Thursday, July 23, 2015

What I've Learned About Auditions or, A Love Letter to NY Actors


 What I've Learned About Auditions or, A Love Letter to NY Actors

The first time I cast a show using a full, professional audition process was about ten years ago. As I sat in the room with the casting director, the reader, and the artistic director, I suddenly realized that I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I had sat in on auditions before, mostly for directors whom I was assisting, but that was just a spattering of understudies. I had no idea how much I was supposed to work the actors, if I could interrupt them before they were done with the side, or even how to choose a good side, for that matter.  I didn’t know anything.

I’ve been through this process a many times since then, for off-Broadway, regional and off-off Broadway theaters.  This is a post for directors (about what I’ve learned) and for actors (about what I’ve observed). 

(From L to R): Producers Mark Johannes and Amy Danis of MARS Theatricals, moi, playwright Topher Payne, Producer Dan Shaheen, Michelle Bossy, and Casting Director Stephanie Klapper. 


IN PREPARATION

1.     Use ten-minute slots

Be civilized.  Five minutes just isn’t enough time, because an audition isn’t just about the actor  showing you what work s/he has done. It’s about you working with the actor, and the only way you’ll have enough time to do that is if you use ten-minute slots and if you…

2.     Choose short sides.

Seriously, you know in the first 30 seconds if the actor and the role are the right fit. Don’t waste their time preparing ten pages. If you need to see ten pages, you’re a horrible director.  Besides, short sides allow you time to work with the actors, which leads me to….

DURING THE AUDITIONS THEMSELVES

3.     Work with the actor

Any actor worth their salt, as was EVERY SINGLE ACTOR that I saw this week, comes to the audition prepared, focused, intelligent and rehearsed.  They worked on their sides, looked great, got up that morning, put their audition outfit together and traveled to studio in horrible humidity from all over the city, and sometimes further. One actor (to whom we made an offer) commuted down from the Berkshires  for both the audition and the callback a few days later.  Treat every actor as if they’re traveled that far. 

Even if you don’t think they’re going to get a call back, they might be right for something else you work on.  You might learn something about the part or the role.  They’ve traveled all that way.  See what they can do. And show them what you want. They’re not just auditioning for you – the actor you want might get a conflicting offer, and then they’ll have to choose which project they’re going to work on. How you treat them in the rehearsal room might be an important factor. You’re auditioning for them, too.

4.     Be present

I was exhausted after my week of auditions, they same way I would’ve been after a week of rehearsals. That’s actually a great way to think about auditions: as a series of short rehearsals.  Like rehearsals, they require you to be present so that you can respond to the choices the actor is making. The director is an audience of one. Be the kind of audience member you would like to attend one of your own shows: present, kind, and easily delight-able.

And if you think the actor isn’t reading for the right role, ask them if they mind taking a few minutes to look at a different side. This happens even with a great casting director, and don’t be scared about asking them to look at a different part (another one of our offers is out to an actress who was game enough to read for someone else with no notice). Be especially sensitive if you’re asking the actor to read for a part that’s smaller, or older. But ultimately, I think actors would rather read for a role that they actually had a shot of getting.

THE CALLBACKS

5.     Don’t call someone back you don’t think you’re going to cast

Don’t waste their time because they’re your friend, or you think they’re cute, or you saw them in a show a few years ago and they were amazing and even though they’re not right for this part, wouldn’t it be fun to spend a few more minutes with them?  You are taking hours out of this actor’s life. Don’t do it in vain.

6.     Tell them what you want to see

You’ve called them back for a reason, right? Tell them why – tell them what you and the people in the room responded to, and tell them what you’d still like to see. It shouldn’t be mysterious or enigmatic. You have an idea about the part, they’re bringing something that you’ve responded to.  Identify the space between those things and let them show you what they can do.

AFTER

7.     Email your friends when you know you’re not going to cast them

I described auditioning to my husband like this, “Imagine interviewing twenty of your best friends for a job for which they’re over-qualified, then not being able to hire most of them because there are only three slots.”  He looked horrified. That’s what we have to go through.

