The Friday Free For All: The Audition Process

I’m still looking for a better name for my Friday posting then “The Friday Free For All” because I’m not giving anything away for free but my mind and posts.

And speaking of sharing my mind and thoughts, I was accused today in a British Lit class of “being too deep” obviously this girl hasn’t read any of my plays.

So until something better comes along, welcome to The Friday Free For All, where I will be discussing a play or musical I’ve seen or read, discussing the writing process, or going into thoughts about the art and craft of theater. Kind of whatever is on my mind regarding theater.

The Audition Process and Education

Twelve years removed from the first time I went to college, I recently went back to study English and Secondary Education. The purpose is to be, obviously, a teacher of English and Drama. I bring this up because my college recently held auditons for the Kander and Ebb musical Curtains, a fun musical set in the world of theater in the 1950s. And for the first time in nearly two decades of being involved in the theater, I wasn’t cast.

I understand not being cast, every show has limited parts and not every actor is suited for every role. It is obviously difficult for a woman to be cast in The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) or David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, since there are no parts for women or for a man to audition for Steel Magnolias since there are no parts for men. A show like Simon’s The Odd Couple only has a couple of female roles and a handful of male roles, there is no place to “create roles” for more actors, no matter how talented they are. Same with Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years or the Jones/Schmidt musical I Do! I Do!, both of which has a cast of two (one male, one female) and no room for expansion.

My point to this is, the reason I wasn’t cast, wasn’t because I was wrong for any roles or that I gave a bad audition, in fact in both instances it was the exact opposite. I wasn’t cast because “we decided to cast people that we’ve worked with from the music department”.

Hey, I understand, not a problem. Rep theaters are like that. Close knit communties where you work with the same people over and over again. Community theaters are like that as well. My issue with this is, if that is what you are doing, then don’t call it an “Open Audition”. Or if you do call it that, be prepared to expand your ensemble or cast people you weren’t expecting too.

As a writer/director, I’ve written shows where I’ve precast someone before pen ever touched paper (or finger to keyboard), but in those instances I’ve never held “open auditions”, I’ve gone to that actor and said “hey I’ve got a role for you, are you interested?” and we move from there. But I’ve also seen what happens when a young person takes a leap of faith and auditions for a show for the first time and they nail it. The first show I ever did in college was The Fantasticks (a show I’ve been in love with ever since), our Mortimer had never acted before and was brilliant. A shining star in a production with lots of shining stars. It was also a show that, due to it’s limited cast size, we created an ensemble for. And everyone that auditioned and accepted the role, was involved in. I can only imagine the frustration, embarrassment, lack of self worth attitude that a young artist might experience after not getting cast (especially when the statement “everyone will get cast” is made from an instructor/director) in a school production (whether that be in grade school, middle school, high school, or college). I had some of those feelings after getting cut and I’ve been doing this for over 20 years in a variety of roles. That’s why I try and keep the casts in the shows I write flexible so you can work in as many or as few “extra characters” as needed. In Allie In Wonderland, they are Playing Cards and CookieMen. In The Absolutely Real Story of Tom Sawyer as told by Becky Thatcher, they are just extra kids with lines (in fact the character of Mary in Tom Sawyer was written thanks to a young actor wanting to join our company about a week or two after rehearsals had started. My co-director/producer, an English teacher and grade school principal, couldn’t say no and I had to write more lines. The actor was amazing and perfect in the role and I can’t imagine the show without her).

I’m not suggesting we coddle actors during their education and give out roles or create roles where they aren’t there. As I’ve said above, there are plays wth male only casts and plays with female only casts. And some actors just aren’t right for roles. But far too often I’ve seen people with little or no experience fall deeply, madly in love with theater because they were “given” a part or without prior experience.

Directors, when you hold open auditions or are preparing your season, keep that in mind. My suggestion, depending on different factors (ages, type of theater [i.e. community, educational, rep, professional], gender), is to work up a variety of different shows for your season. Do some that are more “exclusive” then others and do some that are very open to everyone. But if you are doing a large cast, open audition musical in which an ensemble can be worked in, work it in and be ready to be surprised by who comes out.

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4 comments

  1. good points. don’t call it “open” then cast from within…perhaps small companies as in fhsu could learn some things from the biology department about what happens to species when the gene pool is small and constantly remixed vs bringing in outside sources to broaden and refresh the species’ ability to grow…

    when I taught in the Hays USD (1984-1991) I was blessed as a 30 something year old school teacher/principal to be asked to help out as a chorus member in “the Mikado” and “HMS Pinafore” as well as pit band for “Little Shop of Horrors”. The lead parts in the productions were, rightly so, music majors and students. However in need of strong voices to “flesh out” the “large ensemble” numbers the university was not afraid to bring in off campus support. In fact, including others outside the “circle” increased the draw to the performances. I know FHSU is probably much larger now and may need to provide an abundance of music majors performance opportunities, so that may wind up feeling like a shut-out? I don’t remember any community theater from my short “residence” in Hays-Amerika, but I love my communityguy helping out the production roles fondly.

    1. Kenny, Hays has a community theater group that has been around for…about 10 years called Heartland Community Theater. They are a great group of people. You’re right if the gene pool is too thin then you start having problems and people stop going. New blood, in any environment, is needed.

  2. In my experience, directors have “open auditions” just in case someone outside their view happens to steal the spotlight. But in most cases they have someone (or a type) in mind. That explanation, “we’ve decided to go another direction” or (fill in the blank) is the stock answer for anyone not cast, unfortunately, but that doesn’t make the left-outs feel any better. If that’s the first time you’ve not been cast, you’ve had an incredible run! By the way, love the new website and blog. *s*

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