When Being An Actor Just Straight-Up Sucks: Self-tapes and Shakespeare Auditions

Molly Goforth

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Disclaimer: I strive, in this blog and in my work in general, to help actors reclaim their joy and rediscover what is thrilling and uplifting in their artistic lives.  But I am an artist, as well, and I have my own moments of frustrated exhaustion with my corner of this Industry.  The work I do with actors is collaborative, not pedantic, and to stay in integrity I feel it’s only right to be honest about my own periodic struggles with depletion.  So if you are down for a rant with a sprinkling of practical advice, read on.  If you’d prefer something more inspirational, check in next month.

Early in my professional career I did a stint at a summer stock theatre with a very young actor—she was all of twenty years old—who just absolutely made me want to cry in my pie.  “Debbie” definitely presented as callback material:  she had a startling, self-possessed charisma combined with a specific kind of vulnerable, baby-woman prettiness that the part called for.  Watching her onstage was arresting and a little eerie: a bit like watching a doe who had wandered indoors and wasn’t sure how she felt about it yet.  I later found out that she had utterly dominated her audition, deploying a charm offensive that stopped just short of taking actual hostages. Bowled over by her flawless read and ideal appearance, the director overlooked Debbie’s lack of formal training and cast her, and the whole company spent the next six weeks repenting that error. 

While she excelled at auditioning with prepared material, Debbie wasn’t comfortable improvising in rehearsal or switching up her choices on impulse, and she was absolutely terrified of a moment of silence onstage or a spontaneous reaction from her partner.  After the first stumble-through, her performance was set, and it was impossible to have an organic exchange with her onstage.  Not only did she not know how to listen and respond, if any of us in the small ensemble paused for a moment longer than she expected she would simply jump to her next line, even if it made no sense without the cue. 

During one performance I found myself unable to open a bottle of Coke that I had to drink onstage (it was supposed to be a screw top but the props master had accidentally bought the old-fashioned bottles). Luckily, I spotted a churchkey magnet on the refrigerator, supplied as a piece of set dressing.  I asked Debbie to hand it to me and she just froze.  Handing me a bottle opener was not part of her blocking, and she simply couldn’t do it, even though I needed to drink the soda in order for the rest of the scene to make sense. (Eventually I just reached behind her to grab it: she didn’t even move aside.) Debbie was, in short, an extremely amateur actress who had accidentally been cast in a major role in a professional production because she gave an amazing audition and had the right look.  It was a nightmare for the rest of us, all of whom had extensive training.  The director, who became a friend, later told me that she learned a valuable lesson from it: a great audition in a vacuum means nothing.

For actors, the process of securing work is both immensely complex and straight-up bizarre, and it doesn’t surprise me that about 75% of the work I do with them addresses angst around auditioning.  Only in the entertainment industry is the job interview process so fundamentally flawed that an actor like Debbie could end up so completely out of her depth, as if she’d been hired to helm a submarine because she won a game of Battleship.  Is there any other profession in which the skill-set required to get a job is so drastically at odds with the skill-set required to do the job well?  Take engineering: certainly an exceptional engineer may lack interviewing savvy, but the skills needed to ace a job interview (communication, self-presentation, critical thinking) aren’t in actual opposition to the skills needed to say, build a suspension bridge. 

Moreover, in order to get a job building an actual suspension bridge, an engineer won’t be asked to build a miniature suspension bridge in a conference room using a glue gun and popsicle sticks.  But an actor has to demonstrate his ability to play a role effectively by auditioning, and effective audition technique is often irrelevant—if not diametrically opposed—to the actual technique a great actor will use in rehearsal and performance.  Think about it: in an audition, how often have you had to…

·      …speak to someone who wasn’t actually there

·      …react to a bored reader as if they were engaged with you

·      …pretend to physically touch someone or be touched by them

·      …feign interaction with a non-existent prop

·      …literally begin reading at the emotional apex of a scene

·      …etc., etc. ad nauseam

A well-trained actor spends years learning not to fake anything—never to mime a prop, or jump a line, or force a moment that doesn’t occur organically.   A really good actor has a bullshit meter as finely calibrated as a seismograph and a hair-trigger reflex to take behavior personally and react honestly in the moment.  But even though audition coaches will tell you to treat an audition like a scripted improvisation, much of the time, you can’t actually do this.  You have a few minutes to demonstrate that you understand the character and the beats of a scene, and you can’t do that if you’re truthfully working off a reader who isn’t even looking you in the eye. You have to finesse it at least a little.  For most co-star parts in television and film, your job is to show that you understand how your scene advances the main character’s story without embellishment—all those creative choices you were taught to make in acting school will actively work against you.

