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In the Line of Fire

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In the Line of Fire
Among the lesser-known jobs in show business is that of the audition reader: an actor invited to attend casting sessions and read opposite those who are auditioning, so the casting person can focus on watching. Not all casting directors use readers. Many have assistants read the other roles, or they do it themselves. But if you've encountered the CDs that use readers, you've probably noticed the huge advantage of being able to audition opposite a real actor.

Readers enjoy a rare perspective. They spend the day observing auditions—something few of us get to do. This opportunity to sit on the other side of the table, watching actor after actor read for the same roles, offers insight into the process. So who are these people? And what has their experience taught them that the rest of us don't know?

The readers we spoke with all emphasized the highly educational nature of the job. Maurice Smith, a frequent reader for G. Charles Wright and other CDs, says the experience has largely demystified the process for him. "It's just like 'The Wizard of Oz,' " he says. "You get to be behind the big mask, with the little wizard guy that every actor thinks the big casting director is. It breaks down that mystery. You get to sit there and see it." Christopher Carlisle—who has been a reader for Paul Rudd, Arthur Siedelman, Wright, and Charles Rosen—says he finally saw casting people as regular folks. "You just lose your fear of the 'other' of casting, because you realize everyone's just people and everyone wants you to do a good job," says Carlisle.

"I really enjoyed being a reader," says Susan Grace, who has worked for McCorkle Casting and Stephanie Klapper Casting, among others. "I learned so much about how directors work, how that casting office worked, how producers worked, how they spoke about actors after they left the room. They were more respectful than I had anticipated. There's so much politics about it all. I learned so much about how actors sabotage and how they walk in the room. Everybody's nervous. But I learned so much about how people show their nerves. I saw myself in so many of those people and how my fear was so similar to theirs. Just watching people blow it is very educational."

"For any actor in any town, anywhere, the best thing they could ever do is to go watch an audition, sit in on the process, because in a day of auditions, you'll see a gamut of dos and don'ts," says director Michael Dotson, who's the audition reader for Sacramento Music Circus. "You learn by observing, as opposed to trying to experience it when you've got all the actor stuff going on."

And what are some of these dos and don'ts that our readers have gleaned from their observations?

Listen!

Above all, listen, says Smith: "You can tell when someone's listening or not listening. To me, that's the biggest deal. My quest—even in broad comedy—is to find a level of reality, and I think that comes from listening and reacting. We forget to do that when we act. If you don't listen, the words have a way of not coming out organically." And Dotson reminds us to keep listening, even after the scene is over. He says many actors are so anxious to please that they don't take in directions, adjustments, or even callback information: "They hear 'callback,' and then their ears shut down. They don't hear the details."

Speak Up...and Speak Up

Says Dotson, "If you don't know what the scene is about, you'd better ask. If you can read the script and know what the show's about, obviously, that's your best bet. But if you've just been given the sides, don't feel bad about asking." Speaking of speaking, Dotson adds, "In L.A., I see a lot of 'TV acting' when they come in for the stage stuff, meaning they're playing as if the camera is 6 inches from their face. Sometimes I can't even hear them, when I'm 6 feet away."

Be Prepared, Dress Appropriately

As Smith has noticed, "There are people who don't take the time to read the thing the night before. They think, 'I read a newspaper every day, so I can just read it.' You have to come prepared."

And as Dotson has observed, "People come in in flip-flops, torn jeans, hair in their faces. Or women in those clunky shoes—clunk, clunk, clunk to the piano. That's a pet peeve. There are also people who don't know what they're auditioning for."

Offers Carlisle, "Don't come in for the Mormon mother from Utah in a short skirt and a top that's open to the navel! Cold truth: If you don't look like the character, you're not booking the gig."

Make a Confident Entrance

Actors don't always realize what they're communicating when they walk through the door. "You want to be cool, calm, and collected when you come into the room," says Dotson. "Don't have 19 bags with you. If you have to, leave some of them outside."

Grace suggests, "Don't ask whether you can sit in the chair. Sit or don't. The people who are constantly, in their behavior, asking permission—you're asking them to take care of you, and you're not taking care of them." And, says Carlisle, "If you walk in the room in your own power and your own self-confidence and don't try to make people happy except yourself, then you get the respect. If you come in pleading and wanting, it's desperate."

Stay Where You Are!

There's also the matter of not encroaching on the CD's personal space yet remaining in the sweet spot of the room. Says Dotson, "Make sure that you're the focus. We've set up the room in a certain way: I'm over here to the side, and you're going to be center stage playing the scene to me. Don't come join me. They want to see you. I think that's one of the biggest things, and it always happens in the middle of it, when I wish I could tell people. You can take a step toward me if you want, but don't come all the way over here. Stay over there!"

It's also the mark of a newbie to try to physically connect with the CD. Says Carlisle, "I've noticed that the fewer credits someone had on their résumé, the more likely they were to touch the reader. Don't do it! I've been slapped, kissed, and tackled, and worked with one casting director who got a set of keys thrown at her head and wound up bleeding. No touching. It's a sure-fire way to not get asked back."

it's not about you

And after all is said and done, is there a pattern to who gets cast? Maybe less so than we think. Cohn, another experienced reader, says she was surprised by "the very nature of why it happens and when it happens." She observes, "Someone can just knock it out of the park and not get the job. And you don't understand how you could have ever been better. Well, you couldn't have! It's just that for whatever reason, this one wasn't for you." As a result, she has concluded, "I can't control it, so I should just go do my thing."

Carlisle illustrates with an example from a casting session for the role of a waitress. "Three actresses come in. One's really beautiful, one's really funny and talented, and one's just kind of average. And the beautiful one would pull too much focus, so she didn't get the job. The funny one would be too interesting, so she didn't get the job. The average, run-of-the-mill girl got the job. So sometimes you can lose a job because you're too attractive or too talented."

Our audition readers have learned that the casting process is, by its nature, mysterious, somewhat random, not always fair, and out of the actor's control. The best approach is to confidently present your take on the role, have a good time, and, in the words of Smith, "Just do your thing."

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