Summer School: Which Came First, the Agent or the Audition?
“All that really matters is what you do in the room. ” —Melissa Rae Mahon
We continue our Summer School blog series with detailed advice for aspiring Broadway stars from dancer, singer, actress, director, choreographer, and teacher Melissa Rae Mahon. Below, Melissa discusses the inner workings of auditions, agents, unions, and more. With five Broadway shows to her credit, Melissa Rae Mahon can be seen nightly as Go-To-Hell Kitty in Chicago: The Musical. She also serves as an adjunct professor at Pace University's Dyson College of Arts and Sciences in the commercial dance department.
By Melissa Rae Mahon
If you are an aspiring actor, you should develop a strategic audition plan because, in the beginning, you are your own agent and publicist.
Start by realistically listing the types of shows or roles you are most appropriate for at this point in your career. It's hard to be objective about yourself. If you aren't sure where you fit in, a good exercise is to ask your fellow actors where they would see you. Tony-nominated Christian Borle advises, "If you see yourself as a Sweeney but your friends say you are more of a Seymour, then that's good information to know about yourself!" This list will evolve over time; you are narrowing the field by considering your age, technical skills, experience level, and general type. (You will discover exceptions to this list, but for now, it's okay to think of yourself in these general terms.) Investigate the postings from backstage.com, actorsaccess.com, actorsequity.org, or other theatrical publications for auditions that fall within the parameters you've set for yourself.
“It's important to present yourself in the best light possible at every audition, especially in the beginning of your career.”
It's important to present yourself in the best light possible at every audition, especially in the beginning of your career. You are building your reputation as a talented and reliable performing artist. Casting directors are always looking for talented people for the host of projects they are working on. But when it comes to new talent, they may want to see you perform consistently at numerous auditions before they recommend you to a director or choreographer. This means you may need to be seen by that casting director repeatedly before you'll get pushed to the next phase of the audition process. With so many casting directors and creative teams out there, keeping track of your auditions can be time consuming, but it will prove to be invaluable.
An audition journal will help you keep track of your audition schedule and all the details pertaining to that audition. You'll want to notate the following:
- • The date, time, and location of audition
- • The creative team and producer of the project
- • Who specifically was in the room when you performed (this will always be listed on the door at the audition)
- • What you wore
- • What song, monologue, and/or dance combination you performed
- • Any feedback given
“The casting director may call you months later and say, ‘wear the same outfit,’ or ‘sing a different song this time.’ By referring to your detailed notes, you'll be able to follow instructions perfectly.”
Additionally, you'll make a note honestly assessing your own performance and any improvements or adjustments you'd like to make on that material in the future. All these details are important in the event of a callback. The creative team behind the table often sees hundreds of actors each day, and strangely enough, a great pair of shoes or a striking tie may be the object that stands out in their minds and that they associated with you. The casting director may call you months later and say, "wear the same outfit," or "sing a different song this time." By referring to your detailed notes, you'll be able to follow instructions perfectly. Don't make the mistake of thinking you'll remember all these details! Write them down, because after you've been on a dozen auditions, they all blend together!
Types of Auditions
Open calls are the most common at the start of a new career. Open calls, often referred to as "cattle calls" because of the sheer number of hopeful actors, can include an early start to the day, waiting in a long line, and a very short moment for you to shine. You'll usually be asked for a short 8-, 16-, or 32-bar cut of a song. Often they will ask for a song of your choosing. Sing a version as close to the requested length as possible. If they want to hear more, they will ask for it, and it will likely be on another day. Your audition might feel "shot out of a cannon," which is why it's so important to have your signature song at your fingertips.
Invited calls and/or callbacks are by appointment only. You will have been invited by the casting director to attend this audition and will likely have been given information about what to expect. For example, your instructions might include: Prepare the following sides and/or song, bring your book, and you may be kept to dance. Most appointments are scheduled between 3 and 5 minutes apart, so it's vital that you are early for your appointment! Better that you are waiting for them, as they will NOT wait for you. Based on the instructions given, you can anticipate how long your audition will take, and whether or not they might want to see you again that day for another callback.
