How to Audition

Photo Source: Caitlin Watkins

From material to preparation to what to wear, this guide will tell you everything actors need to know about auditioning. 

For all of the actors unsure about how they feel about the audition process, we have news for you: Auditioning is the necessary beast on which the beginning of your acting career depends. So instead of seeing auditions as an emotional job interview, shift your perspective to see them for what they really are: a chance to bring yourself to a new character, to do what you love in front of an attentive audience, and to possibly even make some fans.

Whether it’s breaking into the business or landing a spot at a reputable acting school, like it or not, this strange gathering of folks in a room where one must lay bare their soul is here to stay. So now’s the time to gain new insights and brush up on the knowledge you already have! 

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How do I get an audition?

The best way for actors to find auditions is through Backstage, of course. 

If you’re just starting out and don’t even know where to begin to look for gigs to apply to, we have some good news: you already have the right idea by coming here! (Yes, we’re aware of the implicit bias here, but we haven’t been around for nearly six decades for nothing.) Not only do we offer acting advice from industry experts and established actors, we also have a reputable casting platform that highlights myriad jobs from coast to coast and everywhere in between, as well as in the United Kingdom, Europe, Canada, and Australia. 

Our search engine is customizable to fit your specific needs by narrowing roles based on gender, age, union or nonunion status, paid or unpaid time, theater, film, or television, and makes submitting to gigs simple with a Backstage profile that features your résumé and headshot. Until you have enough experience and mustered enough skills to land an agent to hunt auditions down on your behalf, you are responsible for remaining vigilant about submitting yourself to the right projects. It boils down to understanding which projects you’d be right for and why.

Actors should see themselves as a small business, so “think about what look you are selling,” advises acting coach and Backstage Expert Matt Newton. One of his tips for figuring this out? “Write down three shows you could see yourself on. Series regular, guest star, co-star, whatever…. Watch [these shows], learn from them, observe what kind of actors they are casting. Take notes. Look up the casting director and the actors. If you are right for that show, and are trained, and they cast your type over and over, then by all means sign up for a casting director workshop to meet them in person. If you are over 50 and play ‘extraterrestrial’ roles all the time, probably don’t sign up for a soap opera casting workshop. Again, it’s all about being smart and knowing yourself.”

Aside from using Backstage’s casting services, reaching out directly via email or snail mail to local agencies, casting directors, artistic directors, and managers who are hiring for the types of roles you want to play or working with the kind of actor you want to be, is a good way to get yourself out there. Who knows, maybe you have just the right look for the role they’re currently casting and you’ll be called in!

Attending acting classes is also helpful, not only to improve your performance once in the audition room, but to keep you connected with other actors who know the ins and outs of upcoming auditions. 

Additionally, consider buying tickets to theater shows in your town. It can plug you into your local acting community while exposing you to new playwrights, actors, and directors.

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What do I need to audition?

For auditions, you need to arrive a few minutes early, and with a reel, headshot, and résumé in hand.

  • Reel: Your demo reel will frequently be what gets you in the door. A résumé is great, but if the casting director isn’t familiar with you, for all they know, your credits could be made up.
  • Headshot and résumé: Always, always bring them to an audition. What’s more, make sure they’re stapled together. Don’t squander your chances for a callback because the casting director wasn’t able to determine your experience level after your résumé got separated from your headshot. (And if you don’t know what your headshot should look like, dig into our guide to headshots for tips!)
  • Preparation: Walking into an audition without having your sides at least mostly memorized for a television series, or a monologue and audition song completely memorized for a musical or theatrical production, is a waste of everyone’s time. Show yourself some respect and build a reputation for being a prepared actor. If you’re not right for this role but manage to make an impression on a casting director because you put in the work, they might bring you in for something else you’d be perfect for! (Pro tip: For musical auditions, says Backstage Expert Andrew Byrne, make sure your binder with your sheet music is well-organized, its pages are double sided, and your musical cuts are properly labeled.)
  • Clear acting choices: “Know what you want to do and do it,” says casting director Risa Bramon García. “Then leave yourself available to make discoveries. Know that your homework is done. Now let your preparation meet the moments.” Having a deep understanding of the material and the world in which it’s set will lead you to well-informed choices for how to play the character.
  • Flexibility: Casting directors and directors will often provide auditioners with notes and adjustments on their performance. Learn how to listen and incorporate them into your interpretation. Don’t be too rigidly locked into how you practiced the material with your roommate or bathroom mirror; it shows you’re not willing to step out of your comfort zone and play. 

