I have been involved with theater fairly consistently since I was 10. In those resulting 16.5 years, I have appeared in musicals and plays as an actor, played drums in the pit, worked front of house, ran the sound board and done vocal coaching. But in January of 2016 I got the chance to assistant direct a production of “Pirates of Penzance,” which I also liberally co-adapted from the original G&S libretto. It was a wonderful experience, a chance to pull back the curtain and see the process of putting on a show from a totally different angle.
From giving notes to running some rehearsals, I was able to be involved in nearly every moment in our show. Being an assistant director (or working on the creative team of a musical) will make me a better performer the next time I step on stage and having been a performer absolutely made me a better assistant director. But the place my insights will be the most helpful happened while watching and judging auditions for the first time.
So here are a few things I learned about auditions and casting after being on the other side of the table.
1. The best piece of audition advice I’ve ever been given as an actor, rang out even more true after watching two long nights of them. Your audition truly begins the second you walk in the door. The way you say hello to the creative team, the way you talk to the accompanist, your body language – these things make a huge difference. There was a girl who came in with hunched shoulders and could barely look us in the eye but then totally came to life the moment she started singing. While I could appreciate her talent, the disparity between person and performer seemed too hard to rectify.
The reverse happened as well. There were some who came across as too bossy or too strange before a note was sung. We are not just casting a role but casting a person we want to spend many, many hours with. That is not to say be disingenuous, to put on a fake smile or enter the room tap dancing. It is to say be yourself. Be happy to be there and gracious. For our female lead, we cast a young lady largely because of that X-factor I was talking about. She is a very good singer and an excellent actress but she booked the job because we fell in love with her the moment she stepped in the room. She just radiated a kind of warmth you can’t teach or invent for a monologue. Showing off your own personality and style is paramount.
2. Perhaps this is a somewhat controversial statement, but song choice doesn’t really matter, at least in the big picture. Of course you want something that shows off your voice (overly talky songs or stagnant melodies don’t do either of us any favors) and it is probably a good idea to sing something similar in style to the show you’re auditioning for. But I say song choice doesn’t matter because talent is talent and, more times than not, we could tell an A+ singer from a B- singer in the first two measures. We had auditioners who sang Sondheim and some who sang Happy Birthday. Both proved equally proficient in evaluating talent.
In such a short 16 bars, you’re mostly looking for technical things like tone, pitch and rhythm, besides assessing their personality and acting chops. No matter if you audition with pop or Broadway, an old standard or a little-known piece, if you can show your mastery over those three technical things and show understanding of the lyrics, you’ve done a good job.
3. Think you’re wrong for the part, audition anyway. Every director will view the characters differently and there’s no knowing who they’re looking for. As an actor, I once auditioned for a show that, on paper, I was totally wrong for – the character was big and intimidating, I’m short and unimposing. But I really loved the show and worked hard on the audition (which was reading from sides). The moment I finished reading for the director I knew it had gone well and I eventually booked the gig. I was told later that the director had another more muscular actor in mind but made a switch after seeing me do a whole different take on it. Those things happen. When we were casting “Pirates,” we even changed a character’s gender purely because of an exciting audition. You never know until the cast list is up.
4. Waiting for a cast list can be difficult as an actor, but putting it together is equally hard. Even beyond talent, there are so many factors that go into casting. You need couples that have chemistry and that look good together (in most circumstances, things like age, height and body type are factors). You want a well-balanced cast in terms of age, gender and ethnicity. You want to give younger actors a chance to prove themselves and reward talented old-standbys with lead roles. Often, casting is more like a puzzle than anything else (“If we cast X as Seymour, there’s nowhere to put Y. But if we cast Y as Seymour, X could also pull off Mushnik.”)
Sometimes casting someone is an indication of talent or being physically right for a role, but other times it’s being the perfect-sized puzzle piece to make a whole complicated picture come together. So not getting a certain role is not always a comment on your audition or talent.
5. This leads me into my final point: in both auditioning and during the whole process, it’s important to remember that the show is bigger than you. It’s easy to get lost in the drama or nerves. It’s easy obsess over a missed note at an audition or not getting enough time to block your big song. But when you see the process from a different angle, it makes you appreciate how many hands it takes to put on a show, how much thought is put into each tiny detail, how meticulously words and beats are created when putting together the script and how staging is often a matter of logistic and problem solving rather than being a purely creative endeavor.
So take a deep breath, look around at all the artists working together and just do your best.