The #1 Showcase Mistake Almost Every Actor Makes

Raymond McAnally

  • Featured Columnist

How to Showcase Without Losing Your Mind

You’ve been on stage before.  You’ve held an audience in the palm of your hand as they followed your character’s arc from the first scene of the play to the last.  Now you’ve finished a training program that has added consistency, depth, and professionalism to your performance level, but it’s the day of your showcase and you’re acting like you’ve never delivered a line in front of a live audience before, like you have no craft to pull from, like you’re secretly a fraud.  Congratulations, you just sabotaged yourself because you took the “show” out of showcase.

Every time I am anywhere within earshot of a group of actors preparing for their showcase, I hear some version of the following sentiment:

This is what all my years of training have been building toward. 

If I don’t have a good showcase, my career is over.

Ray1.jpg

Listen, I understand the sentiment.  You’ve logged hundreds of hours in class, rehearsals, and stage time and this is your introduction to the largest number of industry professionals you’ve probably met to date.  Great, that’s a nice opportunity.  You could get an agent or manager, or meet the casting director who thinks you’re the new “it” actor.  But those are the opportunities, not the show.  Your job is to do the show.  So, focus on your performance, because THAT is your training. 

Do you see the distinction?  I hope so because buying into the sentiment above can actually negate all that you’ve done to earn this opportunity.  Would you also believe that this is the same sentiment that haunts an actor during “big” auditions?

Allow me to explain.  Let's analyze what this sentiment implies, on a subconscious level:

Conscious Statement:

This is what all my years of training have been building toward. 

Subconscious Implication:

My training is a means to a single end that can be quantified.

Nowadays, we speak of the value of education only as it can be quantified through salaries or debt or another financially based R.O.I. (Return On Investment).  We like that valuation because it is measurable.  The data exists.  Sadly, it means education is being measured against a single shortsighted, immediate result.

Think about learning to read and write.  Have those two learned skills had any impact on your life?  Have those skills led to exponential growth or held residual value for your personal, academic, or professional lives?  Of course, they have!

In the broadest terms, to be educated is to be ready for opportunities as they present themselves.  Do we not, as actors, seek to educate ourselves through specific training so that we can land auditions and produce a professional performance night after night?  Training is nothing if not the acquisition of skills required to do a particular job well.  Once trained, we become skilled labor, and it is incredibly empowering to feel that you know how to handle a professional role.

I remember booking my first Equity gig, a month after my M.F.A. showcase, at a major regional theatre.  I walked into that room, the ink still drying on my contract to get my Equity Card, and I thought to myself in a moment of internal panic, “Oh man, do I deserve to be here?”  I walked into the room for the table read and I saw actors who I’d seen on stage in New York or on hit television shows.  I said hello, sat down, and went over my script.  My instinct told me to put all that nervous energy toward the one thing I could control: my work.  I got into character, I spoke my first line, and the whole room laughed (it was a comedy, they were supposed to laugh).  And then they laugh again and so on.  I was having so much fun that it wasn’t until we took our first break that I realized, “Okay, I do deserve to be here.”

My education got me to that place of comfort, sitting at that professional table, but according to the monetary metric so commonly used to value education, even that triumph didn’t equal “real” success.  I mean, it was a three-month gig, not full-time permanent employment.  So what that I “beat” all the actors who submitted, auditioned, and were called back for my role—if it didn’t lead to ongoing, salaried, permanent employment, then my training must not be worth the price, right?

Our current cultural proclivity to measure the value of effort by its monetary result ignores the value of being skilled and ready to do the work.  To remind a number cruncher—your parents, your accountant, the negative voice in your head—that acting exists in the gig economy only serves to further their low opinion, because if you can’t make a consistent living then the degree must not be worth much.  (There’s that single, shortsighted overemphasis on immediate result, again.)

When I was at my conservatory, I had a classmate who said he felt as though he should be a "master of his craft" by the time he earned his Master’s degree.  He felt three years was enough. 

I’d never met a skilled craftsperson in any field whose training alone had made them a “master”.  It never felt right to me to apply a time limit and result to such a respected ideal.  For me, these classes were giving me the skills that I would continue to expand upon and refine throughout my career.  When I earned my MFA, I hoped that I simply had laid a foundation to one day become a respected craftsperson.

Which brings us back to the sentence we were analyzing.  To say that your many years of training were all building toward one opportunity (your showcase) is to ignore the intention of education.  Where your professional skills are now and where they will be in the future cannot and will not be summed up in a selection of chopped up scenes.  I don’t care who is in the audience.

