Audition Advice From an Industry Vet: Joanna Merlin
Some people know Joanna Merlin as an actor. Others know her as a casting director, while still others think of her as a teacher. Joanna Merlin has played all three roles—and still plays the roles of actor and teacher. How exactly did she make the transition from one career to another?
"What I found is that one thing feeds the other," Joanna explained to me on the phone earlier this week. "My acting career helped me coach actors who came in to audition. The casting and acting helped me learn how to teach." And she started to teach when she first became a casting director "because I felt that there were a lot of good actors who were not giving good auditions. I tried to figure out why this was happening and what I could do to help."
Joanna began her career as an actor when she was still quite young—11 years old—in a community theatre production. Her long list of credits, accumulated over the years, includes six Broadway shows (among them "Becket," playing opposite Sir Laurence Olivier, and "Fiddler on the Roof," creating the role of Tzeitel), and many Off-Broadway and regional theatre appearances, as well as numerous film and television roles.
But it was back in 1970, after she left the cast of "Fiddler" to stay home and raise her two small children, that she got a call from Harold Prince, who produced "Fiddler," asking Joanna if she would be interested in becoming his casting director. He was looking for a replacement for Shirley Rich, had interviewed a number of people, but felt that most of them "just didn't like actors," states Joanna. "He felt that since I was an actor and a mother, that I might be a good choice. He understood that I was raising children, and told me that he didn't care what hours I put in, just as long as I got the work done… it was an offer I couldn't refuse."
And that was the beginning of Joanna's longtime association with Harold Prince. She cast the original Broadway productions of Stephen Sondheim's "Company," "Follies," "A Little Night Music," "Pacific Overtures," "Sweeney Todd," "Merrily We Roll Along," and "Into the Woods" (for which she won the Casting Society of America's Artios Award). She also did the casting for Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Evita," and Comden and Green's "On the Twentieth Century." Independently, she cast a number of films, among them Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor" (another Artios Award), Michael Cimino's "Year of the Dragon," and her last projects as casting director were for Merchant/Ivory's "Mr. and Mrs. Bridge," and the American casts for "Jefferson in Paris" and "Surviving Picasso."
Joanna gave up her role as casting director five years ago in order to put more of her energy into her acting and teaching careers. She is currently a faculty member in the Graduate Acting Department at NYU where she teaches a career class. She also conducts audition workshops at a number of schools, theatres, and universities across the country. "University theatre departments are now realizing the importance of preparing their actors for the profession—that has not always been the case." In addition, Joanna teaches technique classes (Michael Chekhov) at the Actors Center here in New York.
I asked Joanna to put together a number of the most frequently asked questions that are brought up in the audition workshops that she gives, and to share her responses with Back Stage readers. Here they are:
When I'm rehearsing or performing, I'm in control. At auditions, I'm frequently so nervous that I can't do what I've prepared. Is there anything I can do about my nerves?
Joanna Merlin: The first thing to do to counteract your nerves is to give yourself the time and conditions to prepare. That preparation will ground you. There are a lot of actors who don't prepare enough for auditions. They're afraid to make choices, because they think they're going to be different from what the director has in mind. However, the best thing to do is to make strong choices and commit yourself to them.
The second thing to remember is that it's your choice to be present at this audition, because you want to act. "They" didn't force you to come; it's something you want to do.
The third thing is that the auditors are rooting for you! They want to cast this show and they hope that you'll be the one to get cast. They are there to hire you and not to reject you
The fourth thing is to keep breathing when you walk into the room. You can almost see actors breathing from the neck up, or not breathing at all. It's tension, and it's so important to remind yourself to keep the body open by continuing to breathe when you enter the room, and then to continue to try to keep opening the body so the tension does not prevent you from keeping control.
Sometimes I'm kept waiting in the reception room for a long time. By the time I walk into the auditioning space, I'm annoyed and sometimes very angry, and I bring that anger into my audition, in spite of my effort to control myself. What can I do about it?
