When I’m out and about, at social gatherings and places that are opportunities for networking and connecting, I sometimes cannot help but notice people who are “on.” Like a flipped light-switch, they summon the energy to court the room like a politician. They appear over the top, there are people in social settings who seem to be acting, or somehow putting “on” an act. Perhaps they appear to be wearing a mask, being larger than life and overly gregarious.
Or perhaps they are being authentic to who they truly are. Whether in our personal or professional lives I think there looms the question: is this person really being authentic? Being honest? But in order to socialize, being authentic ourselves, would it not prove better to simply take others at face-value?
In a business of actors and performing artists, there’s a good chance we are all acting a little bit. I had this discussion recently with a colleague, and it seems a frequent topic of conversation for other performing artists. To say there are strong personalities in theatre is an understatement. As with many issues concerning interactions, we can only control our own actions. If we second guess someone else’s authenticity, we soon become inauthentic ourselves.
It’s hard not to show concern for the people and things we care about. We try to act cool and nonchalant, often thinking by showing concern we are vulnerable and weak. Maybe this is why we hardly tell each other what we truly feel. But it’s this thought on caring and concern that I turn to the ever-poplar topic of auditioning.
A performer asked me recently: why do we get so nervous at auditions? Because we care. Perhaps too much at times. Having had the experience for myself recently I probably put too much thought into what’s at stake, what the audition means, and if I’m not careful I end up caring too much, twisting into a bundle of nerves.
But I don’t think I’m alone in this. Why do we get nervous? When we are alone, not under the microscope of the audition panel, we are more comfortable and able to perform more relaxed. Knowing this doesn’t make it any easier to control the instinctual fight-or-flight response. But perhaps when the nerves come, it’s a reminder that it’s because you care about the audition, and want to do well.
In many circumstances we are taught to believe that failure is not an option. When we lose at sports or don’t finish in first place, we fail. Anything less than perfection is unacceptable; I’ve seen this in the performing arts. The problem is though, we are not nor will we ever be perfect.
If we are afraid of ‘failure’ whatever meaning that word holds, then that discourages the effort. I can’t do that because what if I fail? Why should I try? If it’s a matter of singing that high note, or getting out on the stage to execute the choreography, every one of us deals with the fear of failure. And it can mean something different for each of us.
How you ever worked in an environment where you were afraid to fail? I’ve experienced the situation where if there was one note of music out of place, or one person wasn’t exactly where they were supposed to be in the performance, they were made an example of; they were punished, scolded or shamed in front of other performers. And while leaders, directors can rule with an iron fist, demanding respect and discipline, it also sets a tone of fear. Rather than focusing on the art, on the work and the performance, everyone begins to be afraid. Which only sets them up for more failure.
Could it be possible to create an environment where performers, employees, were encouraged to fail? Or to use a better phrase: to be encouraged to take risks and think openly about problem solving? Then they take ownership and are invested in the success of the whole.
It can be difficult to create long-lasting relationships and a sense of community while living in a city. Most performing artists, among other professionals, find themselves thrust in the middle of the urban jungle, and with so many moving parts, feeling centered is a balancing act. I think we all crave a community in one capacity or another.
A friend reminded me that one of the places we still find a strong community is in religious centers. I’ve often thought that regardless of the particular religion (not to say that I would regard them any less), Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or Hindu for example, they are places of community. The same can be said for the theatre. It has a well-established and thriving community of people living and working together. Contrary to many beliefs, theatre and religion go hand in hand. We wouldn’t have theatre without religion; and I wonder if we’d have religion without the theatre. Please discuss.
But what really fascinates me is how actors, musicians, technicians and directors all come together rather quickly to put up a show, and then disperse into the aether as quickly as they came together. We live in housing when we are on the road, sharing rooms, meals, and stories. We are a unit, and whether by desire, design, or default, we have to trust one another. But does that community and that trust truly exist beyond the production contract?
Are we able to maintain the ‘togetherness’ once the curtain is down? I’d like to think so; I wonder how, with heads in our hands holding cell phones and updating Twitter accounts, that we still connect. That we still see to eye-to-eye not only on Facebook, but on face-to-face.
Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” We are constantly tempted to compare our own successes and failures, our own journey to those around us. Yet no two people are exactly the same, nor are they on the same path in life.
When we talk about what we are doing, what we want to be doing and where we are going in our careers, very quickly the focus goes on whom is doing what and where. Who can deny the question to themselves: why aren’t I working on that? How come they got the promotion, or they got that gig over me? It’s obvious to spot when writing it on the page, but I think we have a hard time admitting to ourselves when we are feeling competitive and comparing our lives to others around us.
I don’t know if we can put a stop to comparisons for good. We are human after all. And whether or not you get that gig, or win the accolades for your achievements, comparing yourself to someone else is surely not going to advance your career. I’ve caught myself in the trap of comparing, only to find a waste of time of energy. It bares repeating that life is not fair, nor is it linear. But focusing on the positive will create an environment for success; when the temptation to compare to others occurs, remember the best is yet to come.