You didn’t train for ONE performance.  You trained for EVERY performance, and this is hopefully just one in thousands throughout your career.

Every opportunity works like this: you either focus on your job as an actor, or you sabotage yourself.  Lets look at a hypothetical “big” audition to show how this dialectic persists throughout our careers:

You get an audition for a series regular role in a new pilot.  They’re bringing you straight to producers.  You have twenty-four hours to prepare eleven pages of sides (it happens, trust me).  You read the sides.  You daydream about what it would be like to report to the studio every day, to be interviewed by Jimmy Fallon, to go to the Emmys.  You clear your schedule for tomorrow and you research the people you’ll be meeting, which leads to more daydreaming.  It’s after dinner and it’s crunch time.  You interrupt your reading of the script and memorizing lines to have two or three long phone calls with friends and family whom you told about the audition.  When you can’t sleep, you make wardrobe choices.  You go to sleep way late and wake up super early.  Your adrenaline allows you to hyper-focus on the lines and get them down in record time.  You keep hammering the lines as you get ready and answer texts.  You head to the audition and get excited about who will be in the room.  You arrive and scan the room to see who else is auditioning.  You judge them.  You judge you.  Most people aren’t reading their sides and look confident, so you don’t either.  They call you in.  You’re introduced to all the people you researched, but all you say is “hello”.  You begin.  You know the lines, but quickly realize you don’t know the scenes.  Other than memorization, you didn’t do any of the work.  You didn’t apply any of your training.  They smile and say “thank you”.  You leave wondering what just happened.

And that is what I mean by sabotaging yourself because you let the opportunity distract you from focusing on your job.  What should you do instead?  Concentrate on the performance.  Apply your training and do your work as an actor.  Then go in, entertain, and engage your audience like you were trained to do.

Now, let's not leave out the second half of that harmful sentiment, because it can lead to one of the most devastating misconceptions about showcasing:

If I don’t have a good showcase, my career is over.

I’ve watched this belief gut an actor’s spirit.  A career as an actor is never straightforward, never linear, and certainly never dictated by one opportunity.  We work gig-to-gig, not as salaried employees (sorry, list of “worthwhile” degrees).  We don't stay at the same job for years (newsflash: no one in any industry does anymore).  We “interview” for work more than anyone in any other profession.  In fact, a large part of our job is to get the next job.  If you give one opportunity all the weight in the world, you’re never going to recover in time for the two or three immediately following.  

And I know what you’re thinking: not everyone gets a good response out of a showcase.  This is true.  Not every opportunity that comes your way is going to result in a booking.  So what you need to do is focus on your work before and during each performance, so you can be satisfied. 

I’ve seen the sliding scale of responses for actors out of showcase and the perceived success is very rarely the long-term reality.  On one side of the showcase green room, you have your actor who gets a lot of agency or manager response.  They’re lining up meetings and the future seems bright and effortlessly positive.  Across the room is the classmate who gets zero offers for representation.  The perception is that the first actor’s career is made and that the second actor will never have one.  But in reality, success or failure ultimately depends on whether or not they keep doing their work.

“But wait,” you may think, “they're not in the same situation anymore.  Don’t they have different jobs now, because one has representation and the other doesn’t?”  No, their jobs are exactly the same; both actors must keep themselves ready for the next opportunity.  I’ve seen too many actors slack off and audition poorly after landing big agencies.  And often they tend to ignore the list of casting directors who saw their showcase, meaning they miss out on creating a relationship with a professional who can get them in the room where it happens (yes, I love Hamilton, too).  Years later, it will be these actors—the ones who seemed to have everything going for them right out of showcase—who will be struggling to keep a career going, because they stopped doing the work and got distracted by the opportunities.

Conversely, I’ve seen the actors who received zero interest after showcase take that list of casting directors and turn it into gold.  They fell back on their training, auditioned well, focused on the work, and were ready for each opportunity as it came.  Years later, they had representation, a full resume, and a network of industry contacts and relationships that their younger selves would have killed to have after their showcase.

So, as you head into your showcase or any audition room that causes you to be distracted by the opportunity, remember this productive sentiment:

This is what all my years of training have prepared me to do.

I'll make this a good performance and move on to the next.

Raymond is a writer, award-winning actor, and theatre arts professor at Rutgers University. He last wrote for OnStage Blog about creating a successful solo showraymondmcanally.com