An Actor-Friendly Guide
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About the author
Joanna Merlin was a recipient of the Casting Society of America’s Artios Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dramatic Feature Film Casting for Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor and for Best Musical Theater Casting for Sonheim and Lapine’s Into the Woods. As Harold Prince’s casting director, she cast the original Broadway productions of Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Pacific Overtures, and Evita, among others and her film casting includes Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon and Merchant Ivory’s Mr. and Mrs. Bridge.
As an actor, Merlin has appeared in six Broadway productions, including Becket, in which she played opposite Laurence Olivier, and Fiddler on the Roof, in which she created the role of Tzeitle. Her film appearances include City of Angels; Murder and murder; Two Bits; Class Action; Mystic Pizza; The Killing Fields; Fame; Baby, It's You; and The Ten Commandents; and her television appearances include Northern Exposure; Law and Order; L.A. Law; A Marriage: O’Keefe and Stieglitz; and In a Child's Name.
Joanna Merlin teaches in the Graduate Acting Program of New York University, the Actors Center in New York, and the Manhattan School of Music Professional Musical Theater Workshop. She is cofounder of the Non-Traditional Casting Project, and is a member of the Tony Awards Nominating Committee.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Theater veteran and acting teacher Joanna Merlin has written the definitive guide to auditioning for stage and screen, bringing to it a valuable dual perspective. She has spent her career on both sides of the auditioning process, both as an award-winning casting director who has worked with Harold Prince, Bernard Bertolucci, and James Ivory, and as an accomplished actor herself.
In this highly informative and accessible book, Merlin provides everything the actor needs to achieve self-confidence and artistic honesty–from the most basic practical tips to an in-depth framework for preparing a part. Filled with advice from the most esteemed people in the business, such as James Lapine, Nora Ephron, and Stephen Sondheim, and charged with tremendous wisdom and compassion, this indispensable resource will arm the reader to face an actor's greatest challenge: getting the part.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
stop self-sabotage: change the odds!
Most people go to work in the same office, store, or factory every day; they can anticipate who will be there, what the workplace will look like, how it will feel, how their colleagues will relate to them, and how much they will be paid. With any luck, they know what is expected of them and feel confident they can fulfill their assigned tasks.
An actor's life is quite different. A large part of an actor's work is auditioning. Unlike a "regular job", there is no paycheck at the end of the week. (Wouldn't that be nice?) More important, each auditioning event is unpredictable. The script may or may not be available to you in advance. You may be given a scene to read "cold," with only a few minutes to prepare. You may have to wait five minutes or many hours. There may be hundreds of other actors waiting to audition or you may be the only one. You may be auditioning in a small office or on the stage of a large theater. You may encounter one auditor or twenty. The audition atmosphere may feel welcoming or hostile. You may read the scene with someone who is a trained actor, but more likely you will read the scene with someone who is not. You may never get any feedback or know why you didn't get the job.
In a worst-case scenario, what negative effect might these circumstances, and the pressure of getting a job, have on you, the actor?
You don't prepare in a serious way because you are convinced that, since you only have a few minutes with the director, the decision will rest only on how you look, or your personal quality. (If the director thinks you're well-suited for the role, she'll direct you at the first audition, and then you'll dig in and work hard to prepare for your callback.)
You become distracted or paralyzed when confronted with your competition, and persuade yourself that everyone else is better for the role than you are.
You feel as though the entire audition is controlled by others, upon whom you are totally dependent.
You suffer a loss of confidence. You feel isolated, anxious, insecure, and negative about your talent. You know you are a better actor than you appear to be at the audition.
You are convinced that the director has already cast the role and is obliged to see you or is doing you a favor.
If the atmosphere is not overly friendly, you assume that the director has taken an instant dislike to you.
You're certain the director knows what he wants and you don't have a clue. If you make the wrong choice, you won't get the job.
Your focus is on pleasing the director, rather than on doing your work.
You believe the director is looking for a reason to reject you rather than to hire you.
The pressure to get the job either gives you too much energy, or, in an effort to deny the pressure, too little energy.
You hurry through the audition for fear of boring the director or making her fall behind schedule, so you don't take the time to experience the important moments in the script. You rush through it and virtually fly over the material rather than inhabit it.
You feel nervous; your breath is shallow; your voice becomes constricted and doesn't sound like your natural voice; your body is stiff and self-conscious.
