‘On Merit’ Part II: CASTING ASPERSIONS

14/02/2010 at 2:08 pm 1 comment

Disclaimer:
I have given a lot of thought to this post, with respect to how I put things, and even whether I should open up this can of worms and thus have to lie in it. Mixed metaphors notwithstanding, I’m not doing myself any favours by revealing events what should essentially be kept behind closed doors. There’s an unspoken rule about the audition/rehearsal room and what stays there. With that in mind, I have determined to say what I have to say about the casting process, because some things are not better-off left unsaid.

As such I’ll be speaking from experience, from the perspective of the actor, although I won’t be referring to any specific artists or productions; out of respect for the sanctity of the studio space, and for the various directors and companies I may have auditioned for. If you are one of those, and perhaps recognise certain scenarios I lay out in this post, please do not take my bitchy tone too seriously. It’s just good copy (from the school of sensationalism) designed to get my points across with impact. I hold no grudges, nor bitterness toward thee, after fifteen years of auditioning I can handle the odd rejection notice. If I took issue with something on the day, chances are I already said something to you in private, and moved on.

Of course, I recognise that everyone does things differently, but the culture is such that actors will rarely speak up in public if they value their chances of working regularly. (Worth Noting: Actors will discuss directors/producers/agents/companies in private, there are various newsgroups dedicated to just this purpose- but you have to be an actor to join them)... There will be those who see my attempts to tease open the audition process as sour grapes, or being a prima donna. Whatever. Think what you must, those who have worked with me know otherwise. Tiptoeing around stuff is just not my style… I simply use these examples to illustrate a wider argument about casting, that elusive thing which makes or breaks a show before rehearsals have even begun.

WHAT NOT TO DO

In a post a few months back I wrote advice for actors on Nailing That Audition – which more or less sums up how casting directors operate. This is based on experience auditioning at all levels of film, television & theatre (professional or non), as well as speaking to agents and directors themselves about how they work. It reflects my own approach as an actor going into audition and has served me well in casting my own projects too. I refer to that as some background for industry rule of thumb, but the basic gist of it is this: If casting is everything (and let’s assume that it is) – be ready to work thoroughly if you want to get it right.

When you go into the room ready to work (as opposed to just being ready to audition) – all the pressure lifts in terms of how what you’re doing is just one reading of many. Rather than going all out to nail the part (I don’t believe this is feasible in a first reading) – I prefer to go in open minded and ready to work out the nuances of the script in conversation. After all, theatre is collaboration – so whatever I might have worked out in my head when learning the gags I must be ready to discard as soon as rehearsal starts. The work gone into the first reading is probably less than one percent of what might come up as soon as the director gets involved.

So I think of auditions (from the director’s viewpoint as well as the actor’s) like a rehearsal for the rehearsal. A chance to work out some ideas with willing actors without the immediacy of actual production. Bite-size chunks of scenes to experiment without having to lock in blocking or character choices – like a few practice swings before the big game. As such I love auditioning for parts, because it keep me fresh and active in the rehearsal space. Whether I get them or not doesn’t matter, it’s just fun to get out there and mess around with a scene or two.

For most actors, however, auditions are a lucky-dip that can launch you into orbit or spiral into disorganised, nightmarish and colossal wastes of time. It’s almost impossible to tell; when you rock up for your theatrical speed-date which category the production might fall into. But any actor with more than a couple of years performing under their belt can tell you stories about that play. I had a couple of auditions last year which set off warning bells in this respect. One for a six minute short film (for which the audition lasted over an hour), the other for a full length co-op theatre production (for which the audition lasted less than six minutes). Are we sensing a pattern here?

Since I tend to work mostly for free, it’s important to feel confident and comfortable with people from the outset. As much as the director needs to know they can work with me, I need to know I can work with them too! I mean, it’s just good sense if you’re planning on giving up hours on end to a common cause, let’s get to know each other a little better. And let’s face it, these people are giving up their time to help you solve a massive problem in terms of getting your show up. So it’s not that hard to give something back, is it? I’m talking about common courtesy of giving someone your full attention and engaging with the work they’ve prepared.

Contrary to popular belief, the primary function of an audition is not casting a play. The actual casting process happens later, with no actors present, late at night in someone’s lounge room or possibly even an actual back-room of the theatre. The audition itself is merely a formality. A get-to-know-you-better exercise that comes before the torrid six to eight weeks of hardcore sex. So you go in on this façade that you’re auditioning for a particular character, but really you want to test the waters for clarity before taking a longer draught.

This is why these two particular auditions left me a little cold. I’ve done my time on student film sets, so normally tend to avoid them like the proverbial but in recent months I have undertaken a resounding “Yes!” to everything policy and as such found myself turning up to a studio in of all places, Randwick on the first Tuesday of November. This project has since coiled into a vortex of accidents, errors, bad judgement calls and plain inexperience but all the signs were there on the first day I walked in. It reads like a list of how not to go about seeming like you know what you’re doing…

1) The actors were all called the same time and were asked to wait it out while the others went through (not good).

2) The entire crew were present for the audition itself, including the camera department, and strangely, the tutor for the class, who seemed to have scheduled an extra training session for his students, with us as his guinea pigs.

3) While I was doing the audition, they started discussing in detail about their lighting plan (this just in: do it at the production meeting).

4) At one point the tutor launched into a five minute spiel beginning with “The thing about drama is – it has to be completely real…”

No Joke.

