Contact a Professional
If people are trying to cast an Equity showcase for the first time, I recommend that they try to hire a casting director to help. They're going to be on a limited budget, so their best bet would be to go to an assistant or a young associate, someone who is working his or her way up, or someone they trust who works for a reputable office. People who are just starting out are often willing to work for lower pay or for free. Casting-office employees have access to many resources that actors don't. A casting director or assistant can talk them through the whole process.
If they don't know anybody, the best way to contact a CD is to send one an email. It can say basically, "Hello, I'm directing or producing for the first time. It's a new project that I'm really excited about. I don't really know what I'm doing and I would love some help. If you or anybody in your office is available, I would love to speak with you about what the possibilities are." The email should really be professional, positive, and enthusiastic.
After being hired, a casting professional normally contacts Actors' Equity to begin the process. We'll figure out what the casting requirements are, based on the level of the production and the contract for the showcase. Next we'll set up dates for the required calls; book the space, the accompanist if it's a musical, and the staff; and then release the breakdown for the production, which goes out to all the agents. After that, we'll start compiling lists of people from our files, actors that we think would be right for the project. And of course, placing a casting notice in Back Stage. We wouldn't cast a show without one. Those are the basics.
If first-timers are really in a crunch, however, and they can't find anybody who's willing to help, then I strongly recommend they gain access to Breakdown Express. I'm not sure exactly how to do that, but they would need to get a login for the website, which is how you get access to all the agents and managers. It's really difficult, though, to cast a project when you have a limited pool of talent from which to draw. When you're an actor, you know other actors, but you don't know the complete pool of talent that's out there.
Know the Structure
I wouldn't say it's difficult to cast an Equity showcase, but I would say people have to honor the structure. The best thing to do, if they're doing it for the first time and they don't know what they're doing, is to just say that. Just be honest and contact Keith Howard, the head of auditions at Equity in New York. He's the person we deal with all the time. Tell him something like, "This is my first time doing this, and I'm doing this on my own. This is what I have done and this is what I'm planning to do. Please tell me what I need to do. What are the rules? What do I need to know?"
Also, all of the Equity contracts are available on the union's website, and if you read through those thoroughly, they tell you what's expected and how you have to run the auditions. There are rules, though, that you just don't know about unless you've done it. Keith will probably tell you, "This is what you need to know and this is what you need to watch out for." But the best thing to do is to admit that you're completely ignorant and you're doing it for the first time and that you need help.
Personally, I've learned to always go back and reread the contract, especially the audition rules. Contracts have had little quirks and idiosyncrasies that possibly I didn't know about or didn't remember. There are different requirements for Production contracts than for Showcase contracts, but it's always important to go back and reread those contracts and make sure you know exactly what the requirements are.
Sometimes the requirements just don't apply to the production that you're doing. For example, let's say that the contract requires you to do three days of Equity principal auditions and two chorus calls. If you have a cast of four and you're doing a showcase, it's not really necessary to have three full days of EPAs. If that's the case, you can always ask for a concession to change those requirements because you think they're too stringent or too excessive for your particular production. Also, if you have a specialty show, it's a really good idea again to talk to Keith and explain the parameters of your show and ask how you can adjust the requirements to fit your production. I've done shows before where they just didn't fall into the regular mold of the typical musical theater production. Sometimes you'll see something a little offbeat, like a dance show, where an EPA for singers isn't necessary but you really need to have an EPA for dancers.
I recommend learning how to compartmentalize your relationships with other actors. When you're casting a show, you're in a position to offer jobs to people. We all have friends who are actors, especially casting directors. I think it's really easy when you start out to be tempted to cast your friends, because you know them, their work ethic, and you know they're not going to let you down. I'm a lot more careful, though, when it comes to casting people that I have a personal relationship with. I go out of my way to make sure these actors are really right for the show. I try not to treat them any differently because they're my friends.
Even given the country's current economic climate, we're still getting amazing casts for everything we do. There's a lot of work going on and we constantly have new projects coming in. Maybe we're just lucky. We've got pages and pages of actors that we call that are unavailable because they're working. There is tons of work out there. Maybe I'm just being optimistic, but from my perspective it's not any more difficult than it normally would be. Casting is always a challenge, but that has more to do with the parameters of the project than the world outside.
No matter how long someone is a casting director, there are always surprises. The more experienced you are, however, the better equipped you are to handle them. That's why I really recommend, if possible, first timers hiring a professional to help with this process.