I'm going to take a break from the usual "here's what I'm shooting today" posts and give some unsolicited, sort of preachy, but useful advice. Not that the entries about Bat Mitzvahs are that much more interesting, but I think my experiences with this topic could be valuable to you as an actor- though this advice applies more and more to people in all careers lately as well.
After two decades of auditioning, (sometimes) getting and (sometimes) successfully playing roles, as well as two degrees and countless hours of rehearsal and acting classes, workshops, professional summer training programs, and lately directing and watching the casting process as well, I think I know a little bit about what it means to be an actor. I'll focus on one experience that I recently had, which was sitting in on auditions for a higher-end fringe professional theatre company here in Boston. After watching about 50 actors recite monologues, take notes from the director, recite them again, and say "thank you, have a great day!" I formed a simple, but very useful observation: We are all the same.
I mean that- WE ARE ALL THE SAME. It is a generalization, sure, but after watching this parade of talented, young, good-looking, friendly, pleasant, well-trained people go in and out those black box doors, it was all I could think about. I would stand by my assertion that, with about a 20% rate of outliers (we'll get to that later) everyone who walked into that audition room was equally castable in any number of roles in the play they were reading for. Here's what I noticed:
1. Everyone has training, most with a BFA or BA from a good or great school, some with MFAs, and some with Conservatory or workshop training. Though I don't think training has a ton to do with talent or how good of an actor you might be that day, it does show that you've invested time and energy into improving your craft and that you've had a chance to receive expert feedback about your work. But your BFA/MFA/SPTP doesn't really make you that special.
- Everyone is good. Really, you are all good. I'm good; if you're reading this, you're good too. If you have memorized your lines, can speak loud enough to fill the space you're in, have read the play, and have (probably) had some training (see above) I'd wager you're pretty good. You can accurately portray emotion, we can hear you, you're funny when you want to be, your diction is great, you know what you're saying- you could totally. Get. The. Part. I've come up with a theory: In auditions (once you hit a certain level of professional theatre) out of a hundred people, there will be maybe 10 who are, without question, terrible. There are also 10 geniuses, and everyone else, the other 80 or so people, are really good! But- half of those people think they're awful and that everyone else is better than them, and the other half think they're brilliant and that they're always going to get the part. But the reality is, if you were bad- you'd know it- you probably wouldn't be here after years of failure- you'd be delusional. If you're truly great, you're not standing in line at an EPA, you're already on Broadway and have been since age 11. So you're good. You've been cast in some things, not been cast in lots more things, and you're working on it. You might happen to have a brilliant audition today, or a miserably awful one, but you're usually good. So being good (like everyone else) doesn't set you apart either.
- Everyone is nice and professional and polite in the room. Yup. We've all had audition technique classes and coaching. We're all functioning members of society who know how to make small talk and smile and whether or not we should shake the auditors hands. We're all good listeners who know how to take a note and say "thank you" when the director gives a suggestion. We all memorize our lines and hold the script in our hands anyway. So it isn't that- again, the people thatare really rude or bizarre or unprofessional will figure it out fast and either change their behavior or get punched by some director at some point.
4. Everyone is handsome/pretty/interesting-looking/looks how they should- This is similar to my second point. If you were attractive enough to be a supermodel, you'd be one by now. All the men that came to this audition were tall, pleasant-faced, in good shape, had nice hair, and dressed well. The women were also all pretty and lovely and beautiful and had great makeup and killer shoes. And even the people who didn't meet our current societal standards of physical attractiveness were still attractive, because they were confident and owned their looks and were comfortable in whatever bodies they had. And if you call yourself a "character" actor and think you're special because everyone else is generically good-looking; well, there's plenty of you out there too. Nope- looking a certain way won't make the phones ring either; besides, looks are often the most subjective and arbitrary part of the casting process anyway.
So- if we can all act, we aren't axe murderers, and we all are the kind of guy or gal you'd want to bring home to Christmas Dinner- how on Earth do we compete? Do we just keep showing up and hoping that we'll beat out the other 5'7" brunettes whose upper registers are just a little too belt-y for the director's taste? That somehow having a “Recommended Pass” in Quarterstaff will give you an edge over all the other muscular black dudes who only happen to have gotten a Basic Certificate from the SAFD? That maybe this time you'll be the only white, six-foot, twenty-seven year-old, brown-haired, 180 pound tenor who happens to show up to sing for the role of Jamie this season? What do we do?
WE GET A GREAT HEADSHOT*
Listen. All those "we are all the same" things (with the exception of training and preparation, kind of) are not in your control. You can't control how your face, (and to a degree, your body) looks, you can't control how talented or charismatic you are, you can't control what the director thinks of you, you can't control who he or she sees playing that part, you can't control what people think of where you got your BFA, you can't control current trends in racial or gender-based casting, you can't control how connected you feel to the role you're reading for. What you can control is:
How much training or experience you've had (and even then it could be irrelevant, dated, or insufficient)
How much you prepared for the audition (sometimes this has to be "5 minutes" because that's when they gave you the sides from "another project the director is working on and it isn't really fleshed out yet so just come right back in and read this scene in a vacuum")
How much sleep you got the night before, how much you've had to eat or drink, and arriving on time to the audition. (Even these things can be variable- you never know.)
So those things above- I'd argue that they're controllable, especially because by the time you're standing there telling the air duct to "Stand Up for Bastards!, they're in the past. But still- they could change and are subject to opinions and the whims of fate.
So that leaves all the stuff that so many actors put the least amount of time or thought into, because these elements seem the least connected to their actual acting:
Their reel (if you're in a market that needs one)
Their "elevator pitch"
Their business cards and other marketing materials
Networking and making connections outside of rehearsals/auditions
and, worst of all, their headshot.
It is still amazing to me the number of actors who would consider themselves (and are) professional, and yet have an unprofessional headshot! In this world where everyone's good, the director and I would look at the headshots and laugh! You, with the hastily snapped iPhone photo from the night before- I don't care if you cried on stage, so did the girl before you, and she at least had her photo retouched! You, with what is literally your high school yearbook photo (guilty, NYU auditions, 2004), we were too busy snickering at your goofy 5 x 7 to remember your name when you introduced yourself to us! You, with the self-administered wrinkle-removal Photoshop job- we're mad at you, because we called you in for Juliet and upon seeing your craggy visage in person, realize we should have called you in for her mother instead. We can tell. A professional headshot speaks volumes. It shows the people on the other side of the table that you care, that you're willing to invest money and time into your career, and it is at worst an accurate, a best an enhanced and beautiful representation of who you are. A great headshot, along with a well-formatted and aesthetically pleasing resume, can work wonders to set you apart from the crowd. A good headshot becomes even more important when you’re submitted to be called in for an audition based on your headshot alone! Whatever it costs (and in Boston even the most high-end photographers top out at around $600) is worth it- it will get you work, help you stand out above the wonderful, talented throng, and pay for itself over and over again. It is just one part of the professional package that the product you are selling is wrapped in. You. Your unique face, shown in its best light, ready to inspire some casting director to give you a chance.
Thanks for reading, and even if you don't get professional headshots from me, do get them!
*and website, resume, reel, business card, elevator pitch, etc.