Pippa Ailion has cast over 135 productions internationally, including the West End hits Wicked, Billy Elliot, The Lion King and The Book of Mormon. But how does one conquer the audition process and succeed in the industry? Pippa reveals all about the fascinating world of casting for musicals.

What first interested you in the performing arts?

It has always been part of my life right from childhood – I participated in drama classes and my parents were theatrical costumiers. I was brought up in Brighton, so used to go every week to the theatre to see all of the shows that came on tour from London. So I just love it, I can’t really think of my life without it.

What aspect of your role are you most passionate about?

I enjoy the process of casting a show from day one when I meet the director. We talk about what they want from the cast, I work out how many cast members we need and how we’re going to cover it with understudies. Then I meet the musical director and the choreographer (it’s a collaborative process), you go through the auditions and eventually you put the offers out. That’s a wonderful moment, when people are delighted that they’ve got a job. Then there’s a life afterwards because you go and see the show, then you get to recast it. It’s an ongoing process, that’s what I love.

What would you expect artistes to do in a musical theatre audition?

First thing I would ask you to do is to sing a song of your own which is appropriate to the show. So if we are doing something like We Will Rock You, then you need to sing a pop/rock song (not necessarily Queen, but something which is appropriate). If we are doing Sound of Music, then you sing a musical theatre song. We ask you to choose your own song to start with so that we can see a little bit of your personality and see how you act. Everyone is looking for the performer who acts through the song. It’s about telling a story so we can see what potential you have.

What does the casting process consist of after the first audition?

If I feel that you are right, then I will send you a song from the show for the role that I think you are appropriate for and that is within your vocal range, and also probably a piece of script. Then if we think that you’ve done that well, we’ll send you away again to work on it and to develop it a little further with notes from us. Then we add into it movement – you come for a dance call or movement call. The process for a West End musical is quite long, some actors have something like ten auditions before they get the role – it can go over weeks and the competition is fierce.

What are the most crucial points you look for when looking to cast a part in a musical?

The crucial thing is that they have to be able to sing well, they have to be able to act well, and they have to be able to move well – those three components have to be there in the performer. It’s all about doing your homework, having immersed yourself in the character, being bold in the audition by doing something which makes me laugh or makes me really pay attention to you – I have to remember you.

How does one make oneself stand out from the crowd in auditions?

Make sure that the first time we meet you, you sing a song which is memorable and that you tell it really well – not just sing it well but that you tell that story really well. Your choice of song is crucial; the way you perform it is crucial; the way you conduct yourself in the audition is crucial. That I can see you are someone who really wants this job; that you would be a great company member (people only want to work with nice people); and that you actually want to be there – all of these things are really important.

Where should performers go to find out about professional theatre castings?

The best way is to research and do the work yourself by writing to all the theatres; by writing to casting directors; by submitting your CV and biog; by talking to other actors; by going to places like the Actors Centre, where it’s a hubbub of who’s in the know and what’s going on; by going to fringe theatres and making sure that you talk to the artistic director; and by finding out what shows are coming up for the next season and get in early. If you have an agent, then an agent’s job is to search out the jobs that are available.

What advice would you give someone trying to break into the theatre industry?

I would say go and get training. Go to a good accredited drama school or, if you have a degree already, then there are lots of one year intensive courses around. I think training is invaluable and it certainly shows people that don’t have training – one year intensive courses they don’t have the foundations of the skill set that we need. It doesn’t make you a better actor, it just gives you the toolkit.

How does one remain successful in the industry?

I think by continuing to work. The thing today is that you can become a star very quickly on television and suddenly you’re propelled into a leading role and after that, some actors are not prepared to take any job again, which I think is a mistake. There are only so many leading roles but there are many more great supporting roles and therefore, if you are prepared to work, the only reason you’ll get seen by casting directors or by directors or producers is if you’re working. If you’re too choosy and you’re not working, you’re not practising your craft, you’re not getting better, and you could be forgotten. The more you work, the better you get, the more you get seen, the more contacts you make, and the more successful in the end you will be.