Domenick Scudera has a regular Festival Blog column about his experiences in the performing arts. He is a longtime theater artist and is the chair of the theater and dance department at Ursinus College.
Stage auditions are the world’s cruelest job interviews. Thrust onto an empty stage, actors have three minutes to prove all their worth and skill before jaded judges. Imagine if other professions hired in this same way. An auditioning surgeon would have three minutes to perform a lobotomy. As part of a brain gets lopped off, a toneless voice would yell, “Time. Next!” The surgeon would try again at another hospital the next day, this time performing an appendectomy. Even if the procedure was performed flawlessly, he will not get hired because his nose is too big.
My first professional audition was at age sixteen. My drama club friends had read about a Sound of Music open call. We had seen the movie a hundred times and knew we were the perfect Von Trapp children! We just needed to show up and, in no time, we would be starring in a big-time musical!
Upon arrival, we sobered quickly. This was not high school and we were not competing against the same two kids for roles in the semester’s musical. Hundreds of children were being herded onstage one by one, displayed in front of casting directors like meat as each sang “Doe a Deer.”
Stephanie had a lovely voice, so when she got onstage, they let her sing all the way to “Fa a long long way to ruuuun.” This was followed by a curt, dismissive “Thank you.” Too tall. Scott, whose blonde look was perfect for a Von Trapp child, sang to “Me a name” until he was cut. Voice too low.
My turn. I was a bug under a microscope. Music started, I breathed deep and sang: “Doe a . . . ”
Two notes. That was it.
The audition process was not always like this. The word audition did not have its current connotation until the late nineteenth century. Prior to this, if a young man was interested in acting, he arranged an interview with a company manager, not an audition. Young Mr. Prescott would arrive at his appointment with the august Mr. Postlethwaite who was waiting in a book-filled office, a warm fire burning in the fireplace. Over tea, the company manager would ask questions about young Prescott’s intentions and interests, summing up the boy’s moral character and judging his suitability for the troupe. If all went smoothly, Prescott would be engaged as the company’s newest apprentice. He would start by playing Spear Carrier #3 before graduating to a small speaking role—“Yes, my liege”—in another show. The grand actors of the company would perform their best Hamlets and Cleopatras, and Prescott would absorb all the training he needed through osmosis. After a number of seasons, his name would be on the bill playing a leading role. Mr. Prescott appearing as Romeo. Quaint. Genteel. Encouraging.
Motion pictures ruined everything. Valentino hit the silver screen and theaters scrambled to compete. Good-looking people with no talent or training were suddenly the hot ticket in town. A pretty face meant millions of dollars to a producer. Morals and ethics had nothing to do with it. A gal was plucked from a row of leggy chorines and became a star overnight. Casting directors came into existence: brutal, barbarous agents of humiliation.
One of my earliest career jobs was as one of these agents of humiliation at a regional theater. The casting director’s world, I learned, is impersonal and clerical. The job entails posting audition notices, weeding through headshots, making phone calls, scheduling, running auditions . . . all with the hopes that, after all this work, the director and producer would see the right person at the right time.
Auditions are boring. Unlike American Idol, auditions are not thrilling adventures resulting in orgasmic ecstasy when you find the next Big Star. In reality, auditions require sitting in airless rooms eight hours a day as one person after another, every three minutes, tries to impress the hell out of you. Actors do not realize that you are so numb that it is impossible to make an impression. A casting director formulates an opinion in the first three to five seconds of an audition. If an actor looks right for the part and sounds OK, you might—might—watch him for the remaining minutes. If it is lunchtime, your stomach is more important and you will not pay attention, no matter how big the talent. Your mind wanders. Where will I eat? Is there time to pick up the dry cleaning?
Making fun of people was a trick of the trade I employed to keep entertained. Before actors even entered the room, I mocked their photos. As they auditioned, I maintained a straight face but stored up ammunition for later. A talentless girl performs a climactic monologue from Sophie’s Choice. Too funny! Another mispronounces David Mamet’s name as Mamay! A laugh riot! A tone-deaf “What I Did for Love.” Hysterical!
My favorite auditioner was a young woman who sang Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” Just the choice of song was an invitation to ridicule. That poor girl was probably no older than I was when I auditioned for The Sound of Music. But I let her sing the whole song, not because I was kind or because I thought the theater would hire her. No, I let her sing because I was so entertained that someone would earnestly sing this rock-and-roll song a cappella, swaying to the music that only she heard in her head. She was a rock star in a private universe, complete with imaginary microphone and spotlight. I let that kid think she was doing well, that I liked her, that she might have a chance. Oh, I liked her alright. That night I had my friends roaring with laughter: “This girl with leg warmers screeched out a Pat Benatar song! You’ll die!”
When I was sixteen, did some casting director use me as comic source material? “So then this Italian kid came in and starts singing (Italian accent): Doe-a a deer-a, a femala deer-a —ha ha haaaaa!”
I worked as a casting director for three years and had to give it up. There is something wrong with a job where you judge 99.9% of people as wrong. I came to view the world through ugly glasses. When I would meet anyone anywhere, shortcomings and quirks became grotesquely magnified. “It’s so nice to meet you,” I would say to a new acquaintance while thinking, “Those jeans are two sizes too small. You should sue your hairdresser. Is that a nose job?”
After I got out of the casting biz, I was hired to direct a play at a smaller theater, a company with no casting director. I had to run my own auditions. Luckily, some good actors appeared and I swallowed any impulse to laugh at them. Toward the end, I had cast the entire show in my head. All but one role. I still needed someone to play the minor, comic role of the loud-mouthed, over-bearing waitress.
The last actor walked in for her audition. She was tiny, not the powerhouse I wanted. She read from the script tentatively, messing up lines. I mentally dismissed her. But instead of cowing to the pressure and turning red or crying—she laughed. Hard and long. At herself. “It’s the worst audition ever!” she screamed. She started again, fumbled words, paused and . . . laughed again. “Forget it! I’m nervous. I’m terrible! Thanks anyway.” She exited.
Oh well. No waitress yet, but all in all it had been a good day. I started packing my stuff.
Then I heard this woman in the hallway still laughing. She was telling her friends the story of her failed audition. She mocked herself. She was not hesitant or insecure like she had been during her three minutes onstage. She was boisterous and cackling. The life of the party.
A thought came to my mind that never would have occurred to me when I was a casting director: she deserves a second chance. Her personality might fit well with the company of actors I had assembled in my mind. She would be fun to have around.
“Miss DeRosa, will you come back in, please?” She was shocked. She came back in. Instead of asking her to read again, I asked her to tell me why she was so nervous. Her large personality came forth now as it had with her friends in the hallway. Soon she had me laughing. I had found the last actor for my show. Miss DeRosa appearing as the Waitress.
I cast Miss DeRosa in at least three productions after this. She eventually worked her way up to more substantial roles in my shows. Her initial audition may have been terrible, but you cannot judge someone’s potential and suitability in three minutes. You just cannot.