Aside from the untold number of auditions I’ve personally experienced in a 40 year career as an actor, I’ve coached thousands of auditions for film and TV over the past several years. And I’ve had the opportunity to gain perspective; to observe the process from “10,000 feet up” as well as often being in the trenches myself.
What I’ve learned could fill a book – which might be forthcoming! But in the meantime I want to speak to just one aspect of this maddening transaction that I think is not immediately evident but is omni-present, vital, and ignored at your peril.
In preparing an audition, out of necessity we become immersed in learning lines, calming nerves, showing up on time (or turning in the self-tape on time) deciding on what we will wear, etc. These days we seem to be given less time; sometimes only one day with a 3 scene audition (10 pages long) where we are expected to be off-book. It’s madness, and in this mad rush we sometimes forget one overarching thing:
As a species we crave a beginning, a middle, and an end. I think it is encoded in our collective imaginations. There’s a reason all stories since the beginning of time more or less adhere to this structure. We crave it. Don’t take my word for it – listen to Aristotle. I rest my case…..
- ALL auditions need to honor this.
- ALL auditions need a dynamic beginning – something that puts us in the flow of the scene rather than starting from a dead-stop. Something that acknowledges the pre-life of the scene we are about to bring to life. What just happened? How did that effect us? Where are we now, and where were we prior to the start of the scene – literally and emotionally
- ALL auditions need a “change moment”. Humans crave change. Even a simple “walk and talk” TV scene has to have a change moment. If it’s not there in the text, it’s our job to insert it and make it feel organically true.
- ALL auditions need a memorable ending. Sometimes it’s how we deliver the last line. Sometimes it’s creating a moment after the last line – like a bell that rings and stays in our thoughts even after the reverberation has ended. Like the final clarion note in a symphony.
- Additionally, I believe in giving each scene a title – a definition of the scene’s purpose so that in our challenging preparation timeframe, the tone of each scene does not blend into one general over-wash. Multiple scenes are given to us for a reason.
How do we accomplish all this when the audition material we sometimes get is – to put it politely – pedestrian? There is a lot of what I like to call “B-minus-weekly-factory-television”. We’ve all seen it….I don’t need to name names. As intelligent smart actors, we sometimes look down our noses at material that might be from a show we’d never personally choose to watch. Guilty as charged. This judgement is dangerous and wrong. It’s our job to understand the world, the “dramatic or comedic ecosystem”, that each show inhabits whether we personally gravitate to it or not.
Make it a point to occasionally watch shows that are successful but that are perhaps not to your taste. I’m not suggesting you will like them simply by being exposed to them, but it’s instructive to try and de-code what it is that makes them successful. There is a continuing and constant epidemic of “creative bankruptcy” in our industry. And one of the reasons that older franchises are revived is that they already have a known structure and an established “world” that has been proven; that has been successful. However shows that create new narratives and innovative new formats – of which there are many great examples at the moment – have a harder task proving that they can sustain weekly viewing and interest. Not to mention the ongoing challenge to continue to innovate and not lose their edge.
TV and film acting is, in significant part, about two elements: worlds and faces. Talent is secondary only because in the professional ranks it is simply assumed. Talent is like the ante in a poker game: you have to have that on the table before you can even participate in the game.
- “Silicon Valley” is a world.
- “S.W.A.T.” is a world.
- “The Crown” is a world, as is “Westworld”.
- “Big Little Lies” and “NCIS” are also worlds.
As actors we must know and honor the worlds we are entering into – all the while understanding that we naturally fit quite nicely in some worlds and not in others. My advice: don’t judge the world because it may not be to your taste – simply be a full-fledged part of it for the brief time you are auditioning. Embrace that, and you might be a part of it for real.
Beginnings. Middles. And Ends. They are a part of ALL storytelling, even a six page two-scene audition. In the heat of battle, don’t lose sight of that.