JM: Sometimes you have to wait a very long time, you lose energy, get very tired, and become angry. I think actors need to know that sometimes it's no one's fault that they have to wait a long time. Sometimes the casting director wants the director to see as many actors as possible. He or she has purposely overbooked because actors may drop out and there are time lapses. The actor needs to understand that if the casting director didn't overbook, they might not have been called in to begin with.
What frequently happens, too, especially in television, is that the casting director hasn't worked with the director before, may not know the pace the director works at, and, therefore, has scheduled too closely. Also, you can't predict when the director will want to take more time to work with someone—give them adjustments and so on. But that actor can be you. I think it's important to try to be patient, don't work yourself into a frenzy and risk ruining your audition with the anger you bring in.
If you feel that these feelings that you have are really sabotaging your audition, I think the thing to do is reschedule—if that's possible. And if it's not possible, you just have to do your best to diffuse the anger. But I think it's important to understand from the other point of view why you might be waiting.
Sometimes I enter the auditioning space and the atmosphere feels hostile. I'm often thrown by auditors not being friendly, and it affects my audition.
JM: It's important for actors to know that what they may be doing is projecting. The auditors usually try to establish a neutral atmosphere. Actors think they would like the atmosphere to be warm and friendly but, in fact, that may not be the best atmosphere to work in. If you relax too much, it makes it difficult to focus on your audition. You lose your "performing consciousness." Of course, when you're auditioning for a sitcom, it's a different thing, because the auditors may try to establish a warm, funny, cheerful atmosphere. They might like to see you converse with them in that environment because so much is about your own personality in a sitcom. But that's quite different than auditioning for other material.
In any event, I think you need to create your own auditioning space no matter what the atmosphere, so whatever happens or doesn't happen before the audition, you protect your work. It's very important for actors to take a few moments to prepare before starting the scene, so they can create their own space.
If I've made a poor start, can I ask to start over?
JM: Yes, if you're close to the beginning of the scene and not in the middle. It's not a good idea to make a practice of it. All casting directors want to help you give your best audition, but they have schedules to meet and can't always do that. So the important thing is, know in advance exactly how you want to start; know how to tap into what will get you into the scene so you're not starting from zero.
If I haven't seen a full script, can I ask questions relating to my scene when I'm at the audition?
JM: Yes, but at your own risk. If you've decided what you're going to do with the scene in advance, and then go into the audition and ask a question, the auditors may give you an answer that changes everything that you've worked on, and you are obligated to make that adjustment. If you really need some answers, try to find out what you need to know before the audition—either through your agent, or by asking a casting assistant, or the casting director, well before the audition, if that's possible.
What happens if my interpretation is a totally different interpretation from what the director had in mind?
JM: The actor never knows what the director is looking for. You can't second-guess the director. And oftentimes, the director is not sure what he or she is looking for. However, if the actor seems interesting and is doing something that's totally different (and the actor is only going to seem interesting if he's made strong choices), then the director will stop him and ask him to do it another way. But if the actor goes in doing the so-called "straight reading," the straight intelligent reading, he is not going to reveal himself as an actor. The director feels he can collaborate with the actor who makes strong choices. There's much more desire to work with that person than someone who comes in and waits for the director to give him an adjustment.
Joanna's voice of experience will return here next week with answers to additional frequently asked questions.
Aside from actor, casting director, and teacher, Joanna Merlin has taken on a brand new role: that of author. Her book, "Auditioning: An Actor-Friendly Guide" will be available in June 2001, published by Vintage Books. (It has a foreword by Harold Prince.)
In her book, Joanna has put together advice she has shared at the many audition workshops she presents, drawn, of course, from her own experience in the various roles she has played throughout her career. The questions and answers presented here are just a sampling of what can be expected.
Joanna will be a guest speaker at the "Actors at Work: Getting and Doing the Job" panel at Actorfest, this Saturday, Nov. 11 at 12 noon. Try to catch her—in person. There's probably a lot more audition advice on the way.