Your relationship with your actor friends has to be strong enough to withstand that kind of pressure, and it’s your job to make it as easy as possible. Reach out to them. Tell them they were wonderful. Thank them for coming in.  As the director, you job is to see as many brilliant actors as you can, so that your show has as many options as possible.  As a friend your job is to thank your friends for making that possible.

Your friends will thank you, and write you back, and be so kind that you’ll be amazed.  And if one of them sends you a drunken email at 2AM berating you for not casting them, let it go and tell them you love them. Be a lover, not a fighter.

In many ways, I think, this post is a love letter to the pavement-pounding actors of New York.  Actors are New York’s best and brightest, one of this city’s most potent natural resource.  I could’ve cast my show three times over from the people we saw.  And actors, how do you get off-book so quickly?  I don’t just mean sort of off-book.  I mean like totally and 100% off-book.  And how do you take adjustments and change your performance just like that?  It’s really amazing. You’re really amazing. You are the greatest subsidizers of art in this country.

Bless you all.
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p.s.  And please comment - there is so much mystery around the auditioning process, and one of my goals in this post was to blow that open, and get a dialogue going about what you like in auditions, what you don't.  Talk to me!

58 comments:

  1. Ugh this is so infuriating. You paint such a clear picture of how fulfilling and rewarding auditions/callbacks can be and should be, which only makes me realize how AWFUL most of them are! Really insightful article, Michael. Thanks!

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    1. (I don't know why it didn't publish my name, but this is your old friend Daniel Marmion.)

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    2. Leave your name? Who is this? Thanks for commenting!

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    3. What "old?" Great to hear from you man!

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  2. This should be required reading for everyone who goes "in the room" for a living- on both sides of the table. Really well said and done, Michael! NY actor sending love back. -CHC

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    1. Thanks, Java - this is what I wished had existed before I had to host my own auditions all those years ago.

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  3. This is a beautiful article. Thank you for witnessing our work with so much love and respect!

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  4. As an actor in the city that goes through the audition process, I can identify so much with this article. Thank you so much for respecting the work in the room. It makes such a huge difference when the people on the opposite end are rooting for you. Hope to bump into you in the audition room sometime!

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  5. Christopher RandolphJuly 20, 2015 at 1:12 PM

    This is a beautiful article Michael, thank you. As an actor who also directs I have found all of this to be true. It amazes me more directors don't understand. Thanks!

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    1. Thanks so much - you must have an incredible perspective on all this.

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  6. I want every casting director, producer, writer, director--EVERYONE--to read this article. You get it. We put heart and soul (and time, money, and energy) into just a few minutes; we would be able to handle rejection easier, I think, if we knew we were valued like this.

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    1. Yes! I agree. It should be required reading.

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  7. This has made my day - this is wonderful! Thankyou! For your respect and understanding and care to even put this down in words.
    I wish everyone, not just theatre folk, would read this actually.
    But most of all I wish every audition I went in for was with someone like you - I wonder why they are not .. it seems to me that the way you describe your process is surely the way to get the best out of anyone!
    The thing I have been shcoked most by since moving to NY from London is the brutality of the audition process - I was amazed when I twigged that directors seemed to want me to walk in with a first night ready performance. I would find that terrifying as a director - where would be the room for growth, discovery, collaberation? Thank you thank you for your understanding and talent!

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  8. As someone who used to work in casting, I love this article. My biggest issue with Directors was always to be present, take control of the room. No looking at email, and no eating! And I would say to actors, know that the people behind that table really do want to love you, they want you to solve their problem.

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    1. Directors who eat or check their emails during auditions should be executed.

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  9. As someone who used to work in casting, I love this article. My biggest issue with Directors was always to be present, take control of the room. No looking at email, and no eating! And I would say to actors, know that the people behind that table really do want to love you, they want you to solve their problem.

