Secret Lessons for Auditions

 

So, compiled here, are the “Secret Lessons for Auditions” that I posted on Facebook last December plus an extra one to make it an even five.

One

Many times I’ve been asked how necessary it is to come back for the second day of open auditions. The boilerplate answer is, “Not at all necessary.” This is because we recognize that you have a real life and a real job. We even tell ourselves that it isn’t an issue, and we make an honest attempt to remember the day one festivities as well as the day two hijinks.

The real answer is, “Hell, yes!” Unless you’re absolutely certain you nailed it on day one, you want to come back for day two. Even if you did nail it, someone who comes in on day two may have the right chemistry with one of the others, and you do not want to be passed over because Iggy Kroenberg made a kinda cute couple with Juliet, but you weren’t there to look better.

Two

Auditions start the minute the director walks in the door. We watch everything. Maybe in professional theatre there’s some separation between your performance and the person, but down here in the cheap seats we’re looking at who we’re casting as much as what.

We don’t have the time or the energy in an average small-theatre production to deal with problem children, so, yes, we watch everyone like a hawk to see what issues they might present. No matter how many times the middle-aged accountant reading Stanley Kowalski to your Blanche screws it up, you go ahead and treat him like he’s on the money. Believe me, we know who the problem is.

Other things to watch out for in this same vein: Don’t get butthurt if you sense that the director is going in a direction that may not include you, and definitely don’t show your contempt for that direction by putting in an intentionally bad reading. We don’t all know each other, but most of us know enough others of us that word gets around.

Don’t audition to get a part. Audition to enjoy the raw experience of unrehearsed acting and the illimitable thrill of seeing others do the same.

Three

Play it straight. Ignore the blocking. Spit out the words.

It doesn’t matter that you’re holding the worst script since the Dancehall stage allowed lonely dowagers to project their fantasies onto innocent actors. Play it straight! Even if the actor who read the side before you read King Lear as Jack Nicholson in Seven Easy Pieces to uproarious applause and laughter, PLAY IT STRAIGHT!! You’re not there to entertain the other auditioners, you’re there to show the director you can be trusted with a piece of his (her) stage.

By the same token, go ahead and ignore most of the blocking on the page. With the exception of entrances, exits, and actions absolutely necessary to the plot, he’s probably going to change all of it, anyway. We look for interpretation of character at these things, and clumsy, off-the-cuff pseudo-blocking with a piece of paper in your hand gets in the way.

Also, read ahead, have a good idea of what the next line is, and spit out the words. Don’t fret over the proper pronunciation of Aeschylus (Es-kill-us), just pick one that works for you and go on. Be clear; project. No one wants to waste pages of production notes reminding actors to speak up, and the audition stage is one place where we find out if that’s likely.

Four

There are two times when it is appropriate to try out an accent during an audition: 1) if you were born to the accent and have trouble speaking without it, and 2) if the Director specifically requests it.

It doesn’t matter if the character description lists the character as a ridiculous French K-nig-et. If the director doesn’t ask you for the accent, don’t do it. Accents are difficult to do, and they take hours (years, really) to develop and a lot of concentration to maintain. Concentration that can generally be put to better use learning lines and blocking.

If you need further evidence that doing an accent (outside the cases above) is a bad idea, go watch Prince of Thieves a couple of times.

Five

Know what you have on your plate for the entire run of the show. Most audition notices will include at least the production run of a show. Even if they don’t include the rehearsal run, you can usually back up your calendar by six-to-eight weeks and figure it out. Most directors will have at least a preliminary schedule available for perusal at auditions. A good director will have a detailed preliminary with objectives.

Look at the schedule provided and carefully compare it with your own schedule. If you can’t remember your personal schedule, write (or print) it out before you go to auditions. If you have a conflict tell the director.

I have cast actors knowing in advance that I would need someone to fill in for them for one or two shows. I have no problem with actors who encounter emergencies and surprise difficulties in their real lives. I have no love and no pity for people who knew they had a problem well in advance but chose not to speak up.

