At a recent round of auditions, my producer, in good-nature, stopped an actor singing “If I Can’t Love Her” from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast."
“Why must every actor singing this song in auditions,” he began, “take a fucking wide stance when performing this song?” He then demonstrated the position we’d seen throughout our several days of open calls.
The producer’s inquiry was spurred because of a previous auditioning actor who had come in, presented the same song, and stood with a similar Grand Canyon straddling-like stance, oddly compounded by an Elephant Man contortion. This actor had done no different for us a month prior at an open call. There was nothing new to discover. He was a clone of himself. He was one of dozens of men recreating an interpretation of lesser performances of the role presented regionally in stock and schools.
When I was involved with the casting the original companies of "Beauty and the Beast," we never encountered this wide-stance contorted phenomena. Until actors witnessed other actors recreate the role. Then the carbon paper auditions came rolling out. Those duplicates became exaggerated facsimiles as the role was performed in second and third class productions. (That class delineation is not a snide swipe. In entertainment, a Broadway production is often classified as "first class" because it was first.) Now that I’m generations removed from my work on the original Broadway production and presently cast regional mountings of the tuner, I no longer encounter potential Belles, Gastons, Lumieres, LeFous or Beasts bringing in an artistry of their own that hasn’t been biased by witnessing another actor in the role. I now see actors imitating cartoonish presentations of inferior product. Nothing original. Just copies.
This phenomenon of cloned performances is not unique to musical theater. Whenever I cast "Othello," one of my first thoughts is, "How many men will come in sporting a hooped ear ring this time?" And, without fail, men parade into auditions, flaunting puffy white open button shirts and sporting their recent Piercing Pagoda purchases.
Why can’t some actors be original? Why do some take it upon themselves not to be actors but imitators?
Insecurity is the first culprit. The actor who "presents" is the actor who does not trust themselves for finding truth and invention within the art that lies within their muse.
Assumption is the second devious culprit. Actors too often assume an audience’s desire. Whether that audience includes casting personnel, a director or all those wonderful people out there in the dark…texting during a performance. Don’t assume your work must be a clone of someone else’s performance. You’re not being an actor. You’re being a copy clerk at Kinko’s.
I doubt that before recorded media became pervasive in modern life actors were as lackadaisical by taking the path of least resistance. Although I can imagine that more than a century ago there were the insecure, jealous actors who sought out the performances of Kean, Burbage, Booth, and Barrymore then later strutted on a stage an interpretation of what they recalled while fancying themselves resplendent replications. But were they being actors or thieves? If the latter, there is no penalizing sentence for the larceny committed except for the actor’s conscious (if they have one) gnawing constantly that the actor is no actor but a fraud.
Fear is the third and nastiest of provocateurs for actors poorly replicating the performances of others. Fear is that nagging voice in the head that, like a serpent, softly hisses, “If you don’t show them something they’ve seen before, they won’t like you.”
I nearly didn’t write "ACTING: Make It Your Business" because I often maintained to others that what I had to offer had already been published in ad nauseam. My friends would admonish me, rightly so, replying that my voice, insight, and guidance on the business had not yet been heard and that in itself was new. And they were right.
So next time you walk into an audition or rehearsal hall what are you going to offer? Your voice or a replication of actors that have come before you?
There is no art in copying. That’s why copies are called "prints" and art is termed "original." How original are your auditions? Are you masquerading in the performance of someone else? Or are you bringing your own fresh unique perspective to the work?
Paul Russell’s career as a casting director, director, acting teacher, and former actor has spanned nearly thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. Paul has taught the business of acting and audition technique at NYU and has spoken at universities including Yale, Temple, and the University of the Arts. He writes a column for Backstage and is the author of "ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor." For more information, please visit www.PaulRussell.net.