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  10. It all sounds well and good until you have an arrogant, self-entitled casting clerk get in there and undermine the entire process.

    Most directors - theatre, film, TV - would be astounded at the level of talent most CDs bring to a director, and how crappy the talent often is, and how many great actors are never even considered. The problem stems from the fact that the majority of CDs these days meet actors in "workshops", which are little more than paid auditions, where those who pay often enough will get on the radar of a CD while others who cannot or choose not to pay fall by the wayside. Directors lose, the production loses...mainly due to the fact that casting directors aren't doing the job their paid to do.

    Yes, most casting directors are awesome, smart, resourceful, talented. But too many others these days have their heads up their asses, concerned more about making a lot of money that finding the best cast possible. Sometimes they get lucky, but more often that, they allow greed and a selfishish nature determine the kinds of cast that get put together. Case in point: look at the supporting casts of any TV show and you'll see too many mediocre actors who have paid for opportunity to play. Then turn your attention to feature films, where the pay-to-play phenomenon doesn't exist, and notice the quality in the supporting actors there. Night and day.

    Directors: ask your casting director when the last time it was that he or she attended a play or a free showcase or a graduating class of a university drama department - NYU, Carnegie Mellon, ACT, etc. Ask them when the last time was that they sat and met actors in "general interviews". Hell, ask them if they even know what a general interview is.

    A directors job is already hard. The reason a casting director exists is to make it easier and to make the director look like a hero in the process. Sadly, that's not always the case.

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    1. I found it a bit hypocritical that you decry CD workshops as "pay-to-play", but in the same breath recommend tapping talent from drama programs at NYU, Carnegie Mellon and ACT, tuition programs that run around $30K-$50K per year, programs which are almost exclusively available to kids from wealthy families. Most CD workshops that have been advertised to me are in the $250 range, and hardly what I would consider prohibitive. Could be a bigger regional problem, I suppose.

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  11. This was a nice read. As an actor, I really appreciate that you still have a passion for working on projects. That's the kind of love for the work I always hope is behind the table. Thanks for sharing

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  12. Thanks for taking the time to write this Michael. All of these are really insightful and excellent points. And honestly, it was the kind way you treated me in the room, and the time you took that made me want to work with you. Best of luck!

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  13. I am so grateful for this. There are so many articles, books, and blog posts about what actors should be doing, and very few to address what industry can and should be doing to help make each step of the process collaborative and respectful. The "actors are a dime a dozen" mentality really helps no one.

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    1. Yes, there's something inherently disparaging about the disparity you've identified.

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  14. This article is really empowering! I'm a young director who has always wondered if my desire to step out from behind the table and play in the audition room is unprofessional. Thank you for providing your insight, and reminding me that it's my responsibility to try and get as much as I can from the audition and from the actors. I should do what I can to help every actor be as successful as possible when auditioning! Amazing food for thought!

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    1. I don't even sit behind a table during auditions - the way I never would during rehearsal. They're a barrier to interactions. Sit next to one.

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  15. The fact that you had to write this article is the reason why I started despising the audition process. That you wrote this article is heart-warming. If enough people at the table take this advice, I'll staring liking the audition process, again.

    Here's another piece of advice: Actors know, instinctively, when you're using them as pawns to negotiate salary with the actor you actually want to do the role. Calling us for another callback, after telling us you've gone a different way, which is after the original callback in which we're the only actor called back for the role, is a blantant giveaway. Do us all a favor and don't waste our time. You're just insulting us, which lowers our respect for you to almost nothing, at best.

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    1. Another friend of mine has been talking to me about this phenomenon - I can't believe this even happens. It's just horrible

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  16. Something I'd want to put out there is that more beginning actors should get a sense of what an audition "should" feel like. There are warning signs that more experienced actors see that signal that you aren't a good fit for the company, or that it could be a really bad experience. This is a lot more applicable to newer or unknown theatre companies than large ones, but could be applicable anywhere.

