On Auditions

Life in the Theatre

I just got through auditions for Macbeth, which I’ll be directing this summer for Midsommer Flight (check out the Upcoming page for details). As so often happens, there were too many talented actors and not enough roles to go around, which is such a fantastic problem to have.

Recently I taught an audition workshop in which I shared a handout of Audition Dos and Don’ts for actors. But there is so much more that I wish actors knew about auditions. I’m sure this has all been said before in other places, but it bears repeating — not just for actors to hear, but for them to take to heart.

It’s not all about talent. Yes, of course we want talented people in the show, and I wouldn’t choose anyone who doesn’t have the chops to be a part of the cast. But so many talented people aren’t making it into this one and I’m truly disappointed to have to cut those people. Ultimately they just weren’t the #1 best fit for the limited roles available. Maybe they were too young, or the wrong look against other actors we selected, or too subtle for a Shakespeare-in-the-park production even though they’d be killer in a black box. Maybe someone had too many conflicts or not enough fight experience or was simply an unknown quantity who lost out to an actor with whom I’ve worked before. I spent a fair amount of time agonizing over headshots and lamenting the loss of people I had to place in the “discard” pile. For many of them, I vowed that I need to find a project in the future that fits them so that we can work together. For many of them, I made notes about how amazing they will be in those roles in 5-10 years, or in someone else’s production of this play. For many of them, I just want to give them a hug and be able to say thank you.

The waiting is the hardest part for us, too. Back when I was still acting, the worst part of the audition process, by far, was the waiting. Waiting to find out if I got called back, waiting to hear if I got the part. What actors don’t realize, perhaps, is that the waiting is the hardest part for directors, too. We send out casting offers and then wait to hear back from actors accepting the roles. Some reply right away, excited at the opportunity, ready to accept immediately. But others, even those who seemed so excited about the show, make us wait for a day or two or five, immune to our follow-up emails and calls, while we bite our nails, just wishing and hoping that this incredible actor whom we love and have set our hearts on will say yes. We fear and obsess and check our email 1,437 times a day for updates. And that leads to my next point…

Rejection hurts us, too. OK, I know this one sounds ridiculous. Of course I understand that in the casting process, the director holds most of the cards. We get to sit on the “safe” side of the table, we get to make the casting choices, we are in the position of power. But actors hold one important trump card: the decline. In truth, I’ve never fully understood actors who decline roles. I mean, yes, I understand that occasionally an actor gets cast in another role in the interim, or some real schedule conflict arises between the callback and the offer, and I would never hold anything against someone in this situation. But usually, I strive to send out offers within 12-24 hours of callbacks, in which case if an actor cites “schedule conflicts” it feels like a bait and switch — like, what could have possibly changed in those 12 hours from 10pm to 10am the next day? Why did the actor attend the callback and get me all excited for them, when they couldn’t do the show in the first place? I understand that sometimes it’s not about whether they got an offer, but whether they got THE offer for a role they wanted. But if I’m offering a role — any role — it’s because you asked me to cast you by coming to the audition, and because I fell in love with something about you for that particular role. So if you say no, even though I know it’s not actually personal, it still makes me feel things and exclaim bad words and wonder what I could have done differently to make you say yes. Just like actors do every day, I’ll move on and be OK, but rejection hurts on either side of the table.

We make the best choices we can for each project; just because there wasn’t a role (or THE role) for you this time doesn’t mean there won’t be down the road. Ultimately, although I am sad that I can’t find a place for all of these talented actors in this show, I am also incredibly excited for the cast that we are putting together. I know that I am making the right choices for THIS production of THIS play at THIS moment. And I have Dionysian Faith* that I will indeed work with some of the “rejected” actors in the future. In fact, I know this for certain because it has happened on this very show: the actor we have cast as the Big Mac himself is someone I’ve known for a few years, and who has auditioned for me previously but just wasn’t quite the right fit for earlier projects. Only now, for this show, he is Macbeth. Imagine if he had become discouraged after auditioning for me previously, and had decided not to come out for this one.

Auditions are a gift. I guess some directors dislike auditions because they can be tedious or hard, or just feel like “necessary evils” in order to get to the rehearsal phase. But I have always loved auditions. It feels like such a spectacular gift that all these actors want to come work on one of MY shows. They are giving their time and energy and talent, and demonstrating by word and deed that they want to make a commitment to a project about which I care deeply. What an amazing, affirming, astonishing gift.

That’s the thought I want to end on — what a gift I’ve been given, over and over again with each show I have directed, and how grateful I am. Heartfelt thanks to all the actors who auditioned for me for Macbeth, and I hope we meet again.

*Dionysian Faith is a thing I just made up.