Local directors offer tips for stage auditions
If “getting involved in theater” was a New Year’s resolution, this is a good week to make it come true.
Four area theaters have auditions in the coming week. Both Kent State University at Trumbull Theater in Champion and the Victorian Players in Youngstown are staging plays by northeast Ohio writers – Michael Dempsey’s comedy “The Romeo and Juliet War” at Kent-Trumbull and the mystery “Below the Surface” by Craig May at the Victorian. Lisa Bennett will direct the comedy “Shakespeare in Hollywood” at Trumbull New Theatre in Niles, and Dempsey will be directing the musical “City of Angels” at Salem Community Theater.
Getting in any of those shows means auditioning, and many novice and experienced performers make common mistakes that keep them from getting cast. The directors of those four shows share some of their tips on how to stand out – in a good way – at an audition.
Different shows have different demands, and many actors hurt their chances by not being prepared for the type of show for which they are auditioning.
Dempsey is asking auditioners for singing roles in “City of Angels” to sing one to two minutes of a song, and an accompanist will be provided.
“‘City of Angels’ has a jazzy, old-fashioned, sultry score,” he said. “I don’t want to hear Sondheim, I don’t want to hear ‘Les Mis’ (at the audition).”
John Ballantyne Jr., who is directing “Below the Surface,” said those auditioning for musicals also hurt themselves by picking songs that aren’t suited for their voice.
“They pick things that are too hard and put themselves at a disadvantage,” he said. “They try to do something they can’t really do, and if they would pick something easier to handle, it would present a much better audition.”
Daniel-Raymond Nadon, director of the theater department at Kent-Trumbull, expects his students to know the material well whenever they audition for him.
“The script is sent to all my students, and I ask them to target a part and prepare a scene where the character is featured,” Nadon said. “It gives them a sense of what it takes to prepare for an audition and how to come into an audition to compete.”
Since Kent-Trumbull productions also are open to the community (including children), Nadon doesn’t expect quite that level of preparation from everyone. But he said Dempsey has made his script for “The Romeo and Juliet War” available to anyone who requests it.
Bennett was less concerned with how well actors knew the script in an audition.
“I’m looking for personality, what you can bring to the character,” she said. “I’ll have you do a cold reading to see what you can bring in a short span and then we’ll build on that in the weeks we have to build the character.”
And Ballantyne said there is one advantage to actors not being overly familiar with the work.
“Someone who doesn’t know anything about it, you know they won’t have any preconceived notions of what they have to do or what you want from them,” he said.
Present your best self
“It’s kind of like a job interview,” Bennett said “You’ve got to show us what you’ve got, put your best foot forward.”
Dempsey said at the first show he directed at Youngstown Playhouse, getting information from some of the people auditioning was like pulling teeth. Then one actor came in with a headshot and resume, introduced herself and announced what she was going to sing.
“It was really nice, polished,” Dempsey said. “She could have been awful after that, and she still would have gotten extra points for her presentation.”
While inexperienced actors need to make themselves stand out, it’s just as important, maybe more important, for veteran performers to show how committed they are.
“I can forgive a novice, but if you come in with a lot of credentials behind you and come in with a weak audition, you don’t want to do the show, do you?,” Bennett said.
“Even people I know come in unprepared sometimes and act like my friendship will get them cast,” he said. “Yes, I do know your work, and you just showed me how much you care about this show.”
Presenting the best image also involves dressing appropriately. None of the directors encouraged actors to show up dressed for specific roles, but what actors wear can have an impact on their audition.
“For the most part, you want to audition in a neutral look,” Nadon said. “You want to be able to be seen in a variety of roles, certainly not in any one character unless you really really want only one character or if the character you want is really different than you.”
As an example, Dempsey said if he was auditioning for a role of a father/husband, he would wear a sport coat to the audition instead of a t-shirt.
One recurring complaint among the directors was that actors don’t project during an audition.
“I think you always feel you’re louder on stage than you really are, and people don’t realize that,” Bennett said.
“They read as though they’re just reading to the person next to them and don’t try to project,” Ballantyne said.
And Nadon added, “Vocally, you have to be strong enough to fill the space. You’re not auditioning for a film. You can’t work with that level of subtlety. And physically, you have to let the action come out of the text. Some will wander, some will over-gesture and others remain stiff as a board.”
Be a team player
In addition to convincing the director about their abilities, auditioners also are trying to show the director they are someone he or she will want to work with for the next several weeks. And actors sabotage themselves in a lot of ways.
Dempsey said he likes for actors to ask questions during an audition; however, an audition is not the place for actor to assert their artistic vision.
“Even if I like what a person does, I will give them a piece of direction to see how they handle it,” Dempsey said. “I want to see, ‘Are you a collaborator? Can you work with me?’.”
Bennett hates it when people talk during other people’s auditions (and leave the chewing gum at home). Nadon doesn’t like it when actors try to make themselves look better by making the people they’re reading with look worse.
“Trying to outshine the person they are reading with is never a good idea,” Nadon said. “Work with them, support them. Show me you’re someone who will try to raise them up to your level, not try to outshine them. You have to behave like a team player at every moment in the audition.”
And being a team player means accepting a role even if it isn’t the one originally wanted.
“A lot of people sell themselves short by auditioning for only one role and not accepting anything else,” Ballantyne said. “They’re isolating themselves and not giving themselves a chance to grow.”
And Nadon said, “The greatest thing I can teach my students is auditioning skills are more important than acting skills. If you’re not working, you’re not an actor. You may want to play Maggie in ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,’ but if you’re cast as Mae, that’s good too. Some actors think it’s more professional to turn down work if it’s not what they want to do. That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”