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The Basics of Getting Seen for Theater, Film, and TV Projects

The Basics of Getting Seen for Theater, Film, and TV Projects
Unless you're a top-tier actor, auditioning is going to be a regular part of your life until you call it quits. Newcomers may have taken courses on auditioning in college. Or they may have learned by trial and error—picking up scraps of information from calls for semiprofessional or community theater. But professional auditions in New York, Los Angeles, and across the country are a whole different game.

Stage, film, and television each have slightly different audition procedures and protocols, and it's sometimes befuddling to try to sort everything out. To provide you with a few pointers, Back Stage enlisted casting directors and working actors to talk about the components of the three major casting-call categories.

Theater

For professional theater calls, a casting director may choose to bring you in for a "pre-read" or "pre-screen" audition. Veteran casting director Bernard Telsey (Broadway's "Spider-Man," "Catch Me If You Can") does this regularly, especially if the actor is someone whose work he may not be completely familiar with. If the actor seems like a good match for a role, he or she will then be brought in for a first audition with the show's creative team.

Up to 15 people may sit behind the table during the audition. For obvious reasons, auditions for musicals tend to involve more participants such as the composer and lyricist, choreographer, and music director. As you read from sides and present your prepared song—or 16 bars thereof—the director may or may not ask you to adjust your performance. You need to be able to adapt accordingly.

Generally, you will have two to four days to prepare songs and sides before your audition, says Telsey, adding: "Obviously, if it's a revival, you have access to the full script. If it's a new musical, you have access to the songs that you're being asked to sing—that's an Equity rule, that you have to be given the demo to the songs." Occasionally, he says, for especially secretive projects, you will only be given sides, not the whole script.

Sometimes at an audition you may be handed sides from a scene you have not prepared—something that happens in film and TV as well. The casting team may find that you seem to fit a different role better than the one you were called in for. In such cases, you should expect a few minutes to look over the material. Such a turn of events is a "beautiful exercise in making a choice," according to actor Khary Payton. "At the end of the day, that's the job—to make a clear and decisive choice."

The callback process for a big play or musical may be extensive. Bryan Fenkart, understudy for the leading role of Huey Calhoun in Broadway's "Memphis," says there may be as many as five callbacks for certain shows.

Being audible is of extreme importance in theater auditions, which often happen in relatively large rooms. Los Angeles casting director Amy Lieberman, who for many years was casting director for Center Theatre Group, finds that some inexperienced actors fail to project adequately during auditions for stage projects. "They're doing a TV audition, and I'm casting for a 700-seat theater. If I've never met you before, how do I know what you're capable of if all you're going to give me is a little TV audition?"

Lieberman says preparation for theater auditions tends to entail more work than for film and TV calls. You may have as much as five pages of sides to work on, she says. "If you're going to audition for a play that will keep you busy for three months, read it. Don't just prepare the sides."

No one wants to hear excuses if you're not adequately prepared, but actor Dan Domenech advises frankness if for some reason you fall short. Domenech—now playing the role of Drew on Broadway in "Rock of Ages"—recalls going to a New York audition for an early incarnation of "Sister Act." He was in Manhattan to do a show at the Fringe Festival, and all his audition materials were back in L.A. He thought about blowing off the call, but his agent strongly urged him to attend. Domenech had to borrow sheet music from another actor—and wound up singing a Lerner and Loewe ballad, even though he should have been singing a disco number. But, perhaps in part because of a "nothing to lose" fearlessness, Domenech got the role.

Actors who do not have representation can attend Equity Principal Auditions (EPAs), which are open to union members. Casting personnel may see nonunion performers if there is time, but they are not required to do so. In any case, union members take precedence at these calls. Once you get an agent, your chances may improve dramatically. Domenech, who landed representation after appearing in a touring version of "Rent," says his agent helped find him work in regional companies, so that there were career-building credits on his resumé. "The resumé does matter," he adds.

Film

Often, during a film audition, you will work solely with the casting director and camera operator. Your performance will be recorded and sent to the project's director and/or other members of the creative team.

But the process varies considerably, depending on the scope and content of a particular project. Says Payton, who has appeared in such features as "Latter Days" and the upcoming "Strange Frame: Love & Sax": "There are film auditions I've gone into where there is someone reading with you and someone working the camera. And there are other auditions where there are 10 people in the room."

Telsey, whose film casting credits include "Dan in Real Life" and "Rachel Getting Married," explains that when there's only a casting director on hand, he or she can spend time helping you adjust your performance, so that it can be edited to best advantage and sent along to the creative team. That's not always possible when other parties are present in the room.

Things normally move faster in film casting than they do in theater. After his stint in "Sister Act," Domenech worked on the "other side" of the casting table with choreographer Marguerite Derricks on film and TV projects. He was struck by the rapid pace involved. "They don't have weeks and weeks of rehearsal," he says. "They have a few days. So you go in and if you're not right, you go home and move on to the next one."

