Pilots drain the casting pool

Television is giving Broadway a smaller role

There are times when a TV listing reads like a Playbill. Or vice versa.

Television has always combed Gotham stages for new faces, giving casting directors a perennial headache when pilot season rolls around. But as the calendar boundaries of that season increasingly blur to meet the voracious demands of unorthodox cable-net skeds, the legit casting pool stands to be depleted year-round.

Casting directors say their major grief comes not from the number of actors cast in series that go on to long runs — always a finite group — but the annual throng of thesps who stampede away from theaters during pilot season.

From January to March, when most TV studios are casting and filming pilots, finding top-tier actors for stage shows becomes daunting. Thesps frequently hedge on signing contracts or pull out at the last minute as TV deals come together, creating chaos for legit productions.

“There’s always someone to cast, but pilot season makes it harder,” says Bernard Telsey, whose office fills roles for everything from “Rent” to “The Color Purple.” “The most obvious impact is when you’re going after a more seasoned theater actor who might be your first choice. So many more of them are trying to do television, even the ones who are mostly stars Off Broadway, that they are unavailable to us for theater.”

Consider the exodus from legitland to the tube this fall.

The Rialto loses one of its reigning queens, Kristin Chenoweth — not to mention Off Broadway thesp Lee Pace — to ABC comedy “Pushing Daisies.” The net’s midseason drama “Eli Stone” will boast musical vet Laura Benanti, and Fox’s midseason comedy “The Return of Jezebel James” features tuner star Michael Arden (“The Times They Are A-Changin’ “).

Meanwhile, Julie White follows her Tony win in “The Little Dog Laughed” with a role in ABC’s “Cavemen,” while Showtime’s “Californication” has snagged child actor Madeleine Martin, who at 14 already has two Broadway credits and a national tour of “Les Miserables” on her resume.

These thesps are imitating recent transfers by the likes of Sara Ramirez, who segued from her Tony for “Monty Python’s Spamalot” to a regular role on “Grey’s Anatomy”; Jesse Tyler Ferguson, bouncing from “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” to a spot on short-lived sitcom “The Class”; and Hamish Linklater, who stepped from “The Busy World Is Hushed” Off Broadway into “The New Adventures of Old Christine.”

Laura Stanczyk — half of Stanczyk/Cherpakov Casting — worked on Broadway productions “Coram Boy” and “Radio Golf” but also is casting director for New Jersey’s McCarter Theater. She says the challenges of securing talent when a TV opportunity beckons are magnified outside New York.

“Trying to get people to commit to a regional theater gig in pilot season is like pulling teeth,” Stanczyk explains. “Even a play like ‘Radio Golf,’ which had several prominent regional productions, would have been more difficult if we had not been going to New York.”

“If an actor is having strong response in the (television and film) industry to their auditions and is getting a lot of work, most of us wouldn’t submit an actor like that for a regional job,” confirms Ken Melamed, an agent at Bret Adams. “But if we did agree for the actor to work regionally, then it would have to be for a fantastic play and part — something that has a running chance at making it to New York.”

The drain on legit casting is being exacerbated as cable webs continue producing more and more series on an erratic schedule. That means instead of one tough stretch each year, now there’s arguably always a pilot to tempt plum thesps away.

“The trend grows a little every year because we’re starting to deal with more than one pilot season,” Stanczyk offers.

Plus, as Telsey notes, “The climate has changed in television so that it’s open to many kinds of actors.” In other words, a stage performer who doesn’t look like a conventional Hollywood demigod might land on an edgy show like HBO’s “Six Feet Under” or Showtime’s “Dexter” (Michael C. Hall), or on a series open to “real” bodies like “Grey’s Anatomy,” which has given curvaceous tuner vets like Ramirez and Chandra Wilson their most significant screen time.

No matter how much they may love working on the stage, there’s an obvious reason for thesps to seek a series — cash.

“The theater is not lucrative,” notes David Kalodner, a William Morris veepee who oversees many of the agency’s legit deals. “No matter what stage of your career you’re in, you’re always going to get paid more for being on film.”

“Managers and agents want to promote a possible paycheck in television instead of an actual paycheck in the theater,” Stanczyk adds. “Television pays so much more that the gamble is worth it.”

It’s not just actors who earn bigger bucks from TV. Equity’s current contract states that thesps in Off Broadway productions earning under $506 a week — and that’s plenty of them — do not have to pay their agents a commission: just a one-time fee of $100. Those earning between $506 and $610 a week don’t have to pay an agent’s commission until the show has run at least 10 weeks.

It’s the rare Off Broadway show that hits the 10-week milestone, so agents who broker a successful deal may still be working for peanuts.

So how can legiters survive the pilot season migration? “It’s best to reinforce the idea that theater is good for the client,” Stanczyk suggests. “The craft they develop onstage helps them onscreen, too.”

And, perhaps counterintuitively, it never hurts to court actors who left the theater several years ago for a TV role. Kalodner argues that despite a few exceptions — including Joan Allen, who has publicly stated she’s no longer interested in stage work — most actors who start on the stage don’t want to leave it forever. They usually return at some point, even if it is only in limited engagements.

“I think there’s a breed of artists committed to the theater, and they just don’t change,” Kalodner explains.

Of course, the increased celebrity that comes with television success can help boost stage actors to better legit roles, not to mention increase their box office clout. A Rialto and Off Broadway regular in the 1980s and ’90s, Cynthia Nixon followed “Sex and the City” with a Tony-winning role in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer winner “Rabbit Hole.” She then jumped to a star turn in the New Group’s extended-run revival of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.”

The end of “Frasier” freed up cast members to explore stage work, with David Hyde Pierce stepping into “Monty Python’s Spamalot” and then to a Tony-winning turn in “Curtains,” while John Mahoney returned to Broadway in “Prelude to a Kiss.”

Other names whose TV fame boosted the box office and media profiles of New York productions in the past two seasons have included Eric McCormack (“Will & Grace”), Maura Tierney (“ER”), Sandra Oh (“Grey’s Anatomy”), Lauren Ambrose (“Six Feet Under”), Camryn Manheim (“The Practice”), Patricia Heaton (“Everybody Loves Raymond”), Tony Shalhoub (“Monk”) and Jeremy Piven (“Entourage”).

“As much as I’m dying to put actors in plays, now I feel like they almost should go to L.A. for pilot season,” Telsey confesses. “If they get a series, they can get rich and noteworthy, and then they can get cast in theater.”

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