Arts & Entertainment

Inside the Casting Game

The producing artistic directors of three leading theaters tell how they find the right performers for their shows.

BY February 27, 2015


For Hamlet, the play was the thing—the device that would provoke his uncle Claudius into a physical admission of guilt. But Hamlet also realized that such a reaction would occur only if the actors in the pantomime were skilled and capable of not merely telling the story but bringing it to life. The play, then, is really only half the thing. As every director knows, the actors are the ones who make it soar—or stumble—on stage. But how to find the right actor for each part? Aye, there’s the rub.
   To explore that process, we gathered the founding/producing artistic directors of three of Southwest Florida’s professional theaters: Robert Cacioppo of Florida Repertory Theatre, Kristen Coury of Gulfshore Playhouse and Mark Danni of TheatreZone. All are known for presenting quality productions, and each company has developed a strong following.


The Case for Equity

Cacioppo, Coury and Danni developed theater companies that are distinct and reflective of their founders. Danni, for instance, decided to focus on small musicals—not surprising given his background as a musician and musical director. But there was one thing they agreed on from the very beginning: Their theaters would be professional, Equity houses. That means Equity members fill the majority of roles (though non-Equity actors can fill certain slots).

RC: Our mission statement is to give Southwest Florida first-rate theater. If you want to be first-rate, that really means you’re going to be using Equity actors, union directors from SDC (Stage Directors and Choreographers Society) and often union set designers from USA (United Scenic Artists). These are the unions you have to be in to work on Broadway or work in any major regional theater. If you want to be first-rate, the professionals are in these unions.

MD: These people have committed to do this as their profession. They have worked their whole lives to hone their craft. And they want to be in Equity because they want to work at the highest levels.

KC: Somebody said to me the other day, would you want to get your dermatologist to do your colonoscopy? And it’s that. It’s just about profession. It’s something that they’ve spent their lives honing. Actors, while they’re in New York, they’re still going to monologue classes, they’re still doing readings, they’re saying yes to everything they can say yes to just so they can work and hone their craft.

RC: I’m a big cook; I love cooking. It’s another passion of mine. And my wife can’t understand why, if I need fresh basil, I’m going out to the store. She says, “Well, why don’t you use the dry basil?” And I say, “No, I need…” and theater is, for me, a little like cooking. It’s crucial that we get good ingredients. And good ingredients means really talented people, and people who will often challenge you.

MD: One (other) thing I want to draw attention to is, when we say our non-Equity people, there is this thing out there called EMCs, which are Equity Membership Candidates. If you are cast in an Equity production, you can then enroll in the Equity Membership Candidate program, which gives you a point for every week you’ve worked in an Equity theater, toward your Equity card. We use a lot of EMCs.


Seasonal Concerns

Just as their three theaters differ, the three directors employ varying methods to find the actors for their plays. The first step is setting the season—so they know what type and how many actors they’ll need. And, of course, there can be extenuating circumstances.

KC: My casting director will tell you that he’s very upset that the season comes first. He was mad at me when I did (A) Streetcar (Named Desire) without having a Blanche, he was mad at me when I did All My Sons without having a Joe Keller, but the fact is the season matters more to me. I think this is maybe where we are diametrically opposed, because I will never build a show around a person.

MD: At the moment, the season has always come first. But I can’t say that, if some celebrity said, “I really want to do a show with you,” I might not sit there and think what would be a great show for him. I do always think, “When I cast this, do I know somebody who can play this role?” That doesn’t necessarily make my decision, but do we at least have some people who we know who can handle this?

RC: I actually agree with Kristen: The season comes first. We are looking to do a wide variety of plays, so I’m looking to constantly take 180-degree turns. Then, after I choose the season, then I think, “Can I utilize my ensemble?” For instance, there are a couple of men, a couple of great actors in my ensemble, that I had nothing for this year. So that’s why I’m planning on doing 12 Angry Men next year, so I can have a show that can use these people.


Finding the Talent   

With the season set, the directors begin the task of finding the actors to fill the roles. Equity lays out certain requirements, although concessions are granted. Coury employs a casting agent in New York to streamline the process. Danni often taps celebrities he has befriended through the years. Cacioppo tends to rely on a core ensemble he has established.

KC: The first thing we need to do is have (local) season auditions. Officially, we’re supposed to have a day of auditions per play, but they (Equity) usually concession it down because we don’t get that many people. And then we are allowed to have Equity Principal Auditions in New York. And once we have the EPAs, we’re allowed to see people by appointment. We usually power through our season auditions and EPAs, so we can get to our appointments. And then I just start going up to New York as early as May—and June, September, October and December and hopefully by December I’m done.

RC: Really? You’ll do a series of auditions? I do a straight week in New York. But you’ll do it over a series of time?