Director’s Notes

A few months ago, I posted some advice to actors on my Facebook. I called them “Directors’ Secret Hints for Auditions,” or something like that. They were, over all, fairly well received. In the weeks since, it occurs to me that maybe I haven’t done enough, so I’ve created a new blog category called “Director’s Notes.” In the Director’s Notes, I’m going to dole out the pearls of wisdom I have gathered over 20-odd years on and behind the stage.

Mind you, I am an amateur, and my experience is on the amateur stage. Professional directors play a different game and have different rules and expectations. Don’t walk away thinking I’ve given you the keys to the Winter Garden, because I haven’t. Hell, even other amateur directors will probably have different needs than I do. I guess what I’m saying here, is that this is my opinion, and while I’m trying to add in what I’ve observed as an actor or set monkey, as well, ultimately, every director rules their own stage, and if it comes down to a conflict between what I write here and what they say there, they win.

That being said, let’s start this little odyssey at the beginning with

Your Résumé

Vital Data

The top third of your résumé should be filled with the sort of information that directors need to make their decisions.

Your Photo  The upper-right corner should display a 2″ by 3″ photo of you that is clear and recent enough that you will be instantly recognizable (including your current hair length and color). Don’t worry, most publicly-available printers can handle that level of detail. You could pop for the 8 x 12 on the back, but, unless you’re serious about making the jump to professional, that’s a lot of money for a photo the director probably isn’t going to look at.

Your Name This should be pretty large (I suggest 18-24 point type) and in bold. Your name and current appearance are the most important pieces of information you can include on an amateur theatre résumé, and they should both be right there where the director is looking, If he has to hunt around for too long to find out who just made his heart stop in that three-minute reading from Da, he’ll forget how amazing you are and move on to someone else.

Your Contact Information Nobody wants your address. With very few exceptions, the only reason any director cares where you live is if you’ve volunteered to host the closing party.

What they do need is you primary phone number. Unless you’re a luddite like me, that’ll be a cell phone. If you have one, you may want to include a secondary phone number where a message can reach you. Don’t use your work number.

You’ll also want to include a reliable e-mail account. Unless you want to send friend requests to everyone too drunk to say, “no,” when the AD showed up with scripts, this will be the main non-voice contact between you and the director. I advise having an e-mail separate from both your work e-mail and your main personal e-mail. There are plenty of free hosts out there where you can do this.

Your Description Why describe yourself? because there is information a director needs that can’t always be conveyed by your photo. He’ll use this info for a wide variety of decisions (or reminders of decisions he made when he saw you on his stage). This is an objective description, so it’s easiest to keep to quantifiable facts.

I want to say your race isn’t that important, but it can be, if the script calls for a certain race and that isn’t immediately apparent in your photo. Use your best judgment; if someone gets mad because you did or didn’t include your race in a description of yourself, then they’re the one with a problem. Your sex is necessary, however, and is not always easy to discern by a photo (or even a casual live glance).

You must include your age. I mean your actual—right now—age. Don’t tell him what age you “look” or what ages you “can play,” because, I can tell you right now that you’re wrong. Just give them your correct age and let them decide whether you’re Willy or Biff Loman.

By the same token, your current height and weight are also essential. I am 5’9″ and 240 pounds, and no amount of wishing or skilled acting will ever make me 6’1″ or thin (yeah, okay, I can get thin by correcting my eating habits and getting more exercise, but I don’t see that happening). Be honest, with yourself and with the director.

Optionally, you may include your clothing sizes. The director won’t use this for the audition, but the theatre’s costumer will appreciate the advance knowledge.

Your Curriculum Vita

Acting Experience This should be a borderless table listing no more than six roles you’ve performed in the last six-to-ten years. Your most recent role should be at the top, and this is the last role you played, even if you played the punching tree in Pocahontas. The rest can be favorites, or roles you feel were significant in some way, but no more than six.

