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A Night on the Casting Couch

May 15, 2009


If you live in Los Angeles, chances are you’ve heard at least one audition horror story, probably even experienced it personally.  It’s pretty close to torture for an actor, which is why once actors make it big, they refuse to do it anymore.

Typically it’s five minutes in a room with one to three cold, silent strangers who could be seeing as many as a hundred people in an afternoon, and have to hear the same dialogue over, and over, and over again. They’re not your friends.

They’re also not going to tell you how you did, just dismiss you with a generic, “Great, thanks,” so sometimes you feel like you went through all the sweat and tears for nothing. Then you get a phone call a few days later asking if you’ll come in for a callback.

Before last night, I had only ever been on that side of the casting couch for a class exercise in How Not to Fuck Up an Audition. As with query letters, I can only tell you the sort of thing I look for, what turns me off completely, and why it’s a bad idea to call and ask for directions.

We held our auditions for Quest for Comic-Con in the studio space of my drama teacher and longtime friend.  Her neighborhood is a little…shifty, and her house is tucked away, off a cul-de-sac and at the end of a dead-end street. The studio is in the back, up the driveway. I know how to get there by sight, not by street, and I know it’s tricky to find the first time. Still, this is the age of MapQuest.

When you’re auditioning in a professional casting office, an office with a landline, it’s fine to call for confirmation on the address. It’s not a great idea to ask the secretary how to get there if you’re coming from X Street and Y Avenue, and should you take the freeway or turn on to Z Dr.?  It’s an even worse idea if the number you have is a cellphone, the person answering it is the casting director, and the location is as unfamiliar to her as it is to you.

Seriously. No one has time to give you step by step directions – this is not your uncle’s barbeque. It’s also Los Angeles – no one knows how to give directions.

After the fifth call, co-producer K. stopped answering her phone. We made one exception on our policy of ‘Tough shit  if you can’t find the place’ for a girl who had taken the bus (something that never even occurred to us; it’s Los Angeles), and had been told to get off at the wrong stop. She was at least a mile away in a not-so-nice neighborhood, and I didn’t want her walking, so I went to pick her up.  I’m glad I did, too, since she was a recent L.A. transplant from Maryland, and probably would have been killed.

From there the evening went smoothly. Everyone was polite and friendly, with the exception of one guy with a weird attitude. While it’s wonderful that everyone is volunteering to work for free, we don’t have to cast you, so don’t act like you’re doing us a favor.

The actors came in one or two at a time, posed for a photo, and gave us their casting sheets, which look like this (click to enlarge):

castingcallsheetThe first thing I looked for was eye contact. In a mock-audition I once told a man I wouldn’t have cast him because when he walked in, he made eye contact with everyone but me – and in that scenario I was the casting director. Frequently when you walk into an audition, you have no idea what the people sitting opposite you actually do.  Don’t risk offending the person who decides your fate.

K. introduced herself and shook hands; I stayed seated.  Some people shook my hand as well, others just said hello, either was fine with me, so long as they acknowledged my existence right away. All of them looked at me once K. told them I was playing the main character, but for one or two, too little, too late.

The next thing most of the auditionees did was sit down on a chair on the ‘stage’ area. My advice? Unless you are specifically told to by the director, don’t ever sit down for an audition. It doesn’t matter if it’s in the script. When you sit down, you lose most of your energy, and you limit your movement.  The energy was key for me since this whole project relies on quickness.  Bing, bang, boom, get in and out.

I suspect that sitting was also the cause of most of the volume problems we had. I couldn’t hear a third of the people auditioning – and this script is all about the dialogue.  While I couldn’t automatically dismiss anyone for being quiet, it definitely wasn’t the best impression to make.  When you’re auditioning, make sure you project. There is almost zero chance that you’ll be miked, and in our case, while the studio is a great space, we had to have a very loud fan running.

If you spend a lot of time waiting to go in, and you have sides (sections of the script to read for your audition), it makes a really big impression if you memorize your lines, as one girl did. HOWEVER, it also makes an impression if you memorize them incorrectly. Better to read them off the page, than to get them wrong. Some people read them off the page and still got them wrong. I lost count of how many people read ‘adjectives’ like it rhymed with ‘objectives.’ As the writer, this was particularly grating.

Cold readings are very common and very popular for auditions. That means other than the time between arriving and actually auditioning, there’s no preparation. The reason casting directors like this is that it forces you to rely on your instincts, and also means you’re more malleable to direction. A lot of actors get flustered if they come in with a pre-prepared monologue, and the casting director throws it out the window.  Cold readings take some practice, to get to the point where you can read your lines and look at whoever you’re reading them with.

Roll with the punches.  Anything can happen inside that room. The casting director could ask you to read for another part, or do a little bit of improv.  Be flexible.  We asked a number of people to read multiple parts, and one particular man won a role after K. asked him to finish a conversation begun on the page by defending his character’s favorite TV show.

About 30 people showed up over the course of the 3 hours, fewer than half the number K. approved for audition, and while one person mistakenly came two hours early, no one came after 10 p.m. which was nice.  The turnout was larger than I had initially expected, and smaller than I’d feared, balancing out in a good number of strong candidates.

In the end, making the decision was fairly easy. There’s an old adage that applies pretty well to the whole casting process: Go big, or go home. The people who were easiest to cast made the biggest impression.  Don’t hold back on an audition, even if in the end you think you screwed up because you never know what the casting people are looking for. Better to be remembered than forgotten.

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