You feel emotionally blocked, so you work technically and are unable to get in touch with your spontaneous responses.
The more important the audition, the less freedom you feel you have to "play" the scene. (When you don't care much about getting a job, you usually land it.)
You feel angry for a variety of reasons. Perhaps you didn't have much advance notice, or you've been kept waiting a long time, or your strongest competitor is in the waiting room, or the director seems hostile or unresponsive. Or you're just angry that you have to audition at all. Why don't they just offer you the job?
When you walk into the auditioning space, you feel small, fat, naked, unfocused or amateurish, or all of the above.
After the audition, you feel disappointed in yourself because you "threw away the audition." You didn't do what you feel you are capable of doing.
If you lose the job, you believe that it's because you're not as talented as the person who got it. Or you believe it's because you're not talented at all.
Does any of this sound familiar?
How can actors not feel vulnerable at auditions? It is not in the nature of actors to be thick-skinned. If actors were not sensitive human beings, how could they understand and connect and empathize with the characters they create?
So much for the worst-case scenario. By the time you finish reading this book, I hope you will know how to create a best-case scenario and stop shooting yourself in the foot.
Actors think the auditors have all the power in the auditioning process and they have none. After all, there is one part for which many actors must vie with one another; you don't decide who gets the part, the auditors do. You don't know what they are looking for; they do and won't tell you. You have to prove to them that you're talented, and overcome their hostile skepticism and disbelief that you're right for the role. Until then, you're just another actor. "Thank you. Next!" You're gone and forgotten, their victim.
The actor's misperception of the auditioning process can be crippling. Apart from disabling yourself in all of the ways suggested at the beginning of this chapter, you abdicate your own power. The more power you attribute to the auditors, the less you have. The truth is that, without the vision and talent of the actor, the auditors are powerless, they can't do their work. You are the key to their power. Every director has high hopes that the next actor who walks through the door--YOU--will be the one for the part. Far from eagerly anticipating the actor's abject failure, the auditors' fondest hope is that you will give a superb audition so they can cast the role and go home.
When you shed the image of yourself as victim, you can embrace the conviction that you do have the power to affect the casting choice. Your power is your individual creativity and your ability to deliver a well-prepared, lively audition that reveals your potential for playing the role. Auditors depend on the actors who audition to shape their view of the role to be cast. That's why actors get cast, not because they fit into a cookie-cutter mold the director has in mind.
Once you realize that there is a balance of power between the actor and director, you might start looking forward to the next audition.
Many actors resist the auditioning process without realizing it. Resistance comes in many forms. You don't find the time to pick up the script well in advance of the audition. You had a very important engagement the night before the audition and didn't start working on the script till midnight. You're certain you're not what "they" are looking for, or you decide you really don't want the job, so why invest time and energy?
Or you did make the investment. You prepared, you put yourself out there creatively and emotionally, took risks, and the auditors didn't respond. There was no feedback and you didn't get the job. You feel defeated. You don't want to put yourself into that vulnerable place again, so at the next audition you shut down. You work technically and hold back any emotional commitment. We all know where that leads, or doesn't.
The major reason actors resist preparing properly for auditions is the fear of rejection. If you don't invest yourself in the audition, then you won't be so disappointed if you don't get the job. When you don't succeed, you won't feel like a loser because, after all, you didn't really try. That is a self-protective choice. But it has serious consequences for one's career.
Rejection is a matter of perception. Even if a director auditions fifty people for one role and they all give splendid auditions, only one will get the job. Of course, it's disappointing for the others. But does it make sense for the other forty-nine to feel as though they have failed? Negativity is your enemy.
Look at athletes. The best baseball players get a hit once in every three times at bat. Tennis champions win and lose. Basketball greats have good games and bad. Their careers are developed over the long haul. The ones who are not fly-by-nights are resilient and keep working on their game. They are not stopped by a poor game or even a losing season.
By analogy, the fear of not getting cast should not stop you from doing everything you can to give a good audition. A student of mine said, "Isn't it heartbreaking to work so hard on an audition and not get it?" Maybe, but you'll get over it. And there is always the next audition. Losing because of your own lack of preparedness is a poor alternative.
Another reason for resisting the auditioning process is that you feel the level of your acting at auditions does not represent your best work. For a serious actor who has invested years in training, this is a legitimate reaction. You feel compromised because auditioning does not allow you the time or conditions to let your work evolve. You feel you will be "indicating," or showing emotional results before you are ready.
