The Purpose of an Audition

What is the purpose of an audition?

“To get the role,” I hear you say.  But, no.  That’s the hope of an audition.

The purpose of an audition is simply to be memorable.  For if you are memorable, directors will want to see you again and, sooner or later, will want to work with you.

So how is one memorable?  It begins from the moment you enter the audition locale.

  • Always be polite.

–Politeness pays.  From the moment you walk in the door you are always under observation.  Believe me, if you’re rude or obnoxious or a bad sport, that word will get to the ears of the casting agents/directors and you will be dead before you start.  Be sure to thank your accompanist and the casting agents/directors.  Be gracious to the other auditioners.  Little things go a long way. 

I earned my second role through politeness.  I knew from the beginning that it certainly wasn’t because of my chops as the audition was lousy.  But the director told me that my genuine interest in the show combined with my friendliness is what made him decide to give me a bit part.

  • Always keep in mind that this is a showcase, not a competition.

–I can’t stress this one enough as it was the lesson that took me the longest to learn.  For years I treated auditions as a competition.  For me, it was simple.  If I were the best reader for a part, logically I should get that part.

Boy, was I wrong about that.

When a director casts a show, he or she is piecing together a puzzle and attempting to build something that suits her or his vision of the story.  Your acting is the one and only thing you get to control and that amounts to about 1% in the casting process.  As such, you can be the worst performer in the room as I certainly was in the previous example and somehow get a part.  Or you can be on the opposite side and lap the others several times and still somehow not get cast. 

But, if you’re good, you’ll be remembered.  And if you’re remembered, you’ll get cast eventually.

  • Trust your instincts.

–Everybody is going to see a character differently.  The actors, the director, the stage manager, the costume designer, everyone is going to have a different idea about a character.  So just go full steam ahead with your take on the role.  That’s not to say that you shouldn’t ask questions about the character if you need some clarity.  But don’t be worried about trying to match your character to the director’s vision.  When the whole begins to come together, that vision is likely to change many times over before the final result.

The final show I auditioned for in college before I graduated was called Death of a Blind, Old Man, a modernized take on Oedipus at Colonus. At the audition, I noted that everyone reading for Oedipus played him strongly as if he were still the mighty warrior before his life was blasted. My instinct ran completely the other direction and I broke him in two. I read him as a frightened, beaten old man. Without question, it was one of the two best reads I ever had in college and while I didn’t make the cut, I was darn proud of the read. And that’s the feeling you want to have when you finish a read.

  • Be bold.

–This goes hand in hand with trusting your instincts.  Time and again I’ve seen actors (not to mention myself) hold back because they’re afraid of making a mistake.  That’s the surest way to destroy your creativity.

This is an audition.  There’s no such thing as a mistake.  I’ll repeat that.  This is an audition.  There’s no such thing as a mistake.

Your view of the character may be completely off the wall and off the mark, but if you’re bold and brave about that choice, the director may very well step in and give you some direction and if you then make that change based off the direction, you will look brilliant.  What the director is more concerned about is your ability to make a strong choice, not necessarily the “correct” choice.

Years ago, I auditioned for The Elephant Man and I was reading a monologue for the character of Dr. Treves.  At this point in the show, he was feeling incredibly guilty and despondent about making the title character a freak again, albeit a high class one.  He’s trying to explain to the bishop his feelings, but doesn’t quite know how to spit it out. 

Now I saw the character as heading towards a breakdown and I attacked the read as such.  I mean I read the monologue with an impassioned desperation. 

Was it the right trek?  No.  But I was so bold about the choice that the director stepped in and had me make a massive adjustment.  So I went from nearly cracking up to quietly shaming myself.  He loved the changes and I looked like a million bucks.

No, I didn’t get in the show, but the director has never forgotten me.

  • Keep perspective.

By this I mean, don’t fall apart at the seams if you thought your audition sucked or if you thought it was brilliant and didn’t get in. . .at least not publicly.  Take your moment to be sad privately.  Punch out a pillow.  Scream to the fields.  Do whatever you need to get the feeling out and then let it go.  But remain professional until you can get to that private place.

There’s a lot of rejection in this field and, as clichéd as it sounds, there truly is always another show.  I openly admit that in my early days, rejection gnawed on me like a hungry dog enjoying a tasty bone.  Auditions were almost life and death and it always felt like a shotgun blast to my stomach when I wasn’t cast. 

