Graceful Auditions

Graceful Auditions Having been to, and struck out at, six auditions in the last month or so, and having begun working with some new students on their own audition heebie jeebies, I feel compelled to post something on auditioning. The world need wait no longer!And I am drawn to the concept of grace as something for those of us on both sides of the table to aspire to. Grace is a wonderfully complex word, and so does justice to the complex act of one artist displaying herself to another. It conjures up the notions of good manners, respect, and just enough divine meaning to satisfy the Quaker in me.

I will begin with some thoughts for actors, some of which are – paradoxically – ungraceful.

  1. An audition is not acting as much as it is advertising. The actor who looks to use the subtle and refined skills of the good actor in the audition resembles the sensitive lover coming to the bordello looking for a meaningful relationship. The audition is wham bam thank you M’am. It is about what you bring to the table in a sound bite. I tell my actors: what do you want them to know them about you, and how is the audition going to communicate that in a few minutes? The audition is the only case in which I advocate a crass, commercial approach to our art. They want blue? Show them blue. They want weird and crazy? Give it to them. They want sex? Unbutton the blouse, baby . . . or dude. But to seek the same artistic connection one can have with a scene partner, with a bored intern reading the same scene for the 26th time, or worse, with that spot on the wall you’re pretending is Kin Henry IV, this is the road to disappointment, or at least to an out of body experience. Know what you’re selling, then sell it unapologetically. How do you know if they want blue or weird or sexy? That’s called preparation. Read the play, research the theatre, the film. Of course, you never know what they want. But you can go in with a pretty clear idea about what they’re looking for, and then sell yourself to that.
  2. They want to see you make a choice. Never mind if it’s “right” or “wrong”. Worrying about that will paralyze you. Remember that an audition may pay dividends in the future. You may not be right for this one, but if you make a cool choice, they’re much more likely to remember you for the next one. Any choice is better than no choice. Making a choice engages all the virtues: courage, creativity, empathy and faith. It shows them you are an artist.
  3. They want you to succeed. I know, I know, how many times have you heard that one? But really: the us vs. them mentality is a form of self-sabotage, and I can be as bitter and vengeful as they come. Put yourself in their shoes: stuck in a room seeing a seemingly endless stream of nervous actors. Then you walk in, cheerful, confident, and you make a cool choice! Thank you Jesus!
  4. It’s also about you. So here is the personal yin to the crass yang above. I tell my students there are three parts to any audition: the entrance, the piece and the exit. You can lose a job during any of the three. Who you are and how you conduct yourself is as important as how you do. Shake hands, smile, go about your business with a simple and direct focus (no over the top preparations). Afterwards, smile, wave, say “Thank you” and never apologize. I believe you always get one re-start, so if it’s not going well a few lines in, or if someone’s cell phone goes off, pause and ask if you can start again. If they say “No, keep going”, you’ve just learned something valuable: that you don’t want to work with these people. Which brings me to . .
  5. You are a human being first. Once in a blue moon, someone will treat you badly, or try to take advantage of you in a audition. Just leave as gracefully as you can. There is no job – anywhere – which is worth sacrificing your self-respect, or worse, your safety. The job you will lose is one in a million. There will be others. But you only get one soul, and when you allow others to wound it, you may carry those wounds with you for a long time.
  6. Assume you will get cast. In college, for some strange reason, Richard Dreyfuss came to talk to us. I remember clearly him telling us, “I walk into every audition assuming I will get the role, and I’m always surprised when I don’t.” At the time I thought this was pure arrogance. But I understand it now. He had learned how to trick himself into a kind of confidence, and confidence is appealing. For a long time I walked in to the room assuming I wouldn’t get the role. That was like walking in the room with a big “L” on my forehead – for “loser.” It’s not about being cocky, but rather about affirming that there’s no reason you shouldn’t get cast. On the other hand . . .
  7. The result is not up to you. This is actually liberating. You have no control on the outcome of the audition. Sure, there are ways to present yourself well, and prepare better, and there are ways to sabotage yourself. But you are not making the decision. You can be absolutely brilliant in your audition, but if you’re too short, you’re done. But remember, the brilliant audition may pay dividends later (see # 2 above). So if you can leave the room saying “that was the best I could do today”, that’s a successful audition.
  8. An audition is a sign that your career is alive. The goal is to keep auditioning, not to keep getting cast. If you keep auditioning, you will eventually get cast – it’s simply the law of averages. But the getting cast part is something you actually have very little control over. So, as meager as it may seem, be grateful for the chance to audition, to perform, to do the thing you have chosen to do. Hell, have fun – yes, it’s possible! And, it will make you seem so much more appealing.

