What They Really Want at an Audition

Tom Briggs

Most young actors, including myself when I was one, go into an audition intent upon showing them that they can play “that” character.  They meticulously familiarize themselves with the play and, if a musical, the score, and memorize the sides they’ll be reading which may have been sent only that morning.  Preparation is all.  How can you decide what to sing for your audition if you aren’t familiar with the musical style of the show you’re auditioning for?  Are you really going to sing a song from In the Heights if you’re auditioning for Carousel?  If you have no experience with or training in commedia dell’arte, then you’d best bone up on it before your audition for Servant of Two Masters.

Now I’m going to share a secret from behind the table, where I have sat at auditions for many years in various capacities.  What we are all most interested in is, “Who are you?”  What is your sensibility?  Your sense of humor?  Your humanity?  Your work ethic?  Do we want to play with you for five or six weeks or longer?  What of your personality can you bring to bear on the role that will make it distinct?  

It helps to look at a project and know where you might fit in; to recognize what type you are. If you’re a timid, effete young man, you won’t be cast as Billy Bigelow or Danny Zuko.  If you’re a hefty girl with a big belt, go for Meg in Brigadoon, not Fiona.  If you have a legit voice or were opera trained, you may not be right for a rock or country score.  Of course there are exceptions to every rule.  There are extreme talents who can literally sing anything in any style, Carmen Cusack perhaps being the most recent, high profile example, but they are few and far between.

I’m not suggesting that you should confine or compartmentalize yourself, or even be realistic.  Was it realistic for Audra McDonald to think she’d be cast as Carrie in Carousel, for which she won her first of six Tony Awards?  Was it realistic for Peter Dinklage to think he’d be cast as Richard III at The Public Theater?  Maybe not, but they knew who they were, let the people in the room know who they were, and left them to figure out whether or not there was a spot for them within their vision for the production.

Show them what you do best, whether you’re asked for a song or a monologue, and don’t try fooling them into thinking you’re something you’re not.  They will see through that in a NY minute, just as they already have a dozen times that day.  You have no power over what they are “looking for” nor is it any of your business.  You are there to let them know who you are, authentically, and what you bring to the table.  If you’re an apple and they’re looking for oranges, so be it.  But I’ve been in situations where we thought we wanted an orange when a pineapple came in who caused us to rethink things.  You might be that pineapple, but not if you come in pretending to be an orange.

In other words (or maybe these are the right words), don’t walk into the audition as the character.  Walk in as yourself because that’s the person they’re going to consider hiring.  When a woman wearing an apron, a straw hat and carrying a basket of corn comes in to read for Aunt Eller, she has already lost.  That’s not to say that you don’t need to consider how you present yourself at an audition.  If you’re going in for Oklahoma!, jeans and cowboy boots are fine but skip the bandana around your neck.  For How to Succeed… you may want to wear a business suit.  For The Glass Menagerie, a plain day dress is fine whereas a sad prom dress is too much.  Yes, you want to help them see you within the world in which the story takes place, but more importantly, you want them to see you as a professional they’d like to work with.  You are there to help them solve one of their problems which is, “Who do we cast in that role?” They want you to succeed.

There’s so much talk about competition amongst actors themselves.  “She has a stronger mix.”  “He’s taller and ripped.”  “She’s prettier.”  “I was the shortest guy at the callbacks.”  But the truth is that the whole “competition” thing is a myth.  You are the only one who looks like you look and does what you do the way you do it.  How can there be competition when each of you are utterly unique?  Apples, oranges, pineapples.  The next time it might be kumquats they may not have thought of, and it might be you.