By Leslie Grossman
We originally published this article last pilot season, but given how timely (and painfully humorous) the post is, we felt it worth re-visiting. -SSN
“Hooray!! Pilot Season is finally here!! My favorite time of year when I get to really challenge myself and stretch as an actor and as a person!”
These are words that no actor on the planet has ever said. Pilot Season inspires fear in the hearts and minds of actors across Los Angeles. It’s the time of year when the major television networks cast and film pilots for potential series pick-ups. Tons of pilots are made, and, of those, only a fraction ever make it past the pilot stage. And of those series that make it to air, a still smaller fraction actually stay on-air for any significant length of time. The process of trying to land a part in a pilot can be exhilarating, heart wrenching, thrilling, stressful, devastating, heady and hair-raising to name only a few of the emotions they inspire. Imagine a bunch of wild animals that haven’t eaten in a year and someone throws a big raw steak in front of them. That’s pilot season to actors.
Finding Your Start MarkIf you’re just starting out and don’t have many credits, you start out with a pre-read. That means an audition just with you and the casting director. This is the first rung on the ladder to getting the job. If the casting director likes you, you get a call back and an audition with the producers. If you are an actor with credits under your belt and the casting director knows you, you bypass the pre-read and go straight to the producers. The producers’ session is your chance to win over the people who wrote the pilot. This is their baby, and they get to choose the lucky few who get to “test” for the pilot.
Before the networks consider the rest of us common working actors, they go out to the “Offer Only” crowd. Offer Only talent refers to the famous people who’ve decided that maybe TV is now worthy of their presence. Now that some of the best written and interesting entertainment is on TV, networks can attract big-name talent like never before. Wanna be smack dab in the middle of the cultural zeitgeist? Be on a gangbusters TV show. The increased attractiveness of TV for big-name talent makes the odds of landing a gig for the rest of us that much slimmer. Seriously, if you let yourself obsess over the odds, you’ll hide under your bed and only resurface on Sunday nights to watch Homeland.
Surviving the Waiting Room
The waiting room. A lot of horrible things can happen here. It’s where any sense of security and confidence you had is shattered once you see every other actress called in whose age/looks/range profile resembles your own. You might see the girl you tested against last year, the one who got the part. And there’s the psycho you’ve known since improv class; the totally brilliant, hilarious genius whose career you’d kill to have; the intimidating famous person; your best friend you have to compete against (and, yes, that does get awkward); the girl you know only from auditions and whom you’re sick to death of seeing (likely, the feeling is mutual); the casting director’s best friend; the producer’s best friend and the list goes on and on. Truly, there’s an art to learning how to deflect the bad mojo that can come at you in the waiting room—from the other actors but also from your own thoughts.
I’m a big believer in hanging out in the hallway and not getting suckered into conversation. There are people who purposely try to distract you by chatting you up, determined to take your focus. The key is to be polite but to make it clear you aren’t there to socialize. You can talk all you want after your audition. But you won’t have time because, chances are, you’ll have another one across town right after.
Keeping Your Mouth ShutThere is an old saying: “Never miss an opportunity to keep your mouth shut.” This is never more important then when you walk into the room with producers. Don’t make nervous conversation. If they talk to you, by all means be your charming and affable self. But your policy should be silence till the casting director tells you it’s time to start and get to it.
If you mess up, just keep going, or, if it’s early on in the scene, start over. Do your thing, be brilliant and get out. Awkward gathering-up of your stuff is the worst and makes everyone want to kill themselves.
The point is to get the hell out so quickly they want more, not less of you.
You are definitely not allowed to obsess over your audition once you leave. It’s behind you … unless you get the phone call you’ve been pretending you don’t care about: the call from your agent or manager telling you the producers loved you, are asking for your quotes and want to test you. Your first thought is, “Hooray!!! They loved me! I did it!!” Your second thought will be, “Oh shit. Now I have to go to Studio”.
Studios, Contracts and Butterflies—Oh, My!Studio is the next rung up the ladder. Here’s where you audition for the studio producing the pilot. You report to an imposing building on the studio lot and wait in another waiting room. You hate every other woman you’ve been chosen to test against on sight—even if she is your best friend. You wish death or great bodily harm on each of them. You take a seat and are handed contracts to sign Yes, you sign contracts now. This is just in case the studio and network fall in love with you, and decide no one else can play the part but you. They have your salary locked in so negotiations are moot. This is when you get jangly, steroid-sized butterflies.
An audition at this level can feel like walking a tight rope. You just pray you say all the lines as written and don’t make a total ass of yourself. Being brilliant on top of everything wouldn’t hurt either. Sometimes the room is cavernous, sometimes it’s a small conference room. Sometimes it’s a bunch of suits staring at you with icy coldness, sometimes it’s friendly faces who respond warmly to you.
