Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Auditioning essentials!

UPDATED 4/30/11!

Among the many things that make me weird, near the top of the list has to be the fact that I love auditions. Auditions are the most compressed, highest-stress part of the craft of acting. I love auditioning as an actor, I love coaching actors to audition, and I love being a casting director more than almost anything in theatre. I love the unique energy of auditions, I love getting to know new actors, and I love imagining the possibilities of the upcoming show.

In January, we three directors for the 2011 Arkansas Shakespeare Festival watched scores of actors audition for us. I originally prepared this document for AST's website for those actors to read, and have since expanded it from notes I wrote during those auditions and suggestions from the other directors. Thank you all for your horrible mistakes. Be assured, several actors were cast who didn't get it all right. There are exceptions to every rule. Well, most rules.

Different directors are looking for different things from actors, so I can only speak for myself. But here are a handful of things I think every actor should know before they audition. It comes down to two major principles:
  1. Control the things you can control.
  2. Completely and totally let go of the things you cannot control.
In more specific terms:

Be yourself. The message of your audition shouldn’t be “I am the best Juliet you will ever see,” it should be “I am the best me you will ever see.” I will either see you as Juliet or I won’t. Sorry about that. Typecasting is both a necessary evil and a powerful tool, and either way you will never make it go away. So don’t worry about it.

Choose monologue and song material that allows the amazingness of you to shine, rather than something that projects which role in the show you want. I don’t want to see you as Juliet, I want to meet you. You can show me Juliet at callbacks. From your slate through your “thank you,” the central message of your audition should be “Hi. This is me. I am very glad to be here. And I will be awesome to work with.”

A related anecdote, though not one applicable to all situations: I once auditioned an actor for Julius Caesar. He came in with an incredibly intense look on his face, performed an incredibly intense monologue from Hamlet, and he was so scary that I almost didn’t call him back. I had just done a show with an actor who was had displayed some borderline psychopathic behaviors behind the scenes, and I was half-convinced that this auditioner was going to be crazy trouble. My artistic director shared my concerns, but after some discussion we called him back with much hesitation. He turned out to be a delightful human being and a fine actor; he was cast as our Antony. But the fact that he was projecting the image of a tragic hero at his audition rather than projecting any of the image of himself nearly sabotaged his audition.

Be awesome. Believe me when I tell you this: we want you to be amazing. Every single person who auditions for me I want to be exactly what I need. We’re on your side. You are entering a friendly environment. In a related item:

Don’t make assumptions based on my behavior. It is a very long day for casting directors, and just because we’re sitting doesn’t make it less exhausting. I may not look at you much. I may not smile. I may not laugh. I am probably focused on taking notes or imagining what to read you as in callbacks.

Don’t look at me. Once your slate (which is totally appropriate to direct at me) is over, find a spot on the back wall of the theatre and look at that. Looking at me does two bad things for you, 1) it makes me sympathetically want to look back, which makes me take fewer notes, resulting in my having a harder time remembering you in seven hours when the directors are all discussing you, and 2) if I do take notes, it distracts you and makes you wonder what I’m writing and why I’m writing it.

Don’t apologize for anything. If you mess up, just fix it and move on. If you have a frog in your throat, work around it and move on. Actors who make excuses in auditions project as actors who will make excuses in rehearsal and performance.

Dress appropriately. No words on your clothes, no holes in your clothes, no distracting logos, no inappropriately exposed skin, no outlandish hairstyles, no enormous jewelry, no six-inch heels. Your clothing should draw attention to you, not away from you. Wear practical shoes, and avoid noisy heels that will drown out your voice. Get your hair out of your face

Dress to move. Assume that I'm going to ask you to roll around on the floor at your callback, and gird your loins appropriately. I don't want you holding back because you don't want to mess up your clothes, and I really don't want to see your underwear up your skirt or above your beltline.

Dress to work. It's business time. No ridiculous cleavage, no foul language on your T-shirt, no words or logos of any kind that might distract me while I'm watching you work. Your audition is a job interview. Dress like a professional.

Dress for your body. This is a delicate subject. Don't wear that form-fitting cocktail dress you had to squeeze yourself into. It is not attractive, it restricts your movement and breath, and it makes you look like you have no body awareness. You may be in the middle of a 20-pound weight-loss diet and workout plan, but this is what your body looks like today. Own your body with pride, fearlessness, and a sense of reality. This is a note for life, not just auditions. I have a belly; everyone in my family has a belly, and I will always have a belly. I'm not squeezing myself into a man-corset vest to conceal it for auditions. I will be much happier if I am cast for who I am. So will you.

Warm up. Don't work cold. Warm your voice up, warm your body up. The tension of adrenaline and emotional pressures will tighten your body and voice; you may not feel like you need to warm up, but you do.

Fill the space with your voice. If I think you can’t project enough to be heard in a large theater, I will not cast you in a production in a large theater. This is an absolute deal-breaker; if I think the audience won't be able to hear you, I can not use you.

Nail every note. Choose a song you know you can knock out of the park. I'm not interested in hearing the highest note of your range, I'm interested in hearing the best notes of your range. Pick a song that hits the sweet spot. If you have any doubt that you can sing the song perfectly every time, you have picked the wrong song.

Leave me wanting more. If the audition notice is asking for a 60-second monologue, prepare a 50-second one. For crying out loud, don't pick that 70-second monologue you love and rush through it to squeeze it in; you look like a fool. Save it for the 90-second audition notices, or cut it. Cutting pieces to make them fit is always appropriate. It is always better to end early than it is to be cut off. Bear in mind that the person timing your audition is often pretty low on the stage management totem pole; they may start the clock when you begin your slate.

