Have you ever been party to a discussion about the dominance of certain actors on our screens? I have, many times and in particular female actors. It goes like this… “Not another drama with Sheridan Smith!” or “Does Vicky McClure work for every police division in the UK?” or “Is Sarah Lancashire the only actor we have with a Lancashire accent?” or “Not Nicola Walker again!”… and on and on.

Sheridan smith in ITV’s No Return

It’s the same with the men but you get the drift.

So why is this the current state of casting? The answer is simple and it goes beyond the fact that the above names are very talented, no, it comes down to something more basic – money!

I define this as “Bums On Seats Casting”. Producers believing that by casting a name they will be banking on a guaranteed return. And who can blame them.

It would be rather like you going shopping and knowing that you can trust your favourite brand. Could you be persuaded to chose a lesser known brand, take the risk? Maybe if the lesser known had been getting good press or was remarkably cheap and worth a risk.

All this might sound like I have a fear of new talent, but nothing could be further from the truth, nothing is more enjoyable than seeing a new face making an impression. I love that. But at the same time I understand that TV production companies will always minimise risk by casting names that will guarantee those bums on seats and pounds and dollars in the bank.

The same is true of live theatre but here it manifests itself in a slightly different way. No serious lover of live theatre would complain if the cast included a Dench, a McKellen, a Redgrave or an Atkins, far from it, that would be seen as a coup, an opportunity no matter what the cost, to experience one of the greats. And there is nothing wrong with that what so ever. Given half a chance I’d be there lapping it up.

No, in the theatre the dissent arises around the casting of TV actors and in particular soap stars. Only too often I hear people question the decision to cast a Coronation Street stalwart or an East Enders regular, and heaven forfend that a casting director might dip a toe into the murky waters of Emmerdale… I jest. The majority of British ongoing dramas are replete with competent performers with drama school training, albeit that some have been trained with an eye on TV and not on theatre.

Bums On Seats Casting is here again at play and with just a little thought you can understand.

Live theatre is an expensive business, just take a minute to calculate the costs both onstage and off. Touring is expensive, travel accommodation, cast, directors, set design and build, lighting, stage hands, theatre hire and management, publicity, ticketing… that’s just off the top of my head, there’s probably a lot more.

So when a producer decides to stage something it is easy to understand why they will choose a name that will attract an audience. I’ve seen many, and I’ve seen them succeed too and bomb. But then again I have seen seasoned stage actors bomb too in roles for which they have been mis-cast or are simply too old or even too young. It’s all a risk.

Bums On Seats Casting might reduce that risk, might, there’s no guarantee. But it does do something that goes beyond money and for that I applaud the world of theatre.

If by casting a popular name you attract a larger audience, an audience that may be new to live theatre and lured away from goggling the box, well then you are increasing the chances of live theatre surviving.

I go to the theatre most weeks for work, I know how lucky I am. But at 66 and am definitely in the largest sector of the audience demographic for most conventional theatre. Put me in the audience for a show with a TV star and that changes massively and the younger that star the younger that audience will be.

Now if only a few of those younger and newer audience members enjoy live theatre and return then theatres potentially have a future, a future audience.

I can love with this if it means that live theatre will survive.

Not all theatres receive funding from external bodies, some do as do some companies, but the theatre is a commercial arena and needs audiences to survive. And some of those soap stars are damned good, British television has generated a huge number of brilliant performers over the years, as many as the theatre has fed into TV!

Andrew Kay

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