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The Craft

The ABCs of Auditioning

The ABCs of Auditioning
Auditions: Hate 'em; apparently can't have a career without 'em. They can put a man on the moon, but they can't figure out a more benign way to cast an actor, right?

If you're new to the process, books on the topic abound—2,347 books with the word "audition" in the title listed on at last count. And that's not to mention the many classes and workshops available in all major cities, plus audition coaches for hire.

Herewith are assorted hints culled from books I've read and from the various casting directors and coaches I've talked to over time, all helpfully alphabetized for your reading enjoyment. Most can apply to any type of job you're auditioning for. Carry on!

Addressing imaginary characters: Imagine or visualize someone you know doing something specific (not just a generic face floating aimlessly in space). This is where your sense-memory training kicks in. And don't address your lines to the auditors; they hate that (unless, of course, you're reading with one of them).

Be "the real you [that is, not a 'character'] reacting to a remarkable situation in a remarkable and unique way," writes Michael Shurtleff in "Audition."

Casting director showcases are a controversial topic. But if you're going to attend them, advises Ed Hooks in "The Audition Book: Winning Strategies for Breaking Into Theater, Film, and Television"—and he's certainly not recommending that you do—you'll get the most bang for your buck if you polish up your audition skills before attending.

Dress appropriately for the role, or in something you'd wear on a first date, but not a costume as such. And no distracting props or accessories.

Excuses for being unprepared, including "My agent didn't give me the sides," are self-sabotaging, warns Steppenwolf Theatre Company casting director Erica Daniels.

Familiarize yourself with Los Angeles coach Margie Haber's very detailed phrase technique, described in detail in her 1999 book "How to Get the Part…Without Falling Apart!." If you've ever found yourself fumbling nervously with sides and losing your place on the page, this method will fix you right up.

Getting nada from the person you're reading with, whether he or she is a scene partner or bored casting associate? Use it. Make that "nothing" stimulate you to fight for what you want, writes Shurtleff. (But be careful—see P below.)

Humor—don't leave home without it. "Bring all of yourself to each part, and add to it by using humor," says Los Angeles coach and author Deryn Warren.

If the casting director says, "More energy," make your objective stronger. Raise the stakes ever higher.

Just say no to these types of audition monologues: Passive memory pieces, accents, and whiny, negative pieces. Also, according to author Glenn Alterman, avoid "expositional monologues, stale (done to death) monologues, offensive material, poorly edited material from a play." Also eschew overly provocative or overly aggressive material. "If you choose two axe-murder monologues, I'll wonder what you're secretly trying to tell me," says one artistic director. Just say yes to brand-new plays. Remember: Choose material that's age- and type-appropriate for you and language that you can comfortably wrap your tongue around.

Keep it simple: Break the sides into beats, but not too many of them, advises TV director Rob Decina.

Lists of suggested songs to sing in a musical theater audition can be found in Darren R. Cohen's "The Complete Professional Audition."

Memorizing: Some authorities say you should, some say you shouldn't, but all agree that whether you do or don't, you should hold the script anyway (just don't bury your face in it). You don't want to give the impression that this is your final, finished performance, as good as it gets. Rather, you want them to think you're adaptable and directable and could really knock it out of the ball park if given the job.

Never let it show if you think you did poorly. Remain calm, cheerful, and unapologetic. It's all about being professional. One other thing: Tell yourself in advance that you don't need this job. Seeming desperate is a turnoff.

Okay, so you happen to like the product being advertised in the commercial you're auditioning for. Don't gush about it to the auditors—it'll come off as sucking up. On the other hand, don't dis the product either. So says W.L. Jenkins in "How to Audition for TV Commercials."

Play objectives, not emotional states. Be specific always.

Questions are okay; in fact they're a good thing (confident actors ask intelligent questions). Unless, as Decina says, you should have found answers for yourself during preparation, or unless you're asking questions that need not be answered for the audition.

Relationships: "If you have no idea what your relationship is to the other character, go for broke—she's your best friend, he's your worst enemy, she's the lover who spurned you. Make interesting choices that give you more, not less, to work with," writes Hooks in "The Audition Book."

Socializing in the waiting room: Don't. For a refreshing change, spend the time reading over the other character's lines, advises author, actor, and casting director Joanna Merlin.

Think you're wrong for the part? Go to the audition anyway, say the pundits. It's what the auditors think that counts. Case in point, as Ellie Kanner and Denny Martin Flinn write in "How Not to Audition: Avoiding the Common Mistakes Most Actors Make": "When Garry Marshall was casting the role of the Fonz for 'Happy Days,' they were looking for a 6-foot-tall, blond, attractive Italian guy. Henry Winkler, a short, Jewish, dark-haired actor, walked in and blew them all away. He made great choices with the character [see X, below] and won the role." The rest is history. And CD Daniels, writing on, says, "We always know what we're doing, so if you walk into a lobby and you're a blond-haired female and the only people in the lobby are African-American men, just assume you're in the right place."

"Use the space! Don't be a tree! Move about [in theatrical auditions]," writes Paul Russell in "Acting: Make It Your Business—How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor." But don't move just to move; standing still is fine if it's appropriate to character and story. The idea is to "place the character into an environment." Remember that "every character and audition will have different movement requirements."

Very nervous? That's normal. Auditors expect it. Give yourself permission to be just this side of a basket case. "Accepting your nerves removes the crippling part of your nerves and leaves the part of the nerves that actually is good and helpful," writes Ivana Chubbuck in "The Power of the Actor." It's like when you tell yourself not to cry or laugh, she explains; that's for sure when you won't be able to stop yourself from doing so. Reverse psychology!

Wondering in advance what the auditors want? Don't. It's a waste of your time, and it'll drive you crazy. Even they don't necessarily know what they want until they see it. If they knew what they wanted, writes Basil Hoffman in "Cold Reading and How to Be Good at It: An Authoritative Book Vital to the Career of Every Actor," they'd hire that actor. "There will be as many different concepts as there are people in the room," he says.

X-cellent choices are strong choices, and they're always better than no choices. "Someone will see you're a good actor who can make choices. It's matter of saying, 'I see what you're doing. But we're not going that way,' " observes TV director Mary Lou Belli. (See Z, below.)

"You can't do this alone in life or in art. You have to have another person. How do you get out of quicksand? The only way is if someone throws you a rope or stick and pulls you out. That's why I say you have to make it about [the other actor] and taking the journey together—whether in life or acting," says Haber.

Zero in on those choices. Commit fully, but be ready to make adjustments. However, when you're making those adjustments, don't throw out the baby with the bathwater; just add to, enhance, and tweak some of what you've already delivered. Learn how to do all this by taking improv classes.

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