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Young Performers

We hosted a wonderful webinar session with 13-year-old actress Holly, her mum Helen, agent Emma Cannon and casting director Verity Naughton to explore a number of topics that affect young performers.

There’s a lot of useful information, which we’ve detailed below, but if you’re interested in any topic in particular then you can skip down to the relevant section by using these links:

How important is networking for agents and making relationships with casting directors?

Emma Cannon: When I first started out as an agent, Holly was one of my very first clients. There was a breakdown that came in for Billy Elliot, which Verity was working on at the time. Holly wasn’t on Spotlight at that point and I knew that she was the perfect fit for the role so I contacted Verity and just said that I think it’d be really worth you seeing her.

Verity Naughton: I think that touches on something quite important in that relationship of trusting an agent when they send a submission that’s not on Spotlight. I know that Emma is very good at what she does so actually it’s a very trusted submission even though there’s not a Spotlight link yet.

Does it matter if an agent is London-based or not?

Verity Naughton: I’ve got relationships with agents up and down the country so I don’t think that’s an issue. More and more now things are via self-tape so it doesn’t really matter in terms of location.

Emma Cannon: Generally all agents receive the same breakdowns from Spotlight for jobs, so it doesn’t matter where the agent is based because they’ll get the same opportunities coming through.

Emma, how do you manage the relationship with your client and their parents or guardians?

Emma Cannon: I think it’s all about communication and constantly having that conversation with your clients and the parents, especially when the casting process for different jobs are different lengths of time. They might be going for a commercial and they’re in and out in five minutes. With theatre you’re a lot more invested because it’s a much longer process and there’s the recall so it can go on for several months. It’s just managing that and knowing the ups and downs. You learn not to take stuff personally, there’s normally a reason why you’re not fitting in that jigsaw that they’ve got.

I think as well, with me being an ex-performer, I completely know how they’re feeling because I know that knock in the face when you think, what could I have done differently? So it’s just trying to manage that and learn that it’s nothing that you’ve done personally as long as you’re being as prepared as you can be. Brush yourself off, put it behind you and let’s carry on to the next one.

When you’ve got a new project, Verity, how do you send that submission out?

Verity Naughton: I send a breakdown out on Spotlight to all young performer agents. Over the years I’ve developed specific relationships with the likes of Emma and other agents so I would then maybe pick up the phone, have a chat with them, and say “Have you seen the breakdown? Can we discuss X, Y, Z?”

I’ll also send to my database of contacts and post suitable breakdowns on social media. Certain searches will also involve outreach work.

What’s the difference between a film casting process and a theatre one?

Verity Naughton: With theatre, particularly for musicals, you tend to be looking for different disciplines. You’re looking at the acting, the singing and the dancing so that tends to take a bit longer. You might have two or three recall as we need to look at everything. Often the team are in the room, which is nice. You’ll have an associate director or associate choreographer and then directors and choreographers at the final stages.

The auditions I do for theatre tend to take place in a workshop format – small group auditions that can take an hour or so. Whereas with TV and film, it tends to be one-on-one, you come into a room, you do your scene and then you leave. So it’s maybe a 10-15 minute slot and then you’re off. There might be one more recall after that maybe or a chemistry read.

Will having braces affect a young performer getting a role?

Emma Cannon: It completely depends on the project. Braces may not be right for everything but quite often on breakdowns for commercials or TV they will specifically ask for children who do wear braces. it’s the same with the little ones when they lose their teeth, some people want a ‘happy mouth’, other people will request they have all their teeth! So it does depend on the job but it shouldn’t stop opportunities coming your way.

When you look at a self-tape, can you tell if they’re more theatre-based and would that matter if you were casting a film?

Verity Naughton: Yes, sometimes it’s easy to distinguish those that have perhaps spent more time on stage as their performances tend to be slightly bigger. Part of my job is to see if the foundation is there that you can work with. My job at the beginning is to identify if the talent is there and if they’ve got the skills that we can work with. I don’t expect the first audition to be perfect. If a tape isn’t quite right and I know with some direction the performer can improve, then I’ll always give that note.

What is it that you’re looking for in auditions?

Verity Naughton: Unfortunately, there isn’t one answer because it varies from casting director to casting director. It also varies project to project and depends on what the breakdown is. Obviously, there are the fundamentals, which are the practical side of things like having learned the script if necessary but there’s no one ingredient.

How does a performer stand out?

Verity Naughton: The really simple way of standing out is doing a really good job. If you come in, do that scene and it’s absolutely brilliant you’re going to stand out for the right reasons.

Are there any don’ts when it comes to auditions?

Verity Naughton: Preparation is absolutely key. Even if there’s a quick turnaround on an audition, you should still try to do as much as you can. Don’t go into the audition knowing nothing. Know who you’re meeting, know your character, know your lines to the best of your ability. If you’re going in for a musical and it’s already out there, listen to the soundtrack, have an idea of what it is that you’re going into.