The poor director was so distracted with all the fussings and goings on that she hardly had a moment to actually deal with me there, waiting, patiently through the audition. I started to talk about how I felt the character might work and got this disbelieving blank stare. Like it’s taboo to bring ideas to the table or something. Putting up with this for about an hour I did my usual low-key first read with an emphasis on naturalism, but at no stage were there any suggestions to try this or that way to read the lines. It was, frankly quite surreal and I eventually mentioned that I had another appointment (neglecting to include that it was with a cold beer and an armchair) and made my exit stage-door-out.

Needless to say I got the part, but my point here is that the audition process needs to focus on the ability for the artists to collaborate effectively. The actual casting happened after I left, when they watched the five minutes of tape – but a lack of engagement with me as an artist meant made me feel as though my time might better be spent on another project. No progress was made on my understanding of the director’s intentions. The test is not whether I can do the part, but whether we can collaborate. As far as I was concerned, they’d comprehensively failed.

But it’s one thing to take your chances running the gauntlet of student films and as every actor knows it’s a rite of passage to network your skills. Even when it’s really bad the whole thing’s usually over in a couple of days. Co-op Theatre, on the other hand, is a far more intense, lengthy and difficult task (and equally more rewarding). The stakes are higher for everyone, so it’s really worth the extra mile to ensure a cast is going to work. The good news is: theatre people are infinitely more cool than film students, so you have a pretty good hit-ratio when it comes to quality projects.

Even though I have no doubt it’s an excellent project, this last audition left me scratching my head as I walked away thinking “what the hell what that all about?” Here’s what went wrong:

1) The venue for the audition was changed, fair enough. Unfortunately the message was set by email, around 5pm the night before. Needless to say, I didn’t get the change in time. Lucky I had arrived early and was able to scamper up the road to get there on schedule, but the zen-koan like state I had prepared on the way was out the window.
LESSON: if less than 24 hours notice, try using the telephone.

2) When I did get the message, it was sent as CC. So I had a convenient list of every other actor’s name and email to browse along with my change of venue!
LESSON: respect your actor’s privacy, don’t give out personal details!

3) So after making some seriously painful small-talk while catching my breath, I got through the initial read with only a minor bump or two on lines. I felt ok about it. I hit the marks I wanted, it wasn’t terrible, but I knew it wasn’t great either. But as I said before, the first read is about 1% of what I’m capable of, and I was itching to hear how the director wanted to look at what was really quite a complex scene, and have another crack. But I got no feedback at all!
LESSON: find out what the actor is capable of. I’m there, you’re there – there’s a bit of script and about fifteen minutes to work it. What have you got to lose? If I’m not right for the role you can at least get a sense of acting style/technique (for other projects), or even a fresh take on the gags. After all, I made the effort from my end!

4) Bizarrely, instead of the feedback, one of the director’s assistants (or friend, I’m not sure) piped in with a barrage of questions beginning “Where did you come from?” I assumed this was a polite way of her suggesting she didn’t know where I’d been, so I made a few minutes of chit-chat about what plays I’d done and where I went to Uni… all of which is in my CV (naturally). The discomfort at talking about everything other than what I’d just done on stage must have been evident as the ‘interview’ came to an abrupt end and I was ushered out. Not surprisingly thinking: “What Just Happened?”
LESSON: It’s really awkward if you avoid talking about the scene. I mean, I know it wasn’t top shelf, but at the very least spend that five minutes saying, “OK, how about you try it like this, see what happens?” Please, NOT more small-talk about something I did in 1998.

5) Finally, as I left, someone chimed that they’d call me “tonight”. Given the reticence to discuss the scene I already pretty much knew I hadn’t got it, so this was a real eyebrow lifter. Hardly a surprise when the call was not forthcoming.
LESSON: Don’t make promises you can’t keep. Nobody expects a phone call that night (unless they get the part hands down) so saying it just makes you look unprofessional.

Now, most of this is pretty minor administrative stuff, but they’re also the kinds of things that add up to warning bells of poor production management. I mention it here not as any great gripe other than a small lesson for others who may be inexperienced in the audition process. The main point that frustrated me, in both examples is the issue of creative engagement. As an artist, I’m giving up my time to help you realise your pet-project. It’s the least you can do to respect that time, effort and give an honest response to what I bring to the room.

In Part One I wrote about how theatre programmers give preference to the people they know. The emphasis was on the professional companies, and how ‘celebrity’ casting is du jour. It’s the same principle in play: of course you cast William Hurt. It’s William Hurt. You’d be mad not to. If any other ‘auditions’ were held for the production they’d be pointless. Casting happens in back rooms. This is not a criticism – it’s a fact.

Independent co-op productions, with less cashflow must also make do with the people they can most trust to get the job done. So they cast the people they know. My only question is this: in the two auditions I described, where was the effort to get to know me? Let’s be clear, I don’t care about not getting the part – I care about creating a level playing field (as far as such a thing is possible). If we’re concerned about a club mentality at Belvoir or the STC, just how often do we work with the same actors in our own shows, without giving the lesser knowns a fighting chance as well?

I might not be right for the role, but then again if I’m never given a chance to show what I can do, how could you know? If we’re really casting “on merit” – the audition process would be far more transparent. But by convention – it’s all behind closed gates. And hence we can end up feeling a little like sheep.

Am I asking too much for lowly actors, who should be thankful for any scraps thrown to them for making your show? please, your thoughts are appreciated…

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Entry filed under: Inside Theatre PROCESS, Sydney THEATRE. Tags: , , , , .

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VICTOR SANCZ vassanc [AT] gmail.com

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