But good, trained actors are reflexively creative, reflexively reactive, and reflexively emotionally honest—that’s why they often initially suck at auditioning: they assume that the skills they need to do the job are the same skills they need to get the job.  Luckily for actors, audition technique can be learned and mastered much faster than a comprehensive acting technique (which, of course, is how I ended up in that nightmare production with Debbie).  Below are two more audition scenarios that often hamstring great actors, and tips on how to master them for good.

1.    Self-Taped Auditions 

Any day-pass visitor to Hell will return with the same advice: do not skip the Museum of Torture, especially the Audition Annex of the Showbiz Wing, even though it is constantly under construction due to the Industry’s unflagging commitment to finding new and innovative ways to torture actors.  For millennia, the main attraction has been a painstakingly accurate replica of a Ripley Grier hallway on a humid July afternoon during EPAs for a bus-and-truck tour of Camelot.  But that exhibit is yesterday’s news compared to the current hot-ticket attraction: the recently unveiled bust of legendary asshole Alphonse Aktorslaaper, the creator of the Self-Taped Audition

For those blissfully unaware, the advent of the smartphone now allows anyone—from major network executives to people casting a non-union webseries out of Backstage—to evaluate and reject actors from the relative comfort of his own toilet.  Self-taped auditions also provide fresh ways to bilk actors out of their money: for a fee, you can pay to have the audition professionally lit, miked and even edited; for another fee, you often have to pay to upload the audition to a subscription service where it can be viewed by the auditors.  Of all the frustrations about auditioning that actors express to me, self-taping is in a class by itself.  To a person, actors hate it.  My  unscientific ranking of actors’  top five frustrations with self-tapes would look something like this:

1.     There’s no opportunity to meet the auditors or make a personal impression.

2.     There’s no feedback or exchange of energy with the people in the room.

3.     I have no guarantee that anyone will even watch it.

4.     It takes forever to do, and I’m never satisfied with the result.

5.     I SUCK AT SELF-TAPES.

While all of these are both true and excellent observations, I should point out that good actors do not necessarily suck at making self-tapes—all it really requires is someone to read with you and, often, the ability walk a fine line between indicating and hamming (I recently had a client who went on tape six times in six months for AMC’s Revolutionary War series Turn.  Every time, the sides required him to mime taking musket-fire.  Every. Single.  Time.)  What good actors suck at it actually submitting self-tapes—in other words, being satisfied that a take is good enough.  If you are paying someone to film the audition for you, at least there will be a time limit and, if you want it, feedback.  But circumstances often require actors to make self-tapes at home, where the number of takes is limited only by your ability to reign in your own perfectionism, and the lack of feedback only intensifies your inability to be objective. (Who on this planet can be objective when watching a video of themselves under any circumstances, let alone when there’s an actual job at stake?)

I could write an entire article just addressing actors’ grievances with the self-tape process.  In my opinion, self-tapes are exploitative to the point of cruelty, and I personally feel that AEA and SAG/AFTRA should get their acts together and ban them.  But until that unlikely day arrives, here is my simple hack for self-tape sanity:

Do Five Takes.  That’s It.  If you can’t choose, send them to your most trusted actor-friend and have her choose.

 Why five takes?  For three reasons:

1.     If you know what you’re doing at all, you’re going to produce a good take by your fifth try.

2.     It’s not fair to make your friend watch more than five takes.

3.     I know you.  You are going to do more than five takes.  Hopefully the limit of five will prevent those of you with a modicum of honor from going way overboard. DEFINITELY DO NOT DO MORE THAN 10 TAKES.

Note: If you do more than 10 takes of a self-tape, the Laws of Auditioning dictate that your soul will tear itself in half and turn your smartphone into a Horcrux.  You have been warned.

2.    Shakespeare

Allow me to clarify:  unlike self-tapes, actors, as a rule, do not hate Shakespeare.  Shakespeare is unparalleled in its emotional accessibility, which is why actors are still crazy about it after all these years. If they have good teachers, actors tend to get very excited about Shakespeare while they’re training.  Time and time again, however, I’ve seen that enthusiasm slowly decline and then abruptly crash once actors get out into the world and start auditioning.  The enthusiasm for classical acting that they felt upon leaving school deserts them, and they start thinking, “Maybe I suck at this, after all.”   

During the twelve years I’ve spent teaching various aspects of Shakespeare performance, there has been one truth I’ve striven to impress upon my students above all others: performing Shakespeare well is not actually difficult, it’s just labor-intensive.  You have to educate yourself on the context, you have to master the (admittedly daunting) skill-set, and you have to slog through the tedious homework.  If you do these things thoroughly, Shakespeare basically acts you.  Why, then, do so many actors think they suck at Shakespeare?  For the same reason I no longer coach Shakespeare, or go to see Shakespeare, or have anything to do with it if I can help it: the exhausting, possessive vainglory of what I have come to think of as The Shakespeare Industrial Complex (SIC).

