How (Not) to Write a Casting Breakdown
I am Lynne Marie Rosenberg.
I am thirty-four, but I look twenty-seven, and I sound forty-five.
I am Jewish, but not Jewish enough to play Jewish.
I am Irish, but not Irish enough to play Irish.
I am sexy, but not sexy enough to play Latina.
I have curly hair, which means I’m a character actor.
I have Caucasian skin, which means I can be nominated for an Oscar.
And I am the curator of the Tumblr Cast And Loose, a collection of the best of the worst casting notices the Internet has to offer.
Unfortunately, my job is very easy. Every day, wayward breakdown authors mindlessly release their words into the world with seemingly no awareness of the damage they can inflict, or the problems that they are perpetuating. I round them up for the day, add my two cents, and voilà: a popular Tumblr followed by actors and non-actors who are fed up with the racism, ageism, colorism, and other abundant ‘isms in the entertainment industry.
In case you are unacquainted with breakdowns, they are brief descriptions of characters—distillations from a script or treatment—used to help casting directors, actors, and agents determine if a particular person should audition for a role. Here is a good one:
Titania/Hippolyta: a force of nature. Powerful and mysterious, yet with great humanity. While she possesses a great ferocity, her greatest power lies in her love of life, her sense of joy, empathy, and humor. [...] Strong language and physical skills are essential. She is someone who is very at ease and activated in her body.
This came from McCorkle Casting in the fall of 2014 for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. What I like about this breakdown is that we get a sense of the energy of the character, an understanding of the skills required for this particular production, and there are no limitations placed on size, age, race, body type, or sexual appeal.
Actors are real humans who are reading and being defined by the character descriptions to which we ‘submit’ on a daily basis.
Here is a bad one:
I’m looking for an extremely hot confident actress with really large breasts who is willing to wear lingerie. You will be required to seduce me and throw a bottle of champagne against a brick wall. There is no actual sexual contact you are just trying to seduce me.
[LEROY] Male, 25-35, African American. A young LeVar Burton at heart, aware he’s the token black friend but totally cool with it
And yet another:
Elderly woman, Age 45+ Comfortable with awkward situations.
Like the awkward situation when forty-five is elderly.
In the two years I have maintained this Tumblr, there has never been a shortage of material. From undergraduate student projects to high-end TV and film auditions, the hits just keep on coming. I would love to wake up one day and find the breakdowns of the world so respectful and well written that my Tumblr crumbles into obscurity, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. So, as a service to the breakdown-writing world at large, allow me to present eight easy steps on How (Not) To Write A Breakdown.
1. DON’T BE AN OVERT RACIST
It may seem like a given, but from what I read regularly, a number of content makers— professional, student and otherwise—could use a reminder. For instance, if you find yourself writing something like this…
(20’s/30’s)—an Asian woman who doesn’t have the hard features of most other Asian females—she is more elegant and sophisticated and knows it.
…you’re probably an overt racist. Please leave the industry and come back when you’re ready to rejoin civil society.
2. DON’T BE A SUBTLE RACIST
Glaring stereotypes aside, there is a more insidious problem in the industry: roles specified as Caucasian for no justifiable reason. I would like to see a world where the websites that publish breakdowns require posters to justify ethnic specification narratively. Hint: “Because that’s how I pictured the character” is not a good enough answer.
Writers and directors, allow the casting process to inform your work. Let actors surprise you in the room. A person who looks nothing like the character you envisioned may walk in and perfectly capture their essence, but if you limit your breakdown to Caucasian Only (a phrase I see far too often) you are cutting yourself off from a lot of incredible talent.
3. DON’T BE AN EVEN SUBTLER RACIST
Most breakdown websites will not allow a poster to say something along the lines of “all ethnicities considered except [______].” Instead you wind up with breakdowns like these:
[COLETTE] (Lead) Female, 25-35, Caucasian, Hispanic, Asian, South Asian, Ethnically Ambiguous / Mixed Race […]
[EAST WEST BANK BANKER] (M/F, 35-60, Asian, Caucasian, Latino) [...]
[JULIE] a (ASIAN, HISPANIC OR CAUCASIAN) female in her twenties [...]
You notice that one race in particular is missing in these descriptions. Exclusion is exclusion no matter how veiled an author may think they are being, and black actors matter.
4. BEWARE SURPRISE PORN!
Be very careful with quotation marks. Misused punctuation can quickly take you from a perfectly tame short film to a bad ’70s skin flick:
Eric: (Supporting) [...] had a secret crush on Lisa until she “reciprocates” his feelings.
5. STOP USING THE PHRASE “GIRL NEXT DOOR”
6. WATCH YOUR CONJUNCTIONS
Poor conjunction usage regularly leads to accidental misogyny:
[VIKI] She is intelligent, but at the same time she is very sexy.
Nothing that a little replacement “and” couldn’t have fixed. Instead, all of us who identify as intelligent get an ugly slap in the face.
I would love to wake up one day and find the breakdowns of the world so respectful and well written that my Tumblr crumbles into obscurity, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
7. STOP TELLING US TO DO OUR JOB
Actress should have a clear speaking voice, be able to shift tones between calm, firm, and yelling. Strong facial expressions and body language are very important.
We’re actors. If we can’t use our faces and bodies to tell a story, we shouldn’t be in this business in the first place. Save your word count for something more meaningful.
35-50 year old Caucasian Male who culd be made to look like Abraham Linol and is a GREAT BREAKDANER. Must be tall, thin, with a lanky build and ideally with an elogated face, strog facial bo structure and dark hair. Will be featured in a live sketch during the show’s taping in frot of a studio audiene this Sunday (6/29)!! MUST have a GREAT breakdaning ability and ideally a REEL that is part his actor’s profile that shows strog breakdaning ability for cnsideratio by the DIRECTOR. As there is n time for auditios, our HBO clients will view headshots/resumes/reels to make booking decisios!