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What can I expect at an audition?

Expect to be treated like a professional at every audition you walk into, and expect to act like one.

Rookie mistakes include shaking hands with the casting director and not putting your phone on silent, according to casting director Rachel Williams. Additionally, not coming in prepared shows lack of seriousness on your part.

If you're auditioning for...

  • TV shows or commercials: know your sides
  • Theater: know your monologue
  • Films: know your script.

Walk in with confidence, greet the people in the room (which may include casting directors, directors, producers, network executives, artistic directors, potential co-stars, and/or a reader, depending on the project, the budget, and the studio, network, agency, or production company), do the introduction exactly as was asked of you, and bring it.

Confused about who's who and who does what? Here's your complete guide to Everyone You Need to Know in the Audition Process.

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How should I prepare for an audition?

To prepare for an audition, do your research on the project, who’s casting it, who’s creating it, the studio/network/theater behind it, and who else has been cast. Read the script, make a choice, and bring it!

While the specifics of what’s required for theater auditions versus TV and film will vary, at the core of each is the goal of developing a clear interpretation of a character. Below are some relatively specific tips you might want to know when it comes to audition prep.

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What should I wear to an audition?

For auditions, wear something that makes you feel confident, that won’t be distracting on tape, and that makes you look put-together, not disheveled. Also try somewhat to emulate the role you're going in for.

“I think actors should consider the part that they are auditioning for and then wear something that fits the part,” says Expert Marc Cartwright. “I’m not saying get into costume, but if you are going out for a corporate lawyer, for example, don’t come to the audition in a T-shirt and jeans. Take out as much guess work for the casting director as possible.”

The right outfit shows you put thought into your presentation, so make sure you’ve genuinely thought all of your choices through. Limping into the audition room to play a model—after walking 20 New York City blocks in stilettos because the N train’s down and your rent check hasn’t cleared—is never a good look. Neither is soaking through a wool sweater in 100-degree weather to audition for the role of “Nerdy Accountant.”

“If it’s on camera, try to wear solid colors (no sparkles or logos),” says Cathryn Hartt, Backstage Expert. “Try to stay away from bright white and tiny stripes (which have a psychedelic effect when you move). For drama, wear darker colors or earth tones. For comedy, wear brighter colors. For commercials, look and see what people in your category are wearing in commercials and keep that in your wardrobe.”

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How should I memorize my lines for an audition?

The best way to memorize lines for an audition is to run through the script with a friend; a fellow actor is even better! Ask them to try different approaches and see if you’re nimble enough to respond accordingly, and change what you’ve been doing.

There is no one or right way to memorize lines, but there are a few other methods that will make the process a bit easier.

Some actors like to handwrite lines while others prefer resources such as WeRehearse.com, a platform that allows actors to virtually rehearse their lines with other actors, and apps such as tableread or Rehearsal 2, which allow you to record the other parts in the script with enough space to recite your own lines.

“The secret for me is to whisper my lines and read the other character’s lines out loud when I’m recording, so I don’t get too caught up in the way I’m saying my lines, but I know how much time I have to say them,” says Expert Matt Newton about using Rehearsal 2. “I will literally put my iPad on a chair and pretend I’m running lines with someone. It’s so much better than a tape recorder.”

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How do I calm my nerves before an acting audition?

The best way to calm your nerves before an audition is to build confidence around your preparation process. Knowing your lines backwards and forwards will do wonders for quelling whatever doubts you have in your head.

Another great way to calm audition nerves is to focus on your breathing. “Take centered, focused breaths that actually calm you,” says acting coach and Backstage Expert Craig Wallace, “A good breath to try if you are feeling a little edgy is a ‘heart breath.’ Sitting still, breathe deeply and slowly into your solar plexus or heart center, and then, just as slowly, let it out. Do this a few times, really letting the breath fill the entire area of the heart. When you surround the heart with your warm, expansive breath, it feels protected, and you begin to feel safer in your body. When it’s time for the audition, you’ll feel more secure, centered, and strong in your body, mind, and heart.”

