Pay-to-play Auditions / Workshops: Who’s to Blame?

In the early 1990s an actress spotted an opportunity to exploit the industry guest portion of workshops without the educational value, and wham!: the first ‘pay-to-play’ studio was formed. [Read more…]


Paul Russell

pay to play workshops / auditions


[Author’s Note: Pay-to-play workshops. With the recent report of casting director, Scott David, for ‘Criminal Minds’ being fired by CBS because of a conflict of interest with providing workshops to actors; an update from a prior Answers for Actors post on how the entertainment industry became entrenched in this scenario.]

An acting studio advertises: “Get seen by Agents and Casting!” In reaction do you as an actor picket as a dissenter? Or participate as a presenter? Are you an artist above self-advocacy? Or an actor trudging the self-promotion trenches? Whatever your action or inaction the bedrock has been set.

The sediment first formed as showcases at acting studios. Actors learned acting skills under the advisement of iconic acting teachers. At the end of the class semester, be it six months or a week, an agent or casting director was invited to view the progress of the actors.

In the early 1990s an actress spotted an opportunity to exploit the industry guest portion of workshops without the educational value, and wham!: the first ‘pay-to-play’ studio was formed.

A valuable asset of the class—an outside industry-insider’s eyes—was quickly bastardized by mom-n-pop one-night forums as the success of the first pay-to-play studio succeeded tremendously. Hosts set up shop in cheap real estate. They wrangle agents and casting directors to watch actors—no class for improvement—actors are herded as cattle, and shoved through a door to read before industry for either the modest price of a movie date night or an extortion of a month’s wages.

The pay-to-play ‘paid audition’ created discourse among actors, and worse blemished what respected acting studios had been for decades offering as a fringe-benefit: industry eyes. The  acting studios witnessed precipitous declines in enrollment. What to do? Include alongside of the traditional classes a one-nighter pay-to-be-seen by industry.

The paid audition scenario for actors to be seen and heard by industry flourished quickly like fro-yo stands. The market demanded more opportunities. The market being actors vying for visibility alternatives, and frustrated by a lack of career momentum.

In 2009, after having been offered to teach at NYU-Tisch, I thought I’d share with non-student actors my decades of knowledge culled as an actor, director, and casting director. I always wished to teach, why not offer publicly what I myself learned? I offered modern marketing make-overs, plus branding combined with audition technique study as a four-week class. Just actors and I working on how to improve actors getting more work for before, during, and after the audition.

Slight problem arose before my rose-spectacle intentions. I couldn’t sell the damned class at a price point of $94. Despite my being invited to university theater programs to teach the master class version of this offering plus my career history and authoring a popular book on acting I couldn’t sway actors towards my offer of assistance. I panicked. I lowered the registration fee cost further. The response? Frozen tundra.

After much hand wringing I added an agent panel. Sudden thaw! Actors rushed me. Wait lists formed and grew. I was ashamed, and somewhat disheartened. But I want to share what I’ve witnessed working well by successful actors. My shame vanished upon witnessing attending actors succeeding.

(Shame though on the agent at Gersh who informed she had a ‘quote.’ A fee much higher than what is standard. She’s not attending these seminars for the actors. She’s there for the money. I retracted my invite.)

I’m not naïve as to what some of my students seek in the seminar. I can’t fault their ambition for an opportunity to snag an agent’s attention because that’s partly what I’m teaching actors to do: how to effectively agent themselves to agents and casting. I repeatedly stress to the attending actors not to focus on the agent panel but to leverage knowledge gained during our time together. I ask at the beginning of each Access to Agents, “What other than the obvious do you hope to gain from this class?” I seek truthful responses. One once was overtly honest, “I want limousines,” he said.

Too often a percentage of actors complain about agents and casting directors receiving a professional stipend to attend non-instructive seminars. This mostly stems from a, “I didn’t get what I paid for” knee-jerk response. Meaning the self-denial actresses and actors, who willingly registered for what was basically a wham-bam-thank-you ma’am audition, expected their thirty-five to forty bucks pooled to a paid auditor would sway subjectivity. Now who’s sporting rose-colored Oakleys?

Each actor must assess realistically what their participation in a seminar attended by entertainment industry will do for their career. Is the offering educational with a focus on improving the actor’s career long-term? Or is the opportunity an education-free evening where the actor hops onto a conveyor belt of actors with a short-term gamble they’ll be picked, processed and packaged prettily?

There is no ‘blame’ to be assigned here. How can we fault our peers their desire to improve their position when our self-identified definition of success may mirror theirs? I could offer my master classes sans industry. I tried once, twice, and even thrice. Crickets. Actors desired agents and casting directors. Before pointing fingers at casting directors and agents for being paid for their professional time, ask yourself: “Who’s paying?”

My best,

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Paul Russell’s career as a casting director, director, acting teacher and former actor has spanned thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. Paul has taught the business of acting and audition technique at NYU and has spoken at universities including Yale, Temple and the University of the Arts. He is the author of ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor. For more information, please visit

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How Political Correctness Subverts Casting

HAMILTON wasn’t shot–the Broadway musical has been stabbed.