The role info should include, the year, role, play, and theatre or troupe. The exact date isn’t important. If you played multiple roles, list the one with the most lines or stage time, or just say “multiple” or “various” if they were equally minor (I was the punching tree, but I was also the sitting rock, so maybe…) Be honest. Most director’s won’t be overly impressed with a CV loaded to the gills with plum roles, but they will be put off by obvious bullshit.

Other Theatre Experience If you don’t mind doing background work instead of (or, in addition to) being onstage, list what you’ve done before. You should have at least one entry for each position you’ve held, even if they were in the same show (unless the jobs are closely related–say set design and construction). The only exception is if you were the director. A director has to fill in where he’s needed, and if you ended up running lights for two thirds of a show’s run because your light person couldn’t wait three more weeks to go into labor, you still only get to list yourself as having directed.

Other skills Do you have a good voice? Have you been told this by someone other than your mother? Put down singing. Otherwise, don’t put down any skill that you have not been trained to do or can’t back up somehow. No one cares if you can play “Stairway to Heaven” on your pawn shop guitar; what the director needs to know is if you can play second guitar on “Two Tickets to Paradise” from the sheet music. You can’t choreograph if you haven’t at least taken dance classes, and you can’t juggle if you can’t keep three balls in the air for longer than it takes to say, “Oh, crap.”

Other skills are great, and sometimes (rarely) can be the difference between a great role and “thanks; we’ll call you,” but you have to actually have those skills, or you’re just shooting yourself in the foot. I’ve learned enough stuff to get by in shows because the director was more interested in actors, but I wouldn’t call them “other skills”.

And that’s it. That’s your résumé. If it goes beyond one page, you should edit it down, cut out duplications in the “Other Experience” section, or cut “other skills” entirely. In the end, what you want is a single page that the director can look at and go, “Oh, yeah. That’s the guy.”

An Open Letter to the Small Theatre Community

Listen, we need to talk. I’ve been around the Houston small theatre community for a while, now, and I have to say, I’m getting a little bothered by what I’m starting to see. To be honest, I think that much of the problem comes from a simple misunderstanding: You are not professional theatres, so quit trying to pretend you are.

Now, the reason I said, “small” theatre instead of “community” or “amateur” theatre is simple. I’m not just talking to those theatres that claim “education” or “community arts” in their founding documents. I’m talking to every little theatre that pays its actors less than Equity scale and its crew members less than minimum wage. You know who you are. I don’t care if you call it a stipend or offer them points on net as “co-producers”, if the total payout divided by the time you expect them to be there is less than a minimal living wage, you’re not professional. At best, you’re a start-up.

Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with running an amateur or startup theatre. You ask half of Hollywood and all of Broadway how they got their start and they’ll trot out some long, tear-filled story of the community theatre that first sparked their love of the boards. More so, small theatre inspires an interest in the arts in general, in literature, history, and even science and the trades. Small theatre is an honorable genre, and don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.

It is not, however, professional theatre, so different rules have to apply.

You don’t get to prioritize yourself above your volunteers’ lives. The main difference between professional and small theatre is that, when all the numbers are crunched, professional theatres pay their employees something that comes close to what the government considers a living wage. If you’re not cutting checks for everyone in your shop, including for rehearsals, then you have no right to expect them to treat their hobby like a job. That means you have to make allowances for their real job, and sometimes for other issues that may come up in their lives. Parents have to put their children before their hobbies, and, these days, many adults are in the unenviable position of caring for an aged parent. These people can’t always maintain a grueling 30-hour-a-week rehearsal schedule. Or even a light 20.

I’m not saying anyone should tolerate bullshit. If an actor is skipping whole chunks of rehearsal or refuses to learn their lines or approximate their blocking, by all means boot them out like a hobo. No one wants a bad show, and tolerating bullshit is one of the quickest ways to get one. I’m just asking that you show some reasonable restraint. If an actor is otherwise tight, then letting him skip a Saturday to check on his aged mother is probably not going to kill you.

