Disturbing trend damaging actors’ mental health

Forced to wait up to four months to hear the outcome of an audition, actors' mental health is regularly suffering.
Actors' mental health is profoundly affected by unreasonable casting practices.

Actors and performers’ agents nationwide are concerned about the rise in relaxed attitudes toward placing actors “on hold” for roles on stage and in film. A performer may be notified that they are on hold for a role as casting agents and directors make final casting decisions. ArtsHub spoke to several performers who have experienced being on hold for as long as four months.

‘It’s devastating for mental health,’ warns a busy actors’ agent working across stage and screen. When an actor is placed on hold for weeks, it affects the performer’s schedule, family arrangements and sometimes their housing. It can be especially devastating when they are finally notified that they don’t have the role, as the performer is forced to quickly source work for a hole in their schedule they’ve felt pressured to keep free.

Worse, there is a perceived history of actors being punished for asking questions or complaining about the unreasonable waiting time. 

‘I had a mate who was up for the same role as me,’ says actor Trent*. ‘We’d both been on hold for almost six weeks. He needed to know if he had this gig because it was rehearsing interstate, and he had a lease agreement coming up. He asked the question and then was immediately released. I got scared after that. I waited another six weeks to hear I didn’t get the role.’

Nationwide, actors are at a much higher risk of depression and anxiety than the general population, and generally record higher incidences of poor mental health.

‘We are absolutely seeing a rise of this happening across the country,’ Michelle Rae, National Equity Director of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance tells ArtsHub. ‘Being on hold doesn’t lock you to a role, but it locks you to hope. It’s not a problem as long as casting directors remember they are responsible for providing a clear yes or no. Unfortunately, in the screen industry in particular, we are seeing massive issues.’

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Actors’ mental health at the whims of casting directors

Trent is an established actor who’s worked across national stages for many years. In 2023, he auditioned for a mainstage role and had highly positive feedback while in the room. He ended up being on hold for three months. During that time, his agent couldn’t get a response from the company. Through scuttlebutt, he’d heard that two other actors had been released. Trent took this as confirmation that he was close to securing the role.

Afraid to ask questions lest he miss out, his partner decided to take leave from their job in 2024. Trent tells ArtsHub, ‘Part of that decision was the idea that I was likely to have this large gig in the middle of the year.’ 

When it was finally confirmed that Trent didn’t get the role, he was understandably disappointed. He now works on four different casual contracts seven days a week to make up the money. ‘All of that’s par for [the course] being an actor,’ says Trent, ‘and, to a certain extent, I accept that. But this particular time I became really angry, and I ended up complaining to the company’s leadership.’

Trent was able to have face-to-face meetings with people in the company. ‘It felt like a lot of platitudes,’ he says. ‘They said I was a senior artist and valuable to the company. But it’s like: then why are you treating human beings like this?’

Trent was aware of not wanting to be portrayed as an actor suffering from sour grapes, and other performers felt the same way. An actor who received the role four months after their audition didn’t want to comment in order not to appear ungrateful and affect their upcoming working relationship. Others who had missed out on roles feared being dismissed as sore losers and missing out on future auditions. Agents are also concerned about the relationships they must foster with casting directors. Honest dialogue between the parties feels impossible when the established power dynamic is tipped in a casting director’s favour.

Casting Processes Differ From Film To Stage, But Actors Mental Health Is Regularly At Risk.
Casting processes differ from film to stage, but actors’ mental health is regularly at risk. Source: Vanilla Bear Films, Unsplash.

‘Feeling less than human’: actors’ mental health suffers in casting process

For theatre, casting is part of a larger programming framework into which actors often lack insight. The new play 37 was written by Nathan Maynard and directed by Isaac Drandic. It’s a co-production between Melbourne Theatre Company and Queensland Theatre. Co-productions often feature casts drawn from the home cities of the producing partners. Actors in both states audition for roles and then see an actor from out of state being cast. For the losing party, it can feel like local theatre opportunities are disappearing. In states like Queensland, this is particularly painful, where locals feel many of their roles are already being shipped out of state.

In film, agents are frequently frustrated by casting directors’ lack of communication. ‘It’s rare to receive confirmation that an actor’s been let go,’ one agent tells ArtsHub. ‘We chase them. That’s tricky because, often, these actors are being considered for other roles, and we need confirmation of what opportunities are actually available to them in real time. And, of course, it produces anxiety for the actor. The actor’s mental health suffers.’

There is also frequent confusion for inexperienced producers and casting directors on specific terminology. “Availability checks”, “holds” and “tight holds” are commonly used phrases, but the nuances of meaning can change for each producer or casting director. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) has campaigned to establish clear guidelines around these terms. Anecdotally, however, these guidelines are far from standard practice.

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‘I feel like we go through this constantly,’ one actor tells ArtsHub. ‘We have to remind everyone that we’re human every few years. We want to work hard, but shouldn’t be exploited or dismissed.’ 

Agents feel similarly. ‘I’ve got professional companies all the time trying to work around agents,’ one tells ArtsHub. ‘It makes everybody’s life harder and unfair to the actor.’ 

Out-of-hours contact is also commonplace. One actor recounts: ‘I had an established director who I’d never spoken to contact me on Facebook Messenger on a weeknight asking if I could audition for a role later that week.’

The Australian Government recently amended its industrial relations regulations to target out-of-hours contact from employers under its ‘right-to-disconnect’ laws, but the laws would not protect gig workers such as actors who are contacted about auditions.

Worldwide, there is also an outcry over the growing demand for self-tape auditions for theatre actors, including from heavyweights such as Andrew Scott and Olivia Colman.

‘It’s really rude,’ Colman told IndieWire. ‘I wouldn’t have [got] where I am if I’d had to do self-tapes, because I used to go to auditions knowing that they didn’t want me, but it was so much fun to win them over.’

‘I had to ask my agent to fight for my local theatre company to get me to audition in person,’ Trent tells ArtsHub. ‘And that was for a physical, kinaesthetic work.’

Accepting economic hardship and lack of stability is standard fare for any artist, but when working power imbalances needlessly damage actors’ mental health, it’s apparent change needs to happen.

* not his real name.

David Burton is a writer from Meanjin, Brisbane. David also works as a playwright, director and author. He is the playwright of over 30 professionally produced plays. He holds a Doctorate in the Creative Industries.