Last week I participated in a casting director workshop and had two very different experiences with actors and their material. One actor chose a scene from "The Hours." It was a terrific piece and a strong scene choice for her. Another actor brought in a "Grey’s Anatomy" scene in which his character’s name was something like Intern #1. He was new to me, and I could see real potential. But I had to dig it out of him. The scene didn’t support his talent. He’s a much better actor than that scene could ever have allowed him to be.
Sure, sometimes you do have to show us that you can do Intern #1, or Cop # 3. But wouldn’t it be best to find an interesting, dynamic, well-written scene, something with levels, no matter what?
Here’s the deal: If you’re going to spend the money on one of these workshops, if you’re going to work on the scene and hopefully prepare well, if you’re going to drive to Burbank or Santa Monica or wherever and sometimes wait up to two hours to get your five minutes in the room with a casting director, or go in for an agent/manager reading after waiting six months to get the appointment, why not pick a scene that’s amazing?
Here are 10 things to consider when looking for and preparing your material.
1. Find material that suits you. Scenes that speak to you. Character-driven pieces. Even hooker #2 is a real and interesting human being.
2. Choose well-written material. End of story. It elevates your work instantly.
3. Know your audience. Know what they’re looking for and what they’re casting. Whether it’s a casting director, agent/manager, or even a class you might be auditioning for, know their sensibility, their history, and their inclinations.
4. Keep it short. Two or so great pages is great.
5. Do the research finding material. Spend the time. Find new scenes. The Internet gives us instant access, enabling us to find screenplays, plays, and TV show scripts. Ask friends and colleagues what sources they use. When you see a film, a show, or a play with a scene or character that speaks to you, make a note. Find it. Or transcribe it. Technology has given us incredible entrée. Use it! And in the search, look to all forms; don’t lock into one medium. Switch it up.
Some actors use Showfax: Shofax.com where you can subscribe to gain access to a number of sides. (Full breakdowns might not be available.)
Here are a few sources for sides:
6. Write your own scenes. Work them out with fellow actors. About a year ago I read a New York actress as part of a general meeting, and her scene was totally engaging. I was dying to know where it came from. She told me she’d written it. I encouraged her to turn it into a play. She did. It’s an exceptional play and being workshopped now.
7. Always have a few pieces that you know and love in your back pocket. Know them well. Make sure you have something dramatic, something lighter or comedic, something short, and something procedural. Make sure the material works for you in whatever genre. Nobody wants to see you do something that’s so far out of your wheelhouse that it’s uncomfortable. (Yes stretch in class a lot, but outside of class, or auditioning for a class, make sure you connect with it in an immediate way.) Work on your pieces, even if you don’t have an appointment or workshop. Keep them fresh. Continue adding new ones to your arsenal.
8. Make the scene/the character your own. Don’t try to do what Denzel Washington did, or Alison Pill does. Even if we have a reference point, if it’s yours, if you own it and make it personal, we’ll forget Phillip Seymour Hoffman or Nicole Kidman. That said, choose material that may be familiar but doesn’t invite comparison. I’d stay away from "Taxi Driver" or "The Hangover," unless it’s for class.
Make sure you’ve thoroughly prepared, that you know as much as you can about the scene and its context. Know the world of your piece. Have as much information about it as possible without replicating it.
9. If you’re picking a scene for a class, often find material that’s against your type. Steve Braun, my new Studio teaching partner, says this about choosing material for class: “Find material that is outside your comfort zone, that will even -perhaps deliberately - bring about failure. That's when you grow. For this you may need to look outside the box for sides. Ask an actor who’s opposite from you where she/he finds sides. And don't think that knocking it out of the park in class is your goal. Your goal is growth.”
10. Take the lead. Take your power. Don’t wait for someone to assign something. And if you don’t connect with the scene, ask to do something else. (I just ran into a singer/dancer who was on "The Voice" this season. And no, the judges did not turn their chairs around. He knew that would happen. He’d been assigned a song that he hated even though they though it would be right for him. He tried to change it, but they resisted. So he gave up, and walked on that stage singing something that wasn’t at all true to him. He went home.)
The time you have with a scene in one of those rooms is yours. Pick a phenomenal scene. Prepare fully and be ready. Do exceptional work in the room. Show yourself. Have a blast. It’ll blow them all away.
Risa Bramon Garcia has just started up a new Studio in L.A. with partner, Steve Braun, called The Bramon Garcia Braun Studio, dedicated to actors’ whole journey, connecting craft with career. Visit Risa’s website, active and inviting for actors and other artists alike is:Risabg.com.
For the past 30 years Risa has worked consistently as a director, producer, casting director, writer, and teacher, collaborating with some of the most groundbreaking artists in the world. Having directed two feature films ‐ the cult classic, "200 cigarettes," and most recently, "The Con Artist" in Canada - Risa’s also directed for television, including multiple episodes of "The Twilight Zone" for New Line/UPN, and shows for HBO, Lifetime, and Comedy Central. She’s directed dozens of plays in New York (The Ensemble Studio Theatre, Second Stage, Manhattan Theatre Club) and in Los Angeles. Risa’s casting résumé includes more than 65 feature films, classics such as "Something Wild," "At Close Range," "Angel Heart," "Fatal Attraction," "Wall Street," "Talk Radio," "Jacob’s Ladder," "Born on the Fourth of July," "JFK," "The Doors," "Sneakers," "The Joy Luck Club," "True Romance," "Speed," "How To Make An American Quilt," "Dead Presidents," "Twister," "Benny and Joon," and "Flirting With Disaster;" and numerous television shows, including "Roseanne," "CSI:NY," "The Cape," and most recently "A Gifted Man" for CBS and the pilot "Rewind" for Syfy. She’s about to start casting the Showtime series, "Masters of Sex." Risa served as a producer on Oliver Stone’s films "Heaven and Earth" and "Natural Born Killers," movies she also cast.