Really, I guess it all comes down to this: Never forget that your volunteers are volunteers. They don’t owe you a goddamn thing. Period. They do what they do for love of the craft and because you asked them to. Sets go up, props get built, and lights shine because someone— who isn’t even getting the thrill of having 50-100 people applaud their ability to spit out words —is making it happen. Ushers (and other lobby volunteers) get to see a show for free, but “free” often means they have to attend to the needs of 50-100 people, wrangle refreshments, ensure the balance of the box, and clean up the auditorium afterward. Don’t try to fob off unwanted chores on these people like they’re immigrant dishwashers.

They’re volunteers, and failing to show your appreciation of their effort is the easiest way to lose them. And without volunteers, you won’t have a theatre at all.

Casual Friday–Just Like Dubuque

Still a lot going on, here. Penny and Diana are arguing about Diana’s bad habits (the mythical Diana/Artemis did the same thing…a lot. Look it up). Steve is recognizing Phil (which comes up later), and other things.

There’s important information here that I couldn’t really place. Penny works as an administrator for her father’s private detective agency, which also has a sideline of solving problems related to the supernatural and, in particular, the loose group of immortals known as the Old Crowd. Every time Diana has one of her snits, she makes a phone call and Penny has a lot of work to do making irritations go away, especially since Diana’s snits usually result in someone dying ironically (Acteon was eaten by his own dogs).

The Dubuque incident went down like this: Diana was waiting to meet a client in a bar (she’s a sports agent) when a guy approached her seeking directions to the bathroom. She turned him into a sheep (he was wearing a wool suit), and refused to turn him back because, “He probably saw my cleavage.” (She was wearing a scoop-necked t-shirt, so pretty much everyone in Dubuque had seen her cleavage by then.)

Anyway, the upshot was that the guy was coincidentally emotionally and physically abusive, so his wife wasn’t too heart-broken over his “fatal traffic accident.” His kids got to go to college on the “insurance settlement,” and the guy himself got to enjoy an early retirement on a farm in Upstate New York, where he provided wool for the Brooks Brothers corporation until his death from more or less natural causes in 1974. He was committed to eternity with some baby potatoes and a nice mint jelly.

Shiny Things

Now that the Epiphany has officially marked the end of the Christmas Season, I can freely discuss my own beliefs without crapping all over someone else’s holiday. So, in answer to those few people who ask what I celebrate in the middle of December, I celebrate Christmas, because, why not?

There was probably some big party that related in one way or another to the Winter Solstice; every northern culture has one, but the fragments that have survived don’t mention its name or significance. Yule, for you Wiccans out there, is a Germanic holiday.

There's Kittenalia, but I'm pretty sure that's just a dodge to get extra treats.

There’s Kittenalia, but I’m pretty sure that’s just a dodge to get extra treats.

The Gaelic calendar doesn’t border its seasons on the solar events, it centers them there, with the months measured out by full moons. So Samhain, the beginning of winter, falls around the beginning of November, two full moons after the autumnal equinox, and Imbolc, the beginning of spring, is celebrated around the beginning of February, on the second moon after the winter solstice. There was almost certainly some big do on the longest night of the year, probably relating to culling and to enjoying the people you have while you have them, but it hasn’t survived.

So I celebrate Christmas, because I live in a culture where the party during the winter solstice is called Christmas, even though the person who’s birth it celebrates was undoubtedly born in early spring. Do I worship Jesus at that time? No, but I don’t care who does. It’s none of my business if someone wants to say December 25 is his god’s birthday. To me, the important thing is a day to see my family and enjoy their presence.

To me, Yeshua bin Miriam was (if reports of him are accurate) an astoundingly advanced philosopher with some great ideas about how to treat each other, but he isn’t my god. He’s my family’s god, so, as long as he continues to allow me to celebrate the shortest days of the year with them, I’m cool with that.

I’m cool with any holiday that gives me an excuse to draw my family together and tell them how much I love them, because everything can change in an instant. Refusing the opportunity to be with our loved ones over personal details of faith is stupid.