Due to space constraints, Theatre Alberta’s All Stages Spring 2013 issue could only print about a quarter of Chris Bullough and Vanessa Porteous’s conversation about the casting process in Alberta. Find the full discussion below!
David van Belle (Editor All Stages Magazine): Guys, I am loving this. Yes, it’s certainly going to be a challenge for you to get your conversation down to 1200. So here’s what I’d like to do–we’ll print your 1200 word edit in the magazine, but after the magazine is released we can post the full text online as a supplement. Go nuts.
Chris Bullough (Edmonton Based Actor) - [CB]
Vanessa Porteous (Artistic Director, Alberta Theatre Projects, currently on parental leave) - [VP]
CB: Hello Vanessa. Ok here we go:
Question #1: I’m a notoriously terrible interview, I once dried while reciting a party piece from a production that I had just come off of…but my embarrassing life aside, I’ve heard it come up, on more than one occasion that because “we’re a smaller market” or because “we don’t get as many auditions and therefore not as much practice compared to the larger centers” such as Vancouver or Toronto, Albertans (when compared with other demographics) aren’t up to par when it comes to nailing the all important audition. Being an artistic director of a company that casts from the national pool of talent you’re seeing folk from all over, so the question is…Do we have our own style when it comes to the interview process that might be working against us and if so, do you have any suggestions to help compete on a national level?
VP: Dear Chris, Sorry we haven’t connected by phone, but heck, let’s just do this.
Answer to your Question #1: I haven’t really noticed a difference between how actors from different regions audition, or how ‘well prepared’ they are, or whatever. Actors who audition a lot are more practiced than those who either work a lot so don’t audition or haven’t auditioned much yet in their careers. I suppose some mid-career Toronto actors, say, might do more auditioning than Western actors at the same stage in their career, because it’s a bigger pool over there. And so they might appear more polished or something – though as I say I haven’t noticed. I do remember this one guy from New York. His audition was pretty darn polished…
But that doesn’t make me think they are better actors. The less well we know each other (like say if the actor is just passing through town and is doing a ‘go-see’ audition for me based on a cold call email), the more barriers there are to cross between the actor and the auditioner. A polished, highly prepared audition might feel desirable to you, but it can be one of those barriers – something that has to be overcome.
It is true, though, that there are different styles of auditioning, especially for the call back or role reading. I’ve noticed that more senior actors tend not to worry so much about preparing the externals of a scene. They don’t ‘stage’ the excerpt they have been asked to prepare (nor dress the part or bring props or any of that). Often they will choose to sit at the table and just read it quietly. But they have read and thought about the play and character, and can speak well about that. They display their actorly imaginations (and sometimes their critical faculties), rather than a finished performance. I think partly it’s because they understand that creating a role is a process. Can’t be done in one day. They must trust that I understand that too. And maybe they are (probably rightly) preserving some energy – they don’t have the job yet so they aren’t going to get all worked up and ‘do’ the whole character for me. And I often think (in the case of really good actors) it’s a sign of respect for the truth: no one can pull a complete, truthful performance out of thin air, at a job interview for a stranger, and to pretend to do so is to demonstrate a shallow understanding of the job, of the art form.
All that said, this low-key approach is not the same as not preparing, or just analyzing, not acting. These actors have put a lot of concentrated energy into their preparation, and it shows. It is not the same as laziness, and I fancy I can spot the difference, so be careful!
Actors who work a lot in film and TV are trained to focus more energy on preparing the externals, and young actors often work on the externals because they don’t know how to prepare the other stuff yet. Sometimes someone is so keen on getting the role, or so determined to change your impression of them, that they will throw themselves into preparation and do almost a full performance. That is to be respected and honoured: it is beyond the call.
Unfairly, despite the above, I personally do like to see the scene roughly up on its feet, and so I encourage the auditioner to make some physical choices. That said, I respect the performers if they’d rather just sit and read at the table. I’m suspicious of my own need to see some blocking. It feels like a lack of imagination on my part – or a desire to get right to the directing. But this audition is about them and the role, not me and my ideas about the scene. That said, it is also about whether we two will work well together, so I do like to dig into the scene a bit with the actor. A lot is revealed that way.
My only piece of specific advice is: unless you are dyslexic or have some reading difficulty, please do not spend your time memorizing the sides. If you do, unless you are a really, really efficient line-learner, your audition will mostly be a memory demo. Rather, get to know them, and prepare them as you would a scene. Have them in hand, have them marked up, have them in large print – whatever. Knowing the lines is not the point at this stage.
That said, everyone has different opinions: some people absolutely love it when you’ve memorized it. Some people want you to ‘be’ the character. Some people like a very polished audition full of ‘strong choices’. Et cetera. So what do you do.
