Stephen Moore: How to cast a company of penguins and parrots

How do you find the perfect penguins for your first musical?
How do you find the perfect penguins for your first musical?

How do you find the perfect penguins for your first musical?

What are the challenges of casting a new musical at the Edinburgh Fringe… when the characters are parrots and penguins … and it’s your first time casting for a musical? Seasoned casting director Stephen Moore explains the process behind finding our fine-feathered Love Birds company.


When I was casting at the BBC, a TV script would occasionally require an actor with some sort of musical ability for a particular role – someone who could sing or play a musical instrument – and we would ask the actors to prepare a few bars of a song, or to bring their violin/balalaika/whatever to play in the audition.

I always enjoyed these auditions enormously; whichever way you look at it, watching an actor play a guitar and sing an uptempo number as part of a Doctors audition is always going to be more jolly than listening to an actor read a scene about an ingrown toe-nail.

“One thing that took me slightly by surprise was just how much noise can be made by 15 people tap-dancing simultaneously on a wooden floor. It’s loud. Very loud.”

I’ve seen hundreds of musicals in the theatre, and I’ve worked in casting for fourteen years, but Love Birds is the first musical I’ve cast. Whatever you’re casting, the process is essentially the same: you read the script, and talk to the director about the project and about how he/she sees the characters, and then you try to find actors who will bring something interesting to the roles.

In Love Birds, most of the characters are parrots or penguins, who are also performers in an all-avian revue. The songs the characters perform in the show are often the numbers from the revue so it was clear that we were going to be looking for ‘triple threats’ (ie, performers who can sing, dance and act) in order to make the show work.

We started the process of casting Love Birds with a day of group auditions to find our parrots and penguins. We saw performers in groups of around 15 and began each session with a ‘dance call’, which was a new experience for me (we didn’t have dance calls on EastEnders) in which director Stewart Nicholls taught everybody a short tap routine to the jaunty tune of Anything Goes.

One thing that took me slightly by surprise was just how much noise can be made by 15 people tap-dancing simultaneously on a wooden floor. It’s loud. Very loud.

After we’d seen everyone dance, we let the group have a rest and change out of their jazz slacks before asking them to come back in to sing for us individually. The actors had been told to prepare a number in the ‘legit’ style for the singing part of the audition – preferably something from the golden age of Broadway musical theatre. (“Younger than Springtime” was a very popular choice for the boys and, perhaps surprisingly, the song we heard most frequently performed by the girls was “A Little Bit in Love” from the musical Wonderful Town.)

“I was struck immediately by how much more courage actors need to have when auditioning for musicals… Auditioning for musical theatre requires real guts.”

As someone who has mostly cast for TV and film, I was struck immediately by how much more courage actors need to have when auditioning for musicals. In a TV audition, there’s usually just a casting director and director (and maybe a producer) in the room, and the actor is required to read a few pages of dialogue in a truthful and interesting way in order to get the role.

But auditioning for musical theatre requires real guts. Learning a dance routine in front of your fellow auditionees and then – when you’ve just about got your breath back – being expected to stand in front of a panel of half a dozen strangers and belt out a big ‘eleven o’clock number’ is a far cry from the cosy world of auditioning for a TV soap. We saw a lot of talented performers and, whether recent graduates or seasoned hoofers, I was constantly impressed by everyone’s confidence and ability.

I always say that “casting is a process, not an event” and indeed this was the case with Love Birds as, over the course of several weeks, we refined our search for the perfect mix of performers for our parrot trio and penguin quartet. Making sure we had the right blend of vocals in the groups, as well as casting actors who were the right ‘types’ for the roles, took a great deal of time and consideration. (“Could he be a Parker?” “No, he’s definitely not a Presley.” “He feels too mature for Puck” etc.)

Anyway, we’re very excited that we’ve assembled such an excellent cast: Anna Stolli, Joanna Sawyer and Ruth Betteridge are our parrot trio, and our tap-dancing penguins are Rafe Watts, Jonny Purchase, Ryan Willis and George Knapper.

The other characters in Love Birds are the revue’s impresario Armitage Shanks, and Baalthazar Macaw, the temperamental cracker-addicted star of the revue. As Armitage, we are very lucky to have secured John Guerrasio (who had impressed us all at an early table-read of the script) and are delighted that Greg Castiglioni (who Stewart and the Love Birds writer Robert J Sherman worked with on A Spoonful of Sherman) has come on board to play Baalthazar.

Rehearsals for Love Birds are about to start, and my work is done. When I’m reacquainted with the parrots and penguins, I’ll be in the audience watching them all (and trying not to sing along with the songs…)

Stephen Moore is an independent casting director. Find out more at www.stephenmoorecasting.co.uk.