That’s for the actors. For the directors:

  1. It’s not too hard to let the actors you’ve called back know their status. Don’t give me the “standard practice” argument, or “in New York they never call you when you’re not cast.” Let us ponder New York, and ask ourselves, really now, should we be using New York and the way people are treated there as a measuring stick for anything? The truth is, most directors can’t handle delivering bad news, and hearing the disappointment on the other end of the line. But most actors will actually appreciate the call. There’s this awful purgatory about a week after a call back, when your hopes are slowly strangled by the cold grip of reality. How much better to have the waiting mercifully ended. Even an email is fine. Here in Philly, about half will call you and half will leave you hanging. And in my experience, it’s the people and theaters who have a clear distinction between the business and the personal (admittedly a blurry line in the close community here). But the call to say you didn’t get it is a great mix of both: a reminder that this is a business decision, and an acknowledgment that a person you work with regularly in the community deserves to be treated with at least this much respect. And anyway, directors, you don’t actually have to make the call, right? Someone else from the theatre can do it. Just let us know.
  2. Don’t assume you “know” anyone. I have been occasionally shocked to hear from a director something along the lines of “there’s really nothing for you in the season this year.” Then the creeping sensation comes: I’ve been pigeon-holed. So-and-so thinks there’s only this much in my range: from here to here. Now, I know that auditions need to be selective, and that many times you have a clear idea of who you want, or who’s in the running. But remember to leave room for the surprise. Even when I don’t get cast, it’s a great source of satisfaction to see a director give me the “Wow” or even the “Huh” look. An audition can be as much a way to get re-acquainted with an actor, and test your assumptions about him, as it is a way to find exactly the right person for the role. I may be particularly sensitive to this being an actor that doesn’t fit easily into any well-defined category. So that plus my deranged grandiosity leads me to think that I can play almost anything (I mean, I did play the Shrew last year . . . ) The most recent role I have been cast in was described in the script as a “Unibomber look-alike”. Anyone who knows me can attest to it: I am the opposite physical type from Ted Koczinsky.
  3. An audition is a professional courtesy. Especially in a close knit community, even more especially within the confines of a “company” or an “ensemble”, auditioning an actor is way of acknowledging his place in the community you share, and recognizing the value of his work in the past. It’s a way of saying, here we are, and even if this isn’t right for both of us, it’s good to connect. Now, all of this is moot if you think the actor in question is . . . just . . . not very good. So I’m not asking anyone to see people they’ve already made up their minds about. And so actors, this brings home a dreadful truth, if no one is calling you . . . . (see #8 above).
  4. Don’t be a jerk. Many of you chose to be directors because you couldn’t hack it as actors. Many of you prefer to be in control, and not controlled by others. All that is fine. But take a moment to marvel at the courage of these people traipsing in before you. Sense their vulnerability and desire not as a defect but as a testament to the love they share with you for this art. To treat people who are so vulnerable badly is a little like child abuse. Not that actors are children, but we come to you with a child-like openness and need. The vast majority of you welcome this openness and understand it as a requirement for expressive acting. But for the few who are occasionally led to rudeness or worse, perhaps it’s time to examine your true motives for sitting behind that table?
  5. You can transform a situation. Often, a nervous actor has something to show you that you might like to see. The nervousness is really an enormous amount of creative energy with no focus. You can give it focus. But if you don’t spend a little time helping her feel comfortable, you’ll never see it. You are in charge of the atmosphere in that room, so really, the grace begins with you.
  6. Pay attention. Even if we are the last of 100 you’ve seen that day, we are bringing the same amount of creativity as the first. I know it’s hard, but it’s better to take a break and go for a walk than to not watch an actor auditioning for you. We’ll wait for you to come back refreshed. We’re used to waiting. We need your attention.
  7. Grace is a two-way street. So when an actor is smiling, shaking hands, being personable, return the ball. This is just good business conduct. Scowling from behind the table is a sure way to lower the level of skill and expression in the actors auditioning for you. If you want to see our best, then grace matters.
  8. Make the personal connection. Moving the audition from the purely businesslike to the warmly personal is, paradoxically, good business, in that it will draw the actor out and lead her to a more complete audition. It’s a great gift too, to get the sense from a director that you are being acknowledged as a human being and an artist, with a past and a life beyond this nutty ritual. It also says, even if I don’t cast you, I affirm the relationship I have with you above and beyond this project.

We are all – actor and director alike – looking for hopeful signs that we will be able to continue in this art, that we will endure, that we won’t have to give up. Graceful auditions, and graceful relations between actors and directors encourage us all to take the long view. Graceful auditions are based on the premise that we are on a continuum, and that we will see each other again, and so that no matter the outcome of this encounter, it will nevertheless inform the next one, and we each have a role to play in building lasting relationships. Graceful Auditions Friday, June 6, 2008