Visualizing your audition from start to finish, as well as creating an audition playlist, are also great ways to ease tensions and get your head in the game. But ultimately,  remember: what’s the worst that could happen? You don’t get cast? So what? There’s no use trying to fit into a box you don’t belong in—so on to the next!

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How do I self-tape an audition?

For self-tape auditions, you must have good lighting, a neutral background, the proper framing (not too wide, not too close), no distracting objects in the room (i.e. plants, pets, posters), and most importantly, good sound. You likely won’t get hired if they can’t hear you.

Oftentimes, creatives are unavailable to attend every audition. Or auditions are being held nationwide and you’re submitting from Missouri to a casting director in L.A. Or the CD wants to get a feel for the network response before bringing you for an in-person. Sending a self-tape is one way to ensure you are in the running to get seen for the role—despite your lack of physical presence.

Invest in a tripod. The shakes are unpleasant, says Backstage Expert Jessica R. Grosman. She also suggests talking to your reader beforehand to make sure they’re not too loud during the taping. It can be shot on your iPhone or your laptop, but be sure you’ve ticked all these boxes. (Pro tip: Place your reader right next to the camera. This will give you a direct eyeline without having to stare straight down the barrel.)

Be sure to follow all directions from casting, including content requests (monologue, dance, or song) file naming, introduction, and media format.

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How do I handle a bad reader in auditions?

To handle a bad reader in auditions, the actor must be self-sufficient. You can also try to incorporate it into your performance. Either way, the show must go on. 

There will come a time when the person hired to be in the audition scene with you isn’t all you dreamed they’d be. They might sound flat, or may mumble and stumble through their text while you’re giving it your all. However, it should never be enough to throw you off your game.

“Like all acting technique, you need to learn to be self-sufficient in the audition, and overcoming issues with a reader is one of the most useful skills you can attain,” says acting coach and Expert Paul Barry. “Imagine instead, treating your reader in a casting as the actual character opposite you, regardless of how they perform as an actor. Let’s say you’re auditioning for the role of their lover in a film. The reader is mumbling? Imagine your lover, for whom you hold great affection, is mumbling. The reader stammers and accidentally skips a line, which throws the scene into confusion. Imagine your lover can’t express himself or herself as eloquently as you’d hoped, but you are flattered that they’re trying…. You can turn anything you receive into anything you want. So do it.” 

How do I get the casting director's attention?

To get a casting director's attention in the audition room, be professional, come prepared, and deliver your best performance—and then don't take it personally if they still aren't entirely focused.

Yes, it can be disheartening to put a lot of work into a piece that isn’t being received with rapt, undivided attention. But no, the casting director does not have a vendetta against you.

“Remember, these people are under a lot of pressure,” Secret Agent Man reminds Backstage readers. “They have to get the job done while fielding calls from their producers, the director, the studio, the network, and guys like me who are trying to get their clients in the room. So if the casting director is eating lunch during your audition, it means he’s hungry. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t like you. That’s why it’s a mistake to read into every little moment that occurs before, during, and after your audition. That road leads to madness. And nine out of 10 times, you’ll be totally wrong.

Additionally, a casting director’s response to your audition should never be allowed to define you as an actor. “Success is not defined by others, but only by what YOU define it to be,” reminds casting director Robert B. Martin Jr. “You will always be the defining factor in your successes.”

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What should I do after an audition?

After an audition you should send a thank you note, take note of what went well—and what didn't—and then, most importantly, you should let it go. 

  • Send a thank you note: Whether handwritten or sent via email, most casting directors enjoy nice notes from actors they work with. As always, read the room and see if it’s an appropriate gesture once you leave. “But do not send a thank you with an ‘ask’ (unless absolutely necessary),” advises casting director and Backstage Expert Brette Goldsstein. “The downside to email thank you notes is that I am more and more often asked for something...and often with a deadline. Yep, a deadline. Don’t be that guy. Go ahead, send a link to your reel or most recent short film, commercial, clips, etc., but please try to avoid asking for feedback, a quote for your website, a recommendation for representation, etc.” (Pro tip: Always see if it’s possible to get feedback, but never assume it’s owed to you.)
  • Keep an audition journal: You should keep detailed notes about every audition you attend, from where it was and what you wore, to the role you read for, who was there (this can come in handy if you ever audition for them again), and the headshot you used. Write down what you did well and what you think you can improve on. 
  • Let. It. Go: Once you’ve stepped out of the room, don’t dwell too much on what happened in there. As important as it is to learn from your mistakes, you gain little from hashing and rehashing whether or not you’ll get a call back. Plus, lingering on what you could’ve done differently is the fast road to crazy town and giving up on your dreams.