Bring everything you might need. A whole group of actors came to audition for us from one school. All of them had musical theatre on their resumes, and none of them prepared a song or brought sheet music. What??? We were doing Joseph that season, for crying out loud. Do you want a job or not? It's one thing to have decided to audition last-minute; that's fine as long as you are a smart, prepared actor who always has four monologues prepared at all times. It's another to have a resume that screams "song-and-dance man" but bring no sheet music or dance shoes. Many of those actors did not get cast for the sole reason that they refused to show us they could sing.

Don't shock me. If you're auditioning for a theatre company with a history of producing Shakespeare, musicals, and Neil Simon, your monologue full of F-bombs and incest references is not likely to win you any fans. Trust me; the shock-value audition is ten times more likely to hurt you than help you. It makes you look like an anti-social twit with no sense of the appropriate. For companies doing more edgy, contemporary work, you can push the envelope a bit, but it's safer to pick something less likely to offend.

Avoid emotional peaks. It's really easy to play anger, and usually feels quite cathartic for the actor. It's also quite boring to watch, and usually comes across as entirely self-indulgent. I simply don't believe that you can sincerely reach that huge emotional peak of screaming or anger in 60 seconds, so don't try. Pick a monologue that reaches a 6 on an emotional scale of 1-10, not a 9.

Show me something new. Do a monologue from a play I've never heard of, or do a monologue I've never seen from a play I know. If you do something I've seen, directed, or acted, you're competing with all my preconceptions. If you show me something new, you get to be the one to which I compare everyone else. "To be or not to be?" Bad. "If we shadows have offended?" Bad. "Think not that I love him?" Bad. Measure for Measure, Henry VI, Richard II, The Two Gentlemen of Lebowski? All excellent sources. 

Don't do a piece from the play you're auditioning for. There are two schools of thought on this. My school is right. Don't do it, unless the audition notice REQUIRES it. I have my ideas of what the play is; you're not going to change my mind with your monologue. Save it for callbacks.

Take direction. If I give you adjustments, do what I told you to do. If it doesn’t fit in with your image of the character, convince yourself it does. Ability to take direction is one of the most vital things directors are looking for.

Go too far. If I give you adjustments, take them as far as is possible while still remaining in the realm of plausibility. One of my mentors was fond of the phrase, “Extend to the logical absurdity.” Show me that you will make bold choices. It is MUCH easier for a director to tell an actor to pull it back than it is for us to drag bigger choices out of you. 

Respond to your scene partners. Show me that you can actually, you know, act. Lots of people can recite lines in an interesting fashion; it’s your ability to be changed by another person, and to change them back, that makes you an actor instead of just a reciter of memorized lines. Sometimes your scene partner is a block of wood, sometimes they’re a stage hog, and sometimes they smell like salty garbage. Take what they give you, respond in the world of the character, and trust that if YOU can see that your scene partner is a dud that we can see it far more clearly than you can.

Play with me. Have fun, even if what we’re doing isn’t. Show me that you will be pleasant to work with. I will cast a less talented nice person over a surly genius any day of the week. I can coach up acting; I can’t coach up jerk.

Over-prepare. Remember this as a rule: The adrenaline of auditioning plus your nervousness will erase 25-50% of your preparation. That means you need to rehearse, memorize and prepare 125-150% as much for an audition as you think you need to.

You need to know your lines cold. You need to NOT have just memorized your monologue the night before or (shudder) in the car on the way. ESPECIALLY if it’s Shakespeare. I’ve probably directed, acted in, produced, or composed music for the show you’re doing a piece from. I know your monologue as well as you do.

When you blow your lines, I will know. When you are improvising your physicality, I will know. When you don’t know what your character’s goals, obstacles or tactics are, I will know. When you don’t know what the scene or the play are about, I will surely know. And you will not be called back.

Preparation: it’s the number one thing you can do to improve your chances of being cast, and the number one thing actors fail at the most. I can not stress this enough: I can tell the difference between a talented unprepared actor and a less-talented actor who really worked on their audition. And I WILL PICK THE HARD WORKER EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

My not casting you often has nothing whatsoever to do with you. Often, I’m looking for fit, for chemistry, for a certain height, build, or hair color, ethnicity, gender, or for any number of characteristics over which you have no control. My not casting you is in no way a judgment of your character, your future, or even your talent. Honestly, you may look like an ex-girlfriend I had a bad breakup with; I may be rejecting you for reasons of which I’m not even aware. It is not personal. Get back on the horse and audition again. By all means, audition for me again.

And finally, Shake it off. Actors have to be like NFL cornerbacks. Sometimes you get burned, and you have to forget it and move on to the next play with your maximum professionalism. You can’t worry over the could-have-beens; just don’t do again the things you did wrong.

I look forward to seeing your audition. I sincerely hope that every one of you amazes me, and I hope you make our casting decisions impossible.

Be your most awesome you! I can’t wait to see it.

Originally posted on Arkansas Shakespeare's blog.

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  • At 2/16/2011 2:49 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Hi Andrew,
    As a stage manager, usually in on the casting end of things, I have to tell you that this should be required reading for everyone who steps through theatre doors - not just auditionees, but anyone with creative input into the casting of any show!
    Sometimes I feel as if it's an "us against them" mentality from both sides and talent gets lost in the interim.
    Thank you for putting it so well!
    Sue (from Richmond - sorry we missed your turn in TBC - we saw Adam do a great job - would have loved to have seen you!)


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