I have been directing theatre for around thirty-seven years, and you know one thing that has really changed for me? I used to love casting.
When I directed theatre in the community, I loved auditions: seeing who came in, admiring the effort and preparation actors brought to their work, being dazzled by new surprises. Then came the callbacks: pushing people a little farther, starting to work the pieces of the puzzle together to create the best cast you could. It all culminated in that first meeting as a new company gathered together, sized each other up, and sat down for the first read-thru. The true collaboration began – the possibilities were endless!
Things changed when I began to teach high school theatre. My job as a director changed, becoming more like that of a baseball coach. My dad coached baseball for a couple of years, and I remember the dads on the sidelines, the veins stretching on their necks, as each demanded that their son play first base RIGHT NOW!
Early in my career, I tried using a sports analogy on my principal to help him understand my situation. I was summoned to his office. The associate superintendent was also present. It turned out that he played tennis with the father of one of my actresses. Her reaction to not getting the lead had been dramatic, to say the least (she had found my home number and left me a message, demanding I call her back or she would end her life), and the father demanded that 1) I recast the role, or 2) I remove myself from my position as director. The principal was sympathetic. He didn’t ask me to drop the girl I had cast and put the complainant into the role. All he wanted was my assurance that this would never happen again – that no student or parent would ever be upset about casting while I served at this school. I politely suggested that, in the future, he cast the shows, but to my surprise he refused that honor. The associate superintendent was also adamant: his friend was devastated, and we couldn’t have such feelings pervade our community. Everyone needed to be happy. I looked at these men, both of whom had played and coached sports before they assumed their administrative duties, and I asked myself, How can you not get this? What is stopping you from understanding my position?
So I said, “Okay, I’ll make a deal with you. I will promise you that nobody will ever be unhappy about casting again. But –“ I faced the principal. “ I need you to do something for me: I need you to promise me that every boy who gets picked for football will be allowed to be first string quarterback.”
They looked at each other in amazement. My principal replied, “I can’t do that, Brad. Not every boy has it in him to be first string anything, let alone quarterback. You see, – “ The light dawned on his face. He stared at me. And then he promised he would never interfere with my casting again. And he kept his word. Since then, some of my plays have turned out better than others. But one thing people always – always – say to me: You cast it well, Brad. And I think, by and large, that this is true.
This past two weeks, we held auditions for the big musical. Things went pretty well, and my colleagues and I put together a good cast. There were no open complaints. However, a couple of things happened that suggest it’s time to remind people of a fact of theatre life: auditions are tough, but they’re not that important. Just like a chair, a role is just a role. My mother used to say to me when I didn’t get the part I wanted (which was at least 80% of the time): “This is what you sign up for when you do theatre, isn’t it? There will be other chances. Now wash your hands for dinner; we’re having lamb chops.”
I used to give this advice at the beginning of every year, standing up before one and all at our Drama potluck. Parents would come up to me and thank me afterward for sharing this wise advice. “It’s only a play,” they would say. Many of these parents later sent me furious e-mails after the first cast list was posted and their child did not get the lead. Today, I still give the advice to the kids, but I do it in smaller batches.
I now have friends, many of them former students, who work professionally as actors. Others are constantly working in community theatre. I’m proud of all of them. For some of them, perhaps, so many auditions have gone by that they have become more inured to the emotional backlash that casting can bring. For others, each new tryout becomes a chance of being hurt afresh. To them I want to say, don’t do this to yourselves! Either toughen up and recognize that this isn’t the judgment on you that you think it is – maybe someone sang better, maybe someone had better chemistry with another actor, maybe someone fills the costume better – it just is what it is – OR stop going to auditions.
To all of you I offer this mix tape of love, calculated to help you through the audition process.
- Hold On (The Secret Garden) – Martha’s advice to Mary Lennox at her lowest point applies to every little girl who wanted to play Mary but never got to. (My dream role was Pippin! This year, at last, I have officially aged out of that opportunity.) Sometimes things seem very dark when the stage manager calls and tells you the part is not yours. This, too, shall pass.
- For Now (Avenue Q) – There’s nothing wrong with another feel-good song. I think it’s important to at least acknowledge when you don’t get the wrong that things could be worse! Right now, things aren’t so bad if you think about it. (Especially if puppets tell it to you.)
- Singin’ in the Rain – Okay, I include one more, because this is maybe the happiest song in the musical canon. And because watching Gene Kelly dance in the rain is exactly what you should do when you’re feeling blue.
- Don’t Rain on My Parade (Funny Girl) – I include this one for two reasons. First, of course, you shouldn’t ever let one person’s decision stop you. I had a student a few years ago who didn’t get the lead but stole the show with another role (I told her she would do this!) I also told her that someday she would play the lead! Today, she is working constantly, and I have no doubt that one of these days I will see her in the role she wanted to play.
But there’s another reason for this song: This is a song that you must never sing at an audition. Streisand nailed this song, and you don’t want anyone comparing you to Streisand. Here’s a funny story: only two girls have ever sung this song at auditions for me, around fifteen years apart, and both of them impersonated Streisand note for note. To both of them, I said, “This is Streisand’s song, and you basically impersonated her. You don’t want to do that.” The first girl accepted this information. The second girl said, “Who’s Streisand? I was being Lea Michelle from Glee.” I’m getting old.
- I Am What I Am (La Cage aux Folles) – I always tell my students that, after the cast list goes up, they can think about me anything they want. Just keep it private. One can’t help but believe that the director didn’t appreciate what you brought to the theatrical table. That might be true. You mustn’t let that stop you. So this song and the next are, to an extent, f*** you songs to those who we feel are trying to block our pathway to greatness. Just keep going! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lupNzpcpDRk
- Some People (Gypsy) – Another f*** you song, this one for stage parents, sung by the greatest stage mother of them all! Oh, and here’s a real treat! The clip is of one of my former students, Heather Orth, singing the song a few years ago when she nailed Mama Rose!
- I’d Rather Be Sailing (A New Brain) – A great way to get over a bad audition is to distract yourself. Go for a run. Do some yoga. Do that exercise where you imagine you’re lying on a beach in Hawaii with the warm water flowing over your toes and the sun on your face. If you can, go to Hawaii. If you want to, you can take me. I’m not a sailor, but the character in this song, faced with his boyfriend’s brain cancer, has figured out how to deal with the stress.
- It’s Today (Mame) – You have to be fairly existential about auditions. This is not birth or death. This is not surgery. This is a play, one of a million. This shall pass. Try standing in the middle of your space and taking stock of all the things you have right now. Better yet, do this in a gold lame pantsuit with a bugle in your hand.
- Empty Chairs at Empty Tables (Les Miserables) – Happy songs can really pull you out of the blues, and there are a million of them (“Put On a Happy Face,” anybody?) But sometimes you just have to wallow, and Broadway has songs for that, too. If you must indulge, put on your snuggiest bathrobe and slippers, grab the cat from the radiator, retreat to your bed with some chocolate, and revel in your sadness. (No one has that quaver in his voice quite like Michael Ball.)
- One Second and a Million Miles (Bridges of Madison County) – This has nothing to do with the subject, except that, if we all sang like Stephen Pasquale and Kelli O’Hara, maybe we would never get turned down for a show. (But I’ll bet they both have lost roles they wanted. Remember that!)
So there you have it. Recap: Auditions are tough. Get over it. Listen to the songs. Feel better. It does get better!
And there are always lamb chops . . .