This article was originally written for the Blossom Trail Players' blog in advance of the auditions kicking off their second season.
Hello fans and members of the BTP,
My name is Andrew Esquer, and I’m the Resident Music Director for the Blossom Trail Players. I’ve been tasked with offering the community some information on the audition process for our shows, but I'm going a step further and offering information on the audition process for musical theatre in general. Part of the Blossom Trail Players’ mission
is to provide educational opportunities to those interested in learning about theatre, musical theatre, and the like. In light of that, it was our goal before we began the audition process for this year’s show, Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, to hold an audition seminar/workshop for the community at large, offering how-to tips, suggestions, and even some time to work with the coaches we planned on bringing in to go over how to best present oneself in an audition. Unfortunately, given that our organization is barely about a year old, it proved to be a little complex for us to put together at this point in time. From there, our plan was to devote part of our website to audition advice, but we were not able to get the whole thing together with enough time for it to be of much help to anyone planning on auditioning. Our “Audition Central” will make its debut on our website later on this year, and for now, I’m writing this blog post as a starting point.
Before I begin, I’d like to note that my writing comes from my own point of view—I do not speak for the organization or the Board of Directors. In some cases, what I say may not align with the opinions of others, but wherever possible, I’ll make note of opposing viewpoints and the reasons behind them.
1. Remember the real purpose of the audition process.
First of all, it’s important to look at the audition process for what it actually is: the creative staff in charge of the musical is looking for the actors whom are the best fit for their interpretation of the show. This isn’t American Idol or the like, where people are simply judged on who’s the best overall, or who is the most favorite. Our goal is to tell a story, and in order to do that, the creative staff has to find actors for each role that will convey the character as they see him/her best—acting skills, singing skills, dance skills, and yes, sometimes even physical criteria such as appearance and age can all factor in to the final decisions, and very often, the selection of an actor for one role has effect on the selection of actors for other roles, so that relationships, visuals, and interactions between characters in the show can seem their most believable.
What this means to performers auditioning is that not being selected for a role does not necessarily equate to a bad audition or lack of talent. Thus, it’s important to not be nervous or fearful of a process that isn’t so much about judging your skills as it is about assessing where you would fit best in a show. By extension, callback auditions are often seen as “the second round” of auditions. This isn’t necessarily the case at the community theatre level either—it literally simply means that actors are being called back to assess things further.
2. Do your research before auditions begin.
Knowing what the show is about before you begin will help you prepare in numerous ways. You’ll know about the time and setting of the play, the characters for which you may be a good fit, the characters you’d be interested in playing, and any challenging parts worth preparing for. Above all, you’ll figure out whether or not you’re even interested in telling that story, and most importantly, you’ll be able to figure how best to prepare for your audition. Which leads me to my next point…
3. Match the content of the actual show.
Performance on stage takes a lot of preparation. It should go without saying, but the same applies even for the audition process. But there’s more to that than just singing your audition song or rehearsing an audition monologue—for starters, you want to make sure you’re performing the right song or monologue, one that will actually demonstrate how you can fit in to the production. For example, auditioning for The Music Man, songs that are in similar styles to the music from that show are the best options (sorry, Hamilton fans). Similarly, if I am auditioning performers for a production of, say, Green Day’s American Idiot, listening to someone perform a lovely ballad from a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical won’t help me decide if they can fit into the show’s genre or theme. If you have a role in mind that you’re trying out for, make sure you choose performance material that will demonstrate that you can play that character; otherwise, choose material that will demonstrate that you can generally portray a character within the world of the show.