Despite the rush, L.A. casting director Kelli Lerner ("Strange Frame," "Slingshot") strives to give actors as much time as possible to prepare sides, which tend to be briefer than those for theater auditions. "I have never given people only a day's notice, unless it was a very tiny role," she says. "For larger roles, at least from my office, actors usually have the sides anywhere from three days to a week in advance. [But] we do have last-minute casting. For example, if somebody drops out, all of a sudden the schedule changes, in which case you [might] only have a day's notice. All the more reason for actors to be prepared, ready to go—to have their phones on, to be constantly checking their email. Because that's when those golden opportunities are around."

Actors who have attended college acting programs in which they trained primarily as stage performers may benefit from taking an auditions-for-the-camera workshop. Rutgers-trained Fenkart (who has appeared in the features "You Tell Me" and "Red Hook") attended such a class at One on One in NYC. "It's important to know where you're being framed and how close the camera is getting on you, because so much is internal," he says.

Lerner has witnessed inexperienced actors moving about aimlessly during film auditions. She advises them—unless they have been instructed by a director to make a specific movement—either to sit or to stand, and to concentrate on connecting with the person with whom they are reading.

It may be more difficult for an unrepresented actor to be seen for a film role than for a theatrical production. There is nothing in film that is the equivalent of theater's EPAs. Closest, perhaps, are the sorts of open calls for musical-film projects like the ones Domenech worked on with Derricks. There are also occasional nationwide searches to fill certain key roles—particularly juvenile roles. Telsey assisted on such a search for Peter Hedges' upcoming "The Odd Life of Timothy Green." But these are exceptions to the rule.

You can, however, submit yourself directly for film roles via Back Stage or Actors Access, a component of Breakdown Services by which casting directors choose to make an audition notice available to performers as well as to agents. Typically, these notices are for nonunion projects or if a studio film is having difficulty finding someone for a very specific, tricky-to-cast role.

Television

Not all TV auditions are created equal. Casting calls for dramas and single-camera comedies like "The Office" require skills considerably different from those for traditional multicamera sitcoms like "The Big Bang Theory." And the stakes for a major role on a pilot are not the same as the stakes for a small guest spot on an established show.

Carol Goldwasser has been a casting director for theater, film, and various sorts of television properties on both coasts, but in recent seasons she has been entrenched in multicamera comedies for Disney and Nickelodeon—series featuring largely juvenile casts, including "I'm With the Band" and the megahit "Hannah Montana."

Such shows are "really about as similar to theater as one can get, in terms of the audition process," Goldwasser says. "The performances are kind of big and sharp and tend a little bit more toward the theatrical. With film or even with single-camera comedy, a lot depends on the visual, whereas in theater and sitcoms, so much is in the language."

Actors who have watched "Hannah Montana" should have a keen sense of the kind of playing style involved. But if you're auditioning for a pilot, the style of the series may be hard to grasp. The tone of the show may even be evolving while the pilot is being prepared.

Goldwasser points out that—in a marked difference from feature films—directors tend not to be involved in the casting process for episodic television. They are largely "hired hands," contracted to direct certain episodes. In television, the writers more than the directors are involved intimately with the shape and sensibility of a series.

If you get into the audition room, don't expect rapt attention. Fenkart remembers his callback for an episode of "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" (he subsequently booked the job). The director of the episode was in attendance at that call, and so were a number of producers who, he says, had apparently grown weary of the casting routine on the long-running franchise: They were on their cell phones texting while Fenkart read for the part.

At the pilot level, Goldwasser explains, some networks conduct taped tests for drama but do live tests for comedy—particularly children's comedy. There may be consensus in the room among producers and directors that a certain actor is right for a role. But then network executives will need to sign off on the choice, complicating the decision.

Perhaps even more than with feature films, speed is of the essence during TV casting. Goldwasser says that sides are often not posted until the day before an audition. Filming follows fast on the heels of the casting decision. Theater actors who depend on weeks of preparation to perfect a role may be frustrated by such a hurried pace. Then again, the agony of waiting to hear about callbacks and final casting is blessedly short-lived. "If you go a few days without hearing," says Fenkart, "it's probably not going to go any further."

As with film, getting into the TV audition room is a difficult prospect for an actor without an agent or manager. But if you feel you are right for a specific role, there's always the tack of writing directly to the casting director and making your case. Of course, this is a long-shot approach. Not all casting directors pore over every piece of mail they receive. But Telsey, who is casting the new network shows "A Gifted Man" and "Smash," is one who is open to the approach—that is, if the letter makes a good case that you're right for a specific project and/or role.

"It makes you stop and think and look at the résumé and the headshot and see if there's anything specific that might be right," he says. "It's like anything: The person that writes a good letter, it makes you take notice."

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