And hey, if you need a little pep talk from your biggest champions after an audition, seek it out. “As tough as this town can be, everyone has friends who believe in them,” reminds acting coach and Expert Joseph Pearlman. “Sometimes the best way to smooth out the rough feelings and rawness post-audition is to meet up for drinks or dinner with your friends who are also your fans. Here’s the trick: Don’t talk about the audition; don’t even talk about show business. Make the one stipulation of this hangout that no one can discuss anything industry-related... When you force yourself out of these habits and you push each other to connect over the other aspects of your lives—yoga, her idiot boyfriend, your telepathic iguana, the new exhibit at MOCA (or MoMA), the new coffee joint with the hot cashiers—you’ll find yourself reacquainting with your lives outside of show business.”

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How do I audition for film?

To audition for film, practice your script analysis, read the whole script, keep a monologue in your back pocket, and know who's in the room. 

Different acting schools practice different methods but most hold the same respect for the writer’s thoughts, the script’s punctuation, and honoring her or his intention.

“At the Atlantic, we teach practical aesthetics, a technique that asks actors to break down a scene simply and specifically, in four steps,” explains Jacquelyn Landgraf, of New York’s Atlantic Acting School: “One, what is the character literally doing? Two, what does the character want the other characters in the scene to do? Three, what is my action? Four, what is that action like to me?”

  • Read the whole script: If you don’t know the whole story, how else can you layer subtext and specificity into your work?
  • Keep a monologue in your back pocket: Some film directors might also ask you to perform a monologue. Make sure it’s one that showcases the skills you possess to bring to life the character they’re casting. Avoid doing a well-known monologue delivered by a famous actor. All delivering a monologue from “Good Will Hunting,” “Requiem for a Dream,” or “Doubt,” will do is force the casting team to compare you to Robin Williams, Ellen Burstyn, or Viola Davis (and spoiler: you don't want to do that). 
  • Know who’s in the room: Sometimes it’s just the casting director as they’re the first hurdle in the race to the big screen. Other times, the director will be present, too, possibly even a producer. Make it your business to know as much about them as you can find out. Later down the line expect to read with your potential co-stars for what’s called the “chemistry read,” and for studio executives.

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How do I audition for television?

To prepare for television auditions, you need to prep as much as possible because TV moves very fast. Where film projects can search for their stars for months, TV casting directors have much less time to fill their roster, which makes your first impressions all the more important.

Here are the basics of what you should know going into a series audition:

  • Always be sure you have all the information: If you just get sides, ask if you can have the script. If you have access to the director, ask them what they’re looking for. What’s the tone? Is it a comedy or a drama? How will it be filmed? Where does it take place? What happened in the scene just before the one you’re performing? Once you get as many of those questions (and more!) answered, read the script repeatedly until your analysis yields even further questions.
  • Know who's behind the scenes on the series: The casting director will usually be your first interaction. As you progress in the audition process, you will eventually get in front of the network heads for final consideration—especially if you’re being considered for the show’s leading role or a supporting one. Sometimes producers, showrunners, and creators will also be in the room.
  • Channel your inner Sherlock Holmes: “One of the rites of passage in this business is experiencing the thrill and panic of receiving a script in the afternoon for an audition the next day,” says acting coach and Backstage Expert Denise Simon about a common occurrence during pilot season. “It is even worse when very little has been revealed about the project and the casting director sends just a few pages of sides. When this happens to you, don't panic; instead, become a super sleuth. Have a parent or friend work with you to look into your lines for clues on making the most interesting choices possible.” Some of Simon’s “sleuth” tips include describing the characters using verbs; examining the characters as much for what they do as what they say; and avoiding obvious acting choices.
    Be ready to commit: Going out for a TV series has the potential to keep its players in for the long haul. If your pilot, for example, gets a series order and finds success, it could run for years. “Grey’s Anatomy,” for example, is currently airing its 15th season! So be sure to have a good grasp on what you are signing up for before you jump at a pilot opportunity.