Even when I got good at the acting side of things, auditions continued to haunt me.  But when I finally realized how little control I had over the casting process, I was finally able to let that burden go.  Then I got to enjoy myself and became more memorable.

So when you audition, keep your head held high.  Be brave.  Be bold.  BE YOU!!  Then you’ll be memorable.  You may not get cast every time, but you will get cast sometimes.

Chasing the Dream, Part 2

The Empty Plough really rocked me, but, like the mighty phoenix, I rose again.

With my senior year at Creighton fast approaching, I vowed to do everything within my power to get cast.  The first audition of that year was Children of a Lesser god.  This play had an added level of difficulty due to the use of sign language throughout the entirety of the play.  I decided this would be a good way to help me stand out from the crowd, so, in addition to preparing one of the roles, I also taught myself the ASL alphabet.

I was the first reader of the night and I met Alan Klem, who would eventually become responsible for a key moment in my avocation.  Alan seemed impressed that I had learned the ASL alphabet already and gave me a monologue to read.  And I gave a fairly good showing in the read.  I must have read well enough because Alan moved me to the next phase of the audition which was to do the same scene again, but do it with no words and still get the meaning across to a deaf audience.

I was caught flat footed by that request.

However, I decided to go down swinging.  I gave a Herculean effort, but I knew it wasn’t working.  I looked at Alan and I knew he knew I knew it wasn’t working.  When I finished, I was dismissed with a brief, “Thank you.”  I knew I didn’t need to examine the cast list later that week, but I did anyway.  And, to no surprise, I was not cast.

The one act festival made its return this year, only this time (and ever since) it was directed by theatre students.  I mostly read for a show called Carwash and I had another solid showing.  This time I even lasted until the bitter end as I was asked to stay for a final examination as the director, Brent Tierney, kept several actors just to examine our appearances against one another.  Again, it was another defeat as I failed to find my name on the cast list.

Needless to say, I was really starting to get frustrated with the whole process.  There are very few things that match the colossal risk of the audition.  If you audition properly (even if you don’t do it well), you open yourself up and leave it all hang out.  And to be that open and to get denied again and again can take a tremendous toll because it feels so personal, yet is not.  It is never a director’s intent to make you feel bad.  A director wants you to be the answer to his or her casting problem, but he or she looks for a lot more than just the acting.  It’s how you look, how you sound, how you look compared to others, etc.  The director is looking for the whole.  An actor can only control his or her acting and that counts for a very small part of the casting process.

But I digress.  I had one final chance to get cast.  Creighton was going to produce a play called Death of a Blind, Old Man and it was a modern day interpretation of Oedipus at Colonus.  As I went through the audition, I had another flash.  I noticed that everyone auditioning for the role of Oedipus played him like Superman.  I knew that the only thing super about Oedipus at this point was his ability to suffer.  When I got the chance to read for him, I jerked the rug right out from under his feet.  I made him a truly pitiable, tragic figure and I noted that several people I was reading with really got into this take on the character.

The director, Bill Hutson, stopped the read with a booming, “Good.”  I felt really proud of my work that night and as I sat down, I was congratulated by a friend of mine for an awesome read.  A short while later, Bill asked a few people to stay and dismissed the rest of us, but said, “Just because I’m asking you to leave doesn’t mean you haven’t been cast.”

That Friday, I rushed over to the Performing Arts Center as soon as I got on the campus.  I was tingling with anticipation as I approached the cast line.  Nervously I ran my finger down the list and saw that my name was nowhere to be found. 

I leaned my head against the call board and heaved a heavy sigh.  I just wanted to crumple to the floor and vanish.  For four years, I had given my all and I couldn’t even land a bit part.  I thought my theatre days were over.

But I still wanted to be involved.  So I signed up for an Oral Interpretation of Literature class in the spring semester of my senior year.  As I went through the class, I learned that I slowly won my teacher, Alan Klem, over.  Many of my performances were well received and Alan dubbed me the master of dialects as I seemed to have a knack for mimicking various accents.  Towards the end of the term, Alan stopped me before class and said he had just received the graduating seniors list and saw that my name was on it.  I admitted that I was graduating and he said, “I’m really sorry to hear that.  I wish you had about 2 years left to go because I can see you going a long way in plays.”

With that statement, I found the strength to go on for a little longer.  I had recently discovered community theatre and I decided that I would give theatre one more year and if I could not get cast in that time, then I would call it quits.

And that’s when things took a turn. . .

To be continued