And just be yourself, especially with children. I think there’s this inclination to make children a little more adult than they might appear and actually if you’re casting a child role, you want to see a child. Don’t come in with faces full of make-up or anything like that, be yourselves as that’s what we’re looking for.

Is it ever okay to ask for feedback after an audition?

Verity Naughton: We’ll often get agents asking for feedback, if we can and if there’s something constructive to say then we will. Again, that very much comes down to the relationship with the agent. I’ll feel comfortable calling Emma up and talking to her if there’s something specific. But in terms of first-round auditions, we’ll see so many children that it’s just impossible to give that specific feedback.

I’ll always try and get back to everybody with a yes or a no but often I just can’t give specifics. As you get further down the lines or the pool becomes smaller and smaller and if there is something constructive, then I’ll try to give it but again, it varies project to project. If you’re seeing thousands of people for commercials, then you won’t be able to. Often the feedback isn’t just mine, often there’s a group of people making the decisions so it certainly won’t be direct in the room. If someone comes up and says, “Can I ask for feedback from that audition I’ve just done?” then that’s just impossible at the time.

Holly, can you tell us a bit more about your audition experiences?

Holly: When I auditioned for little Cosette [in Les Misérables], it was just a one day audition and then recalls. Whereas with On Your Feet! there were different recalls over a few weeks. And then it was crazy because I had to audition in front of Gloria and Emilio Estefan.

How did that feel?

Holly: It was actually amazing because with Les Misérables, there weren’t many people on the panel, whereas with On Your Feet! there were 20 people. It was crazy. I went in on my own, not with other people as well.

Did you find that the nerves and the adrenaline almost got you through it?

Holly: Yeah, because it was quite an upbeat show. So I loved the music. It was amazing.

When you do a self-tape, do you know when you’ve done something well?

Holly: Yeah. You have to do many tapes, but really maybe the first take is the best one but you want to get it perfect.

Is that maybe because you’re overthinking?

Holly: Yeah. Because you keep doing it over and over again.

Emma, do you choose which self-tape you want to submit for your clients?

Emma Cannon: Absolutely. I’m invested in that project with them so I want to make sure that they are selling themselves and doing the best they can. Holly’s right, quite often that first take is the one that will be used, but they [performers] go on [to record more takes]. I get it because as performers, you’ve got that perfectionist nature in you to want it to be the absolute best.

I watch everything my client sends me and select the best takes. I will then edit together if necessary and submit to the casting office.

What are your thoughts about showreels?

Verity Naughton: I think it’s really important to have a showreel or a scene on your Spotlight profile. Your showreel should support your profile so if you have screen credits on there, make sure they’re reflected in the reel if possible.

I think it’s really important the showreel is about you. In so many of the showreels that I watch, the first 20 seconds is a totally different actor and then it pans around to who I’m supposed to be looking at. You’ve only got a short amount of time, a minute or two, so open up with you speaking your dialogue, don’t worry about a montage or anything like that. If you give 20 seconds to someone else, then you’re selling them more than yourself. When I’m looking at showreel, I’m looking for the skill of that particular actor, I’m not worried about the context or the storyline of that particular scene.

What could performers include if they don’t have any credits?

Emma Cannon: You could just do a monologue, it depends on your age. Children can be on Spotlight from the age of four and it’s quite hard for them to really sit there and do a monologue. Over lockdown, we [Emma and her clients] did a little thing where I asked them to do a 30-second introduction. For the younger ones, they do a little talk to the camera to say their name, where they live so you can hear their natural accent and a funny thing or a little story about them to see a bit of their personality. So then someone can link that person to the photo and get a little bit more of an idea about them.

But I think if you are a little bit older then a monologue or a poem even, there’s lots of stuff out there. Quite often for a musical audition, you’d have to prepare a monologue or something so work on that. Do it as if you were doing your self-tape with a lovely clear background, good light and sound. If you’re represented send it to your agent and say: I’ve been working on this, what do you think? What could I do better?

Sometimes it’s hard for performers to get the footage for showreels, do you have any advice?

Emma Cannon: Once a client has booked a job and the finer details have been all been sorted, when we’re getting details about the shoot I generally find myself a contact who I’ve been dealing with and drop them a little message asking who do I need to contact to get a copy. Generally, it works and production will send you a copy of it. It doesn’t always happen like that, especially with commercials, but in this day and age with technology, you can often find them on YouTube and places like that.

What should be included in a showreel?

Verity Naughton: I would say if you’ve got enough material, I’d definitely separate the TV and film and the commercial side. The showreel is just to show you off. If I’ve seen your profile and I’m clicking on your showreel then I probably like what I see. So if you’re saying you’re a singer, put some singing on there, if you’re saying you can do an American accent, pop in an American accent. Try to include different clips that show your versatility.