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How do I audition for theater?

For theater auditions, you need to have at least two monologues ready to go, as well as at least two songs (usually a ballad and an up-tempo).

Let's go deeper: 

  • Master at least two monologues: Whether you’re going out for straight plays or musical theater productions, when compared with other mediums, artistic directors and casting directors may rely more heavily on an actor’s monologue and/or audition song to make their casting decisions. Although many often have actors audition with material from the production, it’s helpful to have additional material in your back pocket that can prove you’d be great for the part. Auditions for acting B.A. or MFA programs often require a monologue or two, depending on the school you’re applying for, and are typically broken up into comedic, dramatic, classical (i.e. Shakespeare, Sophocles, Moliere, etc.), and contemporary, as well as a comedic and dramatic. For help finding a monologue, check out the Monologuer
  • For musical auditions, mind your book: For musical theater (opposed to plays), the organization of your book is one of the most important factors. You don't want to be fumbling in the room and you certainly don't want to make it difficult for the pianist to play your selection. Have a variation of go-to songs that you know show off your instrument, across all genres. If you're going in for a revival, for example, you need to have some classic staples. But if you're going in for a new or contemporary musical, you should have some pop-veering selections to fall back on.
  • Be professional when it comes to your audition materials: Remember to bring in whatever materials were provided (sides, for example) and asked of you, such as headshot and résumé. For musical theater auditions, especially, be sure to have your audition song, sheet music, dance routine, and monologue ready and organized. To be a true professional, achieving the triple threat status is your greatest asset.
  • As always, be prepared: Do your research on the part you’re auditioning for, as well as the monologue you’re auditioning with. Be sure to pick a piece that relates to the character you want to play as well as one from which you understand the dramaturgical context. Memorize your lines and come in with a strong choice.

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How do I audition for commercials?

To audition for commercials, you should be high-energy, and focus more closely on your personality and "look," compared to your acting chops alone. 

Commercial auditioning is a specific sort of beast. Brands want to believe their consumers and audiences will find you likable, approachable, and a trustworthy advocate for their product. “You need to have lots of energy for commercials,” says Backstage Expert Cathryn Hartt. “Always be positive. Even if you are doing a serious pitch, it should be inspiring, not depressing and down. Lack of energy and positive light in a commercial translates to boring or not liking the product.”

Good commercial acting also requires comedic timing to deliver the script’s punchlines or the product’s name in a compelling way.

“Commercial timing is actually basic comedic timing: make a face...then talk,” continues Hartt. “Be quiet when you are making the face so that it is actually a clean beat. Then say the next phrase. Not only does this put the right clean timing in, but it is easier to remember your next line when only saying one phrase at a time. When you actually do this technique, it doesn’t look like you are taking those beats. It just puts a little pop in your performance that makes us love you. (Sometimes you can put that beat in it by just slightly shifting the angle of your face.)”

Commercials have as much to do with your presentation, comedic timing, and “type” as they do mastery of the more technical aspects of the audition, including slating, hitting your marks, and engaging with the camera. Slating requires you to introduce yourself to the camera and is the first thing casting directors will see of you when reviewing casting tapes. It’s important to make a good first impression because first impressions are essential in this business. Maria O’Driscoll of Popcasting, a commercial casting office in Los Angeles, tells us, “The first few seconds of each recording becomes the thumbnail that appears on the log sheet. You must have your face to camera, with a pleasant expression, waiting to be asked for your name. And please hold that expression for a few seconds even after you’re done slating. Never offer ‘…and my agent is…’ or anything else actory.”

“Saying your name seems so simple, which is why many give it no real thought,” adds Backstage Expert Carolyne Barry. “This can be a mistake because the slate provides important information about who you are. It depicts confidence or lack of, essence, a personality, and so much more.”

As always, be sure to show up on time, looking the part, knowing the script and the name of the product, with all the right materials in hand. As commercial casting director Donise L. Hardy says: “Show up with headshots and résumés or whatever was requested. Don’t say your agent didn’t tell you to bring any when everyone else brought five copies.”

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This piece was originally published on Feb. 17, 2017. It has since been updated.

You are ready! Apply to casting calls on Backstage!

Briana Rodriguez
Briana is the Managing Editor at Backstage.
See full bio and articles here!

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