A quick note about performing songs from the same show for which you’re auditioning: opinions differ here. Personally, I think it’s a bad idea, and I recommend against it (as does the BTP audition announcement). Other creatives or theatre organizations are okay with it, and some even recommend it. Allow me to give some reasons for each opinion so that you can understand the disparity. Some organizations audition by appointment, and often know the backgrounds of the people auditioning in advance. Because of this, they may be fine with an actor singing a song for a specific character to see if that’s a good fit. In other cases, some creatives consider it a surefire way to know that the performer can perform music from the show, or fit a character in that world as I discussed above. But on the flip side, if the way you think a song from the show should be performed (or the way a character should be portrayed) differs from what the people in charge have in mind, you may accidentally color their opinion negatively, and as a result, you may harm your chances to land your ideal role. A step further, some creatives view that decision as obnoxious or even egotistical—to them, it seems that you’re so sure you deserve that role that you don’t have to go through the usual process (often, in a call back audition, you will be asked to sing something from the show anyway). A good, easy rule to follow is to simply check before choosing your song—often times, an audition notice will indicate whether or not the audition panel will accept songs from the show, and if it doesn’t, contact them and ask.
4. More about song selection (choose what shows you at your best).
Even considering everything I’ve said above, you do want to look your best up on that stage during your audition, so if you’re not sure which way to go, use your best material in audition. With any luck, your raw talent will shine through and you will be asked to sing something else to check that with a bit more neutral music. If you’re totally new to the world of musical theatre, and have no idea where to begin, there are several old “standbys” that can always be used to demonstrate your vocal skills (which are often the same songs used to check your voice in that neutral way I just mentioned, because most people know at least one of them most of the time). Such songs may include “Happy Birthday,” “Amazing Grace,” “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” "The Star-Spangled Banner," and even “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” These songs can confirm to the audition panel your vocal and musical skills, but they can also be the kiss of death—their apparent simplicity is often what makes them so hard. It couldn’t hurt to look into these songs just in case you are asked to sing them as well.
5. Respect thine accompanist.
Last year, BTP allowed CDs, MP3s, and similar devices for auditions only because it was our first year, and we anticipated that some performers would not be ready for a proper audition. This year, that’s no longer an option: as with most other theatre groups, you need to bring in your own sheet music for the audition accompanist to play while you sing. This is absolutely critical for a number of reasons: most importantly, we perform with live musicians, not a CD, so auditioning with an accompanist demonstrates to the panel (primarily the music team on that panel) that you have collaborative performance skills, that is, the ability to follow along with the musicians.
An audition accompanist is most always a highly-skilled pianist with a good amount of experience supporting a singer(s) at the piano, and it’s important to note that their job (as they see it, not because they are so instructed) is to make you look your best during your audition. In many ways, good collaboration with the accompanist can quite literally make or break your audition. This may sound hard, given that you often don’t even see the accompanist until you take the stage, but there are a few guidelines to follow that will help you and the accompanist work together.
- Bring sheet music that is legible and in good condition. This means your copy doesn’t have running ink or smears, it isn’t printed crooked, it isn’t fading, or folded, or wrinkled, or torn, or … you get the idea. While technology such as iPads and smart phones can make things easier for you, don’t bring them for an accompanist to use. Smart phones are simply too small, and tablets, while many accompanists personally use them for sheet music these days, are still prone to all the failures of technology. A printed copy has no batteries that can die, or screens that can lock in the middle of a song.
- Only use sheet music in the key you’re going to sing in. Many accompanists can transpose on the spot, but because you want to look your best in the audition, this is not a risk I’d recommend taking. Also—and I cannot stress this enough—be careful with websites that sell sheet music and offer automatic transposition before printing. Often, the computer algorithms that complete this function are limited and result in poorly transposed music that, while not technically wrong, makes the notation much harder to read than it needs to be. Sometimes it’s worth finding a professional and paying them to transpose it for you, instead of trusting that the website software (which isn’t a performing musician, remember) got things right. I’m sure the accompanist will appreciate not having to work extra hard on playing the music correctly themselves, because it means they can focus more on accompanying you. Which brings me to my next point…
- Don’t use music with a complicated accompaniment. Again, things work best when the accompanist can work on actually accompanying you. If s/he is focused on a complicated Sondheim or Jason Robert Brown piano part (hint, hint), there’s more of a risk of them stumbling, and more of a risk they can’t help you as much should you encounter your own trouble.
