This week I have been listening and looking at actors in New York. The week started out with a day of non-Equity auditionees, followed by a day of Equity Principal Auditions (an ‘EPA’) and then several days of ‘closed’ or ‘invited’ auditions. In all cases, actors look at the character descriptions provided as part of the casting notice and then, presumably, identify a stage role that they think best represents their individual strengths: age and physical appearance; vocal range and voice type, and possibly other specific character traits that may include height or even body art (rare).
Why do actors put themselves through this? I wouldn’t (he says from the safety of the other side of the table). The answer of course is that they love it – well perhaps not the rejection if things go awry, or when an actor doesn’t get cast in the role being auditioned for – but when you think about it, actors are in a room (usually airless, with a piano that has no virtue other than being used for firewood) with a captive audience to perform to. Fabulous!
For all that, I still think they’re tremendously brave people, but it is the process we go through to find the right actor for a specific role and, frankly, how else could it be done? Me? I’d much rather be a composer/songwriter.
What individual actors don’t necessarily see is that moment when a person – who whilst singing their song selection and then characterising lines with a short excerpt from the play’s script (the ‘book’ in a Musical) for the character they are reading for – suddenly makes a writer aware that this IS the right actor for the role. It’s one of those simple joys in life.
What’s really funny about this process is that everyone sits stone-faced and doesn’t let anything show, other than acknowledging a good performance of the chosen song (or excerpt) which is a basic courtesy that should be observed. Why do we sit there seemingly unmoved? Because the prevailing logic says that there might be someone even better who walks into the room next. Personally, having sat through thousands and thousands of auditions in my role as a musical director, my view is that you always do know when you see the right person for the first time.
To finish here’s some of my top-ten, favourite faux pas from young, and/or less experienced actor/singers (even Equity approved actors) in auditions – in no particular order:
1. If you have body art, and you are doing a show that pre-dates excessive tattoos, cover them up! It’s not a good look when you’re trying to imagine you as the specific character in the play.
2. If you’re auditioning for a romantic, historical or period piece, don’t sing up-tempo, speech-rhythm based contemporary pop-musical numbers. It’s not the song, per se, but listening for vocal quality and vocal-range requirements befitting the needs of the show. If you don’t show me, I can’t guess whether you do or don’t have the right vocal attributes.
3. Don’t shout when you think you are belting. If you don’t know the difference, you shouldn’t be auditioning. If you can’t do it, stop auditioning until you can.
4. Personally, I don’t care about how long your last note is (usually in chest-belt) if its not perfectly in tune. It just means I have to listen to an ugly note longer. What I do care about is musical phrasing, colour, breath control and support, song arc, subtext; the art of the actor, and at least some general understanding of placement and vowel modification. For nearly all musical directors, this is our starting point. Conversely, for directors, it’s not – and for good reason – but if you can’t sing the role, you’re not getting it!
5. Be your own person, not the person you think the people across the other side of the table want to see. Sincerity is everything. Also, pretending that we are acquainted is an audition killer.
6. Big marks for absolute professionalism in the manner and efficiency of your time in the room. Smalltalk, unless initiated from the creative team side of the table, is out!
7. Bring more than one song. In fact bring a song in every conceivable style pertinent to musical theatre. And know what songs are actually in your book!
8. Smile – it’s a really attractive trait. And auditions are not the end of the world if things don’t go right or to plan.
9. This one is an old chestnut: Don’t move around the room whilst singing: be grounded, let me see and hear that you are the character. You prove it best by being still. This does not apply to reading lines. Actors who can move as a studied representation of the character they are inhabiting demonstrate the depth of their acting chops when this is done really well (usually traversing the space almost imperceptibly).
10. The dress code thing: this is very subjective, so I put it last because it’s only my preference – so take it with a grain of salt. I personally am looking and listening for actors able to inhabit and embody a character – a picture of that stage persona very well established in my mind. This means that if you dress in a manner that distracts me from that goal, then I have to immediately work past that distraction. I think it is much easier for men than women in this regard. A form of neutral clothing is more effective in my view, because I then work more instinctively on issues of demeanour, personality trait and general physical appearance – and this is before the you, the actor, has done anything (singing and reading). If then, having sung and read lines, my initial preconceptions hold up, then you are far more likely to be put on the discussion list for callbacks.
Take care and thank you everyone who auditioned for The Mapmaker’s Opera in New York last week. We are entirely appreciative of your time and efforts.