Less Coaching, Please

If you've never experienced a waiting room jam-packed with children being feverishly coached by mom (or dad) for their commercial audition, you've missed a riveting sociological process. In an instant, you observe in microcosm the variety of parent-child relationships, as seen in the coaching styles of parents attempting to ready their adorable child for the audition. But it's a sight that chills casting directors, because so often the well-meaning efforts of parents undermine their kids' biggest asset: the ability to be themselves.

Los Angeles casting session director Hal Masonberg, who has been casting commercials, films, and theater for 18 years, finds that many parents coach their kids based on what the parents have seen other kids do in commercials. The parents think, "If my kid wants to book it, my kid needs to do this," he says. "This" usually means an overly "selly" performance: smiling unnaturally on cue, arm gestures perfectly timed to match the words. In effect, parents coach their children's naturalness right out of them.

This overcoaching reveals itself even in the kids' slates (when they say their name for the camera at the start of the audition). "As soon as they say it," Masonberg notes, "this false, magical grin pops up on their face, and right from the get-go it's fake. And the thing we love about kids is gone." The same thing applies to adults, adds the session director, who teaches on-camera commercial acting workshops for adults and children in Hollywood and works with actor Tina Morasco teaching acting tools to kids at Play! LA.

"Actors often have a preconceived notion of what we're looking for," Masonberg says, "but what we're really looking for is the actor's unique take on a line or a scene—especially kids. We're not looking for a generic kid; we want a unique kid. And each kid is naturally unique. They each have a particular personality. And they don't have all the adult social graces. They just say what they feel in the moment, inappropriately. But that frees the spirit in the moment, and that can be magic. Many times, it's the mistakes they make that will land them the job."

In other words, it's not really about getting it "right"; it's about the child's natural personality coming through. When a parent overrehearses a child, it often sullies the very thing that makes that child unique, the thing that makes him or her stand out from the rest. The effect of overcoaching becomes frustratingly evident in the audition room when the director tries to alter the child's performance but hits a wall because the child is locked into doing the reading one way and one way only, as coached.

"Kids need to be able to alter their performance based on direction from the CD or the director at a callback," Masonberg says. They need to learn not only how to do a reading in a variety of ways when asked—something Masonberg teaches in his classes—but how to listen to the director. "Ask questions if you don't understand the direction," he says. "It's not a strike against you to ask. In fact, it's a tool an actor has—to ask and fully understand—so you can give them what they asked for instead of pretending you know.... This is something both children and adults are often afraid to do."

So what's a well-intentioned parent to do? They want to help their kids book the job and coaching seems the natural course, no? But unless the parents are professional actors themselves, they typically don't have the skill set to coach properly. Instead, they end up trying to get their kids to imitate other kids seen on TV. This is when professional workshops or classes can be particularly useful to a young person, helping bring him or her back to the natural state of being a kid on camera, without the need to "get it right."

Masonberg, however, suggests an antidote to overcoaching: Break down the words so the child understands what he or she is talking about, rather than coaching the child on how to say every word, comma, and period. "Sometimes we say the words without really knowing what it means," he says. "We get so caught up in saying it right. That goes for both children and adults. Be professional, yes, but also remember to have fun."