    I was at an audition where I had to wait around for several hours to read sides with actors who never showed up. There were about 15 of us waiting. Instead of pairing us up and making the best of who showed up, we all were waiting for hours for 'the right people' who never showed up.

    It was really frustrating, and I declined to attend call backs because of that. And then I heard from several friends that it was an awful rehearsal experience.

    Actors frequently are so stressed out about landing a job, any job, that they undermine each other and enable bad behavior like that.

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    1. Totally, and I think it's great you didn't go to the callbacks. We all have a choice to make about participating in a project, and when the process is that horrendous from the get-go, it's hard to imagine it's going to get much better.

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  17. I appreciate the tenderness of this article very much. We must bring our most generous and loving selves into these situations. Thanks for writing this Michael!!

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  18. If only ALL directors could follow this advice!
    -Hagop

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  19. This is really lovely and honest and true...well done!

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  20. texting!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! stop it now!

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  21. My favorite things you spoke of:
    1) short sides to allow actors to do their best work
    2) 10 minute time slots
    3) working with actors, giving adjustments
    Thank you for creating an audition room that is respectful to actors. My most favorite feeling is walking out of an audition feeling like I was just at a day of rehearsal, and you create that environment. Thank you for addressing this important subject!
    -Molly Camp

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    1. Molly - thanks for bringing such a great audition and callback into the room. It was great to meet you on this.

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  22. Michael,

    I've tried twice already to thank you for this. We don't know each other but I really appreciate that there are directors out there who think like this. In particular I was gladdened by #'s 2 and 4. I'm tired to of working up 10 pages of 3 different sides only to hear the table say, "Sorry, we're running behind, can you just do the first one?"

    And the thought of someone saying, "We called you back because of X and Y, but we'd love to see some more Z. Can you fold that in?" Anything that brings down the opacity of the process. Seriously, why does there have to be such a veil of secrecy.

    Anyway, thank you for your consideration for actors. I hope that I get to experience a Barakiva like audition soon.

    Best of luck with the show.

    Blessings,
    Michael Markham

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    1. A really smart friend of mine wrote me, saying that 10-page side make it inherently more difficult for people who aren't independently wealthy to get cast - that the amount of time it takes to prep just one of those well is basically mutually exclusive with having a day-job, god forbid a family or any other kind of commitment. I thought it was a great way to think about it. 10-page sides are undemocratic.

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    2. And really the worst is when you in the middle of the 10 pages and you know you are failing miserably and they are clearly not interested but they don't stop you, 'cause I guess what they think they're being nice and "giving you a chance"! OOhhhhh nightmares.

      Michael Markham

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  23. I enjoy your writing Michael-- and even as a designer I appreciate that you are trying to make us all good citizens of the theatre world.

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  24. I love what you have written. There are such set systems of doing things; I think people get lazy or complacent. I would say that 90% of directors I audition for (and I audition a lot) don't give adjustments, or say really anything to me about the character, what they are looking for, or indeed anything at all. I am left to make a choice and hope it is what they need. It defies logic. Our job as actors is to take direction. Give us SOMETHING so we can give you what you want so we can book that job. Thank you for your piece, which is kind, and realistic and respectful of us actors who do knock ourselves out to get the work. In answer to the question about being off book--it's because we worked on it with our coaches, we ran it again and again so we could be free to act and not just search for the words on the page!

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  25. Well said. If only it could be true everywhere.

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  26. This is beautifully said. I wish it were like this more often. It would make things much more civilized.

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  27. Thank you for writing this! I am so tired of the articles about what actors need to do differently, this was a refreshing shift. I had the opportunity to audition for Mark Rylance a couple of years ago. He spent 30 minutes working with me, we did improv, we danced, he asked me about myself, and a week later I received a handwritten post card from him thanking me for my preparation and that he hoped we would work together in the future. It hangs on my wall because I have rarely felt so respected . But, really, that shouldn't be so rare. Thank you!

