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Planning and Running Auditions, Part I

June 4, 2010

TRUE STORY:

I ran auditions for a college production I was freelancing for. We heard all our actors on the callback day, and afterward the director and I went to a little café around the corner and started talking about casting. We had very similar ideas about what we were looking for, and we both felt bad that we probably couldn’t cast one particular young lady who was very talented and had worked hard to prepare the audition. She wasn’t interested in any of the other roles, just this one role we thought she shouldn’t do. We discussed the kinds of roles we thought the girl was suited for and how this particular one wasn’t quite right, and we discussed it pretty thoroughly. Later we came to find out that the person in question was in the café with us at the time and overheard our entire conversation. It was a mess that took a long time to clear up. We had broken a cardinal rule: the 10 block rule. At the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at NYU, we used the 10 block rule all the time: Don’t talk about what you think about any kind of performance until you have gotten 10 blocks away from the place where you saw the performance. You really have no idea who is listening to you, and you don’t know what kind of damage you’ll do with your opinions.

Auditions are the first step of the process of putting on a musical. If you’re savvy, and you’re auditioning for a show, I think you can figure out exactly how the company runs from that very first experience; whether the rehearsals will be run efficiently, who is actually in charge, what the company values, whether they value your time or not, how prepared the director and choreographer are going to be for rehearsals: Everything. Now, your students are probably not going to be that perceptive about these things, but you are still setting the tone by how you set up that audition. Set a tone of efficiency, preparation, kindness, and fairness from day one.

THE AUDITION WORKSHOP

Some schools have an audition workshop where they go through all these issues with the kids. It’s not a bad idea, if you have the time. Be sure you publicize it, be sure you schedule it when everyone who would like to can go, and have a clear plan of the things you want to discuss. One of my favorite things to do when discussing auditions is to demonstrate bad body language and demeanor, and ask the kids what that body language conveys. Then you demonstrate the opposite: an open, aligned posture, a relaxed demeanor, and you ask the same question. Talk about the audition material, talk about dealing with not getting cast; talk about other audition etiquette topics. It can be a wonderful way to educate your students about presenting their best selves.

THE AUDITION ROOM, AND WHO IS IN IT:

I’ve been at schools where everybody sits in the hallway and a monitor calls in 5 kids at a time. I’ve also been at schools where everybody sits in the choir room or the theatre and watches everyone else audition. I prefer the former. If everyone in the group is watching, you get a lot more ridiculous drama. Like kids being cruel or everybody clapping wildly for the popular kids, or kids making a huge show out of being too shy to do it. Unfortunately, if everyone is outside the room, you really need somebody out there being in charge, or it’ll be so loud you won’t be able to hear the auditions.

WHEN DO I DANCE THEM? WHEN DO I SING THEM?

There is a company I know of that auditions dance immediately before people sing. This is really a bad idea. You try singing after you’ve jumped and run around for 20 minutes trying to remember steps. It’s totally unfair. Dance people on a different day, or at the very least, dance them after they’ve sung.

Think carefully about this next point: When you’re in that room helping cast the show, are you going to need the other people to have heard the singing? If so, make sure they’re in the room. For example, is your choreographer the kind of person who will advocate for a good dancer, and not believe you when you tell him the kid just can’t sing the part? Would they believe you if they heard the audition? Then make sure they hear the audition. If the choreographer is the kind of person who would say, “Oh, I’ll take your word for it, let’s put the kid in the tap line”, then save yourself some time and run the dance auditions and the singing auditions simultaneously in separate rooms. (but don’t dance the kids right before they sing)

SONG SELECTION

What do you tell the kids to bring in?

You have a lot of viable options. All of them have pros and cons.

1) Have the students choose something from the show

The benefits of this approach are obvious. You won’t hear 12,000 Defying Gravitys. (or whatever the musical theatre flavor of the year is)  You won’t hear someone whimpering their way through an R&B song while you’re casting The Sound of Music. The drawbacks are that by the time you hear EVERY kid sing Edelweiss, you may want to quit the show. And the kids may prepare it wrong, and then you’ll have to reteach it. A possible solution to that problem is to provide sections of music from the show for each voice part: Sopranos, please sing X, Altos, please prepare Y, etc. And you can have an after school session to teach the kids those parts.

2) A song of their choice

The benefits to this are that you learn something about the kid who is auditioning. If a kid brings in Me And Bobby McGee to an audition for Man of LaMancha, you’ve learned that she has very little theatre savvy, or is just a huge Joplin fan. If the same kid brings it to a Hair audition (please don’t do Hair at your Junior High) you have to give props for a clever choice. Song choice tells you what the kid thinks they’re good at too. The drawbacks are obvious: You may not find anything out about the kid’s talent or range or their suitability for the show. And you may hear a small boy sing I Feel Pretty, and you’ll have to keep a straight face.