My question #1: We can’t hire everyone. Mostly, our jobs are to tell people that they didn’t get the gig. What are classy ways that theatres do that, in your experience? How best to break the news? On the phone? Via email? With explanation? Timing? Etiquette? Tips please.
Question #2: No one’s work is for everyone – or as my friend playwright Ron Chambers once said to me cheerily: “No matter what you do, someone out there will hate it.” If I simply don’t like someone’s work, but they keep coming back asking for a job, should I tell them why they never get one? My current policy is not to say anything unless they ask me directly. But – what do you think? Would you rather hear, straight up, that you won’t be getting work from someone, and (potentially) why? Really? Think about it. REALLY?If so, how best to go about that?
Question #3: Sometimes I like to ask even senior actors whom I know well to come in and read for a role. Sometimes I have a few in mind and have to decide, and even though I have worked with them all I still ‘audition’ them, setting them up against each other as I make my mind up. It helps me a lot, but some people feel it’s insulting and taboo to audition artists at that level. I can see their point of view, but I still do it. What are your thoughts?
Question #4: Does everyone out there know all about how much the budget determines casting, the different costs of in town and out of town actors, quotas for equity and non-equity (there are new terms and rules in the recent CTA about that, but there are still quotas), et cetera et cetera? These are real factors in decision-making. How versed are actors in that stuff?
CB: No problem Vanessa… Sounds like we’re on completely opposite schedules…I’m chasing a toddler around the house all day and you’re nursing all night!
That “respect for the truth” that you observe in more experienced actors audition’s is something that I am still trying to achieve. I understand in my heart that one must allow for your own personal creative process to come through at the audition, but there’s an internal struggle that happens because part of me knows, that there is a product that the theatre is SELLING and so I better “nail” this audition.
Answer to VP’s question #1: What are classy ways to break the news that you didn’t get the gig? Phone. Email…Carrier pigeon. For love of God, anything please!!! I know that you’re under pressure to cast a show, and in your case over see the entire season but I’m trying really hard to string a season of my own together so I have enough strength to get through my parent’s anniversary party when someone inevitably asks “When they’re going to see me on TV?”. While you’re taking your time, going to Toronto, getting a get a couple different takes on the character, I’m lying awake in bed going over and over the audition in my head until I hear from you, which my be never.
Ok, hyperbole aside, if you are getting back to me at ALL you’re already doing more than most. The fact that you’re asking the question is amazing.
When I think about this issue it reminds me of high school dating. The worst was when you thought you were getting somewhere with someone you liked, devoting time and precious funds taking them out to McDonald’s every other day for two weeks, just to spot them through a crowd at the Halloween dance making out with some jock from the catholic school. (True story)
Even though it hurts, you respect someone that can dump you right to your face. So, for me the classiest thing someone can do is give me a call, but I understand that that can be time consuming, especially if you’re seeing tons of people. So email works to…. like, two lines would be wonderful! ”Sorry, it’s taken me so long to get back to you Chris, it’s been quite a challenge putting this one together. Just want you to know that we’re going another way on this one. Thanks for coming in!” There…You can pass that around the next time all the Artistic Directors get together for their annual BBQ in Jasper and just swap out the name.
For me, if you’re taking the time to call or email…no explanation needed. You went with someone else. End of story. I think (and this is for the youngsters) we as actors need to put ourselves in your shoes. You have a show to cast and you need to cast who you need to cast in order to tell the story in the best possible way you know how. I think any reasonable person would understand that.
With timing…I’d say if it’s taking an inordinate amount of time to cast the show, like over two months…fire me an email! Let me know that your still considering me, and if not…let me go. I’ll be fine. I’ll go work on the rigs, maybe even get a one man show out of it.
CB’s Question #2: Speaking of all this…Why is it that we sometimes never hear from AD’s? Should we be contacting you? If so, how long should we be waiting before we do? And if I happen to see you at the grocery store a couple weeks after an audition is it ok to bring it up? I guess it differs from person to person and how well you know them but what do you appreciate in these awkward situations?
VP: Dear Chris: Your point about contacting people who were up for a role but didn’t get cast is so well taken. I can’t believe that theatres don’t let you know. And you have reminded me that I owe an actor an update. It is taking me a very long time to cast something (granted, it’s something that is a very long ways away), and I should let him know he’s still in the running.
Now, your question: contacting AD’s. It is a good idea and eminently professional to contact AD’s if you would like to work at their theatre. Do it yearly, say, around casting time, or when you are traveling through town.
