Visiting the Royal Shakespeare Company’s London offices involves a climb up many flights of stairs, and I think serves as an effective pre-audition test – if you can survive the climb, then you clearly have the stamina for a year at the RSC. Hannah Miller has been the RSC Head of Casting since 2008, and an audition with her is one of the most desirable appointments in the acting profession.
Chris Naylor You have a very privileged position at the RSC – it’s a place where most actors really would love to work.
Hannah Miller I hope so!
CN I wonder how you view that position, in terms of the feelings of people who want to work with you?
HM It is a responsibility, and whilst it’s a responsibility to the acting profession, it’s also a responsibility to directors, to the audiences, to our writers – Shakespeare included but not exclusively. Those three letters – RSC – do carry a great deal of connotation, both positive and negative. They can feel like a barrier to some people, they can cause our work to be misunderstood sometimes, they are a mark of excellence, we hope. Obviously we take very seriously the need to maintain that. And then there’s the fact that it’s a subsidised company as well, so you’ve got a responsibility to the sector, you’ve got a responsibility to be cultural leaders, to be always working in a way that is best practice, and we do take that really seriously.
CN The whole public company thing – everything you do has to be very accountable, doesn’t it? Does that place responsibility on you, to be very open about how you cast, or even to try and be more inclusive in who you meet?
HM Yes, and you know, hopefully I would want to work in that way wherever I was. The other thing, as the casting department for this organisation, is the work we do that maybe isn’t visible –the fact that we go out and see as much theatre as we do. We worked out, in four weeks between us, we paid 75 visits to the theatre. And not all of those visits would even be in a way that anybody was aware of – you know, we just took ourselves off.
CN Probably better for the actors as well – like when critics don’t come on the first night, they might see a more relaxed show.
HM Exactly – as a guest with an agent it’s lovely, but sometimes we just want to go to the theatre. I explain to students that it’s our job to get to know as many actors as possible; that is our core, basic job, and that isn’t always visible. We can apply that knowledge to the visible bit, which is who we’re bringing in to meet. But the knowledge is the important thing. So it’s not all about the here and now – I might know somebody for 10, 15 years, before I have the right job for them.
CN Are there actors that you have stored, thinking, ‘I’ll just wait three more years and she’ll be right?’
HM It’s not necessarily that strategic – and it’s not that someone is or isn’t right now – but at the end of the day there are only so many people that I can bring in for a part. And even if it’s ten, and we’ve got a company of 22, that’s still 220 people. 10 people for one part doesn’t sound a lot, but auditioning 220 people for a company takes a lot of time, because we do 20-minute meetings minimum. The hard bit of the job is that you could bring in 50 people, but you’ve only got time to bring in 10.
CN That’s tough, isn’t it?
HM And it’s instinct, it’s about bringing in a diverse group of people who your instinct tells you will make lots of different offers of how they might interpret that part, and what they bring in terms of their skills and experience, and their way of thinking as an actor, that I think might be a fit with that director and that project, and with anyone else we’ve already cast.
CN So when a season is decided on and the plays are set out, how does it work? Are you brought in or do you start earlier than that?
HM I’m part of the group of Heads of Department who are on the artistic planning team. We get together with Greg [Doran, Artistic Director] and Erica [Whyman, Deputy Artistic Director] and the producers to discuss the artistic planning of the RSC. So we’ll be aware of projects that might be upcoming, and suggesting whether we want to cast people before we confirm projects, sometimes. So early on I’ll be aware of the sorts of things that we might be doing, and be ready to get going as soon as we have projects, dates and directors confirmed. And sometimes we might want to look at casting people in leading roles before we can confirm a date, so we can work around people‘s availability, for example, but generally speaking we want to have those three things in place. Then I’ll start talking to the directors about their individual ideas, and their initial instincts about the story they want to tell with the production, and sometimes getting into quite a lot of detail on people that they’ve admired, people they’d like to work with, people they have worked with, or just reference points for characters, those kind of conversations.
CN So at that point presumably you’ll start going, ‘That makes me think of this actor…’
HM Yes, but obviously here most of the time we’re casting one company to work on two, three, maybe even four productions, so I’ll be having those conversations as early as possible, talking about any really strong choices that they want to make – for example, about the gender of characters – and if I have those conversations with all three directors then I can start to see how those productions might influence each other, and start to propose ideas of how different parts might work together. I always do that just to prove we can, it’s not fixed in stone in any way, because then real people walk through the door.
We meet actors that directors want to work with, and lots of actors that are all right for the same part in one play, but everybody would love them to be in the company, so we start to shift how those parts join up, and make lines of parts and opportunities for as many of the actors as possible.
CN So you’ll try and balance the size of parts?
HM Yeah, exactly. We don’t want to be saying, ‘You can’t work with that actor because…’, we want to say, ‘Can we think laterally about how this company can be formed, so that everybody has a fulfilling and interesting line of parts?’