- Clearly mark what you’re singing in your sheet music. It’s helpful to talk through your “road map” with the accompanist before you begin, but having things clearly marked in the music will go a long way to help you both. Indicate where your 16- or 32-bar section begins, where it ends, whether or not you’re taking or skipping any repeats in that section, and whether or not there’s parts you need them to play or skip. Beyond these road map issues, however, mark wherever you plan on speeding up, slowing down, holding a note out, etc.—any matters of musicality you’re going to perform in your audition, you want your accompanist to be prepared for, and the surest way to do that is to write these things down in the music itself.
- Avoid page turns and difficult page breaks in the sheet music. It’s normally a rather small segment of music you’re singing in an audition, but sometimes that notation can take a lot of space on a page. If the accompanist is in the middle of a busy passage and suddenly has to turn the page on the music, that means something will get lost. Some performers will make custom copies of their sheet music that are edited in certain ways to avoid these issues, or even attached to one another in an “accordion fold” to not have to turn any pages at all. Another note about music that requires page turns: if your sheet music is in a binder, as it is for many performance students, I do not recommend using shiny or glossy page protectors for your sheet music—depending on the lighting situation in the audition location, that may cause a glare on the sheet music for your accompanist. (I should note though that on the other side of the coin, some accompanists don’t like the anti-glare page protectors due to a coating they may have, and still others don’t like any page protectors at all.) Bare pages with no protectors are often your best bet, but it’s really up to you to decide how you want to organize your audition binder, and what matters most is that your music is neat and prepared. You can read more on this topic here (http://blog.musicaltheatersongs.com/tag/binder-preparation/), at a website which I heartily recommend for more audition advice.
- Get professional advice on your sheet music before your audition. Ultimately, all the previous advice on this topic leads up to this point: having well-prepared sheet music is a huge part of audition preparation, and possibly the most overlooked preparation step. If you’re unsure about whether or not your sheet music is in good shape for an accompanist, ask your music teacher if you have one, or ask a musician experienced in the music theatre audition process. If you absolutely don’t know anyone like that, take a photo of each page of your sheet music and email them to firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will take a look at the photos personally and offer a recommendation, provided there is enough time for me to receive the forwarded email and get back to you.
- Be open and cordial/friendly with the accompanist. At its core, this is simply good manners. But beyond that, you’re working with an experienced musician whom has devoted years to his/her craft, and s/he is working to help you have the best audition performance you can. Don’t be nervous or shy when you begin, and openly discuss your selection with him/her to explain how you are trying to perform the song. If s/he senses that you are struggling, s/he may alter what s/he is playing to help you get back on track. This is normal at this level. Be sure to thank the accompanist when you are finished, and give him/her a warm smile—sometimes, the process can be stressful for accompanists too, and a nice smile can recharge anybody.
- If need be, bring your own accompanist. With some theatre groups or types of theatre (opera, for instance), it is actually expected that you will bring your own accompanist with whom you have previously rehearsed. This isn’t the case as often for “Broadway-style” musical theatre, especially at the community theatre level, where finding someone to work with can be challenging. But if you’re dead set on performing that complex Sondheim tune, or you’re singing a selection with a lot of dramatic things going on in the music, you may be better off bringing along a pianist with whom you have worked. The whole goal is to give the best audition performance you can, and if that takes bringing your own accompanist, everyone is fine with that. The on-site accompanist may appreciate the coffee break, anyway.
6. Know your stage etiquette.
“Hello, my name is ______ ________. I’ll be singing/performing ‘_______________’ [from the musical/play ____________], written by ______ ________.” That’s really all you need to say before you begin. There are often a lot of people wanting to audition, so trying to discuss things like how much you love to perform, or how you really want such-and-such role, or trying to give a short bio on yourself often has the opposite effect of you want. All the critical information the audition panel needs to consider will be in your audition form or acting resume anyway, and if there is anything the panel is unclear about or any other information they need, they will ask you.