It is my very strong preference that you contact me in writing rather than on the phone, because I hate the phone and always feel horribly startled when it rings. If it’s someone who wants something from me it is even worse. I think the phone is one of modern life’s worst inventions – it interrupts concentration and hijacks the moment. I personally am glad to see the return to a society based around written correspondence, with texting, tweeting etc. Way more civilized. However I know some of my colleagues live on the phone. I still can’t think they’d want to get a call from someone asking for work, but you never know, so all I can say is try to get to know people and reach out to them in the way that seems best.
I think email is best, or you can do the old fashioned thing and send a card. I always feel bad at the expense when people send cards. But some actors like the personal touch. Do whatever suits you. But if you do send a card, don’t forget to include your contact information including email. I can’t count the number of lovely cards we receive that we don’t know what to do with because they contain no contact info. We vaguely attach them to the person’s file and then when it comes time to contact that person we swear because we don’t have the most recent info. Then we facebook them or use Casting Workbook or something.
Maybe you are writing to try to set up a coffee or a private “go-see” audition. You should know that as the years pass I find myself more and more reluctant to book a coffee with an unknown actor who is just passing through town. In the list of priorities unfortunately that ranks pretty low, because the likelihood of eventually casting that person (from out of town, based on one audition or chat) is very small. I know I should do these meetings, and I really try, but inevitably when the day comes there’s some horrible crisis at the theatre and my coffee date, booked a month ago, is gumming up my life. Nowadays I try to think: what is the purpose of this meeting, for me? Is this someone I’ve heard great things about? Someone in a category that is difficult to cast so I should really get to know a them? Etc etc. I do triage. All that to say that you may find it hard to arrange these meetings with ADs.
Do try to avoid pressure tactics. Telling me that you’ll “be following up next week to confirm a date for coffee” is liable to panic me slightly. Pushing me into meeting you won’t get you any closer to a gig, despite star-is-born fables.
If you are writing in order to be considered for roles, then if possible, look at the upcoming season and and let me know what roles you want. If that isn’t doable, and if you are more or less a stranger, then at least express in one elegant and truthful sentence why you would like to work at our theatre. If it is ‘because I’m an actor, damn it, and I want to act’ that’s ok but do try to think of some tiny thing that shows you know what theatre you’re writing to. Very subtle flattery never hurts (greeby grovelling does though, so beware.) Something like “I so enjoyed X production at your theatre last year, and would be thrilled to be part of next season” would be good. Use your wits to personalize the message somehow.
But don’t go overboard. Do not write long paragraphs hyping your enthusiasm or describing your personal journey. This is business. Keep it to the point. People don’t read past the first 3 sentences of anything. 3 sentences, people. (Is anyone still reading this for example? Helloooo….?)
We keep a ‘PCBI’ file (“Please Can I Be In”) which feeds our audition list, so your name will go in that file for consideration. But we don’t necessarily ask you in for an audition even if you have expressed interest. There may already be someone for the role, or we may, in our wisdom, believe the role isn’t for you. Ultimately there is nothing fair about the process. It is not a contest or anything like that. It’s a dictatorship, basically. It’s important especially for young actors to understand that.
I don’t think it’s necessary to contact AD’s in this way more than once a season. The other reason to contact AD’s is to invite us to your shows, which you should do. But again, please don’t feel the need to corner us: “I have set tickets aside on such and such a date” is not necessary – I just start worrying about those Guffman-esque empty seats.
People usually offer comps, which is classy. I usually pay if I’m going to come, especially if it’s indie theatre, which is classy of me. But I almost never come, which is not classy of me at all. Still, quite often someone on our artistic team will attend, which makes it slightly better. They are integral to the casting process, so rest assured: someone with influence has seen your work.
In your example, you run into me somewhere and wonder whether to ask about the role you auditioned for. My answer is check your gut: does it feel right to bring it up?
A classy way of doing it might be mentioning it as you leave: “Hey, I hope you’ll let me know how the decision-making is going with the role some time soon. I’ve got a couple of things percolating and I wouldn’t want to miss the opportunity to work at your theatre. Anyway, good to run into you.” That way the AD doesn’t have to stammer out an explanation for their indecision to you in the freezer aisle. Leave the whole thing open. On the other hand, you could just follow up with an email later: “It was great to run into you, and it reminded me to ask whether you have come to a decision about that role…”
Here’s where it isn’t cool to ask about work: at the bar. Never. Especially if either of us is drunk.
Kay, Bullough when you answer the next time should we call it done & start editing? Or do you want to ask one more q which I’ll try to answer concisely?
CB:I want to answer ALL of your questions… but yeah, we should probably wrap this up as concisely as possible. Let’s say one more question from both of us? I’ll answer one of yours tonight and send you a question. Sounds good?
