In the business of new musicals in New York City, so much depends on who you know. Ilana Ransom Toeplitz is one of those popular directors known for her skill in guiding new works, especially musical comedy. In turn, she knows many actors, stage managers, producers and others who can help move a show from page to stage. For projects, she can be reached through her website www.ilanadirects.com
I met Ilana when she directed the New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) musical Crude for my friend, Maureen Condon. I discovered that one of her approaches to auditioning was to use video clips. I interviewed Ilana about her auditioning process and working with writers of new musicals.
Planning a Reading
Carol de Giere: If a writing team has a musical and they reach out to you because they want a reading or they have a NYMF show, what would be the first thing you would do?
Ilana Ransom Toeplitz: Usually, a writer or producer will reach out to me with their script and ask if I’m interested. If I feel like I can do good things with the script, then I meet with the writers. Sometimes this meeting is like two dogs sniffing each other out. I like to listen for a common sense of humor. I also ask where they see their project going. Sometimes they just want to develop the script. But usually, they’ve had a few workshops and are ready to get the damn thing up and are asking for my help.”
CD: At what point do you start talking about casting?
IRT: One of the first things I ask is if there anyone already attached to the project or if they have someone in mind for a role. Unless I’ve heard they’re terrible to work with, I want to try to cast that person. If the actors are not available or I have another idea, I might say, “If you like this person, I think you’d really like this other person.”
I’m also learning more and more how important it is to sign a contract or collaboration agreement. One uncomfortable conversation about a contract can save years of heartache, if you do it right. Then I move forward with setting deadlines: for casting, for e-blast materials, for space and rehearsal rental, for an informal table reading (a good idea for a new cast), and for inviting producers. So if we don’t have a producer on a reading, which is usually why you’re doing a reading, then I set up a skeletal outline and fill in the blanks. Casting is the first thing to happen once we lock down a general timeline.
I’m also learning more and more how important it is to sign a contract or collaboration agreement. One uncomfortable conversation about a contract can save years of heartache….
~Ilana Ransom Toeplitz
CD: Tell me about video casting. It’s relatively new, isn’t it?
IRT: I would say over the last five to seven years it’s been happening. It started with YouTube as a way for people to get their voice out there. Clips would circulate with these ridiculously talented people and then the casting director would say, “Oh, how about this person?” Online casting has become increasingly prevalent because of the demand of people’s schedules. People aren’t always able to be in the same place at the same time anymore, so we frequently ask for video submissions by email, links, or Dropbox.
We’ll email sides (a part of a scene that is going to be read at an audition or callback) and a song selection. The actor will record it and send it back. Sometimes it’s a song from the musical that their character would sing. Alternatively, a lot of actors now have reels that show anywhere from 30 seconds to five minutes of their “best of” performances. That usually goes on their website. This past week, I’ve emailed actors to ask, “Do you have a reel that you can send me? I’m considering you for a show and I’d like to recommend you to the writers.”
CD: Do you do your own casting or use a casting director?
IRT: It depends on the project and whether or not other people are attached already. Crude was a hybrid. For some roles, I could say, “Maureen, I know exactly the right person for this role. Here are some clips. What do you think?” We also pulled in a casting director, Carly J. Bauer, to help us fill in some blanks. Carly was wonderful and I would definitely work with her again..
For Shark Attack, we rented a studio for a day and had people we knew we liked come into a room and read sides. I loved it because we could have the human interaction and could offer direction and play around a bit.
Sometimes you make a firm offer. The “ask” is the step before that, when you feel out general interest and availability. You can also have an open call or invited auditions “by appointment.” We hold however many callbacks we need to find the right person. . If you make a straight offer, it’s usually someone who has been attached to the project before or a high profile actor. That’s called “offer only.”
CD: When you collect videos, do you sit with the writers or forward videos to the writers and say this is who I want and this is what they look like?
IRT: What I’m doing with a writer now is I send a list and say, “These are my asks in order of preference” i.e. who I like for this role. I hyperlink a name with a video. Then (s)he will do the same for me. We look at them and then meet (or Skype) and say, “You’re right, that person is perfect” or “That person is not quite what I had in mind” and we go from there.
CD: Do you ever have to find out more from the authors because they need a fuller description of the character?
IRT: When I’m having trouble getting a clear vision of what the writer wants, I ask them to describe the character to me. Or I ask them to compare them to characters or personalities I might already know. This new show I’m doing, Spellbound by Ben Boecker, is a twist on a Fairy Tale and the protagonist has to have that Disney doe-eyed wonder but also have a very self-aware sense of humor. We decided it was like if a contemporary Snow White had a child and that child was in a production of Urinetown. Or like Amy Adams in Enchanted.
Working with Ilana Ransom Toeplitz
CD: Do writers know how to work with you?
IRT: It’s a mix. I work with a lot of new writers who have been through the BMI workshop. The one thing nobody teaches you is how to put on a 29-hour reading of a new musical and what the expectations are. I was attached to another musical for about two years and I got so frustrated with the writers because they were all over the place in terms of their process and expectations. I realized they could write well, but neither of them had ever actually worked on a new musical before. I don’t think they even knew what a director does, but they wrote a great show that I loved. That’s why it’s so important to pay your dues and assist and sit in on different developmental processes – so yours can be better.
It was a perfect example of talent that doesn’t know the process or business side of new musicals, which no one wants to learn, but everyone needs to have a working sense of.
The unspoken rule is that the writer has final say on the words and story that go on the page, and the director runs the room and has final artistic say on what goes on the stage. I will always check in with the writer to make sure we are going in the right direction, and in return, I hope the writer respects my process. We’re all working together towards the same goal, and it’s important to check in and make sure that goal still looks the same to us.
CD: Who is on the team?
IRT: There’s a director, music director, a general manager and producer in the best scenarios, and always a stage manager. I love stage managers. I think they are the most magical, organized creatures. I work with them far in advance to get the schedule right. An equity stage manager is held to the same rules and contracts as an equity actor. Among many responsibilities, they represent Actors Equity and make sure that we’re implementing all the rules. We aren’t allowed to use props or choreography on a 29-hour reading so they’ll watch for that. They keep track of time and breaks in the rehearsal room. They help me make the schedule at the end of each rehearsal. They handle all conflicts.
For full productions, they manage everything logistical that happens with putting on a musical and keep everyone up to speed. They track and coordinate scenic shifts, track props and costumes, entrances and exits. They run tech, and when a director says goodbye to a production on opening night, the Stage Manager runs and calls the show.
For a new musical, they manage a script and keep track of line changes and cuts and new pages that come in. I have a few stage managers that I call first when I do new musicals because we know we work well together.
Ilana Ransom Toeplitz’s Advice for Writers
CD: Any advice for writers?
IRT: Be patient and pay your dues. It usually takes anywhere from 4-10 years for a show to go to Broadway. Nobody does it by themselves, so be kind to everyone because reputation matters in this business. And if it’s available to you, sit in on someone else’s process before you have to do your own. Say “yes” to everything as much as you possibly can. I think that can apply to writers, directors, actors…. humans in general. New musicals are amazing and terrifying and so incredibly important!
Nobody does it by themselves, so be kind to everyone because reputation matters in this business.
~Ilana Ransom Toeplitz
Read more about Ilana’s current work (including The Prom on Broadway) at her website www.ilanadirects.com.