KC: I do. I go up periodically. Usually, I’ll try to cast the first two shows of the season, and then I’ll try to cast the next two. Going closer to the time the show is happening is actually good for us, in terms of getting people who might not be willing to come travel otherwise. But if it’s two months out and they haven’t booked that Broadway gig, they’re going to come do it.

MD: We’ve done it a little differently, and it’s worked so far. I have to apply for the concession, also, to do my whole season at once. And my explanation is that very few people live here. Some people will get in their car and drive down here from Jacksonville once, but they’re not going to do it four times. We do one weekend in mid-September, Saturday and Sunday. It’s amazing the amount of talent in this state.

RC: (We’re) very much an ensemble, and I think it came about very informally. For the last two years, as an example, I had approximately 50 roles to cast, and 44 or 45 of them were cast by people I had worked with before. Which led me to say, “I’m going to New York to cast six roles.” In one intense week, we see maybe 500 people. I think there’s a danger with an ensemble—you can become stagnant. You can be casting the wrong people in roles. So, almost like making sourdough bread but the opposite, it’s really important to add new people to that mix.


What to Look For

Finding the right person for the role is a sometimes inexplicable mixture of looking for specifics and relying on gut instinct.

RC: There are three things you’re looking for—and I’m sure we all agree. We’re looking for, obviously, talent. Talent usually jumps right out at you. You’re looking for intelligent people. I usually spend four to five days around the table, analyzing the script. So you want to get as much brain in the building as possible. And thirdly, you want nice people.

KC: I think some of the things that I look for—I like to drill down even before they open their mouth. Are they coming in looking completely opposite of what the character looks like? I really like it when … they’ve made an effort, when they come in looking not like themselves. When they’ve memorized the sides versus not memorizing the sides. Not only does that show they’ve made the effort, it also shows them better. I can see them. And then the third thing for me is, are they watchable? Can I watch them for this five minutes and therefore can I feel I can watch them for two hours?

MD: I’ve used, actually, several people over and over again simply because their work ethic was so incredible, and they were really good actors. But there’s a little more criteria in a musical. Can you sing it? Are you a tenor or a bass? If they have to be able to move, can they dance it? And then it gets down to their acting. Are they the right person for the part? So you sort of are looking for who’s got all three.

KC: And then it’s instinct. For example, I’ve cast all of Vanya (and Sonia and Masha and Spike) except Cassandra, and it’s between these two people and I’m literally not moving. I know when I don’t move, there’s some reason why. And I trust that more than anything. 

RC: It’s hard to run a theater, and it’s hard to make a successful theater. And if you’re able to succeed for two years, five years, 10 years, 20 years, it’s because you have taste. I follow my instincts, both about a human being and about talent. If they feel right, you know it in your bones.

MD: The other thing about the three of us sitting here, we’re not just the artistic directors. These are our babies. We started each one of these (theaters). So we’re really vested in what the public’s perception of us is, everything—because it’s us.

Casting, then, is a tricky, crucial business. When you get it wrong, it can be dreadful. But get it right and you create a lasting impression from an ephemeral art. Hamlet might agree: Casting is the thing that makes the play—and theater company—sing.


Cacioppo: Senior Statesman

Of the three, Cacioppo seems the “senior statesman” of professional theater. He arrived here permanently in 1987, having followed the woman he would soon marry—actress and producer Carrie Lund—to Sanibel. From 1991 to 1998, the pair ran the island’s Pirate Playhouse, until Cacioppo was let go in a 7-6 vote by the board of directors. The unexpected decision caught the attention of Bruce Grady, then mayor of Fort Myers, who lured the couple to the city’s Arcade Theatre, where Florida Rep was born.

Coury: Filling a Gap

Coury had been working in New York City and felt she needed a break. She discovered Naples on her way to Marco Island—and immediately fell in love. Realizing there was no regional professional theater in Naples, she decided to start one. She incorporated Gulfshore Playhouse in 2004—a month before she bought a home here—and found performance space at The Norris Community Center in downtown Naples. She focused on one-night events and fundraisers for the first couple of years before mounting her first full production, David Mamet’s Oleanna, in 2006.

Danni: Started at School

Danni and his wife, choreographer and actress Karen Molnar, bought a vacation home in Naples in the late 1990s. While visiting from their Manhattan home, they stopped by The Naples Players—and were hired to direct and choreograph a production of Oklahoma. During rehearsals, the Community School of Naples (CSN) approached Danni to develop the school’s theater arts program. He eventually agreed—with the proviso that he could start a professional regional theater company at CSN’s G&L Theatre. Danni moved here and started the school’s program in 2002. By 2005, he had incorporated TheatreZone.


Florida Rep, TheatreZone and Gulfshore Playhouse all present full seasons. Find more information on their websites: 


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