What to Know About Auditioning for Musical Series Like ‘Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist’

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Photo Source: Sergei Bachlakov/NBC

When “Glee” premiered in 2009, it brought something entirely new to television. Now 11 years later, we’re still seeing onscreen song and dance on shows like “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.” It shouldn’t surprise you, then, that both series share the same team of casting directors, Ulrich/Dawson/Kritzer (Ryan Murphy’s go-tos). “Zoey’s” is stuffed with triple-threat actors who can make a typically staged practice feel right at home on the small screen. CD Robert J. Ulrich began his career as an actor before switching to the other side of the table, and he shares with Backstage what he’s learned in the process and what to expect from a TV audition for a musical series.

How is a series with singing different from casting a non-musical show?
It’s very different. I came up with the system of how I do it. I figured having a pianist in the room was really important because it helps singers who aren’t as strong and it makes strong singers better. We even have dancing auditions. My assistants and associates would teach the dance routine. It’s a completely different way to structure the audition process. Just having a piano in the room made it less scary, like being at a cocktail party. But for an actor preparing, other than they have to prepare singing and sometimes dancing, I don’t think there’s anything different. I think that you are always trying to approach whatever the thing is the most truthfully, the most prepared that you possibly can. I don’t think there’s any difference between whether you’re going in for a drama or musical. You just want it to be very truthful.

What is the audition process for a musical series like “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist”?
I always schedule auditions with the pianist because anybody that sings knows that you have to figure out the key and you have to get the sheet. That way, they have a chance to try out different songs. It saves time in front of the producers because we had our producers in the room for most of “Zoey’s” auditions. And they have a chance to dance. As we got along with auditions, we’ve done it just either acapella or they can bring a guitar or a track. But during the pilot, it was all with piano.

What would you tell theater actors who want to do screen work?
I think that the best theater actors are still playing it for truth. On “Zoey’s,” we’ve cast people that are straight off of Broadway that hadn’t done any film or television. You just adapt. That’s a hard question because I guess if you’re playing a really big character onstage, yes, you should bring it down for the screen. I think that my fellow casting directors might disagree with me because they might say there’s a big difference and that you should really bring it down. But again, I think it’s just about playing the truth, no matter how big the character is.

“It’s a completely different way to structure the audition process. Just having a piano in the room made it less scary, like being at a cocktail party.”

What advice do you have for actors, especially during a time when production is mostly paused?
I love actors, but I think that when I meet somebody for the first time, I generally don’t talk about acting, as obsessed as I am with acting and movies. I like to get to know them as a person. So I think it’s a great time for people to either develop another hobby or just do things to make them happy so they’ll be a more interesting actor when they begin acting again. Also, work on the art of self-taping.

What do you like to see on a self-tape?
I think anybody that knows me knows that I don’t have very many rules. I’m not a casting director who says things have to be a certain way. Maybe, because I was an actor, actors can do no wrong around me. I don’t really care about the quality of the self-tape, but if the self-tape gets sent onto people, the quality is super important because studios and networks do pay attention to the quality. I’m not saying for people to go out and spend a ton of money doing incredible self-tapes, but there is something about when a self-tape looks beautiful in comparison to when a self-tape looks terrible. The people automatically seem better just because you’re drawn into the quality of everything. My main notes on self-tapes are definitely get a body shot from a distance, but then the rest of it should be about chest up because sometimes people send self-tapes where you can’t see them. Make sure the sound is good. That’s basically it.

What should people know about the global nature of casting via self-tape now?
There are tapes that came from other countries, and that happens more and more. It’s become a global world, as far as casting. It was not like that in the past at all. If you are somebody who lives somewhere else, just make sure your working papers are in order. And even if you are an American actor, make sure your passport is in order because I have had actors lose guest star roles because their passports weren’t ready and then we have to recast it immediately. That’s happened more often than you would think.

How did your experience as an actor affect the way you work as a casting director?
In every way. But my business partners are extraordinary, and neither of them were actors. So you don’t have to be an actor to be a casting director in any way. And we’ve made a concentrated effort to make our office one in which people feel safe. For me having been an actor, I just get it. I think that the whole audition process, especially coming into impersonal auditions is ridiculous. But it’s the only one we have because there are people who are incredible auditioners and there are people who fall apart in auditions who are really wonderful actors. I think it’s a strange thing that we ask people to wait for two hours and come into a room where you have to be vulnerable. It’s just a strange system. Having been an actor makes me, I think, extremely sensitive to that part of it. I’m very sympathetic to how hard it is to put yourself out there. 

What surprised you about switching to the casting side of the table?
I always say the first day I was on this side of it, I think I learned more about acting than the entire time I’d been in class or working onstage. Acting is all subjective. There’s no right or wrong. But even though it’s so subjective, you and the producers can watch hundreds of auditions and generally gravitate toward the same two or three people. I do find that fascinating, but it’s not always like that. I think that actors, the main thing you have to do that I was not good at is find confidence in yourself and try as hard as you can. Once you’re done with the audition, put it behind you and do not replay it in your brain a million times. The decision making is so out of your control.

If someone has prepared an audition a certain way but the reader is leading them in a different direction, how should they adjust in the audition?
I think you have to assess every situation differently. If you’re reading with the casting director and they’re a good reader, they’re probably doing it the way it should be done. So then yes, you should probably adjust to how they’re doing it. If you’re just reading with the reader and they’re not very good, that’s hard. I think you just try to do it the way you’d be doing it if you were doing it on a show, and be confident with your choice.

When you have thousands of submissions to go through, what is that process like?
We see every audition and every single submission. If you release a character in their mid-20s, within minutes, we might have 4,000 submissions. It’s really daunting. That’s why in episodic television, which is what we mainly do, the pace is so fast. That impossible question is, what is that “it” factor, that spark? It’s just that they pop on the screen. It’s the same answer to why are there movie stars? They’re the people that you just want to watch. People can’t try to have that thing. They just have it and they have to just try to be truthful, do their job, and really tell the story.

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Elyse Roth
Elyse is a senior editor at Backstage, where she oversees all casting news and features content, including her weekly casting director Q&A series, In the Room. She came to New York from Ohio by way of Northwestern University, where she studied journalism, and now lives in Brooklyn. She might see and write about awards-worthy films, but Elyse still thinks “Legally Blonde” is a perfect movie and on any given night is probably taking in some kind of entertainment, whether it’s comedy, theater, ballet, or figuring out what show to binge next.
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