Training to Stand Out

"Of course, the first thing we look for is credits on a résumé," says casting director Arnold Mungioli. "I think actors learn through work, through doing shows, working with good directors, working off good material, working with playwrights on new projects, and working under the auspices of good artistic directors." But that's not always possible, he acknowledges. "We all understand that sometimes an actor can have a bumpy start and careers can go a myriad of ways." That's where an actor's training comes in.

"We are always willing to look at training to see how competitive it makes one. In other words," Mungioli explains, "if an actor is not getting the opportunity to work with great material and grow as an actor, we want to know that they have been working with teachers and working on material in classes. They have to show on their résumé that they're growing in one way or another." Needless to say, training carries the most weight for young actors, particularly those just starting out, he adds. To find out what kind of training catches the eyes of casting professionals when they're perusing an actor's résumé, we spoke with some prominent CDs in New York City and Los Angeles.

Mungioli, who is based in New York, is currently working on a new project with director-choreographer Bill T. Jones. The CD's recent credits include the musical version of "Little House on the Prairie" and the Broadway production of "Fela!" "It's really about 'Do you have the classes and the training that bespeak your ability to play the role we're casting?' " he says. He cites Paula Vogel's play "The Long Christmas Ride Home." "The actor playing the minister has an 11-page monologue, but in the last moments of the play he has to dance an explosive modern dance," Mungioli explains. "In every production of that play I cast, we had to find actors who have the acting talent to carry the monologue in the show as well as great modern dance ability, which is not always a part of a dancer's training. It is a very unusual combination of skills and has nothing to do with musical theater performance. So that's how specific it can sometimes get for what I'm looking for on the résumés.

See the Spring 2001 List of New York Acting Schools and Coaches

"On a general note about what kind of training we would respond to," Mungioli adds, "I would say that if someone has trained at one of the major graduate programs—and I say 'graduate' as opposed to 'undergraduate' because it's just another level of training—that bespeaks a good level of training in all areas, because these programs are known for that. I also respond to someone who has trained at a good studio, and I would say Jayd McCarty's program at the Studio/New York is one of the best in the city, and probably the best-kept secret. With training, I mean the full 360 degrees, all the different areas of acting, voice, and movement—Alexander technique, Fay Simpson's 'lucid body' work, some Michael Chekhov technique, and Meisner. I'm much more interested in this than in an actor who has just studied in just one very specific area, because the chances are they're more flexible and can do more."

Schooling on the Schools

New York–based casting director Dave Clemmons will also attempt to assess an actor's caliber by looking at his or her training. Clemmons is currently represented on Broadway by "Driving Miss Daisy" and "Wonderland" and is working on the upcoming musical "Grumpy Old Men," as well as several national tours. He says he keeps himself informed about how actors are trained in schools around the country:

"I go to 40 to 45 different colleges and universities every year and see their showcases, or know their faculty, so I know the standards that are out there. So for me, when I see a certain school on a résumé, I know what it takes to go through their programs and what it takes to graduate from there. Once you get beyond those four or five programs that everybody knows about, it becomes really a matter of what they've had to go through."

By and large, Clemmons says, the fact that an actor has been trained is of primary importance: "It's not so much where you trained; it's just that you did it. There are so few people out there who can actually just step up and do it with no training. For some reason, especially in musical theater, people just think, 'Oh, I've seen it done, so I'll just jump in there and do it.' I always say that's the equivalent of me walking up to a hospital and saying, 'You know, I've watched "Grey's Anatomy," so I think I can take that appendix out!' So when we look at those résumés, we are looking to see that they have been trained in some way, shape, or form. Whether they've gone to a conservatory or a four-year musical theater program, we are looking to see if they have somehow gotten the skills needed for what we're doing. At the end of the day, you don't get to spend much time with people, and sometimes their real skills don't show until you're into the rehearsal process. Training means they have been shown a work ethic; they've had the foundation of vocal, dance, or acting technique to get them through a whole process and get them to a performance."