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  28. They call me MimiJuly 22, 2015 at 6:34 AM

    Thank you so much for this. Truly. I wish more auditions were run like you run yours.

    I've performed off-Broadway, I have a national tour under my belt, and I've increasingly been hired to act on-camera. All of this is to say: I know how to prepare, show up, and do my work. But I no longer audition for theater. Here's part of why: The last theater audition I went to was over a year ago. I had an agent appointment for a role in a new musical at a top-tier regional theater. I had actually seen an early showcase of the show years prior in NY, and I was excited to go in. The instructions were to prepare two short sides (well, they got that right), and THIRTEEN PAGES of new music. Basically, a piece of everything the character sang in the show! And this music was not easy. So I bought the recorded versions of the songs from itunes if they were available. I went to a coach and paid $80 for him to record the accompaniment and coach me. I spent several days learning the music and sides so I could be as off-book as possible. I reviewed the dialect that would be required for the role. I thought about the aesthetic of the production I had seen, and tried to *gently* place myself in that world when I selected my wardrobe and makeup for the audition. I showed up. They had booked me for the wrong day, so their accompanist wasn't familiar with the music. But he tried. They had me sing through about half of the music I had so painstakingly prepared. No sides, nothing from my book. Not one comment or adjustment or "try it again like this." The director looked like she couldn't care less. They said thank you, and I left. If this were the only time something like this had happened, I'm sure I wouldn't have walked out on theater. But this type of audition -- disrepectful of my time, my prrsence and my work -- is alarmingly common. So I left.

    Now I'm in grad school for something that is totally not acting or singing. I still audition for and work on-camera jobs -- I find the audition process much more efficient and transparent, and, in its own way, less offensive. I do miss performing. But I do not miss theater auditions AT ALL.

    Maybe if more people start to think and behave like you do, I'll come back someday.

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  29. Wonderful post Michael - next time please take the time to acknowledge by name the great job your casting director Stephanie Klapper did. You spoke so highly of all of the terrific talent she put in front of you it would be nice to see her name mentioned along with the praises!

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  30. I offer this as an example of the abuse that actors go through every day.

    Last Sept I had an audition for the Cleveland Playhouse production of Vanya Sonia etc etc. Things went well and I had a call back the next day. Things went well again and I was contacted by casting with a request to "put myself on hold" as they had some tapes to look at and they would make decisions shortly, fair enough.

    A month went by and they said they were planning some appointments in NOV and would surely make decisions then, fair enough.

    In November they said they were planning another session in Jan and would make decisions then...ummm ok.

    Jan came and I was asked to re-audition. I explained to my agent that this was a no win situation but was assured they really wanted me to come back one more time...OK.

    Went back read 2 scenes no adjustments no explanations Thank you and done.

    Couple days later I asked if we had heard anything, for surely after all that they would at least respond in some way to us.

    Actually NO. 2 Phone calls to casting with no response. The TONY award winning Cleveland Playhouse was done with me. WOW kind of makes an old dog want to learn someone tricks. 30 years in the business 6 broadway shows and this is how you get treated.

    No business like it!

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  31. Marilyn GhigliottiJuly 23, 2015 at 12:27 PM

    Thank you, thank you so much for a wonderful article of what respect for one another in this industry should be. As an actress it's refreshing to know there are those like you out there. I also have a CD friend that takes a lot of pride in what she does and respect for the actor as well. We put so much of ourselves out there and to experience some of the disrespect that we sometimes get is ridiculous. I've also helped out on casting sessions on independent films and have loved the process of being on the other end and rooting for the actors that come in. I hope to have the opportunity to meet and experience your enthusiasm for this business that can be a lot of work but so rewarding.
    Thank you again

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  32. I want to come audition for you.

