Several months ago I invited Jay Brancato, an actor-friend, to assist in the audition room. An opportunity every actor should pursue in order to sustain career longevity. There’s no better learning or improvement experience than watching your peers succeed or fail.
As the days dragged on I was wishing more actors could have the opportunity I provided Jay. That’s when I turned to him and asked if he would be willing to do me and you a favor. Write his reactions from his experience as an actor seated behind the audition table then let me post those thoughts here on Answers for Actors. Jay being the affable, will-do, guy he is, immediately volunteered. So this week; another voice. A fresh perspective from a peer who sits next to you… waiting… to go into the audition room.
Thank you, Jay. (And if you bump into Jay at an audition, please offer him your gratitude as well.)
Behind the Casting Table: An Actor’s Perspective
Recently, I was granted the fabulous opportunity to join Mr. Paul Russell behind the casting table for two days of auditions for a major regional theatre. I was excited to get a glimpse at what really happens in the audition room when I’m not in it. I had always imagined that the people sitting behind the audition table were judging me with disdain looking upon my puny attempt at making art. In reality, casting people and directors show up the same as we actors do, fresh from Starbucks and hoping for the response they need. (I’ll be delving deeper into all of that momentarily.)
First, allow me to introduce myself; I’m probably just like you a struggling actor grappling with more than just the financial burden of not working on stage or screen projects. In order to support myself, I’m a professional ballroom and Latin dance instructor and a former competitor (this information is relevant, I promise), and I fully understand the insecurities of constantly wondering whether or not my talent is enough to make the cut; if my look will fit the role for which I’m auditioning; and second guessing my choice to pursue a career in which jobs are scarce and the pay is low when it exists at all. I actually tried to convince myself that I could be happy without pursuing acting and singing. I was wrong, which brings me to my first point.
Congratulations to anyone that has the guts to pursue this quasi-idiotic profession. We put ourselves out there in ways that other people really can’t understand and the rewards are few. When a civilian interviews for an entry level position at a top accounting firm, their ability to believably inhabit a 500-pound ogre, hormonal young person, or a suicidal prostitute is hardly of value, let alone discussed. Our job interviews in contrast last fewer than five minutes and involve more than just a discussion of work experience and goals. Honestly, what other job requires the applicant to demonstrate ability to do the actual job in the interview? That being said, it’s time for my second point: We’re all trying too hard. Shocking, no? I shall explain.
The first day of auditions was an EPA. For those not in the know, this means that anyone with an Equity card can turn up and audition for the project whether they’re right for a role or not. What I’m about to say is probably something that you’ve heard countless times before. The actors that were called back were the ones who showed us who they were. Not how talented they were or how many high notes they could hit. In fact, what I’m about to say may shock you; everyone was talented and could hit tons of high notes. I’m going to repeat that; everyone was talented and could hit tons of high notes.
Confused? So was I. Actor after actor walked through the door with prepared songs and monologues. Everyone had dazzling vocal skills and comedic ability. Some even looked appropriate for the available roles. Actor after actor received a sincere, “Thank you!” from the auditors. It wasn’t until the first callback was scheduled that I understood that what was getting across the table was genuine commitment and emotional content. Everyone can give a “MUSICAL THEATRE” performance. Everyone can “DELIVER A MONOLOGUE.” On the rare occasion that an actor did enter the room and tell us a story [in their audition piece], it felt like the moment in The Wiz during “Brand New Day” when all of Evillene’s sweatshop workers unzipped their ugly suits and all the beautiful dancers stepped out and started to rejoice. Whether actors were “right” for the roles or not (and a few of them were about as far from right as one could imagine) they were asked to come back the next day or the day after.
So why all the stress we place upon ourselves? Why are we all putting so much effort into creating these fabricated, false, and foible-filled performances? I can’t speak for anyone but myself, so speak for myself I shall, because I, too, am guilty as charged!
I may have mentioned that I’m struggling actor. Not a Broadway star. Not a movie star. Not even a guest star. I am, however, a teacher, director, and choreographer. Many of us take on multi-tasking as additional survival jobs because these roles offer a modicum of creative outlet in the acting/singing/dancing world. I know as well as anyone that these duties don’t, in-fact, satisfy the need to perform that being in front of a camera or onstage provides, but it puts us in the position of watching and correcting. This is extremely dangerous as those activities result in us directing ourselves. More to the point, the result is us directing ourselves while we perform. As soon as this happens, the wall goes up and we start “performing by numbers.” Essentially, this means we start “delivering” the songs/monologues/scenes the way that we’ve seen Patti LuPone, Sutton Foster, Gavin Creel, Jonathan Groff, etc. perform them. Herein lies the problem.
The people that I’ve mentioned are all successful musical theatre performers. They have been so because they originate roles and create performances of now iconic songs and scenes. They don’t have the benefit of listening to cast recordings or watching film versions of the shows that they’re doing because most of the time, those things don’t exist. So what if you’d never heard the cast recording of Thoroughly Modern Millie, Les Miserables, or Spring Awakening? Even better, what if we’d never seen an episode of Glee? The fact is, this is where the majority of us turn for our audition material. And honestly, there are few alternatives. The important thing to note is that these materials have to be ingested, digested, and performed as though no one else has ever performed them before.
