Monday, May 30, 2011

Give Them What They Want

I’m doing something sort of unusual for the upcoming auditions I’m holding.  I have two shows I’m casting.  For the standard musical (Xanadu), I’m doing an impromptu choral audition.  For the choral work (My Servant Joseph), I am not.  It seems sort of backwards on the surface, but there is a method to my madness. 

Xanadu has a cast of 9 people, and 6 of them do extensive harmony singing.  It’s all pop music, with lots of “ooh-ah” in the background, with perhaps 7 singers split into 5 different parts.  It isn’t a setting where really any of them will be able to “sing what the person next to you is singing.”  It isn’t Rachmaninoff (the hands down most difficult choral piece I ever sang was his The Bells), but there’s a lot of stuff going on and each player has to be able to hold his or her own.

Paradoxically, the people I expect to be attracted to this show, to come and audition, are actor/singers who are more used to doing solo work.  I have worked with many talented performers who struggle with singing the notes on the page when it isn’t the melody.  For someone not used to reading music, hearing their own part in the mix, and being able to blend and balance with others (while remembering their choreography), it can be daunting.  I understand that.  It’s just a skill and it can be taught, but I’m hoping that the process of developing a great vocal performance will not eat up so much rehearsal time that we can’t focus on some of the areas that I would rather spend time on – like learning to dance AND sing at the same time.   Too often I’ve heard the vocal quality decline once the actors set down their books and get on their feet.  I’m hoping if we start from a better place (choral comfort from the get-go), that won’t be an issue.

For My Servant Joseph, I am expecting those who audition to mainly come from an existing choir.  I am confident that they are already comfortable in a choral setting, and will be able to, with fairly straightforward SATB music and several people per part, come up to speed quickly.  There will be no dancing and little to distract from simply doing their best singing.  In their solo auditions, I can assess their personal vocal qualities and put together a group that can blend well. 

At least that is the plan!  

Friday, May 27, 2011

Broadway Baby

There are lots of things to think about as you prepare for an audition besides your song (if you are even auditioning for a musical).  Some directors may want a head shot or resume. While I'm not sure it sways my casting decision, it is impressive and makes you stand out if you have those. You do want to be memorable - in a good way.

Dress appropriately. That doesn't mean you need to come in costume, but do understand that at an audition you are very specifically saying "Judge me!" What does your clothing say about your level of commitment, your desire to become part of the team? If it says, "I don't really care much about this," you had better have a lot of talent to overcome your first impression! What you wear can make you blend in or stand out (in a good or not so good way!).  It's not huge, but it can be a factor when you're trying to impress people who do not know you.

Wear shoes you can dance in. I am convinced I was cast as a dancer many years ago simply because I brought my tap shoes to the audition.  Maybe you'll be asked to dance, maybe not, but it is a reasonable expectation (at a musical audition), so don't come looking like you had no idea that a potential performer might be asked to perform.

Bring something to write with, just like a job interview. You will be asked to fill out a form. Be prepared, boy scout! You will probably be asked for some sort of list of past experiences. If you don't want to try to remember everything on the spot, write it down ahead of time and bring that with you, too, just like a job interview …

Try to be calm - difficult, I know. Stand in front of a mirror and practice saying, “Hello, my name is …. and I’ll be singing …. from …”  until it feels natural and you look like you’re speaking with confidence.  One of the best ways to overcome audition anxiety is to do it a lot. Audition for lots of things.  The experience is valuable and you might find some great opportunities you didn’t know were even there.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Dance Ten, Looks Three

I have never, as in the well known Chorus Line song, scored people numerically during an audition. I'm a pretty organized person, I like margins and discipline as much as the next guy, but somehow I can't just assign an audition result like it was an SAT score. I almost wish I could. It would be easier sometimes to just pick the highest score than to factor in all the variables. (Hmm, she's in the 90th percentile for vocal ability and the 75th for tap dancing ...)