What advice would you give for headshots?

Verity Naughton: They should always be in colour. My preference is just as natural as possible, particularly for young people, I’m not a fan of hugely posed headshots. Keep them updated and make sure they look like you. It can be quite frustrating when you pick someone based on their headshot and profile then they walk in the room they look totally different.

Emma Cannon: I organise an agency headshot twice a year. A photographer comes to our space and I get all the clients to come in so they get updated once a year. We try and go for a couple of looks and a nice smiley one and a more natural one, like Verity said.

A good headshot is so important, especially for children when they’re first starting out and they don’t have any credits. That headshot is everything really. Then I work with the parents and generally, they’ll select their 10 favourites and then I’ll make the ultimate decision about which one will be their main Spotlight picture.

How many photos should be on a performer’s profile?

Verity Naughton: Two or three. As Emma said, a couple of different looks is great.

Emma Cannon: I say less is more, certainly no more than five on there. As the agent, I can change the picture that I submit for a job. A commercial might come in just asking for fantastic teeth and a lovely smile so it’s obviously really useful if they have a smiley shot as well as the more filmic natural-looking shot.

Do you need full-length photos?

Verity Naughton: I’ve never required full length, however it may be helpful for commercial castings.

Is it worth having amateur dramatic stuff on profiles or should it only include professional jobs?

Emma Cannon: I prefer to keep it to professional credits and then I can add a note if there’s something that’s really relevant and I will let the casting director know.

Verity Naughton: Always keep it professional. if a performer doesn’t have many credits then I’ll look to other sections of your profile. If you’re training at a reputable theatre school or if you’ve done any LAMDA exams then put that in [the Training section]. We know local schools. We have relationships with them so we will know what’s reputable. Keep the skills up to date as well. As young performers, we’re not expecting you to have hundreds of credits because you’re young.

Holly, you obviously didn’t have any credits when you got your first role, did you?

Holly: No, not really.

Helen: She had done amateur things and that’s a really good thing to get involved in because I think it gives you confidence. She’s always belonged to a dance school and she does gymnastics. I think training’s very important because I think it can help your confidence at an audition – what do you think?

Holly: Yeah.

What sort of commitment is there as a parent of a young performer?

Helen: It’s a huge commitment, not just going to castings but also handling the disappointment when you don’t get recalled or you don’t get the job. And I think that you’ve just got to be positive. As it was touched on before, it doesn’t mean that you didn’t do a good job. It just means that at that time you just didn’t fit the project.

Verity Naughton: I think it extends beyond the castings as well, if your child does get a job, Helen you probably know this as well, It’s a massive commitment to be at stage door every night picking that child up. And if they’re on tour, meeting them back from tour and managing other siblings and all that kind of thing. So it’s a huge, huge commitment and I think that’s also one of the important things about having an agent behind you at that point, who can talk you through it and help you understand what that commitment is going to be perhaps before jumping in.

Emma Cannon: Yeah, absolutely. The contracts are over a long amount of time often so if you’ve got family holidays planned or stuff like that, then there’s a lot of sacrifices that have to be made. So it is really a family decision as to how involved in a project you want to put yourself.

Thanks so much to all of our panellists for sharing their advice. We have lots more advice for young performers and their parents or guardians for you to explore.

Verity Naughton, is a casting director specialising in child and young person casting. As a freelance child casting director, Verity has cast children in a wealth of West End shows as well as several studio feature films and TV productions. Away from child casting Verity has cast productions for Southwark Playhouse, Chichester Festival Theatre, The Old Red Lion, The Pleasance, Hope Mill Theatre and several readings for the Almeida theatre. She is also an Associate at Jina Jay Casting.

Emma Cannon is the founder of EJC Management. After graduating from London Studio Centre with a BA Hons Degree in Theatre Dance she worked professionally as a performer for over 15 years in London’s West End, on UK Tours and all over the world, giving her a wealth of knowledge and experience of the industry. EJC Management represents talent in TV, film and theatre. EJC Management represents children, teenagers and adults who work across all areas of theatre, film, TV and commercials. At EJC Management clients are nurtured, advised and supported, to help them grow as individuals, and succeed in the business.

Holly McDonagh is a 13-year-old child performer. She has performed in the West End as Little Cosette in Les Misérables and as Little Gloria Estefan in the musical On Your Feet. Holly has also appeared in Kids of the West End in Leicester Square, West End Does: The Magic of Animation and West End Does: Love at Cadogan Hall. She is a member of StageBox London Elite Team, Performers College Elite Programme, Pixie Lott Performing Arts School and trains in women’s artistic gymnastics at South Essex Gymnastics Club.

Helen McDonagh is mum to Holly. She works full time as a teacher and so fully understands the commitment that is required from the parent of a child performer.