If you, like me, are having less than heartening results when you audition, take a fresh look at your audition materials. Are you singing the lyrics of your songs as if it’s the first time you’re singing them? Are you attaching an emotion to them? What do those lyrics say about you? It was disturbing when people came through the door and sang about being repulsive to women, abused by their parents, or angry at the world. And it was worse when people oversold the emotion behind the lyrics. Generally, the lyrics and the music will do the job for you. Take a look at the melodies that composers like Jerome Kern and Jerry Herman provide. Then take a look at the accompaniment. Hopefully, you’ll notice that the work has been done for you. The rhythms and melodic patterns reflect what the words are indicating. The musical highlights more often than not will be the emotional highlights and the simple act of bringing these things to life is more than enough. Most of what we do as actors is simply to provide the mouthpiece for these geniuses of music and verse. They don’t necessarily need our help to translate the English language to other English speakers.
Additionally, when you enter an audition room and don’t know anyone behind the table on a personal level, they have no way of knowing who you are as a person. As such, they’re not judging who you are as a person. In my career as a ballroom coach for competitive students, I’ve had to explain on more than one occasion that they’re not being judged based on their lives. They’re being judged based on a minute-and-a-half of dancing.; while there are up to eleven other couples on the floor. The outcome of a dance competition doesn’t reflect what kind of doctor, lawyer, or parent they are. The judges have no way of knowing that these are perfectly nice people, nor does that information amount to a hill of beans. So, while you may be the nicest, funniest, smartest, and most talented person seen that day, if you don’t bring those qualities with you into the audition room, then they’re not serving you, nor does it change the fact that you’re nice, funny, smart, and above all, talented. I can’t reinforce enough the fact that everyone brought their own set of skills and unique talent into the audition room. Most folks just forgot to bring the story in with them.
Now I’m going to get a little bit ugly. Feel free to hate as much as you please; trust me, I can take it. I am an actor without representation. This means that my methods of finding auditions are Back Stage, playbill.com, actorsaccess.com, and trolling around Pearl Studios like a jerk. In addition, my resume is not the most impressive on the block. I am also non-Equity. As such, I’m frequently passed over when I self-submit for projects. If you are an actor who is fortunate enough to have representation, or get called in for audition appointments and you receive materials well in advance of said appointment; do the casting team a favor and prepare the material. I sincerely hope that I never reach the point in my career that I think so little of a job opportunity that I fail to review sides before an audition.
An actress attended the EPA who had also been contacted for an appointment the next day. Her agent had not informed her that she had the appointment, so she hadn’t prepared any of the materials provided, hence her appearance at the EPA. She was asked to return the next day and told what materials to learn. Upon her arrival the next morning, this actress simply asked if she could take her time with the monologue because she hadn’t had weeks in which to prepare. She performed beautifully and became the benchmark for each actress who auditioned for that particular role. It was obvious that despite a miscommunication and lack of time in which to absorb the speech, this actress had put in a considerable effort in the time that she had to create a performance.
Then [on that second day which were auditions by appointment] began the cavalcade of “stars”; in effect- actresses who came in looking nothing like their headshots, who didn’t bring sheet music to a musical audition or performed the required monologue as though they were giving a tourist directions to The Olive Garden in Times Square. It remains a mystery to me why these women would bother showing up to an audition and what these people hope to achieve in their careers.
On that note, I also understand that I’m not working because I’m not auditioning well myself. Since the aforementioned auditions, I’ve gone in for a few calls and have had no response. This sent me straight to my team of coaches. They all had the same note for me, “Stop trying so hard and just tell us the story!” Yes, even after sitting through two days of watching people overdo their auditions, I, thinking I was putting this crucial information into practice, was doing exactly the thing I was trying to avoid. Hence, the team of coaches. No matter how self-aware we think we are; we aren’t. That’s why acting coaches and vocal coaches exist and directors are necessary. We all need a pair of outside eyes to focus in a put us in line. We need them to tell us when to raise the stakes and when to dial it back.
As a result of all of this, I’ve learned a few basic things. Casting directors are people too. They aren’t waiting for actors to walk in the door and fail. Actors do so because we are trying to be impressive when we already are. Essentially, actor failure is a result of the attempted reinvention of the wheel. Gimmicky performances are the result of overthinking. Funny words are already funny, sad things are already sad. The words we sing and the words we say in audition rooms are already heightened because they’re not our own; songs and monologues carry emotion by design. It’s more important to show auditors that you’re a human being and not a nutcase and let them decide whether or not you’re usable in the role; casting decisions are rarely personal.
Finally, always remember that every audition is an opportunity to do better; there’s no destination, only stops along the way. Break a leg!
Paul Russell’s career as a casting director, director, acting teacher and former actor has spanned nearly thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. Paul has taught the business of acting and audition technique at NYU and has spoken at universities including Yale, Temple and the University of the Arts. He writes a column for Back Stage and is the author of ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor. For more information, please visit www.PaulRussell.net.
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