“Self-consciousness is the enemy of all art, be it acting, writing, painting, or living itself, which is the greatest art of all.” – Ray Bradbury
It’s difficult to explain to one’s non-actor friends just what a weird tight-wire act we walk every time we go out to audition.
Sure, most civilians will have some degree of appreciation for the difficulty of acting in general, saying things like, “How do you get up in front of people and DO that??” But asking for them to really understand what goes into it – and specifically into the audition process – is just not really in the cards.
Much like bathing a cat, if you haven’t actually done it yourself, you just can’t know how stressful it is.
What’s so hard about auditions in particular as opposed to regular performances is that there is a set of balances we have to strike in order to hit the audition just right, balances that are in some ways in conflict with what we do in performance.
But one of the biggest obstacles in auditioning is avoiding being a boring actor.
Look, you’re great. Seriously. If you are making a go of it on whatever level as a working actor, you’ve already overcome 90 percent of the barriers that prevent most people from pursuing their dreams.
But here’s the thing: if you are reading for a role at a casting, especially for a big project, you are the 10th, or the 20th, or maybe even the 100th person to step into the audition room and read the same scene. Imagine yourself in that seat on the other side of the table hearing those Same. Lines. Yet. Again.
That’s got to be your starting point when it comes to auditioning: how to separate yourself from the boring herd. Here are some things to think about, because nobody wants to be boring!
1. Don’t Be Perfect
Okay, so you finally got that big chance. Your useless husk of an agent finally surprised you with a real audition for a real show or big-name studio film or a nationwide spot that could lead to even bigger things for you. (Or better yet, you bypassed the useless husk and self-submitted on NYCastings to find your dream role!) Now: what’s the first thing to pass through your mind? If you’re like most people, it’s something along the lines of “Oh god, I’ve got be perfect if I want to book this!”
No. Perfection is the last thing you want, if you want to avoid a boring audition.
Take a look around the waiting room next time you’re on an audition for a big role. You’re likely to see several dozen guys or girls who suspiciously look a whole lot like you, at least in general terms. If you’re the 20th guy to walk in the audition room to read for the role of “Tightly-Wound Bank Robber #2” the last thing you want is to give a read just like everyone else did. That’s the trap of perfection: being so invested in nailing it that you lock yourself into a straitjacket: perfect lines, delivered perfectly within the perfect interpretation of the character in the most simple, obvious way to envision him or her. But “perfection” in the context of an audition often means boring, and “just like everyone else.”
The thing about trying to be perfect is it puts your focus elsewhere, not on what you’re supposed to be thinking about and doing when acting. Your character is trying to achieve an objective, and if you the actor have muddled up your mind with what YOU, not the character, is trying to achieve – i.e. a perfect audition that is just EXACTLY right and just what (you think) the casting team wants to see – then you are not doing your job.
Look, when performing, as in life, everyone’s instinct is to avoid making mistakes. Making a mistake can throw you off, it makes you feel awkward and uncomfortable, and those feelings can trigger more mistakes. But when it comes to the audition, you’ve just go to let go of any lingering need for perfection. You’ve got to realize that the rigidity that comes from fear of failure is going to hold you back from showing them the depth and breadth of your particular talent and vibe. A pre-set series of “reactions” to lines your reader or scene partner says that you’ve built up in advance in an effort to achieve perfection are going to look just like what they are: fake, stiff, and awkward. So…
2. Rehearse But Don’t Over-Rehearse
Here’s one of those weird balance things mentioned above. You of course need to know your lines as best you can, but with a caveat: another perfection trap is feeling like you have to be off-book cold for any important audition. Most CDs will say that if you just got your sides the night before, for god’s sake hold them while you read and focus on the acting part rather than struggling to remember words.
Your word-perfect accuracy in delivering your lines is far less important to casting than showing that you have a solid grasp on the character, a clear objective, and that you have made strong choices in how to try to achieve it. You’re here to act after all, not recite. Recitals are boring. What a CD wants to see is electricity, and electricity comes when you’re walking a tight-wire and you could fall off at any moment – that is to say, when the reader or another actor gives you a line that elicits something unexpected in you. That’s what CDs want to see: the unexpected, not something rehearsed and locked-down. It may be technically perfect, but if it’s to the point where there’s no life in it, you’re not going to impress anyone with your memorization skills.
Here’s another tricky balancing act: connecting, to both the material and the other actors. In film you get adequate rehearsal time from most directors, who are usually obsessed (in a good way) with bringing their baby to life the best way possible. In theater we rehearse a show for a minimum of three weeks, day in and day out, so connections develop organically. How the hell are you supposed to make a connection in the two to five minutes you get in the audition room?
This is another aspect of the audition that relates to our openness and freedom to play – and with that, our freedom to fail. We’ve already established that perfect is boring – well it’s your lucky day! Humans – and likely any aliens or animals you might end up playing, too – are messy, confusing and imperfect. So the actor that hits that audition room with this in mind as opposed to a delusional desire to somehow “nail it” by delivering a perfect read exactly the way (they imagine) the CD wants to see it is going to read as more alive, and thus more connected to the material, to the other characters and actors in the scene, and even to the casting team as they watch.
4. Trust – The Material And Your Instincts
Whatever we’re reading for, there are of course going to be certain choices that have already been made for us. But mostly these are the choices that are limited to nuts and bolts of the character: where and when he or she is, their age, their background both emotional and physical, etc. But within those parameters, it’s up to you to make not only strong choices, but also bold choices that are in keeping with the author’s intent but which are nevertheless still your own. This is where having some solid improv training under your belt can be a game-changer: the actor who can trust him or herself to go wherever their intellect and emotion are taking them at any given moment they’re engaged in a scene is going to electrify and arouse the interest of an audience, and by extension a casting team. The tricky part is getting yourself loose enough and confident enough to trust those flights of fancy wherever they lead, and to let your weird, wonderful, amazing self show through even under the pressure of the audition.
The bottom line: if boring is the enemy, then the only possible way to fail is by being too fearful to let loose and give it your all!