When you perform, stand in the center of the “stage” (stage is in quotation marks, because often times the stage is simply the floor of a rehearsal studio, and not an actual theatre stage). If you do happen to be on an actual stage, don’t stand too far upstage or too far downstage—simply put, stand where you think the star of the show would stand. If you’re singing a song, stand still and perform your song confidently. By all means, perform your song as you think it should be performed. Some arm gestures are natural and to be expected, but by all means don’t start dancing or pacing around the stage while singing. If you’re performing a monologue, obviously the content and context of your script will dictate your movement on stage. In either case, standing in the wrong location on stage and using the wrong mannerisms or movements during your audition can convey all sorts of psychological messages to the audition panel, messages that often don’t convey what you want to convey.
Finally, when you’re done, thank the panel for their time, just as you would the accompanist when you’re done, and leave. Try not to ask too many questions of the panel about what comes next in the process, and definitely don’t ask how you did. The reason (again) is that the audition panel has to get through a lot of performers, and often times the questions you are asking them can be answered by people in charge of the audition process itself. When in doubt, ask questions of the people at the table where you had to check in. That’s not to say that you absolutely can’t talk to the audition panel, but most often, the question you have in mind either doesn’t need to be answered at this point in the process, or it can be answered by someone else. The principal exception would be if the panelists are giving you direction on something in the audition, and you don’t yet understand. Also, bear in mind that “when you’re done” may be sooner than you think it is. Sometimes, the panelists see enough of your performance that they formulate their assessment and don’t need you to keep going. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, so don’t panic just because you were asked to stop.
7. Brief notes on dance/movement auditions.
I’m not a dancer by any measure, so my advice is limited on this front. What I recommend is what many audition announcements will suggest: wear clothes suitable for dance/movement, remember to stretch, and try your best. For those new to the process, it generically goes like this: The choreographer (or an assistant) will walk you through a brief dance/movement routine, and once it’s been taught and worked through a couple times, you will perform it for him/her/an audition panel. You may only have one routine to work on, or you may have several, but that’s about the gist of the process.
8. Brief notes on callback auditions.
The nature of callbacks vary based on the show and the audition/casting needs of the production. You may be asked to prepare an excerpt (called a “side”) from the show, trying to play a certain character, or you may be given one to read on the spot. You may have to perform the side alone, or you may be paired with one or more actors to see how you would match up on stage as a set of characters. You may be asked to prepare a section of one of the songs in the show to sing, or you may be given the music on the spot and given some time to work on it briefly before auditioning with it. You may be asked to do more dance/movement work. You may be given coaching or direction after performing something and then asked to do it again with those notes in mind. You may even be asked back for more than one callback audition, but again, this is all part of the casting process, giving the decision-makers the opportunity to make the best decision they can as they see it. The best thing you can do for callback auditions is go back to step 2 above.
That’s about what I’ve got for audition tips, save one: the most important advice I can give is to relax; don’t get stressed out, or nervous, or panicked. Just do your best, and if you don’t get the role you wanted (or even any role at all), remember that that’s not the end of it. It might mean that you simply weren’t the right fit for the creatives’ vision of the show, or it may mean that you do still have some developing to do before you’re ready for the spotlight, but in all cases, going through the audition process takes guts, and you come out stronger for subjecting yourself to it. Beyond that, there are lots of other aspects to theatrical production where you can get involved, and if you just want your time on the stage, there’s always another show around the corner.
I know this has been a long read, but I hope it’s been helpful for those of you that are new to the audition process. Auditions for the Blossom Trail Players production of Meredith Willson’s The Music Man begin in just a few short days, so take these tips and apply them to your audition prep time, and I’m sure they’ll help you out. I look forward to seeing you in auditions—break a leg!
(Oh, and as for the title of this blog post? It's a joke—there's no way you can succeed in auditions without really trying.)
Resident Music Director