HAMILTON wasn’t shot–the Broadway musical has been stabbed.

Political correctness is a polished saber slashing at honesty. Leaving behind truth bloodied on the ground. The overly zealous, speech-sanitizing kills slaughtering directness in the civilian world has too cozily crept into audition studios, rehearsal halls, and film locations where political correctness now claws at creative expression. The mega-hit HAMILTON is political correctness’ most recent felled victim.

HAMILTON is under fire from a black, civil rights attorney. He is offended by a casting notice put forth from the popular musical that dares to look beyond traditionally casting white actors to portray historical Caucasian characters. Before proceeding I suppose I must apologize for highlighting the gentleman’s skin pigmentation. But in context with HAMILTON’s alleged offense my honesty must breathe for I do not know if the offended lawyer is African-American, Haitian, of European, Caribbean, Brazilian, Canadian, or of Icelandic heritage. Perhaps he has some Asian or Native American ancestry? I cannot assume that a black man or woman in the U.S. is African-American, just as an African-American cannot be certain what my white skin tone represents of my heritage. (Dutch-French-Eastern European-Some Ancestral Background Unknown-American if it so matters to you.)

So what was so outrageous within HAMILTON’s open call casting notice? The notice included the phrase, ‘Non-white’ to winnow attendees. What the outraged civil rights attorney doesn’t understand is that actors will respond to almost every casting notice. When I cast the original New York production of COBB (Lee Blessing’s play about the racist ball player Ty Cobb) white actors submitted themselves to my office to be seen for the role of Oscar Charleston: a highly competitive baseball player of the Negro League who was saddled in life by white men as being ‘The Black Cobb.’  The casting notice included the historical slight but many white actors thought they could play disenfranchised ‘black.’ My casting colleagues experience similar with actors demanding to be seen for roles in which a director, playwright, or history does not desire the actor’s type (gender, skin-tone, height, or weight). So if the appalled attorney is to insist that casting notices not be specific in what creative teams are seeking of actors to portray characters—what does he suggest I and my colleagues write as descriptors for casting actors in FENCES, or THE VAGINA MONOLOGUES?

Casting directors are often riddled by worry for what vocabulary choices are to be implemented when issuing a casting notice for non-Caucasian actors. I’ve anxiously stared at my computer’s blank screen when about to write a breakdown seeking actors of any skin tone; especially when seeking a black actor and the phrase ‘African-American’ doesn’t apply to the character(s). ‘Black’ and ‘African-American’ are not the only vocabulary pitfalls stalling the writing of a casting notice. There are landmines with ‘Asian,’ ‘Latino,’ ‘Hispanic,’ plus other ancestral generalities, or gender, weight, height, or overall appearance. And now, ‘non-white’ to describe what is being sought for a character is maligned. Is ‘Caucasian’ the next offender?

The quandary for what is socially acceptable remains when encountering a script in which physical attributes of the actor are pertinent to the character(s). I’ve shied away from stating ‘heavy-set’ in some casting notices to instead stating the vagary of ‘a person of weight’ (which will offend some actors).

I mentally wrestled with honesty in describing a person’s religiousness when the director for the ill-fated musical OY! insisted I bring in only, “Jewish actors.” The casting dilemma stemmed from a then popular NY theater critic who previously bashed the director’s prior play for having ‘non-Jews’ portray ‘Jewish characters.’ What of actors of Jewish faith portraying Christians? Or will that offend a Christian, theater critic?

I repeatedly witness an Asian actor cry foul on Facebook when racial lines are blurred as a casting necessity due in part because there were no viable actors of the heritage to portray the role of heritage required. Yet the actor had no problem being cast as a Native American character in one of my past projects when we couldn’t find an age-appropriate, Native American actor in New York available to work several months at a remote regional theater.

How, in an industry in which we are to reflect the human experience, can we be honest in describing the physical attributes without offending? Writing a character breakdown sometimes involves over examination of watchwords which unfortunately results in a casting notice leading many inappropriate actors falsely believing they can play a part that is not remotely within their type. Sit in a casting chair. How would you write the physical attributes of my skin tone that stems from my Dutch-French-Eastern European-Some Ancestral Background Unknown-American pigmentation? Don’t use ‘white.’ Don’t detail me ‘Caucasian.’

The answer to how we describe each other is that we allow ourselves honesty in our words while being respectful. We know the dog whistle watchwords, and the blatantly offensive language. We reject their use when implemented outside of historical context. But when do inoffensive words of ‘non-white,’ ‘white,’ and ‘black’ become as offensive as the name of a football team? What then becomes the acceptable vocabulary?

— Paul Russell

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Paul Russell’s career as a casting director, director, acting teacher and former actor has spanned over thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. Paul has taught the business of acting and audition technique at NYU and has spoken at universities including Yale, Elon and Wright State University. He is the author of ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor. For more information visit

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