Right now, I’m covering a high-end Internet project where the initial round of auditions involves actors putting themselves on tape. Once that phase is done, casting will review the submissions and decide who gets to come in and meet the producers face to face.
I cringed when the casting director explained this to me. My first impulse was to call her lazy. After all, it’s her job to read actors in person. That allows her to give notes and direction that could make a huge difference in the performance. When actors put themselves on tape, it’s an all-or-nothing situation. The choice is the choice. There’s no opportunity to make a simple adjustment because the casting director isn’t there to provide guidance.
From my perspective, this is total bullshit. I recently had a client pre-read on a film, and her choice turned out to be wrong for the part. But guess what? The casting director gave her a note, she nailed the adjustment, and now she has a callback to read for the director. If my client had been asked to put herself on tape, she never would’ve gone this far.
Alas, this is the world we live in, and my voice is often a whisper that no one hears because they’re busy playing with their phones. So I’m going to give you guys some advice on how to master a skill that’s quickly becoming an essential part of every actor’s tool belt.
Give some consideration to your backdrop. Avoid clutter. Don’t stand in front of a particleboard bookshelf with your bored cat sleeping on top. That’s too distracting. A smarter choice is to hang a solid sheet. Even a bare wall will work as long as it’s not blinding white. Also, make sure you wear clothes that don’t blend into the background. A dark top against a dark wall will make you look like a floating head.
Using civilians to read with you is a mistake. Their lack of ability will hurt your audition. So ask one of your actor friends to help, but make sure he or she throttles down the performance by about 50 percent. His or her emoting shouldn’t distract from your acting. Also, never have the reader appear on camera unless it’s someone famous like Ryan Gosling. That might be kind of cool.
Don’t break the fourth wall by looking directly into the camera. Instead, have your reader stand off to the side. The idea is to create the angle that would be used in a real production. And keep it tight. Don’t go any wider than a head-and-shoulders shot. You want the viewer to see the emotion on your face.
There’s no need to go out and buy a professional lighting kit, but you should give some thought to how you shed light on your audition. Overhead lighting isn’t very flattering, and fluorescents will make you look like death. Try moving some household lamps around to create a basic key light/fill light/backlight situation. A quick Google search will explain what I mean.
Unless casting specifically requests two different takes of the same scene, don’t send multiple versions of your audition. Going on tape is like losing your virginity. You get one take and that’s it.
These five simple steps should help make your self-taped audition a success. As for myself, I’m currently looking to invest in a start-up company that creates high-definition holograms. Because let’s face it. Pretty soon, that’s all you’re going to be. An image that’s not there, trying to create a character that isn’t real.
""""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