VP: Or we do rapid fire on all subsequent q’s – 3 sentences only. Answer one q fully & the others in 3 sentences. Ask me as many as you like but I gotta answer in 3 sentences.
(Typed while burping a baby.)
CB: Ha! Nice… Yes, good idea! Let’s do that. No joke…I just typed that with Olive climbing on my shoulders.
VP: I did one in 3 sentences and one in…. 3 paragraphs… oy. Anyway, I don’t have time to cut right now so I’m just going to send it.
Next step: collating it all and editing it. …
VP’s Answer to CB’s Question #3. What do you expect from an actor at a general audition?
I expect an actor to be prepared, positive, hungry and playful. As to what I’m looking for, yes, I’m looking for a human being who feels compatible with me, but I’m also looking for someone who fits my notion of the character, in their nature, their instincts, their sense of language, style, status, class, humour, emotional temperature, appearance; someone who will suit the other members of the ensemble already cast (age range, family dynamic, chemistry etc); someone who has the ‘chops’ to carry whatever load their role demands; and someone with as much charisma and talent as possible so as to completely fascinate the audience. You, the auditioner, can’t control a single one of those things, so that’s why you should relax. You’re off the hook!
VP’s Answer to CB’s Question #4. How much responsibility does an AD have to support the community and hire locally?
An AD has many different responsibilities (artistic vision; strategic goals for the work on stage; serve art form & build legacy: have an impact in your community/city/region/country; delight your audience; serve the play; serve the creative team; inspire & employ local community of artists; expand world-view by bringing in fresh talent; encourage emerging voices; sustain mature artists; not to mention stay within your means, preserve the institution in hard times, etc etc etc). Every decision is a more or less successful balancing act of these competing priorities. Different AD’s lean different ways depending on their nature and on what they believe their theatre needs to do. Some favour bringing the wide world to their audience, some feel it is more urgent to invest in the local community, and most kind of hover awkwardly somewhere between.
The blunt truth is, Chris, no AD can ever hire enough locals to satisfy the locals. I can’t speak for other AD’s, but as for me, while I feel we must provide opportunities for local artists, in my opinion ATP does that fairly well already. What is most important right now is that we must also lift our eyes (and the eyes of our audience) to wider horizons and stretch outward culturally, artistically, geographically, thematically, stylistically… I want to expand our artistic reach; I want us to become very ambitious and bold (while still being canny and nimble and tough…!) So that influences my decision-making with regard to local artists vs ‘outsiders.’ Ultimately, a theatre is ‘for’ more than just the artistic community it employs.
There. I’ve said it.
CB: CB’s answer to VP’s Question #3: Sometimes I like to ask even senior actors whom I know well to come in and read for a role. Some people feel it’s insulting to audition artists at that What are your thoughts?
Ok…I was in a situation where myself and another chap were called in for the day…something like, I kid you not, five hours of auditioning. It was a two hander and the director revealed that the male part was going to go to one of us, but he had yet to fill the female role. So, we proceeded to audition back to back with what seemed like every actress in Edmonton throughout the course day, doing various scenes in a bunch of different ways. Hey! Kill two birds with one stone…cast your play and squeeze a little workshop in before rehearsal starts. That was not cool. Didn’t get the part btw.
When it comes to auditioning senior actors I understand where the insult is coming from. You get to a certain point in your career and you get tired of what feels like “dancing for gramma”. You want people to trust that you can play the role and just give it to me already! I’m guilty of having these thoughts but I think as actors if we allow ourselves to go down this road we’re really missing the point.
If you’re an established actor in the community, you’re obviously good at what you do but the question both actor and director need to be asking is “are/am you/I good for this particular production? You said you like setting people up against each other as you make you mind up. I totally get that. It’s play and the nature of our particular form of story telling is we start to really understand where it wants to go when we get it up on it’s feet. But animosity in this situation is real so, what to do…? I think communication is the best solution in this situation. If the three or four people you are thinking of casting are veterans or even a well established mid-career actors why not call them up, let them in on your process and ask if they wouldn’t mind coming in? As actors, we expect directors to take time to come see us perform in other productions. If we’re writers and have a new play that we’re writing we ask AD’s to come out and see the workshop readings, to give feedback… It all comes out in the wash.
VP: Oooh… I just need to write quickly to address an important misunderstanding. I never want to set people up against each other & god forbid I should ever do group auditions or weirdly long auditions or any bullshit. (there are CTA rules against all that anyway.) I even try to make sure they don’t run into each other, I’d they are quite senior.
I DO EVERYTHING POSSIBLE NOT TO SET PEOPLE UP AGAINST EACH OTHER. What I was trying to say was that merely by asking, say, 3 senior women in the community to read for the same role I’m automatically setting them against each other.
Oof. My professional pride was on the line…