Accept as a given that you cannot do your best work at an audition. Nobody expects it of you. You are an actor who is auditioning, not an "auditioner." If you do your best work at the audition and you are hired, you will be in big trouble when you have to perform with other actors in different circumstances.
Having said that, you need not feel compromised by auditions. You can still take the high road, use your acting technique with integrity, not force results, and deliver a dynamic audition.
Actors who have a lot of experience auditioning have learned that an investment of time and energy in every audition pays off. Preparation will always help minimize your nervousness. Why should you "wing" the audition, find excuses to give it short shrift, feel less confident, give the director only a vague idea of your potential? Why should you continue to sabotage yourself? Don't wait to act until you get the job. If you keep resisting the auditioning process, that may never happen!
Competition can be one of the most destructive elements in undermining an actor's confidence, or anyone else's. Cindy Nelson, an Olympic silver-medalist skier, advised other competitive skiers, regarding competition, "Put blinders on to focus on doing your absolute best."
Let's say you have an audition and have prepared well, made strong acting choices, and feel you are the right person for this role. You walk into the reception area and see twenty people of your age and type crowding the waiting room, all auditioning for the same role. The first time this happens, it may be a shock. Your confidence flags. You become the casting director. You decide that this one is prettier, or taller, or has a better body, that one is more talented, has more training, is more experienced, or just got a great review, etc. Many seem "righter" for the role than you. (Women are harder on themselves than men.)
Instead of focusing on your preparation for the audition, you sit in the waiting area, trying to look cool so nobody notices you busily checking out everyone else in the room. Don't let the competition undermine you and distract you from your real work.
Similarly, reading the Arts and Leisure section of the Sunday edition of The New York Times or the Calendar section of the Los Angeles Times when you're unemployed can be a bruising experience. "Why is he playing that role when I would have been better? Why wasn't I auditioned? That actor got the part because she just did a TV series. I should change agents. They haven't called me in weeks." It's that kind of a business. You can eat yourself alive.
Try not to make a practice of comparing your career to someone else's. In the heat of the battle, one does get angry, frustrated, jealous, competitive. However, if you take the long view, you can defuse those feelings.
Someone will always work more than you do. Someone will always have a part you wish you were playing. Someone will always have a better agent. Someone will always be getting more attention, making more money, enjoying the career you would like to have. Actors are not alone in feeling this way. In Meryle Secrest's biography, Stephen Sondheim described the usual writer's neurosis. "Everything I write is terrible, everything everybody else writes is wonderful." Don't go there! Remind yourself there is always someone else who doesn't work as much as you do, who will wish for the part you're playing, and who wants your agent, etc.
Competition is a given in our business. And it's not all bad. Competition raises professional standards. Competition should make you work harder to develop your skills so that you, too, can be a contender.
Actors should approach an audition (and indeed, their careers) with the firm belief that they have something to offer that is unique. Treasure who you are and what you bring to the audition. In Laurence Olivier's book On Acting, he writes, "Whatever people may have thought of my Hamlet, I think it was not bad. I know it was not perfection, but it was mine. I did it. It was mine."
Self-confidence is your lifeline in this business. If you don't believe in your talent, no one else will. I don't mean to suggest that you should be supremely overconfident and arrogant, thinking you're the only person for the job, the best there is, and patting yourself on the back. I refer to self-confidence in the deeper sense: trusting your own instincts, training, and experience to bring a role to life. If you approach each audition as though you had the job and were working on the part, you will have a much more positive mind-set going into the audition. Assume you have the ability to play the role. Casting director Jay Binder says, "For those five or ten minutes, you do have the part. No one else is in the room doing that part. It is yours. Own it."
Every person who chooses to become an actor must start out with a strong belief in his own talent. There are so many reasons not to go into this profession that to enter without that conviction makes the decision to do so reckless and whimsical. However, in the course of focusing on the job market and trying to carve out a career, you sometimes lose your feeling of excitement and optimism about acting in general and your own work in particular.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
In the press
"Joanna Merlin [is] one of the top casting directors in the country and a formidable actress…. Her compassion and understanding toward actors is matched by her sensitivity and generosity in teaching this unusual craft."–Kevin Kline
From the Trade Paperback edition.