It seems that in theatre, there is more value placed on being an extrovert than an introvert. Being outgoing means more parties, more dinner and coffee dates. More exposure to the people who ‘matter.’ This is all true. You don’t get seen staying home in your apartment.
We cannot help but be drawn into the incessant rat-race that is Manhattan life; that which we all love to hate and talk about like it’s yesterday’s news. I was reminded recently that as much as we may love it or hate it, taking time away from it is important. Finding your own way of stealing yourself, even for a short period of time, gives you space and peace of mind.
Staring up at the high-rise buildings that make up the city, one can lose perspective much like trying to point out the forest through the trees. The city can be overwhelming, and not carving out that afternoon in the park, or that evening to yourself can make everything feel like a constant barrage of stress and competition. We can lose perspective in the day-to-day hustle; things like making art feel less like art and more like work.
For every theatre production there is usually more than one round of auditions. There’s the open-call, the invited call, the callbacks, each time actors come in to sing the same song, or something new, or songs given to them from the show.
The first round of auditions can be very quick, just singing a cut of a song. What is never clear to actors, it seems, is the “16 bar cut” of a song is shorthand for roughly 30 seconds of a song. No one is counting the measures of music and no one is going to stop you from singing bar number 17. Just give us a small cut of a song.
Recently I was asked if it’s a good idea to sing from the show in the first audition. After thinking about it, I would have to say it’s probably not a good idea. The director and creative team have probably spent a considerable amount of time on the show and the songs, and have their opinions about it. If an actor has a point of view on the character from the show, they won’t get to discuss it in-depth in the first round of auditions.
At first it might seem like a good idea to sing from the show, giving the casting team a strong impression. However it might not be the right impression. I find actors who sing the songs that represent them the best, generally get a callback. With that, they are given more materials and information about the direction of the production.
A good way to stay in shape is by regular exercise. We know that a little exercise everyday goes a long way in physical health; likewise practicing your instrument everyday improves your performance. And when you’re looking to book an audition it’s a good idea to practice auditioning. Treat it as a muscle by extension like everything else.
I’ve sat in auditions, playing for singers, watching and listening to actors read scenes. After seeing a handful of auditions it becomes clear who has exercised their audition muscles recently and who hasn’t. What can be deceptive are the actors who make it look easy; the best ones always do. But if you’re an actor who hasn’t auditioned in a long period of time, there are so many little aspects to the audition experience that sometimes get overlooked: how to walk in the room, how to talk to your accompanist and the casting team.
Being able to give a reading of a scene, and make adjustments that are given to you on the spot are challenges; being well-practiced at being spontaneous is a skill. I find one of the most common errors actors make in auditions is not being flexible. If they are unable to adapt to their surroundings, or maintain a sense of ease about the situation, it shows. How to avoid this inflexibility? Practice auditioning. Get a vocal coach and an acting coach and practice, practice, practice. Auditioning is not easy, but it gets better by doing it.
An emotional state can render us breathless, or perhaps full of hot air. Anger or excitement can leave us panting for air; we can use the breath to portray our emotions on stage, and support the lyric in a song. Breath is everything underneath the performance.
I’ve noticed the difference when actors are aware of their breath. I recall a friend telling a story of an audition; she was in an audition and inhaled deeply before she spoke. From the back of the theatre the director stopped her shouting, “It’s not a comedy!” He knew from her inhale which direction she was going to take the scene.
Much like the introduction to a song, or an interlude, the breath tells us everything that is unsaid. A soft inhale, can be intimate or a loud exhale can show frustration. We’ve all seen it in life. When an actor sings, and they plan their breath in a musical phrase, it can make (or break) their audition. Likewise, exhaling before delivering their line can feel like a deflated balloon, which may not be the desired effect in an uplifting or enthusiastic moment.
When we look for auditions, there’s usually a break down of the characters the production needs. For example: “Looking for a man between 30-45 years old, brooding and strong. Baritone.” Or: “She is 20-25 years old, mezzo-soprano, energetic and high-spirited.” (These are not actual casting breakdowns I’ve seen; they are for the sake of example only.) There is some indication of an age range, voice-type and personality. Depending on the show or shows you’re auditioning for, you can figure out what song you should sing.
Occasionally I’ve run across the casting breakdown that has everything but the kitchen sink thrown in. If it’s not a well-known show, or if it’s a new show, there sometimes can be confusion created by the casting description. “It’s a period show with pop-rock elements, also classical theatre sounds with hip-hop and reggae, swing music and big band. Traditional Broadway sounds as well.” (This is not a casting call for any show.) It makes you wonder: what could I possibly sing to fit all the criteria listed in the casting breakdown?
The same answer applies to pretty much every casting situation: you should go with the material that is your strongest. You should always audition with repertoire you enjoy performing; there may also be material from the show. But hopefully you have some interest in the show for which you are auditioning. Another great reason for loving the repertoire you keep in your audition book is this: life is short. Wouldn’t you want to spend time and work on the music that you love, regardless of the audition?