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Summon your cast

I’ve sent Bryony (my agent) the first draft of my latest Young Adult Novel: Under Your Skin, and as is my nature, I’ve launched straight into planning a new story.

For several reasons, I never let a day pass without writing.

It’s a superstitious thing:if I don’t pass on the torch from day to day, the flame will go out.

It’s also a duty thing: if writing is my full time job, well then I don’t get to have random days off – if I did that in the real world, I’d get sacked pretty quickly.

Finally, as is the case here, it’s a thrill thing: there’s something wonderful about moving from weeks of close editing to sitting down with a clean notebook to build a new world.

So, today was devoted to planning the second novel I’m writing for adults: its current working title is In The Dog House (my husband’s idea!).

One of the first jobs I set myself when planning a novel is to summon a cast. My husband, Hugh, directs plays and watching him audition has taught me a great deal about how to bring together a motley crew of characters that readers will believe in and fall in love with.

Unlike many teacher-directors, Hugh doesn’t allow his casting to prioritise the following:

The popular kids;

The good-looking kids;

The kids whose parents will make a fuss if they don’t get chosen – or whose parents paid for the astro;

The kids he likes – his favourites (we all have favourites, we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t, but that’s fine, as long as we love the rest too!);

The kids he’s worked with before (though this is tempting and is no doubt why we often see film directors casting the same actors over and over);

Instead, Hugh honours the particular play, its characters, its story-arc and the dynamic he wants to create on stage.

There are two things that have struck me particularly about his process.

First, he allows himself to be surprised.  The person he had in mind for a role might have to be put aside for the flesh and blood actor who stands in front of him in the audition room. On the strength of an individual’s performance, Hugh is willing to have his mind changed about a character and to see them in a new light. In fact, he loves this, it’s what he calls his CPD (teacher talk for Continual Professional Development, which usually means being sent on paper-clip counting courses).

Hugh’s professional development means being open-minded and willing to learn, often from unexpected sources. There is great humility in this openness – and courage too. It might mean changing the gender of a character, their race or their age. If the actor is right for the part, if he or she is able to draw out the truth of that character and their part in the play, Hugh will take a chance on them.

Second, Hugh looks at how the characters relate to each other. He doesn’t want a cast of disparate individuals who work independently for their moment of glory. As a hockey and cricket coach, and as a sports fanatic (cf. The New England Patriots and Belichick, a brilliant casting director if ever there was one), Hugh has a hard-wired sense of team. And so it follows that his cast is also a team.

This team needs to work together: each actor must show a degree of selflessness (which, paradoxically, will make their individual performance stronger). This team must also promise a degree of creative tension which will lead to that wonderful electricity on stage.  Above all, when putting together a cast, Hugh must feel a degree of magic, a sparkiness that comes from putting together these particular human beings in this order in this play.

And so, as I audition my characters for In The Dog House, I’m picturing myself sitting in one of those funky Hollywood chairs with Casting Director chalked on the back. And as I bring together my characters, my aim is to create a team of wonderful (though quirky and difficult) individuals, all of whom will have a profound relationship to the story, to each other and to their readers.

Novelists could do much worse than to hang around at the theatre and pick up a tip two – or to be married to a director who knows how to choose a good cast.