Union vs. Non-Union
Only union members can audition for union jobs, but often the casting director will reserve a few valuable moments at the end of the day to see non-union actors. If you aren't a union member yet, that is OK! There are many more non-union performing opportunities of very high quality, and at the beginning of your performance career, the more actual stage experience you can get under your belt the better! If you are just out of high school or college, getting work is the priority, and often joining the union too soon can prove to be a setback. Generally speaking, the union members have more experience and thus the auditions are very competitive. So, at the beginning, aim to be a diamond in the rough at a non-union call.
Equity Principal Auditions (EPAs)
Equity Principal Auditions (EPAs) require you to arrive one hour before the start of the day, with your union card in hand, and get online to select an audition time. Appointments are usually only 2–3 minutes apart, and the open call proceedings mentioned above are in effect. If you miss your appointment, they will not go back to you. Be early!
Chorus calls are held for ensemble singers or ensemble dancers. You'll have strategically assessed your strengths and weakness in these areas already and will be sure to attend the call that puts your best foot forward first. Arrive at least a half-hour before the start of day, with union card in hand, and get an audition number. At a dance call, you'll be divided into groups, and you'll be taught and auditioned in a dance combination. If you make the cut, you may be asked to come back later and sing (usually a short 16-bar excerpt). If you attend a singer chorus call, you'll sing a short excerpt in the order of your assigned numbers and may be asked to come back to dance. Often casting directors will schedule a men's chorus call at 10 AM and women's at 2 PM, or vice versa. This gives you an indication of how long you can expect to be at the audition. Keep in mind, they may ask you to return later in the day or week for a callback.
Appointment calls are usually scheduled through an agent and operate similarly to the invited call mentioned above. You'll be given specific instructions, which you should follow to the best of your abilities.
And that brings us to the big question:
How Do I Get an Agent?
The truth is, in the beginning, you don't need one! Here's how it works. Agents are looking at the same audition listings you are from industry publications. Each potential job puts out what's called a "breakdown," a list of the job details including what the casting director is looking to cast. The agent will consider his or her list of clients and submit, usually electronically, the headshot and resume of clients most appropriate for that project or role. Casting directors will look through all the actors that were submitted and select a handful they think are best for the part or show. So if you are an unknown entity, it's highly unlikely the casting director will select your submission when there are so many others to choose from whose reputations precede yours. How do you shift the balance? Go to as many open calls for that casting director as possible until you develop a consistent reputation in his or her eyes. You can also communicate with casting directors directly via email or mail. If you are cast in another show, send them a very brief email announcement about your upcoming project to remind them of who you are and that you are working! You never know, they might come and see your show. If you are lucky enough to be invited by a casting director to a callback or to an invited call, it's appropriate to send a very brief thank you email and always attach your headshot and resume for their files. Your goal is to become an active member of their files, an actor they know will deliver in the room! Until casting directors are familiar with your talent, an agent can't really help you that much.
“Go to as many open calls for that casting director as possible until you develop a consistent reputation in his or her eyes.”
Let's say you are successful in developing a great reputation among casting directors by delivering many excellent auditions. Now you might want to start looking for an agent. Big agencies work on referral only. Those can be hard to get, but if you are working with a director or choreographer who seems to like you, why not ask for a referral? If the same casting agency calls you in repeatedly, it's okay to ask them for a referral. Luckily, many agencies will hold auditions once or twice a year. So be on the lookout for those!
Regardless of whether you are union or non-union, have representation or are agent-free, your fate is in your hands. All that really matters is what you do in the room. You are the one who will get you your next job. So focus on the elements you can control. Work hard to develop your audition skills and material. Your signature song should be brilliant at any hour of the day, and your audition book should have a varied selection of songs you know like the back of your hand. Keep careful records in your audition journal. Choose your auditions wisely, and, most importantly, remember that the creative team is always rooting for you. They want you to be perfect for the show! Keeping that in mind can help calm your nerves.
For more of this series, explore:
Summer School: A Young Musician's Perspective on Working with the Masters
Summer School: Exploring Teaching Methods with Eric Booth
Summer School: Career Tips from the Kronos Quartet
Summer School: Explore, Create, and Express through Classical Indian Music with Zakir Hussain
Summer School: Musical Intention and Communication
Summer School: Establishing a Musical Career
Summer School: What is a Teaching Artist?
Summer School: The Journey from Workshop to Stage
Summer School: "Let the Performers Be Themselves"
Summer School: "Music is the Star"