Auditioning for Comedy Roles

Posted on 18 August 2010

I have been a director for live theatre, stage, and film. It still surprises me how easy and how difficult it is auditioning people: easy in that I can easily say “no” to a great many, and difficult in finding good usable comic actors. I don’t feel the situation needs to be this way. Here are some tips for getting yourself on the acting shortlist with many directors and producers.

Professionalism

People see the bad behaviour of A-list actors and something in their psyche says, “I want that kind of freedom.” Even A-list actors start losing jobs if they prove too troublesome. As a beginner or even mid-list actor you can’t afford to be anything less than absolutely professional. A single acting position can attract thousands of people with whom you will be competing.

Professionalism begins with contacting the casting director with a polite call or a short correctly spelled email with CV and headshot attached. Make sure the headshot bears some relationship to the show and part for which you are auditioning. I’m directing comedy, I want headshots with people smiling. Actors don’t have to go overboard trying to look funny, I just need to see that I’m working with more than a block of wood. If you send me a letter or email, have someone check them and your CV for spelling and grammar. I don’t require my actors to be highly literate, but I do want to see that they take the audition seriously.

When you are contacted you will need to be prepared to audition on the date and time you are given. It’s all right to ask if another time is available. However, once that is settled, avoid any attempts to change these again. If you subsequently cannot make your time, call and apologise, even if that means you are giving up the role. You need to maintain a good reputation. If you insult or waste the time of the people working on a production, you will automatically reduce your further opportunities in the industry.

Arrive at the audition on time. Come prepared with certain standard information about yourself and following any instructions given by the casting director. Standard information includes your costume sizes, if you have a car, and your availability. Special instructions may include things like come in a red t-shirt, memorise certain lines, be willing to audition at a cafe. Before the audition it is acceptable to ASK if you will be provided with a script. Demanding the entire script is a good way to alienate the people on a production. Original material has to be protected. Such a demand might be met as a favour to an A-list actor, anyone else would require a non-disclosure agreement.

For original comedy you may be asked to do cold readings. I usually start by just chatting with an actor to determine if they are likable (absolutely crucial for effective comedy), show charisma, and are capable of being witty in conversation. A cold reading on top of this will show me if the actor is quick in catching the jokes, capable of improvising, and takes direction well. From long experience no matter how good the actor, if they can’t take direction, they aren’t worth the grief.

Once you have completed the audition, thank the people involved and make sure you have left your contact details. If you haven’t heard from the production in one to two weeks afterward, you can either assume you didn’t get the role or call once to confirm. Understand that so long as you remain polite and civil, your audition may have been successful enough for you to be remembered for future roles, just perhaps not this one. I have called people back on more than one occasion. You can also turn down a role. Do so politely. Anything less will affect your industry reputation.

If your audition was successful, you still aren’t off the hook regarding professionalism. You will need to be easily contacted at all times by phone or email. You will need to respond promptly to all communication. Check your email daily. Confirm the receipt of instructions, rather than relying on the production people to assume. If you have any difficulties, give the production plenty of time and help to work around you. If you can’t make a rehearsal (do this rarely), inform people as soon as possible and NOT the day of. I have allergies to certain colourants and perfumes, so I will inform people and often get asked to come in a day early for a makeup test before filming.

Turn up to ALL rehearsals. Turn up to all rehearsals promptly and stay until the designated completion time. If your lines are not currently being rehearsed, sit quietly. Begin learning your lines immediately, rather than waiting for the director to set deadlines.

Experience

I find all sorts of experience are valid for building fine performance skills, not just big name acting schools. Nevertheless, you still need experience. I have had more than one actor turn up with a nearly empty resume, then ask immediately what sort of money they can expect. If you are a practitioner of any art form, you will have to put in many hours of skill development without pay. This is not about fair or unfair. Most jobs require training without pay, except perhaps the military.

Treat ALL productions equally. Whether you are in an amateur, volunteer, or professional production behave reliably, responsibly, and to the best of your ability. These shows provide you with skill-building, networking, and a reputation (preferably a good one). I have brought on actors through word of mouth by other actors who knew them in an amateur production. I also know of a few actors who started being knocked-back because people they mistreated in their early days were now in positions of power. You are not functioning in a vacuum.

As a director I completely respect amateur experience. It shows you are willing to put in the work and have a genuine passion for acting. Volunteer productions have the added value of professional intent. They may not make money, but they are stretching for excellence. Experience with standup comedy is of great use to me. I have the funny factor for which I’m looking. Comedians will have to prove they can act and, more importantly, that they can work with other people.

Getting Over Yourself

This issue boggles me, but I’ve run up against it so many times, it’s worth noting. Comedy involves many crazy and insane roles. Even the “straight” roles will involve moments when the character will either behave foolishly or be the butt of foolishness. This should be understood.

I frequently have had actors apply who think comedy sounds like fun, but are terrified of allowing themselves to be funny. This isn’t about having the comic equivalent of two left feet. This is about people who have carefully groomed their persona for one type of leading role and live it everyday. Even dramatic roles require more flexibility, but these actors admire and emulate cultural stereotypes. Letting that persona slip feels like an ego death.

To do comedy you must have a greater self-acceptance and resilience in the face of your own humanity. You must be comfortable with your self as a fallible human being. You must be in touch with the core of who you are then play with being other, rather than always living the mask. You also have to be brave enough to make large gestures, take large risks, and live with the odd large disaster. Comedy is mostly about exaggeration.

Sex

You might think I put this in to get your attention. Hey! And it worked. Comedy revolves around sex, violence, and fallibility. I’m less inclined toward the violent end of things, so I use more farcical sex. Sexuality in drama can be controlled and one note. Sexuality in comedy can be chaotic and anarchic.

In audition and in performance you will have to show me that you can walk the line between respectful and open. You will have to be able to convincingly play the male gender, the female gender, trans-gender, and any and all permutations in-between. Panto thrives on the humour of inverted genders. You will have to be able to passionately embrace all genders. You will then have to be able to switch that passion on and off, depending upon whether you are on stage or not. You will have both the confidence and humility to ask your acting partner regularly, “Is that all right? Are you comfortable with that?” Then you will listen to and respect their response.

Sleeze-bags who think they are funny will be weeded out faster than you can say “uh…” Sexual harrassment laws apply equally to theatre as to any other work place. Everyone’s permission for certain behaviours must be clear. I’ve already had to deal once with some minor dressing room harrassment. Fortunately, it took only a word to the wise to sort out.

Conclusion

The screen and stage industries in Australia are small. Even elsewhere the number of performers far outstrips the number of available roles. This imbalance has upon occasion been abused. Yes, you have to be hyper-polite to make it. Learning equanimity, patience, humility, and forgiveness along with timing, gesture, and motivation will get you a long way. Your reputation is worth absolute gold, jealously guard it. I do not believe the competition means you have to compromise your integrity, because that too will form part of your reputation. It’s mostly a matter of treating everyone you meet with respect.

When you go in to audition, learn how to keep your ego in balance. You need that ego to give you the self-confidence to do a grand and guffaw-worthy performannce. Also understand that yours is not the only sensitive ego, many artists go into creating a collaborative work such as a play or film. Your graciousness and civility will make you a prime candidate for involvement.

Peace and kindness,

Katherine


No responses yet. You could be the first!

Leave a Response

Recent Posts

Tag Cloud

Meta

Katherine Phelps is proudly powered by WordPress and the SubtleFlux theme.

Copyright © Katherine Phelps