Auditions: When Actors Fly

September 6, 2014 |

Diane Schwartz was not one to throw herself into the arms of a man she barely knew. But after a marathon audition session for a community theatre production of Noël Coward’s Private Lives, Diane couldn’t help herself. She had endured reading after reading for the part of Sybil, holding her own opposite a blur of Elyots, Amandas, and Victors. But in the end, when Diane was the last Sybil standing, and the director cheerfully informed her that she was in, she lost it at last. With a whoop of triumph, the normally reserved petite mother of two went airborne.

Diane’s director, unharmed by the impact of his new Sybil’s joyful leap, knew how she felt. Though it may seem irrational, actors invest an enormous amount of time, energy, and emotional capital into competing for what amounts to a temporary job, with little to no compensation (except for a lucky few), and scant opportunity for advancement. But for most actors it’s more than a job: it’s a mission. Preparation is everything, but even the most prepared actor may fumble the execution.

Meagan Jones, a tall, attractive redhead is one of many actors who pursue acting roles throughout Tucson, home to a vibrant community of talented artists. To a director’s eye, Jones is at an optimal age. She can “project” a wide range of characters from a classic ingénue in her twenties, to a worldly but twisted Lady Macbeth. For Meagan, auditions are part of the process, though not one she relishes. Still, she arrives at every audition, ready to compete against a small herd of local hopefuls.

Tony Eckstat and Meagan Jones performing with Golden Age of Radio Theater in August. Photo: Dave Sewell

Tony Eckstat and Meagan Jones performing with Golden Age of Radio Theater in August.
Photo: Dave Sewell

“I feel I’m really competing against myself; I don’t compete with other actors,” says Jones, enjoying a cup of house brew on the shady patio of Raging Sage Coffee Roasters, not far from the University of Arizona. She has a regimen that has served her well in a wide variety of audition situations, part of a discipline that includes mastery of short monologues tailored to the type of play she may be reading for. That discipline, combined with eight years of classes in comedy improv, provides Jones with the confidence needed to face unknown situations. Experience helps, but every audition presents a whole new set of challenges.

An actor like Jones may be asked to perform one or both of her monologues (one “up” and one “down,” that is: one from a comedy and one from a drama), and then given “sides”: one or more scenes from the play to read with other actors. Perhaps whoever she’s pared with will have a comparable skill level, possibly a friend she’s worked with before. That’s the best scenario. Or, she may be teamed with a partner who may attempt — without warning — to wow the director by propelling himself off the walls and furniture, thus earning the quick dismissal of both actors. The luck of the draw.

Long time professional stage director Sheldon Metz has seen his share of careening actors. Over an omelet at the eastside Millie’s Pancake Haus, Metz pulls out one anecdote after another, even referring to two pages of typewritten notes to refresh his memory. After more than 45 years in L.A. and six in Tucson, Metz has close to 180 directing credits to his name, which means 180 opportunities to dodge the occasional airborne Sybil, or wonder what to do with the vastly proportioned woman encased in a mega-plus-sized muumuu with her heart set on reading for the svelte and sultry Maggie of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. (He let her read, of course.)

Although Metz has no doubt seen legions of actors who arrive at auditions on-time, well-prepared, and dressed appropriately, it’s the flakes and the blissfully oblivious who stick in his memory. He recalls one actor who only wanted to audition backstage, explaining, “I get nervous in front of an audience.” Another shy actor — or perhaps it was an ill-advised artistic choice — placed a chair upstage and performed his entire audition monologue facing the chair with his back to the audience.

And then there was the young woman who arrived in costume to read for a specific part. When Metz asked if she would be kind enough to read for another part as well, she cheerfully assented by stripping down to bra and panties on stage in front of the stunned director and a house full of actors, pulled a fresh costume out of her bag, and prepared herself for the reading.

Over the years Metz has compiled a list of dos and don’ts he wishes all actors would keep in mind when they come to auditions. He avidly recites some of his favorites:

  • Don’t tell me your life’s story.
  • Slate yourself. (That is, tell me your name and what monologue you’re going to do.)
  • Don’t apologize for being late. In fact, don’t be late.
  • Don’t say this: “Do you mind if I go first? I have an appointment for another audition.”
  • Don’t say this when your phone rings in the middle of your audition: “Excuse me a minute.”

Classes, workshops, and books galore provide tips, techniques, and admonishments that actors ignore at their peril. Most heed the wisdom gleaned over 2,500 years of theatre practice. Innovation, such as bouncing off of walls to emphasize key moments or stuffing a pillow under one’s shirt to simulate a character’s portly build, is risky and likely to blow up in the actor’s face. For one thing, the pillow may suddenly shift to the left mid-reading. Cue a roomful of people trying valiantly not to erupt in hysterics.

Like Meagan Jones, Tony Eckstat believes in relentless preparation for every audition. Eckstat, an energetic, personable man in his 40s, has been acting for more than 15 years. His résumé not only includes numerous plays of every type, but also several films and TV ads for Vantage West Credit Union, Basha’s Bakery, Eegee’s, and Hyundai, among others. Eckstat almost never walks into an audition cold, having researched every aspect of the production he can gather. He arrives with contrasting monologues rehearsed and ready to go, tailoring his approach to the type of job and time allotted.

According to Eckstat, the differences between auditioning for film or commercials and reading for a play are few, but some adjustments need to be made for the intimacy of the camera.

Tony Eckstat  Photo: Dave Sewell

Tony Eckstat
Photo: Dave Sewell

“An actor must be much bigger for a play, much more of a presence,” says Eckstat, noting that actors have to be seen and understood in the back row just as well as they can be in the front. For filmed performances, Eckstat says, “information and energy must be conveyed with smaller movements because the camera picks up and magnifies everything. Performances must be more nuanced. A raised eyebrow might be a significant movement on film. A raised eyebrow might be invisible on stage.” Wall bouncers please take note.

Both Eckstat and Jones were asked if going into an actual job interview was the same or different than going to an audition. Both actors were quick to mention a malady common to both endeavors: jitters. Eckstat notes that he never gets nervous before performing onstage, but he definitely gets butterflies before an audition. He assumed that his extensive auditioning experience would make non-theatre job interviews less nerve-wracking, but “that hasn’t been the case for me.”

Jones draws a greater distinction between interviewing for a job and auditioning for a role. At an audition, she says, “I’m more nervous in the sense that acting is my passion. I take it more seriously. I put 110 percent into it.”

What makes it all worthwhile, of course, are those moments when the director calls with good news: the part the actor really, really wanted. Then the audition marks the pinnacle of the actor’s career, at least for a little while. But most of the time, as Meagan Jones says with a wink and a wry grin, “Auditions suck. I hate them!”

Category: Arts