CN [Actress and writer] Lizzie Hopley was talking recently about ‘Girl Fights’, the play she developed while she was working at Stratford, and saying what a supportive atmosphere the RSC is. What she described was almost like a theatrical village, where there’s a great community that will support and help any project. In a way you’re populating this village, aren’t you? You’re trying to create a little community that will work together.
HM Absolutely, that’s a very interesting way of putting it; I like that, populating a village.
CN I’ve been reading Antony Sher’s book ‘Year Of The Fat Knight’, and Stratford does have such a strong identity, it’s almost like a character in the diaries.
HM The environment for working is pretty special, I think; it’s not going to be for everyone, but I think the vast majority of people that work there have got a lot out of that. It is a bit of a bubble, but consequently it’s an incredibly supportive environment and well-populated in every department – there are people around to support you in every aspect of your work. Plus, as Lizzie brilliantly made the most of, for those people who have other interests, you’re there with lots of other actors who are also away from home and have a little bit of extra time to create projects and try things out, compared to being in London where everyone just goes home at the end of the night. There is an environment of creativity – people work very hard, and we know that. We put a lot of demands on our actors in Stratford, and there’s a lot that we’d like them to get involved with, as well as the shows. And I’m conscious of that being right for people at different moments of their time and career.
I was with drama students yesterday and they were talking about, you know, ‘How often is it somebody’s first job?’ It varies from year to year, of course, depending on the plays we’re doing, but quite often there’s at least between one and five people who are in their first year after graduating. But I know a lot of people who get more out of it five or ten years into their career, or even beyond, because it’s about a return to a sense of being able to learn and stretch and work really hard.
CN That absorption in the craft.
CN When you’re auditioning, can you get the sense that this person won’t like that total immersion, and being away for a long time?
HM I think most people, when they come in to audition, know what it’s like, and people are honest about whether they are ready for that, or if it was only one or two plays out of a season, but not three or four.
CN Do you have that flexibility?
HM Sometimes we’re at a point where we can be flexible about the way the company forms, and sometimes we can’t, but it’s often a question.
CN Being quite a way from London, being separate from all the rush and the career pressure and – for actors, anyway, that ‘missing out’ thing – it’s an interesting mixture isn’t it? It’s such a prestigious place to work, and yet you’re away for quite a while.
HM I think it’s a societal thing generally in 2015 – everyone always thinks they have to move on. I’ve got friends in completely different industries who are like, ‘Well, I shouldn’t be in this job for longer than, you know 3 or 4 years’. It’s certainly incredibly prevalent in our industry, which I find hilarious, because none of us is going to have a pension and we’re all going to be working into our eighties, so I don’t know what the rush is. I am not sure that I buy any of that, personally.
Maybe I’m a bit old-fashioned; I think there is room for focusing on the fact that this is a company that you want to be part of; that you want to go back to some basics of technique and craft that you once learnt or haven’t had the chance to develop. It is about fulfilment and satisfaction and creativity, and working with amazing people; working for a company that can support you and is prestigious, rather than, ‘But what is this credit going to be and who’s going to see me do it and –’
CN ‘What’s next?’
HM I’m sure for some people it takes a while to get used to a freelance life, and so to interrupt that isn’t always going to be easy. Of course there are some people who love that – it doesn’t suit them to do the same thing for 9 months or a year, and they like to go from one thing to another. I don’t want us to pretend that our work isn’t what it is, and yes, normally the contracts are 6 months minimum, often over a year. They have a different flow, a different workload, and if that isn’t right for somebody, I don’t want anyone to pretend that it is.
CN It seems from observing the shows over the years that – much like the Globe, for example – there are actors who love it, and feel at home and want to return. That’s a rather wonderful thing isn’t it? It’s not something that we are often able to do in this country.
HM Absolutely, it’s that sense of getting to know a group of people. I’m talking to a lot of drama students at this time of year – having worked with the same people for three years, what they’re very excited about is, ‘We’ll be working with complete strangers, won’t that be so weird?’
CN ‘Of the right age!’
HM Yes, exactly! And working with people from different backgrounds, with different experiences, and of course often with people who have been with the RSC before. On the other hand, this spring we looked at everybody who was on the payroll, and 66% of the company were on their first ever contract with us, out of nearly 200 people. And I think that’s another thing that surprises people – sometimes you can look at it and say, ‘They only ever have new people and they’ve never asked me back’, or, ‘They only ever work with the same people’ –
CN Depending on your attitude?
HM Yeah, it depends what people want to see. But actually the truth of it is that it’s very even. But also that the people returning range from having been here in the season immediately before, to not having returned for 15, 20 years.
CN That must keep it fresh – give it a sense of continuity and freshness at the same time.
HM And that combination is really important, I think. Because younger actors working here for the first time do appreciate having people around who can say, ‘Oh well, it never used to be like this’, or, ‘That’s always what you get’ or whatever.
CN And also for the older actors, seeing it through fresh eyes.
HM Exactly, it works both ways.
In Part Two, Hannah talks beginnings, how to approach a casting director and ‘Twin Peaks’…