Auditions Part II: Tales from Behind the Desk

Last year, I wrote about improv auditions from a performer standpoint.  Earlier this month, I went through the audition process on the other side of the table. As the director of an upcoming show, I had to select a cast.  It was not easy.

When you audition, it’s really no different from any other performance.  The only differences are that A) You’re performing with people you don’t know, and B) The audience consists of 3-4 people.

Let’s deal with “B” first.  Is it weird performing for such a small audience?  Yes.  But the same things that work in a regular performance work in an audition.  Are you smart?  Are you funny?  Are you a good actor?  Are you listening to your fellow actors?  Are you making conscious, varied choices?  Are you being proactive?  Do you look comfortable despite any nerves you’re fighting?

Those things earn you points.

Similarly, things that turn off a regular audience will turn off your auditors.  Failure to listen, steamrolling or hogging the stage, making repetitive choices and being passive will work against you.  I eliminated one woman because she contradicted the location previously established in the scene.

Now let’s deal with the fact that you’re playing with strangers.  That sucks.  Especially in the first round, you may be dealing with people who have no business on a stage.  Like the Russian guy who seemed to make his performance debut during these auditions.  It was easy to eliminate him… but what about his scene partners?  I just focused on how they handled the human roadblock.  You can only control yourself.  Don’t lose control just because you’re with someone out of his depth.

Performers broke down pretty clearly into three groups…

1) Definite callbacks.  These were performers who sparkled.  They offered something unique or different.  Some were funny.  Some were good actors.  Some brought an energy I wanted to see again.

2) The “maybe” pile.  These were people that had some good moments, but they didn’t grab me as much.  Sometimes people have an off day.  Perhaps you sense potential, but you’re not sure.

3) Get these people away from me.  Guy checking his watch throughout the audition, you’re excused.  Russian guy?  Hit the door.  Woman who never made eye contact with her scene partner, vaya con dios.

Out of 70 performers, I had 16 in the definite callback pile.  Nine women, seven men.  We looked in the maybe pile.  Just two men, and a bunch of women.  We decided to call back nine men and nine women.  The goal was to build a cast of six.  (One woman was a holdover from an older version of this show, so that slot was already filled.)

Callbacks

This is where things got tougher.  A few people eliminated themselves by virtue of being in the presence of better performers.  While you may look great opposite someone losing their cool, you’ll look lead-footed if you can’t keep up with someone really sharp.

Some people just didn’t bring the same energy they’d displayed on day one.  (That was my fatal flaw mentioned in my previous audition blog.)

Some people actually performed better in the second round.  They were a pleasant surprise.

Of the five people I cast, three of them were front-runners from day one.  Two people showed dramatic improvement from their first round.

Final Selections

When we set out the headshots of our favorite performers, I once again noticed we had more women than men.  And though it was my intention to cast a gender-balanced show, I felt better about skewing that balance for a more talented cast.  So when you come to see Lady Parts at ComedySportz in 2012, you’ll see a cast of four women and two men.

I should also mention that we wanted an understudy.  And one woman proved herself so versatile, I felt she could handle any of the parts… male or female.  That’s a huge compliment to her.  But it’s an understudy spot, which, you know, kinda sucks for her.

When assembling my cast, I could have just gone for the funniest people.  But you need diversity on stage.  I picked one guy because I believed he could be an excellent straight man.  The other man I selected had a huge variety of characters.  That covered my bases for men.

For women, I chose one woman who played a lot of self-assured, strong characters.  I chose one woman whose characters showed great specificity, but more “stereotypically” feminine/light energy.  And I chose a woman who may have been the best actor of anyone in the auditions.  (She reacted to everything in an honest, believable way.)  You have to have good actors in your ensemble.

Chemistry is impossible to predict, but I tried to come up with a cast whose strengths don’t entirely overlap.  Yes, casting a straight man means losing some of the funnier or more energetic performers who auditioned.  But it will work better in the show.

(You can’t have six Chris Farleys on SNL and expect the show to work, dig?)

Overall, I was impressed by the talent level.  And the decision to cut down was extremely difficult.  I had to go with my gut.  And I know I had to cut a lot of very talented performers.  I’m sure karma will boomerang on me the next time I audition for something.

I’m looking forward to working with this cast.  And I believe I selected the five people who will give us the best show.  (Plus, the understudy wild card is someone I think we can make great use of.)

In the end, if the cast fails me, it was my choice.  And if they succeed, I can take a little credit.  But they’ll be the ones collecting laughs and applause.  After what I put them through, they’ve earned it.

Got an improv question?  E-mail me at boilingpointimprov[at]gmail.com

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