At a recent round of auditions my producer client in good-nature stopped an actor in the midst of singing “If I Can’t Love Her” from DISNEY’S BEAUTY AND THE BEAST.
“Why must every actor singing this song in auditions,” he began as he rose from his chair, “take a fucking wide-stance when performing this song?”
He then came from around the back of the table to demonstrate the near testicle splitting breach we had seen throughout our several days of open calls. The producer’s inquiry was spurned because of a previous auditioning actor who had come in, presented the same song, and stood with a similar Grand Canyon straddling-like stance that he oddly compounded with an awkward Elephant Man contortion. This actor had done no different for us a month prior at another open call. There was nothing new to discover. He was a clone of himself. And he was just one of dozens of men re-creating an interpretation of lesser performances of the role presented regionally in stock and schools.
When I was involved with the casting the original companies of BEAST we never encountered this wide-stance contorted phenomena. But once actors witnessed other actors originate/recreate a role- the carbon paper performances came rolling out. Then those duplicates became exaggerated as the role was taken on by creatives in second and third class productions. (That class delineation is not a snide swipe. In entertainment a Broadway production is often classified as ‘first class’ i.e. because it was ‘first’.) Now that I’m generations removed from my work on the original Broadway production of BEAST and presently cast regional stagings of it, I no longer see potential Belles, Gastons, Lumieres, LeFous or Beasts bringing in an artistry of their own that hasn’t been biased by witnessing someone else performing the roles. I now see actors imitating cartoon-ish presentations of inferior product. Nothing original. Just copies.
This phenomenon of cloned performances is not unique to musical theater. Whenever I cast a production of OTHELLO one of my first thoughts is, How many men this time will come in sporting a hooped ear ring? And never fail, in auditions, comes the men-of-color parade flaunting puffy white, open button shirts and dangling from an ear lobe a recent purchase from the Piercing Pagoda. When did Billy Shakes place the dark Moor at a Fire Island White Party?
Why can’t some actors be original? Why do some take it upon themselves not to be actors but imitators?
Insecurity is the first culprit. The actor who ‘presents’ is the actor that does not trust themselves for finding truth and invention within the art that lies within their muse. (O.K. a little heady there but I haven’t had breakfast yet.)
Assumption is the second devious culprit. Actors assume an audience’s demands. Whether that audience includes casting personnel, a director or (cue Norma Desmond) all those wonderful people out there in the dark… texting during a performance. Don’t assume your work must be a clone of someone else’s performance. You’re not being an actor. You’re being a copy clerk at Kinko’s.
I doubt that before recorded media became a persistent prominence in modern life that actors were as lackadaisical for taking the path of least resistance; copying someone else’s originality. Yes, I’m sure there were the insecure, jealous actors who sought out the live performances of Kean, Burbage, Booth and Barrymore then later strutted on a stage an interpretation of what they recalled while fancying themselves resplendent replications. But were they being actors or thieves? If the latter– there is no penalizing sentence for the larceny committed except for the actor’s conscious (if they have one) gnawing constantly that the actor is no actor but a fraud.
Fear is the third and nastiest of provocateurs for actors replicating poorly the performances of others. Fear is that nagging voice in the head that like a serpent softly hisses, “If you don’t show them something they’ve seen before, they won’t like you.” Fuck fear.
I nearly didn’t write ACTING: Make It Your Business because I often maintained to others that what I had to offer had already been published in ad nauseam. My friends would admonish me, rightly so, replying that my voice, insight and guidance on the business had not yet been heard and that in itself was new. And they were right.
So next time you walk into an audition or rehearsal hall what are you going to offer? Your voice or a copy of other actors that have come before you?
There is no art in copying. That’s why copies are called prints and art is termed original. How original are your auditions? Are you masquerading in the performance of someone else? Or are you bringing your own, fresh and unique perspective to the work?
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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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