You never know what you’re gonna get so you have to stay unflappable. Remember: Even if they loved your audition, they could still hate you, and, even if they were dead silent, they could still love you. I’ve had both happen. When you leave your studio audition, you will call your agent/manager and give them your version of how things went and pray you get the call that you’re moving up to Network.
Go Time at the Big Momma
Network is the Big Momma audition, the final step between you and a lengthy run on a series. You can pretend you aren’t nervous and you don’t even want the job, but the truth is, when you get this close, you want it more than anything in the entire world. It’s okay to admit it. You want it so bad, you’d take 5 years off your life to get it and still call all your friends and family afterwards to tell them what a sweet bargain you just scored.
What happens during pilot season can be soul-crushing. I had one pilot season when I tested at Network eight times. Eight different pilots. And guess what? I didn’t get a single pilot that year. You would think that the law of averages would somehow work in your favor, right? Well, because there are seemingly unlimited ways to be rejected as an actor, you can actually test eight times and get zilch. You can test 25 times and still come up with bupkis. This is when you can start to turn on yourself, blame yourself for how things turned out. It’s impossible to accept that your entire future can be based on something as random as hair color, anything as arbitrary as “a vibe,” but there it is.
Trying to keep nerves under control at Network can be challenging. I have friends that swear by hypnotherapy, meditation, medication and visualization. Some throw up or cry from sheer terror. It’s usually you and one or two other people testing for the role, and, by this point, the few left standing aren’t all that chatty. Everyone has their game faces on, ready to nail the audition. I honestly don’t know why they can’t put us in different rooms, separate us in some way, so we don’t have to go through our inner hells in the company of our competition.
I’ve had experiences that will stay with me forever while waiting to test at network, both good and bad. I had the opportunity to test for the pilot of Modern Family, for instance, and the hilarious, wildly talented Jesse Tyler Ferguson was waiting to test as well. He was so relaxed and genuinely funny, and, while the rest of us paced the halls practicing our deep breathing, praying we didn’t forget our lines in front of the network brass, he actually read the newspaper. For real. Just casually browsed the Times like he was waiting to go in to get his teeth cleaned. Of course, he went on the book that job. I was so impressed with his composure and friendly, amused detachment that I’ve tried to learn from it and channel it ever since.
When it’s finally your turn to audition and wow them, you forget how to walk for a fraction of a second.
As you walk into the room, you see the faces of all the people who have the power to change your life and you pretend you don’t care and you’re not terrified at all. Sometimes the network test room resembles a small theater, other times it’s a normal meeting room. Sometimes you can see everyone’s faces and sometimes they are all in total darkness. Sometimes you notice an executive checking their phone right in the middle of your most hilarious/emotional/pivotal moment, and you must pretend that it doesn’t bother you. Sometimes the gods are on your side and everything will click.
You finish with the best performance of your lifetime, and you’ll be so proud of yourself, it takes all of your will power to keep from pumping your fists and doing a victory dance right then and there. Sometimes, from the minute you open your mouth, everything feels off: Your voice might sound funny, your adrenaline rush might be the panicky, awful kind—not the laser-beam focus kind—your timing is off and you start to sweat so intensely, you feel like a living science experiment. The saving grace is that it ends. What feels like hours is, in fact, only a few minutes before you leave that room. You always feel like you could’ve done better. And you can’t shake the feeling that there was one person in that room who hated you with the heat of a thousand suns.
In the Cold Light of DawnWhen the casting director releases everyone, and you get your life back, you call your agent/manager, give them your assessment, then drive immediately to McDonald’s and quiet your anxieties by devouring everything on the menu. Or you go to a yoga class. Whatever your thing is … every time your phone rings, your heart starts to pound and you hope it’s The Call. But no. It’s usually your mother, and you scream at her for having the nerve to call you to see how everything went. When you finally get The Call, you know immediately if it’s good news or bad news. If it is good, your agent and manager conference in together so they can both deliver the happy tidings. If it’s bad, it’s only your manager who drops the boom solemnly and quickly. To make you feel better, your manager starts in about all the other pilots still casting, and you feel so sorry for yourself that you have to go through this whole process again. You maybe cry just a teeny bit.
But when the news is good, there’s no other feeling like it on Earth. It’s why we put ourselves through all of the humiliation, pain and anxiety. When you actually get a pilot, it feels like you won the lottery. And the best part—even better sometimes then getting the actual job? You know, in no uncertain terms, that, for you, pilot season is over. And it feels like a great big hug from the universe. That is, of course, until you find out that your amazing pilot, blessed with the most brilliant producers and perfect for the network … didn’t get picked up. And that horrible pilot written by the dumbest idiot in town, which was totally wrong for any network, got picked up to series with an immediate order of 22 episodes.
And that cold feeling creeps over you. You tried your hardest to keep from thinking about it. But it’s inevitable. You will have to endure another pilot season again next year. And again you will wonder why you didn’t listen to you parents and just become a lawyer.
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson