More From Merlin
"Rejection and insecurity are the only guarantees in this business," stated veteran performer André De Shields, speaking on the "Actors at Work" panel at Back Stage's Actorfest last Saturday.
The statement drew a big laugh from the audience, because everyone knows that Mr. De Shields is right on target. Rejection and emotional and financial insecurity are all part of the ups and downs of an actor's career. However, the actor can control just how much—or how little—he or she experiences.
How so? It's all in the performer's preparedness. And it's not only having a thorough knowledge of one's craft. It's also having a complete understanding of the business of the business—knowing how to sell oneself at an audition, and market oneself to agents and casting directors. The actor who is fully prepared in this sense is more likely to win callbacks and get cast.
Former casting director, now actor-teacher, Joanna Merlin, a guest speaker on the same panel as Mr. De Shields, stressed the need for an actor to be a good business person. She advised the panel's audience to keep a journal of everyone in the business whom they meet, are interviewed by, audition for, and perform for.
"This should include agents, casting directors, directors, producers, playwrights, composers, lyricists, and assistants of the above," Joanna added, in a follow-up telephone conversation earlier this week.
And as for staying in touch with all of the above, Joanna noted, "The best way to communicate is through the mail, not by telephone. If you call, you may get them in a very busy moment and you will be intrusive. Also, they may forget what you said. So, send letters and postcards—preferably with a photo, so they can instantly identify you."
Joanna also mentioned sending them notices of plays, films, or television shows that you're appearing in, or quotes from good reviews. "Don't send whole reviews that are not highlighted," she warns. "And don't notify them when you get an audition or callback. Limit yourself to actual jobs."
So many actors spend too much time, and too much money, mailing photos and resumes to every listed agent. The key word here is to target your mailings.
"Casting directors are not served by your picture and resume unless you are submitting yourself for a particular role in a show or film, or if you send them to a production office that is doing ongoing casting, such as for a television series, soap opera, or commercials." The veteran casting director offers a valuable tip for stage actors: "If you know of a role in a long-running show that you are right for, leave your picture and resume at the stage door for the stage manager, who will then give it to the casting director for a replacement file. Or, send it to the casting director with a note indicating which role you feel you might replace."
In last week's column ("Audition Advice from an Industry Vet: Joanna Merlin"—11/10/00), Joanna put together a number of the most frequently asked questions that are brought up in the audition workshops she gives, and shared her responses with Back Stage readers. Since we were limited in space and could not run all of the Q's and A's, we'll continue them here:
I'm slightly dyslexic and I find it hard to do cold readings when I'm only given a few minutes to prepare. Is there anything I can do about it?
JM: Casting directors will always try to accommodate you, if it's possible, by giving you the material ahead of time—even if it's only an hour ahead of time—if they don't have the material the day before. I think actors are embarrassed or afraid to ask. They don't want to be thought of as dyslexic. There are a lot of actors who have this problem. But acting is not about reading, it's about acting, so the reading is not the issue. Actors who have any kind of reading disabilities should tell their agents. The agents should know about it and try to get them the material in advance. Nothing to be ashamed about.
Poor readers make it impossible for me to do what I had intended to do; how can I deliver my audition no matter how the reader performs?
JM: Auditioning with a poor reader is the single most difficult element in auditioning. Acting is about interacting, and readers often read the material like they're reading the telephone book.
The casting director tries to get the best readers but that doesn't always happen—the person they want might not be available. Sometimes the casting directors will use a casting assistant, or sometimes they will read themselves—casting directors usually know how to read.
The best kind of reader will not lead you to their choices, but will give you enough of a response so you can respond in any way you choose. Frequently, readers will read very quickly. They will not even look at you, and it can be infuriating. It's one of the most challenging parts of any audition. You're lucky if you get a good reader. While you're rehearsing the material, imagine how the other character might speak and behave, then your responses will be true to the scene. If the reader doesn't give you what you need, try to listen to what they're saying, not how they're saying it. The director or casting director doesn't expect you to act with the reader unless you're reading with another actor. It takes practice to do this—to listen to what they're saying and not how they're saying it. It's not easy but it is the next best thing. Imagine it's Laurence Olivier who is giving you exactly what you want. But don't bring your audition down to the level of the reader if the reader is reading poorly. I advise the actors in my classes and workshops to be readers because it's so interesting to see the actors' auditions, and then see who are the ones who are called back.
When a casting director who's taping me for a camera audition says, "Don't act," what does that mean?
JM: This comes up quite often. What it means is don't show me your acting, or, in other words, you're being too theatrical. Acting in front of the camera requires a different balance between your inner life and its outer expression. The important thing to remember is that it doesn't mean surrendering your acting choices. It just means they have to be expressed differently. Most auditions for the camera are shot in medium close-up, which frame you from the top of your head to the middle of your chest. So your voice should not be as present—in vocal energy or articulation—as it is when you're on stage. And it gives you the luxury of speaking and behaving naturally—almost as though you were sitting across a small table from the reader. Anything more than that is usually too big. Of course, character and situation determine the various levels.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to an actor who is auditioning?
JM: Actors who are self-confident, who are committed to their acting choices, are much more likely to give compelling auditions. And I don't mean self-confidence in the sense that the actor is overconfident or arrogant in any way. You need to be confident in a deeper sense, trusting your instincts, your training, and your experience to bring a role to life.
I quote Camryn Manheim in my forthcoming book on auditioning. She says, "Self-acceptance begets acceptance from others, which begets even deeper, more genuine self-acceptance. It can be done, but no one is going to bestow it on you. It is a gift only you can give yourself."
As I noted here last week, more audition advice from Joanna Merlin can be found in her book, "Auditioning: An Actor-Friendly Guide," which will be published by Vintage Books. Harold Prince, for whom Joanna worked for many years as casting director, has written the foreword.
As a postscript to our conversation, Joanna adds this sage advice to actors:
"You need to be pro-active. You need to take care of the actor within you in a conscious way. Keep developing your skills through experience in classes, workshops, plays, etc. Read scripts aloud with friends. Practice film and television scripts in front of a TV camera. Don't sit around waiting for someone to make you an offer.
"Directors are always looking for new talent. The cream will rise to the top."