Clemmons doesn't like to single out specific teachers, he says, but there are those whose work he is familiar with, and hence their names will mean something if he sees them listed on a résumé. "There are certain teachers I know and work with—and I don't say they're the only ones—but I know they turn out great people," he says, naming voice instructors Joan Lader, Liz Caplan, Jackie Presti, and Susan Eichhorn-Young. "I'm a particular fan of Austin Pendleton's acting teaching style," Clemmons reports. "I sat in on his classes, so I am a real fan. I've also seen great results from people who have studied with Alan Savage and the vocal teachers Michael Lavine and Adrienne Angel. But this is just my limited experience; there are lots of great acting teachers and voice teachers out there."

He adds, "There are also so many different styles. I think there are certain aspects to Method acting that work very well, and I love when I see that a person has done Viewpoints. I just want to hear that somebody has gone through training in all styles, enough to be versatile."

Where Have You Been? Where Are You Going?

Stage training also figures prominently for the three West Coast casting directors we interviewed, even though their focus is film and television. "At any job interview you go on, they're going to look at where you've been and how you got there," says Heidi Levitt, who cast Oliver Stone's movies for a decade and currently focuses on indie features and art-house movies. "I would respect somebody who has stage training," she says. "Training is part of who you are, and it is part of your life experience that you're bringing to the table."

Tammara Billik—who cast "Married...With Children" and "Ellen" and is currently working on "Exit 19," a new drama series for Lifetime, and "Single Ladies," VH1's first scripted series—believes that a well-trained actor is a better actor. "When you are doing a multicamera sitcom, it is very much like doing theater," she explains. "You are in front of a live audience and in sequence, so I think a strong theater background is important. Obviously, there are a few institutions that stand out as having great theater programs, but I'm not like those law firms who only want to see if you've had training from a particular school. Someone who has spent time getting a degree in theater—either undergraduate or, additionally, a master's degree—has really dedicated themselves to the craft and they are learning."

Deborah Barylski, an Emmy winner for casting "Arrested Development," recently completed working on ABC's "The Middle." She says that "credits trump everything, but training comes into play when the résumés are still a little thin." She will look to see if an actor has worked with iO (Improv Olympic), the Groundlings, Upright Citizens Brigade, or Second City, or whether the actor has taken a comedy class such as those offered by Scott Sedita (author of "The Eight Characters of Comedy") or Lesly Kahn. "Then I know they have at least had exposure to some theories of comedy," she says. "But here's the thing: Somebody can help you analyze a script and maybe put a name on and teach you what it is you do naturally, but nobody can teach you to be funny. They can teach a person who is mildly funny to be funnier, but they can't teach somebody who isn't funny to be funny."

The casting directors concurred that seeing on a résumé that an actor is improving his or her skill set and growing by taking classes even after his or her career has taken off is always a plus. "Actors continually need to be tuned up," says Levitt. "You are not acting by yourself, so it's important that you keep having that kind of practice in that you are doing it, either in a workshop or being part of a class, where you're going to get just as much from your peers. It is really important to an actor's continued growth." She recommends that actors check out various classes by auditing them: "It's important to see who you're going to be playing with."

To help actors locate training resources, Levitt has created an iPhone app called ActorGenie. "I created it because I thought it would be nice to have all the information and tools for an actor in one place," she says. "I recommend studios in New York and L.A. that I have heard of, or that I've been to, which I think are good places for actors to go and check out classes."

Is there anything else that actors might want to add to their résumés? "A lot of times an actor will put something like stage fighting, but I don't necessarily think that things like that will ever make somebody more castable," says Billik. "I think certain language skills or accents can be very helpful to certain actors."

Barylski says, "When actors first come to Los Angeles, they often don't know how to modulate their performance for the camera. Or they may feel they may know how to act, but often they haven't mastered the art of the cold reading. And frankly, if you haven't mastered the art of auditioning, you are not going to book anything, no matter how good an actor you are."

Then there is that one thing on a résumé that might make a casting director do a double take. "I'm always interested if somebody puts something unique on their résumé," says Billik. "Just as a door opener for me, so I can talk to them when they're across the desk from me. I like to see something quirky, whether the actor is a sword juggler or collects iguanas—something that might help me get a sense of the person. Because for me, I like to talk to people before we audition, and if I see something on the résumé that allows me to connect with them on a different level, that's helpful."