We all thought Infinite Monkey Theorem would produce Shakespeare, but it turns out you get breakdowns for a premium cable television show instead. Respect yourself, respect your reader, and spellcheck your work.
In short, I believe breakdowns are an aperture into the successes and failures of the entertainment business. On a public level, the mistakes that are made, the lack of mindfulness, and both the subtle and overt stereotypes are a direct reflection on our industry and culture at large. But on a personal level, actors are real humans reading and being defined by the character descriptions to which we “submit” on a daily basis. Please, craft your words carefully.
The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here
This is fantastic, thank you!
"Not sexy enough to play Latina"? You do realize that by reinforcing racial stereotypes, you are guilty of the same subtle racism you encourage others to avoid. I'm sure you think its okay to say what you did because you consider it a 'compliment' to be sexy. If you said "Not good enough at basketball to play 'African-American' or 'Not good enough at math to play Asian' that would also be super racist.
This is really well written, funny and so true.
Alright, I hear what you are saying, but what about those roles that are written for a specific race? Its totally true that there is a general and unconscious bias that many have to cast Caucasian actors as "neutral," and of course minority actors are often type cast into "racial" roles. But are there not legitimate reasons to cast an actor of a certain race? Such as in movies based on real people, or a historical situation (like, if you're looking for an older African-American woman to play Harriet Tubman)? In that case what would you regard a respectful way to look for that character? Or perhaps more controversially, what if you had already made two commercials for an anti-depression drug with an Asian family and Latino family, so these two races were no longer in contention for your third commercial, as it would be important for this drug brand to reach the widest market?
Secondly, there is and always will be a market for "sexy" models and actors. Beyond the obvious commercial implications, there are many examples of great plays and movies in which a love interest or object of lustful temptation are required to be played by someone who is simply endowed with what may be popularly regarded as beauty. Its a sad fact of life and the universe that beauty is not universally distributed and not all actors possess it equally. Its a sad fact of capitalism and, specifically, American culture that we have such a narrow and limited idea of what beauty is. But even outside the narrow limits of mainstream culture, there exists a need for attractive actors for certain roles-- how do you suggest writing a breakdown for such roles? It would be just as unfair to pretend that one is not looking for a certain type, and waste the time and hopes of actors who would be poorly suited to the roll. I do agree that one should have an open mind and let oneself be surprised by the submissions, but there is a line that at some point must reasonably be drawn before all casting notices become a disingenuous "come one, come all," that would waste the time of both the actors and casting directors.
Thank you SO much for sharing!
I JUST wrote a blog post about the effects of body image (used an example from a casting) and I'm also preparing to write my own cast breakdown. I LOVE THIS! Thank you, again! :)
Thank you! where is your article? Body Image issues is my other soap box... ;)
You're so welcome! It's just so random I came across your article in the midst of posting my own personal blog about body image AND I'm putting together a casting notice for a play about body image. Things happen for a reason! lol
Thanks for sharing your post - it's a great piece and one I 100% relate to. I've written a lot on this topic. We've got a long way to go as a society with this issue. Here's a piece I wrote/recorded a couple years ago that I think is related - https://youtu.be/cAnkdBUW4EY
Is it Fat Pig that you're writing the breakdown for now (since you said you're producing it) or something else?
Yes ma'am! My director and I will be soon looking for our Tom and Carter and I was working on their descriptions today. I love the first example you used from A Midsummer Night's Dream. That's the kind of description I am working toward putting together. Not only am I considered "plus size" but I am also Latina. When I browse through notices, I hate when I am enjoying the character's qualities then BOOM...a race other than mine is listed.
I'm always glad when I see a race other than mine listed, but mine is listed far too much!! :)
Also, YES to your video!!!! Just watched it. Very brave and honest!
Thanks for this!! :)
Love this! THANK YOU!
Thank you for reading!
I am writing a casting breakdown TODAY, so perfect timing. I've been mindful of these things in the past, but as a cis-white-woman and a product of the general, dominant culture, I might screw up! It happens. Particularly since I've been reared on these kinds of breakdowns. I'll cross-reference with your checklist. Seems like the right thing to do because I am intelligent, but (sometimes also) sexy and almost always the girl next door (which I think means "sorta pretty").
Julie, I hear you. I have a play I've been working on for a few years now, which is no where near production, but for which I'm already concerned I write mindful character descriptions/breakdowns. The fact that you have any awareness of your position and care toward how your breakdown comes out puts you leaps and bounds ahead of much of what I see come out every day!
Lynne, diversity is a theme in my screenplay so specifically designating the characters for the reader was of importance. Clearly, I could designate ages and a lot through use of surnames; DR. JANE WU, 40s, but I was unable to do that for the characters in the story who are black. The lead male is black and people always thought he was white until they reached the name of his nephew, who I would have to obviously name Jamal or something for readers to understand this is a black family. Older generations of black men and women have names like, Blair, Bill, Charles, etc. and this character was of that generation. How in the casting breakdown sheet to I properly indicate that the husband and wife are black? Thank you for your time and attention to this question. And thank you for your website.
Kate, I so appreciate your thoughtfulness in regards to this - the sheer fact that you're concerned about it means you're approaching it from the right frame of mind and heart. Personally, I believe if the race of a character is narratively justified, there is nothing wrong with indicating race in a breakdown. If you're piece is definitely dependent upon the races of the characters, then I think you can write black or African-American. If it feels like it will help, you can always add a brief description of the nature of the piece, or something that clarifies the intent behind the casting choices. I hope that helps! And thank you, again, for your mindfulness with your process!
and also, thank you for following the site!
Yes. Also, yes.
I love this, thanks for posting!