I have conducted auditions where I’ve made detailed notes about each person, and others where I’ve just waited to see who made the best overall impression. Sometimes, it is obvious. There is one person who fits what I have in mind (or brings something even better than what I’d envisioned), who I am confident will come through with flying colors. Their talent stands out, they are the one who I can picture in the role and I am comfortable signing them up on the spot.

When there are two or three who could each handle the role, that’s great – options! But that’s also when the intangibles become more important. They are the factors that have less to do with talent and more to do with personality and your personal track record. There are so many considerations that influence the decision, sometimes in very subtle ways. 

People who have worked with me before have a leg up - assuming the prior experience was positive. That's only natural, and one reason to be willing to accept a small role with a new director. When I know what someone has brought to the table in the past, I can decide if I want that to show up on the new table I'm preparing. These qualities, good or bad, can be tie breakers when all other abilities seem equal. 

Never discount your behavior and attitude at the theater as being unimportant to your place in the next show. Right or wrong, it is often about more than just who is the most talented. I have seen people with lesser ability perform quite successfully on stage, and been happy with the outcome because they helped to make the whole experience better for the group. I would choose those people again, and sometimes find myself looking for a way to include someone who I just really want to have around.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Let Me Entertain You

Some more thoughts about vocal auditions. One of the considerations is song length. I have conducted auditions where I've seen over a hundred people. As wonderful as you may be, this is not a concert, and we don't have unlimited time. You've seen American Idol. You can tell for yourself within a few notes if someone is going to be good or not. It doesn't take 3 minutes to make a good first impression.

Most directors will want about 1 minute, so plan for that best minute. Skip the recitative intro, the repetitive verses, the instrumental breaks. Find the minute of the song, even if it needs to be nipped and tucked (half a verse, straight to the chorus), that showcases your style, range, power, tone and vocal agility. No one wants to be cut off before they get to the good part, and I can tell you it is awkward for me to sit there and smile while someone goes on too long. If you show that you know what you're doing and leave 'em wanting more, it is much better than just hanging on until the director tells you to STOP SINGING, which may be just short of the part you really wanted them to hear. Do yourself a favor and plan ahead wisely. Otherwise, even if you’re great, expect to be interrupted.

You'll want to know if you should bring sheet music or a recorded accompaniment (track). Generally an accompanist will be provided, but it doesn't hurt to ask. Unless otherwise told, assume that you need to bring your own music. Do NOT plan on an a cappella piece (no accompaniment at all). Most directors don't like them (myself included), and you'll only look unprepared.

There are lots of places you can get music without spending a lot of money. Sometimes the library will have Broadway music books. Some sheet music sites will have a e-version that you can print for a couple of bucks. One of my favorites is

Amazon is a good spot for downloading tracks for about a dollar. Go to their MP3 download menu and type in the song title along with "karaoke." Preview the song you want, buy it, burn to a disc and you're ready to go. Be sure if you're using a track that you decide where you want it to begin, which will often not be the start of the song.

Sing out, Louise!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Magic to Do

I sometimes look at people who are wildly creative and wish I could create magic on the spot. I am slower. I can do some things on the fly, and really enjoy looking at a production in the works and tweaking as things come to me, but mostly my inspiration is the result of perspiration. A book by Twyla Tharp (choreographer legend) talked about how creativity was the result of discipline, that when you created the structure and framework properly, you were free to fill it with great stuff. Or something like that. I haven’t actually read it, but was told about it by a friend (whose creativity I covet) who was very impressed by the concepts in the book. (Thanks, Jen.) Yeah, I know, I should read it before I start using it as a source, but nevertheless, my limited experience would lead me to agree.

You may not be able to force the creative juices, but if you wait around for them to feel like they are ready to flow, you may be waiting a long time. A long, long time.

When I am about to tackle a new project, it is the organizer in me that grabs a hold first. Before I think too much about the nitty gritty details (which I definitely will spend plenty of time on eventually), I try to wrap my head around the whole thing, the big picture. That is how I prepare, as a director, for the audition process. I need to know what I am getting into before I can line up the people who I want to take that wild ride with me.