3) 16 bars or 32 bars

Why 16 or 32 bars? Well, songs generally used to be 32 bars long: 8 bars of an A section, another 8 bars of A, 8 bars of a B section, then a final 8 bars of A. If you asked for 32 bars, you were asking for the whole song, with no dance breaks, no repeats, no interpolated monologues. If you asked for 16 bars, you were asking for the best 16 bars of the piece, generally the B section which has the high note and then the big finish. Nowadays, even when a song is in AABA form, it’s not likely to be exactly 32 measures. So kids need to pick the best 16 or 32 measures they have. There are actually books of only 16 and 32 measure cuts of songs, by the way. (side note: in the real world of musical theatre, some people actually still mean 16 or 32 bars, and some people take it the way I just described it, so please don’t use this advice to go to your audition and ignore the requirements) The drawbacks to the 16-32 school are clear: 16 bars of Tonight at 8 go by before you can say boo! 16 bars of Old Man River can be interminable. Some colleges are starting to change their requirements to say, “bring in one minute and 30 seconds of music.” That’s thinking smart. If you put a time limit or a measure limit on auditions, you save yourself some hassle. Or you can cut kids off as soon as you’ve heard enough. (but please be kind)

4) Teach everybody a song from the show.

One place I worked at taught a rangey number from the show to every kid auditioning. It was kind of awesome. The whole group learned it in about 10 minutes together, and then one by one they came up and sang it individually. Sound like a nightmare? It was wonderful. Because every kid was basically in the same boat, you found out a lot. You found out that there were some kids who already knew every note in the show. That’s important; you want dedicated kids who took the time to find out what show this was. How do you spot these kids? They sing it note-perfect, and they have Kristin Chenoweth’s little mannerisms in there too. Other kids didn’t know it, but learned it fast. This is also important. You need them to learn fast; you have less time than you think. Other kids learned very slowly and couldn’t hack it at all. These kids might have done better with a lot of prep, but wouldn’t you rather know that they need all that prep before you’re the one prepping them? If you use this method, be prepared to move the selection up or down a few steps so that you can test range as you’re doing the audition.

If I think a kid has some potential for a lead, I’ll sometimes ask them to vocalize up and/or down. I make a note of which ranges work best, and also where the voice breaks or changes quality. It saves time later. If you’re doing this in a big group, be careful to protect the ego of the kid auditioning. Having a 12 year old boy sing higher and higher until he cracks in front of everybody during a range check is a pretty crappy thing to do.  It’s another topic for another time, but lady choral directors need to know that the voice is an especially sensitive topic for many young men, and for good reason. Treat the young men with respect, especially in public, and don’t make them look foolish.

Arrange your chair, or your piano, or whatever, so that you can write, but the kids can’t see what you’ve written. Get a shorthand system to keep track of what you think. Some places print out audition sheets with sections to note tone quality, style, pitch, etc. It saves time.

Keep a separate legal pad with you and write the names of all the characters you are casting. As you see people who can hold a tune and have potential, write them under every name that they could work for. At the end, you’ll compare your list with others, add names other people thought of, and take off names nobody else agrees with. You have to start thinking of the roles at the beginning. Don’t waste time separating people into ‘can sing’ and ‘can’t sing’. Automatically go to casting ideas.

Be nice! These are kids, for goodness sake. Work hard on your poker face. I take some small pride in being able to listen to the most terrible audition ever without my smile faltering or my eyes rolling. Say “Thank You!” Say “Nice Job!” when you can. Even if somebody comes completely unprepared and you feel insulted that they performed so badly, there is no excuse for saying anything negative in a school audition.

One more thing! You must have everyone sing. Even the dancers. It’s a musical. If students want to do a show without singing, they should audition for a play, or give a dance recital. Don’t let the choreographer squeeze people through without singing. As you’re haggling out who makes the cut, you can allow people in who dance and can’t sing, but you must hear everyone who is auditioning or you’re flying blind.

Next Week:

Part II; callbacks, negotiating, posting the cast list, dealing with blowback

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2 comments

  1. Great stuff. I liked the time limit instead of how many bars. I also never heard the idea of having everyone sing the same song but that’s smart. I sat through auditions for Willy Wonka Jr. and we had a specific song for each character. It was a lot of photocopying and we let them try out for more than one part. Looking back, I’m not sure it was the greatest idea, but it was something. I liked your story by the way.


  2. I am enjoying (and learning from) these posts immensely, Peter. Thanks for the wisdom!



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