Can Theater Actors Sell Stuff?

Most theater-trained actors worth their salt have learned there are any number of tried-and-true ways to find their way into a character, often based only on what the playwright offers. Beyond your own lines, you look at what the other characters say about your character, observe the physical actions your character takes, and read the stage directions to discover character traits.

Many of these tactics can also be used when auditioning for a commercial. Dialogue is often posted online ahead of the audition, offering clues to your character and hints on how to play a moment or how to dress. But although there are similarities between theater and commercials, it's more helpful for actors to understand the differences.

"A theater person has so much time to analyze; a commercial actor has 10 minutes to come in, break it all down, and do it," says David Bellantoni, a commercial casting director with Beth Melsky Casting in New York. This can be somewhat jarring to a theater actor fresh out of school and used to days and weeks of writhing-on-the-floor preparation. "There are so many more clues to the character in a play," says Bellantoni, who also happens to be an award-winning playwright.

Though there are many valid ways to play a character in a commercial, he says, certain choices that might work in theater would never fly in an ad, such as making the character angry or negative. The character might be written as frustrated, for example—commercials are rife with people unhappy with their insurer, their laundry detergent, or their wimpy paper towel—but the actor playing the role should never become snarling or violent. "Anger," says Bellantoni sagaciously, "doesn't sell product so well."

While this may seem obvious to seasoned commercial actors, it's not always evident to actors with a theater background. During a recent commercial class that Bellantoni was teaching, one student had an interesting, dark intensity to her readings. "It seemed like her character's subtext was to be annoyed and irritated," he says. "Even when I suggested different options to her, her readings still came across a little angry." And that, says the CD, is not the commercial way to go. As he teaches in his classes, many approaches work, especially playing wry and dry and injecting improvised humor. But the vibe has to remain upbeat. No matter what the character is going through, the actor's choices have to make the character appear approachable and sympathetic.

One of the most striking differences between a theater audition and a commercial audition is that for a commercial, an actor should come into the room with four or five choices ready to go. This rarely happens in theater. "The audition tape should never be the same two times in a row," Bellantoni says. "We want to show the clients different takes from the actor." Furthermore, actors rarely realize that showing that you have different readings up your sleeve not only reflects well on you; it casts the CD in a good light. "If we ask for another read and the actor does the exact same thing the next time through, it looks like the casting director isn't doing their job," he says.

The trick with commercials is that even though their stories are very brief compared with those in plays, they still have a story to tell, with an arc for the character to experience via the product and via his or her relationships in the spot. It just happens in the blink of an eye. That loving look you give your spouse when you see that your grass-stained shirt is now glowing clean might be a monologue in a play. And it's that quick look that helps sell the product in a commercial.