Demystifying Auditions, part 2

This interview with director Barbara Buck appeared in the Winter 2008 edition of FP’s newsletter Footlights.

Q: Do you have a general philosophy or guiding principles for auditions and casting?
A: For most actors, auditioning is the absolute worst experience they ever encounter in the course of a show. I was an actor for many years before I started directing. I think this makes me more sensitive to the vulnerability actors feel when they are auditioning. They are facing possible rejection and, for some, that is the hardest feeling to endure. I want to put the actor at ease and I always try to find something positive to say about their audition. Also, I make every effort to assure that at least the first phase of the audition is private. The actual guiding principle is what’s best for the show. This, occasionally, will cause hurt feelings. However, I’ve had actors tell me, after seeing a show in which they were not cast, that they could see now why I made the decisions I did. I refuse to precast any show.

Q: What do you typically ask actors to do when they audition for you?
A: I will always ask them to read from sides from the show. This is truly the only way to get a good idea of the natural rhythm of the piece and how the actor falls into the flow. This is why it’s so important for the actor to be familiar with the material. If it’s a musical, I will usually ask them to sing something from the score as well. Sometimes I will ask the actors to prepare a one-minute monologue, of their own creation, on a theme from the show. For me, this tells a lot more about the actor, and their abilities, than if they bring in a memorized monologue from another source. It shows creativity, knowledge of the piece, and a willingness to stretch. (Of course, if they are not prepared to do so they will still be considered based on reading sides.) [“Sides” are brief excerpts from the script. -Ed.]

Q: How do you recommend actors prepare for an audition?
A: READ THE PLAY OR MUSICAL!!! Know the material. If it’s a musical, have a working knowledge of the piece and be prepared to sing something from the show. If, for some inexplicable reason you can’t get your hands on a copy of the script, at least familiarize yourself with the genre, theme, or style of the playwright.

Q: Do you have any suggestions for how actors can do better during auditions?

  • Be on time.
  • Fill out the audition form completely.
  • Always bring a resume (or be prepared to write your theatrical history on the back of the form).
  • Bring a headshot (very, very helpful).
  • Be completely honest about which part(s) you are willing to accept. I can tell you that almost nothing is more irksome to directors than to think they have cast the show and have an actor say they really don’t want that part. I always have a space on the audition form that asks which role you are auditioning for and if you are not cast in the role of your choice, are you willing to accept another. This is very important in the decision process. If you don’t want any part but a lead, be honest about it. It will not affect my decision. However, saying you are willing to accept any role and then not accepting an offered role will affect my decision about working with that actor in the future. So, just be honest. It saves us both a lot of time.
  • Please, please, please be honest about conflicts. Almost every show there is an actor who says they have no conflicts, they get cast, THEN they remember the 10-day vacation or music camp commitment. I know actors don’t want a conflict to interfere with their chances of getting cast. But, in most cases, if I know ahead of time and I really want an actor in the role, I will work around their conflicts. I believe it is unfair to the show and their fellow actors to suddenly come up with conflicts after we are in the production process.
  • Take advantage of any material that has been prepared for the actors. Sometimes, this is a quick notice; other times a more in-depth character analysis.
  • As far as the actual audition, listen! Most actors are so nervous they ramble and chatter. Listen to the director and try to apply the suggestions given.
  • Ask questions. If you’re not sure about the material, the motivation, the characterization, where in the sequence the reading occurs, what the director is looking for, or what a particular direction means, ask. I’m never annoyed by questions. I can be very annoyed by having to repeat myself several times because an actor is not listening.
  • Breathe!!! I’m serious. Before you step up on the stage, take three slow cleansing breaths. And shake your hands. It will do you a world of good (it always works for me!)

Q: What factors go into your decision to cast a particular actor in a role? Are there some factors that are more important than others?
A: Of course talent is number one but it is not everything. Availability is important. And a professional attitude. Especially in community theater, when actors are not getting financial rewards, there is sometimes the feeling that they don’t have to give it their all. I disagree. I don’t believe money has anything to do with professionalism. Attitude is everything. Sometimes, an actor just “gets it.” There is no way to teach that. It’s either there or it isn’t. Those times are unusual, at an audition at any rate, but magical. That’s why I sometimes have the actors create their own monologue, in character. If I don’t use that exercise, I will sometimes ask actors to do some improv at the callbacks. Believe me, it’s very clear who has done their homework. That, of course, is not a prerequisite, but helpful. I once cast a woman in a lead role who had no acting experience whatsoever. But she “got” that character. It worked out beautifully. I rarely cast a show based on any preconceived notion of the character’s physicality. That’s why we call it acting!!! However, once I’ve narrowed down the potential actors, I will sometimes call them back to get a feel for the chemistry between them. And I love to get actors to stretch. If I happen to know the abilities of an actor, I might cast them against type to give them the opportunity to really stretch those creative muscles. Of course, only if it works for the show!

Q: Are there different considerations for casting a musical vs. a non-musical?
A: The obvious ones…like musical talent. But, in a musical, I tend to be more of a stickler about schedule. I do not believe in 11th hour theatre. It is very important that larger casts get as much opportunity to work together as possible. There is more demand on time and energy in a musical.

Q: What has someone done in an audition that really “wowed” you?
A: I’m always impressed by an actor who is prepared, has a great attitude, follows direction, and uses all the elements in their surroundings. Off the top of my head, I would have to say I was “wowed” by Laura Pike’s audition for Lucy in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (FCP, summer 2004). She had a great attitude, she was willing to trust me immediately and try what I asked, and, when auditioning with the “love song” to Schroeder, and having no Schroeder there, she directed the entire song to the accompanist, including crawling half way up the piano and draping herself lovingly over the top in order to gaze in her eyes. It was hysterical and a wonderful example of using the elements in her surroundings. She got the part!

Q: What’s the biggest mistake an actor has ever made when auditioning for you?
A: Not listening. Directing from the stage. Not letting me finish what I’m saying. Not following direction. Making excuses. Breaking character. Also, if they’ve done the role before, doing obvious blocking and staging from the previous show. That makes me nervous about their ability to adjust to a new interpretation of the show.

Q: Is there anything else you want to say about the process?
A: Please, please, please relax. You will do much better if you approach the process with a sense of humor. Auditions can be a great source of positive and constructive feedback.

Related articles: Demystifying Auditions, part one, Demystifying Callbacks