself in tears, screaming in despair, and taking Prozac. It means he sends out an email of what roles are available. This is usually done through the Spotlight Link – and sent to most agents. Sometimes certain agents will be kept off the list, but only in extreme cases (if they haven’t bought me gifts for a long time).

For those that don’t know, the Spotlight Link is an online service that allows casting directors to email all agents about castings, and receive submissions in response. It is also widely used by actors who have managed to steal a casting director’s password – who use it to stalk and stare at other actors’ CVs.

Once the breakdown has been received, your agent will decide which of their clients are right for the part. This involves reading the breakdown – which can be tricky for illiterate agents (an alarmingly high number of them). Luckily these agents are very clever and have assistants or interns. These assistants only have one role: to read out loud to the agents. This avoids embarrassment, and proves invaluable experience.

When the agent has digested the information they will spend a few hours drinking tea, coffee or gin. Then suddenly they’ll get inspired and mix some vodka with Red Bull – and away they go! They look at photos of all their clients, and remind themselves whom they represent. Some people think it’s easy being an agent, but sometimes they have over twenty actors’ names to remember (and sometimes they have an Equity name and a real name, which confuses things even more). Once they’ve reminded themselves of their clients, the agents make honest, considered and well-informed decisions about which actors to put forward to the casting director.

Things they must consider are: Do they look right? Are they the right age? Can they do the accent? Can they walk in a straight line? Can they speak loudly? Can they tie their shoelaces? It is tough. And sometimes an agent gets incredibly upset and doesn’t know what to do – so decides by using the ‘Eeny meeny miny moe, pick an actor for the show’ technique.

Once this important decision is made, the casting director will receive an influx of actors suitable for the role. It is not unusual for a casting director to receive more than a thousand suggestions for one role: a huge amount. So the casting director then has to sift through all the submissions and decide which actors to invite for an audition. This is where it gets difficult. Do they bring in new actors who are unknown to them? Do they bring in actors they have employed before? Or do they bring in actors they fancy? Invariably it’ll be a mix of all three, with emphasis on the latter.

Then your agent is called and you get offered an audition. You are told an audition time, what to prepare, what role you are up for, and, if you are lucky, the venue for the audition. And then it’s all down to you.

WEP book

Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting – £10.99

NHB are thrilled to publish West End Producer’s book Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Acting (But Were Afraid To Ask, Dear). Packed with wit and marvellous indiscretion, full of gossip and insider knowledge, and with enough savvy advice to kickstart a career, it’s a practical – and sometimes deliciously impractical! – guide to everything you need to know about showbusiness.

To get your copy at a 25% discount – no voucher code required – click here. Copies of the book ordered through our website will come with a free exclusive poster, available while stocks last.