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  33. I freakin' love this. I have occasionally felt both respected and cherished in an audition, as if my artistry and all my hours of efforts were truly appreciated. So many people do a perfunctory 'thank you for coming' that sounds a bit more like 'f-#* you', and they make sure you never forget they are doing you a favour by letting you in the room. As if somehow you will suck their soul out if they make eye-contact with you and talk to you like you are a human being. I'm an actor, not a gorgon. You will not turn to stone if you look up from your iPhone when I am in the room. So, yeah, love this love letter. Peace.

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  34. Thank you for fostering such a supportive creative environment from the start. If it starts in the audition room, it can only lead to great relationships, even if it doesn't book a role. I think that's more important than anything else. As actors, we've become conditioned to working outside of our comfort zones. We can perform well-enough through most anything. But humanity is our driving force, what we're trying to connect to through storytelling. You want an amazing actor? Show us some humanity and our souls ignite. That's when we move not only past our comfort zones but outside of our egos, producing work more amazing than we could have hoped. It's a collaboration, no matter how you look at it. As a NY actor, I thank you.

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  35. Michael, your audition process sounds like a DREAM! How lovely it would be if everyone had that kind of respect for the artists they've invited to see.
    I'm a Jersey City native who's been working in the southern market for a spell and all of the issues you've pointed out of course exist here as in everywhere.
    Auditions often feel disorganized and ill-conceived and on occasion even hostile. And it requires that the actor exert an extraordinary amount of energy to quell the chaos around them, protect the inner world they've prepared all while remaining open and vulnerable. Not to mention remembering those lines.
    The balancing act that an actor has to master for the audition can feel overwhelming at times. It is ourselves we are putting out there and because of that I often feel that the actor has to be skilled not only at the craft but at guarding themselves so as not to allow whatever disregard they encounter to cause them to waiver or become discouraged.
    BTW there's a fantastic documentary about this very issue called: (Life is a role with the punches.) SHOWING UP - a conversation about the audition. www.showingupmovie.com
    Get the 2 disc edition! They interview a plethora of very well known actors, Nathan Lane, etc, on what auditions have been like for them. It's a very eye opening and compassionate look at the actor and what they have to overcome. I wish that every CD and director would watch it.
    Thank you for taking the time to write about what a safe space for auditioning should be like. --MJ

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  36. Michael, this is a great piece that directors should take to heart, and, having worked with you as a casting director, I know you practice what you preach. My one quibble might be with your praise for actors who get off book for the audition. Like many directors, I actually prefer that they don't. It is usually better to hold the sides and refer to them as needed. When actors try to learn the lines overnight, even if they are successful, the audition or callback usually takes on an added tension ("Will I remember??"), and the rhythm of the scene is slightly thrown off. Often the memorization is approximate, which can worry the playwright. In addition, it can be harder to make a requested adjustment after you've worked the scene up to that level. Of course there are exceptions. But I've seen enough actors go off book at callbacks and end up having the director ask them to pick up the script that I generally feel it's a better strategy to approach the audition or callback for what it is: an opportunity to READ for a role.
    Your thoughts on how to treat actors with respect are greatly appreciated!

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    1. Tom - thanks for this wonderful and kind and thorough response. I think you're right about the off-book thing: I certainly don't require or expect it. I was just amazed at how many of the actors were clearly off-book, or so close that they only needed to reference the script a few times. But especially on new plays, it's far more important to get the words right than to try and memorize the sides. Also, a memorized audition does feel more like a performance, which can be a little intimidating to the director.

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  37. Your respect for others is wonderful, thank you. 30 seconds is more than enough time to know that the actor is just not right. Once you know that, I think it is OK to tell the actor. Talk about relieving pressure. All I know for certain is that I have no idea what you want to see, but I know exactly what I want to show you. Keep writing articles. Please.

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  38. Thank you so much for this.

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  39. Unfortunately callousness often prevails as the accepted culture of the auditioning process. Thanks for articulating a better way. Genuine respect for all, on both sides of the table, should be THE way of doing business. Both sides give so much, so why not support one another instead? Hopefully you are the trend for the new culture of directors.

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