A few months ago, I “judged” (I use that term very loosely) an acting and writing contest at Gorilla Tango. I sat next to the lovely co-founders of Two Birds Casting, who also served as “judges,” and was fascinated by their story: out of a mutual desire to support the Chicago theatre scene, they formed a groundbreaking casting house – in just under six months! In an interest to learn more, they took time out of their hectic schedules (they each hold part-time jobs in addition to this full-time endeavor) to speak with me recently.
Two paths, one mission
A mutual question drew Two Birds Casting co-founders Erica Sartini and Hannah Fenlon together: why isn’t there a professional casting resource to support Chicago’s storefront theatres?
For Fenlon, the question arose when she began auditioning for parts in Chicago’s small and mid-size theatres and quickly grew disenchanted with the disorganization of the casting process. “Smaller theatres seemed overwhelmed by the auditioning and casting process, and, as a result, there was little respect for the actors’ time,” she says. “It’s difficult for actors to give a good audition when the process feels chaotic or the person sitting behind the table doesn’t create an open and warm environment.”
Fenlon moved to the casting side of the business when she began an internship with the casting team at the Goodman Theatre, resulting in an eye-opening experience: “The environment they create for the audition process is wonderful,” she says. “They show utmost respect for all actors, regardless of if they’re auditioning for the lead role or ‘second soldier to the right.’ It’s a model I think every theatre should aspire to.”
Meanwhile, Sartini relocated to Chicago after having worked with Actors Theatre of Louisville. “The casting process at ATL is very streamlined,” says Sartini. “This made me desire more from companies and of myself, which really put the wheels in motion.” Upon moving, Sartini met with Bonnie Metzgar, artistic director of About Face Theatre. Alongside Metzgar, she created the casting department for AFT and continues as their casting associate today. Fenlon is now her casting cohort there as well. “We are very much a team,” says Sartini of Fenlon. “It’s Two Birds for a reason.”
A foot in the door by filling a niche
Upon meeting a year ago, Sartini and Fenlon knew they had a promising idea in the works: “We saw an opportunity to fill a specific niche that no one in this city does,” says Sartini. “Furthermore, at this time in our lives, doing another internship wasn’t really an option, and legit casting positions are few and far between. We figured: what better way to learn the acting pool and create meaningful relationships with people in our arts community then by simply doing it ourselves?”
Within six months they decided on their name, formed a business plan and assembled a staff of three.
Their goal was simple at first. “We only wanted to help companies without an in-house casting team facilitate the casting process,” says Fenlon. “We knew the casting process was an organizational headache for small theatre companies, so we felt we could get our foot in the door by offering our experience organizing and holding auditions.”
Not only did they get their foot in the door, but the door has busted wide open, with opportunities flooding fast and furious. A turning point for the duo came with their first major contract with Collaboraction Theatre in January 2010. “I met Anthony Moseley [Collaboraction’s artistic director] when I first moved to the city,” says Sartini. “I suppose Anthony thought, ‘What the hell, let’s take a risk on these gals,’ and we cast their Sketchbook Festival of 2010.”
They both agree that Sketchbook was a casting dream: they were able to work on 10 of the 20 pieces, and ended up casting 63 roles. “The opportunity Anthony gave us was amazing, we were able to begin with a bang and really legitimize ourselves for a large group of director and actors,” says Sartini.
And now they are involved with much more than facilitating casting sessions: they are often asked to hold auditions and cast the show – everything from A to Z. And, they’ve recently branched out to bigger theatre companies and a few commercial projects. They’ve also developed an impressive database of actors to pull from. “We hold regular general auditions just so we can know what talent is out there – and this city has a wealth of undiscovered talent,” says Fenlon. “It’s our job to know as many new faces as possible so we can, perhaps, introduce new blood to a theatre company that contracts us to cast their show.”
Future plans: acting workshops and more
Where is Two Birds flying next? They have a lot of exciting ideas, including the goal of having their own space, but in the short term, they look forward to hosting a series of evening acting forums and workshops. “As any actor will tell you, acting workshops are very expensive, which is ridiculous for a profession that rarely pays your rent,” says Sartini. “We plan to offer regular workshops that help actors develop their skills to land the job – such as workshops on headshot development and auditioning techniques – at a reduced rate.”
Stay tuned to Two Birds Casting’s website to learn more about these workshops, and also about any upcoming audition listings. And if you have any questions about Two Birds Casting, contact them via their website. “We are committed to responding to every question and audition request we receive,” says Sartini. “We love our job and take it seriously, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”