Is Audition-Room Privacy Dead?

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A planned auction of 54 VHS tapes featuring early auditions by actors Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Sandra Bullock, and many others has touched off a fit of handwringing in the casting community and endangered the age-old idea of the audition room as sacred space.

On April 5–6, Julien’s Auctions of Beverly Hills will put the tapes up for sale, some with suggested values as high as $2,000–$4,000. Darren Julien and Martin Nolan appeared on NBC’s “Today” March 29 to publicize the auction and claimed that the tapes were being sold by three casting directors who wished to remain anonymous. But the tapes are widely believed to have come from CDs Jane Jenkins and Janet Hirshenson, who cast most of the projects associated with the auditions. Letterhead from their office can be seen in the catalog for the auction. Kathleen York, whose auditions for the films “Jersey Girl” and “Ransom” are included in the auction, is confident that the tapes come from Jenkins and Hirshenson.

“I know Jane,” York told Backstage. “Jane was actually at my house for Christmas, which is what makes this even weirder for me.” She characterized the sale of the audition tapes as an invasion of her privacy and the setting of a dangerous precedent. “It’s bad enough to post this stuff, but to sell it is beyond me.”

Phone calls to Jenkins and Hirshenson’s management company have not been returned. Nolan, executive director of Julien’s Auctions, declined to identify the casting directors who had put the tapes up for sale. He also claimed that no concerns had been raised about whether the casting directors had the rights to sell the tapes. “I’m not aware of anything like that,” he told Backstage. “Obviously this is something where people would go in and do an audition, so there’s no release or anything like that involved.”

But the auction has incited controversy within the casting community. Several casting directors and industry personnel took to Twitter after the “Today” segment aired to criticize the auction. Bonnie Liedtke, a manager with Principato-Young Entertainment who sent a young DiCaprio on an audition for the 1990 Fox TV adaptation of “The Outsiders” that is among those included in the tapes, wrote on the social-media site, “Selling for profit without consent is wrong. When an actor walks in it should be a private moment.”

Richard Hicks, president of the Casting Society of America, condemned the auction in a written statement to Backstage, saying the organization “does not condone in any way” the sale or distribution of audition videos. “Actors who audition for the projects on which we work should have the reasonable expectation that their creative efforts during the audition process are treated with respect and used only for their intended purpose,” Hicks wrote. “Legal and rights issues aside, there is an ethical understanding among casting professionals that actors' auditions are private.” He added that CSA “has always promoted and expected the highest of ethical standards of our members and will continue to do so.” Jenkins and Hirshenson are both CSA members.

For some, the event called to mind a 2009 incident in which casting director Daryl Eisenberg took to Twitter during an audition for the New York Musical Theatre Festival production of “Gay Bride of Frankenstein” to mock the actors appearing in front of her. The resulting outcry and pressure from Actors’ Equity Association led the show’s producer to hold new auditions. Both Equity and SAG-AFTRA, the major unions covering stage and screen actors, respectively, have language in their collective bargaining agreements that would provide protections against the sale and distribution of audition tapes.

Whether those rules or any potential legal action may yet prevent the auction is impossible to foretell. Regardless, the trust relationship between casting directors and actors may already be permanently damaged.

“I hope somebody does something about it,” York said. “If this opens the floodgates to this kind of thing, it’s going to change the trust that has been there for decades between agents and actors and casting people. That’s an important relationship.”