The Shakespeare Industrial Complex is comprised of teachers and coaches and department heads and directors and artistic directors and critics and people who did a summer program at RADA and anyone else with a shred of clout or a captive audience who has the entirety of his identity bound up in the idea that there is one correct approach to Shakespeare, and whatever it is the rest of us are doing, that’s not it.  You may have encountered these people: they tend to post videos to Facebook of some actor doing the prologue to Henry V “with the authentic Elizabethan pronunciation!” (who cares?) or subject their friends to over-stimulated rants about the Authorship Debate (double who cares?).   SIC members are often American Anglophiles: you can usually identify one by the pride he takes in distinguishing among different regional British dialects, such as pointing out that Amy Adams is doing Essex in American Hustle when she’s supposed to be doing Estuary, or something. (Knock, knock. Who’s there? Nobody is there, because nobody cares.)   

The Shakespeare Industrial Complex doesn’t love Shakespeare so much as it loves loving Shakespeare better than you do.   A shocking number of people who audition actors for roles in Shakespeare’s plays are members of the SIC—there are even many actors who are themselves members.  Note that members of the SIC don’t necessarily understand Shakespeare better than other people, or even all that well (not that it’s that hard, especially if you have a good dictionary, decent reading comprehension skills, a little bit of discipline and the education or desire to understand Biblical and mythological allusions), they simply believe that they do.  They have the same relationship to their understanding of Shakespeare that Gollum has to the ring. 

Thus if you are auditioning for someone in the SIC, it doesn’t matter how good your classical acting skills are.  The SIC cannot allow you to be good at Shakespeare unless you meet at least one of the following criteria:

1.     You studied Shakespeare at the same place they did

2.     You clearly do not understand Shakespeare as well as they do, or

3.     They are American, and you are British

This is why so many actors think they suck at Shakespeare.  The Shakespeare Industrial Complex will not permit you not to suck—it rattles the very bedrock of their self-concept.  Constantly encountering members of the SIC eventually eroded my enthusiasm for coaching actors seeking admittance to competitive Shakespeare schools and studios—after a while, it became clear that, with a few exceptions, the actors who were less prepared and had a looser grasp on what they were actually saying and doing were more likely to be accepted: the people in charge found them less threatening.  I couldn’t continue to accept money and emotional investment from students whom I was only helping artistically, not practically, so I gave it up.  (I was also kind of exhausted and pissed off, to be honest.)

But this blog is intended to help actors, and if I am going to address actors’ frustrations with auditioning, I cannot avoid discussing Shakespeare.  So prick thy face and over-red thy fear: here are my five best suggestions for auditioning for the Shakespeare Industrial Complex:

1)   If all they want is a monologue in verse, choose something from Webster or Ford or Heywood or Centlivre.  People don’t know these plays as well and have fewer preconceived notions about the speeches (if they know them at all) and way less ego investment in the authors.  Don’t be afraid to chop up a scene and make a monologue if the material is pretty obscure.  You can always Google the director or the theatre and see if there’s been production of your chosen play in their recent history. (Make sure you have an appropriate Shakespeare monologue in your mental back pocket, though, in case they ask for it.)

2)   Put on your improv pants, get super loose and be ready to make adjustments that feel wrong.

3)   Pick a speech that you really enjoy doing and find a way to have an absolute blast with it.  It is really difficult to find fault with someone who is truly amusing herself.

4)   Hie thee to Lincoln Center or You Tube and watch some good Shakespeare productions in foreign languages.  This will help you get over being precious about the language.

5)   Sit down with yourself and seriously take stock.  Is it possible you are a member of the Shakespeare Industrial Complex, or have flirted with membership?  Be honest.  If so, it is time to learn some home truths:

·      People hate it when you get up on your high horse about scanscion.

·      No one else in the SIC has your back.  Most people in the SIC want to be the only person in it. 

·      You will actually get farther if you allow the SIC members you encounter to “teach” you.  You also might learn something—just because they are obnoxious and condescending doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re talking about.  Look at Rachel Maddow.

There you have it: self-tapes and Shakespeare made slightly less sucky.  Here is some further comfort: people who ask you to put yourself on tape and then never view your submission? and people who ask you to prepare four sides of verse—including the character’s emotional climax—for a Shakespeare audition and then cut you off after the first scene with no adjustment?  These people are not going to enjoy the Afterlife.  They will take leave of this world expecting to take that everlasting nap on the Great Equity Cot In The Sky, only to be met with, “Away, you starveling, you elf-skin, you dried neat’s-tongue, bull’s-pizzle, you stock-fish!”  And you will hear them call out “But that’s from Henry the Fourth part WUUUUuuuuuuhhnnn….!” as they fall to their eternal doom.  And you will laugh. Because in Heaven there are no smartphones, and no one gives a shit about The War of the Roses.