The obsession. Yeah. I read the script, figure out who is in which scenes, what major furniture or set pieces need to move on and off, where they need to come from (if it matters), how many different costumes each character needs, make a prop list, make a sound effects list, make a preliminary rehearsal schedule (ultimately to be extremely detailed), figure out who sings which songs, and start thinking about set design. I have started all that for Xanadu. Some of my charts and graphs I won’t end up even using, but I have learned that for me, it all helps me feel like I’m on top of what is going to happen. It helps me make sense of it. It will hopefully keep me from having too many surprises along the way, and will, from very early on, allow me to pace myself so I avoid last minute panic. Or at least the last minute panic that can be avoided. There’s always something. Always.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Show Off

I have an opinion on everything (director, remember?), but realize whoever may be reading this will have their own particular theatrical interests. Whether you are a performer, fellow director, or just someone with a general interest in stage stuff, I hope there will be discussions here and there that are of value. I’ll try to keep the posts to one page, so some topics might span several posts. I welcome your comments.

First off, I want to address auditioning, as I am holding auditions next month for two completely different productions. First is Xanadu, the wacky Broadway musical, loosely based on the 1980's film that people love to hate. The other one is a religious musical program originally designed as a readers' theater, but which we are staging in a more theatrical way. So, I have two very different groups to look at, two sets of requirements, but the kinds of things I look for are similar in a lot of ways.

Auditioning is not a chance to show off, but the opportunity for the director to see if you fit in with her vision of the show. (To avoid him/her confusion, I'll just stick with the female pronouns ... since I'm a girl.) When casting a musical, singing ability is the starting point (although there are many other factors I consider, too). Selecting a song that will showcase your voice is an important first step. Usually you will want to select a song that is similar in style to the show for which you are auditioning.

Xanadu, for example, is all 1980's pop music. If someone comes in and sings something like "You'll Never Walk Alone" from Carousel as an audition piece, it is going to tell me very little about how appropriate their voice might be for Xanadu. I will learn some things about their voice, and it may pique my interest, but they are basically doing themselves a disservice.

Do some research, not only about the show, but about the desire of the director. Some directors specifically do not want you to select a song from the show for which you are auditioning. Some specifically do. There are good reasons for either way of doing it, but be sure you are presenting the picture she wants to see. Try to familiarize yourself with the songs from the show, even if you aren't auditioning with one of them. I've seen on the spot requests to sing a section of a song from the show if the director likes what she hears. You'll do better, appear more sincere and make a better overall impression if you come prepared for whatever you may be asked of you.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Another Op'ning, Another Show

Auditions are coming up again soon, and as a director, I often wish I could sit down with the hopefuls and tell them what I'm looking for, give a few pointers. Theater is so subjective. You can get passed over for any number of reasons and none of them are fair. So, I thought this may be a forum for sharing my perspective on some of those ideas.

I'm involved in community theater, that much maligned beast of dinner shows and shoestring budgets. But, I am a fan of it. I totally believe it has great value for the performer and the audience. People like to create, and some of the crazier among us do it in front of a live audience. But, it really isn't so different from the photographer, the gardener or the gourmet cook. We make something that wasn't there before and share a little of ourselves with others. It's just that most people don't do it with spotlights on and expect applause at the end.

First, a little background about me. For as long as I can remember, I have loved theater. On stage and off, I have been involved on a volunteer basis in different venues and cities. I am not a professional. I have acted, directed, sewn costumes, done sound editing, choreography and music direction. I'm a bit of a "jack of all trades, master of none," but this has given me a perspective on many different aspects of local theater. I would have a hard time limiting myself to just one aspect of production, but if I had to pick a favorite, it would be directing. I'll use this blog to share my ideas on shows, production processes, and maybe even reviews of shows I see. And I won't expect applause at the end!