Audition Gripe, Cold-Reading Chops

Dear Jackie:

I was recently called in to audition for a 99-Seat theatre company production that I had submitted to through Back Stage West. Though the show was a musical, they didn't ask for a song or even 16 bars, which I thought was a little strange. Then I went to the callbacks. Oh, boy!

First, the director said several times that he didn't like the show—not exactly the first thing you want to hear a director say. Then we had to do the most idiotic, high school type shenanigans for the callback—the kind of stuff you just know you're being asked to do for the malicious enjoyment of those watching. For example, the director would say, "Everyone walk around sad," then, "Freeze." We were told to improvise dialogue, but he would indicate how we should speak—sad, happy, frightened, nervous, etc. Apparently they had called back more than 100 actors for this show only to have them behave like 10-year-olds on the first day of drama camp.

I didn't get the show, which wasn't a big deal because I got a bad vibe from the whole experience. I found out afterward that the director and producer had cast themselves and, for the most part, filled out the cast with company members they already knew.

Why would producers and directors and theatre companies waste their own time and the time of dozens of people if they are just planning on casting themselves and their company members?


Los Angeles, Calif.

Dear Roger:

Why, indeed. I think, in most cases, the director or producer hopes to find that certain special someone to fill out the cast. Perhaps this was the case in your example. Although they ended up casting primarily from within their own circle, maybe they wanted to be sure there wasn't someone else out there who would blow them away. It sounds like they cast at least one noncompany member, so maybe they found just that. In other cases, a production is required to hold an open call or to accept submissions from the general acting population so it can fulfill an aspect of its mission statement or meet a union regulation. Although this type of forced audition rarely leads to any solid opportunity, there is always that exception that gives the policy merit.

Of course it's frustrating to spend so much time and effort pursuing what appears to be a litany of roles, only to find that the openings were far fewer than you imagined. But, in this case, did anyone ever say all the roles were open? I checked the breakdown in the BSW archives, and it did not specify how many parts were up for grabs. Instead I found a very generic breakdown seeking men and women of all ages and any ethnicity. Yes, that language makes it sound as if they need more than a couple of actors, but it's their prerogative to advertise this way.

As for the audition, that you were not being asked to sing for a role in a musical, though unusual, doesn't necessarily indicate trouble. Maybe they were saving that skill for a second callback, or perhaps they were only casting nonsinging roles. As for your assertion that you and the other actors were asked to do ridiculous exercises merely for the perverse pleasure of the auditors, I seriously doubt that. I would chalk those cheesy improvs up to a lack of directorial experience or ingenuity. Maybe the director just finished up drama camp.

Dear Jackie:

I'm a working actor, a member of SAG and AFTRA, and I have been in L.A. for two years.

Why is the preponderance of advertising for acting classes specifically targeted to cold-reading? I have yet to go on an audition for TV or film for which I did not get the sides in advance. The biggest offering of classes should be for real audition technique.


Los Angeles, Calif.

Dear Pierre:

I haven't noticed overwhelming marketing for cold-reading classes. From my perspective, there are tons of acting classes out there that promise everything from mastery of the perfect monologue to deep career fulfillment. In looking through Back Stage West's latest "Spotlight on Acting Schools and Coaches" (9/15/05), I see that the majority of teachers seem to offer a variety of focuses. I only spotted one ad for a workshop specifically devoted to cold-reading technique.

I also checked a recent issue of The Selective Hollywood Acting Coaches and Teachers Directory published seasonally by Acting World Books. It lists teachers alongside their specialties, and, again, almost all of them claim more than one. Cold-reading was often offered in conjunction with a general audition-technique class, as you prefer. One note: That publication makes a great point in its introductory remarks. "Make sure, wherever you study cold-reading, that the differences between reading for bit roles and important roles in film, also the different styles demanded for theatre, are taught...." This is an important point. Any audition technique is only as good as your ability to pull it out at the appropriate moment. An actor reading for a small, information-conveying role, say, a nurse who tells the lead character, prone and dying on his hospital bed, about a waiting guest, may not want to pull out all the acting stops. In that situation, the actor should not draw focus from the scene at hand. On the other hand, the actor reading for that lead role, the dying man in the hospital bed, will want to demonstrate his ability to create a memorable character and exploit the scene's full dramatic potential. These are different jobs requiring different preparations. As the directory puts it: "'One size fits all' coaching for reading is just dead wrong."

Dear Jackie:

I just completed a three-act play: a black comedy in a Brechtian style with pop musical interludes. I've already had a reading with nonactors, but to get a more professional reading, should I be very specific in my Back Stage West ad as to physical characteristics I'm looking for in the main characters? For instance, I want a 6-foot, 300-pound African-American woman and a 6-foot-4-inch, thin Asian-American man to play two of the key roles.

Also, should I put in a separate ad for someone to compose hip-hop songs for the play?


Canoga Park, Calif.

Dear John:

It depends on the reading's purpose. If exact physical stats are critical and you hope to groom actors from this reading for the play's debut cast, you may need to take their measurements seriously. If this is just one step toward your play's final destination, you can likely ease up on the regulations. I wouldn't get too carried away with type for a reading. Yes, you want actors who suggest the characters you have written, but in this early stage you need good actors more than you need perfect-looking ones. An experienced cast will be able to give you a fully realized reading, which may be instrumental to your play's continuing development. Go ahead and specify what you are looking for in your breakdown, but give yourself a little wiggle room. For example, instead of asking for a 6-foot, 300-pound actress, expand that to women who are generally tall and overweight.

As for the music composer: Yes, you should put in a separate listing for that. BSW devotes a section of its breakdowns to calls for nonacting stage personnel called "Stage Staff and Tech." A composer isn't exactly staff, I know, but this section lists all sorts of nonacting opportunities, including those for directors and designers.