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Maybe it was the time you were a carrot in the third grade pageant, or a townsperson in the high school rendition of INHERIT THE WIND. Or perhaps it was just the last time you attended a community theater production and wistfully watched the performers with a mix of admiration and envy.

Anyone who has ever been bitten by the acting bug recognizes the feeling—that pervasive itch to be up on stage but the lack of knowledge on how to make it happen.

Is there a theatrical career in your future? Before you decide to quit your day-job and tread the boards, here’s what you need to know.

DO YOU REALLY ENJOY LIVE THEATER?

It seems a silly question on the surface but there’s a big difference between being a spectator who watches a play just once versus actually performing it every Friday, Saturday and Sunday for 8 weeks or more. And don’t forget the month or more of weeknight rehearsals preceding it! If you have a job that requires you to travel or a family that relies on you to feed them every evening and help with homework, some obvious compromises will need to be made to accommodate your thespian dreams. It is also essential that you have the personality to work as a team, whether your role is that of the lead or just “person in crowd scene.” For as much as is said about the enormity of actors’ egos, the truth of the matter is that there is no room for them on college or community theater stages.

HOW MUCH EXPERIENCE DO YOU HAVE?

The fact that you don’t have a degree in drama or have never performed before in a stage play shouldn’t necessarily deter you from auditioning at the local level. If you can read well, project your voice, memorize lines, follow directions, and are not petrified of being in front of large crowds, you’ve already met the prerequisites that most directors are looking for. Accomplished public speakers and teachers, for instance, generally transition well to theater work. The downside is that directors tend to fill the juicy lead roles with those who have either worked with them before or have a substantial list of credits from past shows. If you’re serious about establishing a toehold in your city’s acting community, however, take heart! The more you try out and participate, the better parts you’ll get as time goes on!

FOR THE LOVE OF ART

Small theaters generally operate on a shoestring budget. Hence, there is either no pay or a bare minimum which hardly covers bus fare. (And you thought acting was glamorous!) Dinner theaters, on occasion, do a little better, sometimes sharing a percentage of the house proceeds with the performers. Major cities, of course, pay the highest rate, but you are now looking at a scenario that often requires union (Equity) membership and still necessitates a second job (such as waiting tables) to pay life’s pesky little expenses like food and rent.

WHERE TO FIND AUDITION OPPORTUNITIES

There are several ways to find out when local theaters and colleges will be holding open try-outs. The easiest is to simply pick up the phone and call them. Find out if they have a mailing list and express your interest in being on it. It’s also advantageous to ask them what plays will be performed in the coming season (more on this subject in a moment). Another thing you can do is to stay attuned to the arts and entertainment section of your local paper, as this is where upcoming auditions will be listed. If you’re a college student (of any age), try-outs will be advertised in the university’s newspaper or posted on campus bulletin boards. Last, but not least, it always helps to have a friend “in the business.” Whether your acquaintance is one of the performers or part of the backstage crew, having someone on the inside is useful in terms of learning the latest buzz of who is looking for what. In the same vein, do you have a valuable skill yourself that could be put to good use in a backstage capacity (i.e., carpentry, sewing, painting)? Working at the theater in any kind of technical or public relations job and getting to know the resident directors can play to your advantage when the casting call finally goes out.

THE AUDITION ITSELF

There are two types of auditions. One of them is a general, cattle-call interview in which directors simply want to get a sense of what kind of raw talent is out there for possible use in a future show. The second—and probably more common—is a “cold” reading of the script for a specific play. Cold readings are those in which actors have no prep time to study a script prior to reading it with one or more other actors on stage. In contrast, the cattle-call auditions generally require that aspiring performers prepare a memorized 2-6 minute monologue of their own choosing, a selection intended to show off their best theatrical abilities.

Three short rules should govern your choice of material to do in a cattle-call:

1. If the audition calls for 2 minutes, do 2 minutes exactly. Such auditions are usually conducted with an egg-timer and operate on the expectation that you have practiced your piece to perfection and can deliver it within the strict limitations.
2. Although comedy monologues are harder to do well in audition settings than dramatic material (humor being a more subjective medium than pathos), it is entirely your choice to do whatever you personally feel comfortable with. If you’re the kind of person who could make reading a grocery list hilarious, go for it!
3. Unless you have a unique spin to put on a familiar passage from DEATH OF A SALESMAN or A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, you are probably better off choosing a lesser known play and/or monologue. You need to remember, after all, that directors have heard the same scenes a thousand times over. Try to dazzle them with something refreshingly different.

Now let’s suppose the audition will be comprised of readings from the upcoming play to be produced. Remember back when it was suggested that you find out what shows will comprise the new season? It may be a “cold” reading for your peers but you, planning ahead, will have already checked the script out of the library, read it from cover to cover, and feel at ease with the dialogue. You may even have decided which part you would most like to play. That’s fine. Do not, however, rule out any of the other roles, especially if you can project a different character or voice for each one. This demonstrates to the director that you’re not only versatile but open to just about any part he or she might find you suitable to play.

Here are a few more tips to keep in mind:

In large auditions where it is within your control to choose, you should opt to go first or last in the line-up. First, because you will set a precedent for all others to follow; Last, because you’ll have had an opportunity to see how others are interpreting the role. Try to avoid auditioning in the middle of the herd; middle readings all tend to sound exactly alike.

In the event the director ever inquires, “Would anyone like to read again,” always say yes. It either gives you a chance to improve on your earlier reading or to try out for a different part. Both ways, it doubles your “visibility” and, accordingly, increases your chances of being remembered. (Directors never call for second readings if they have already made up their minds. Remember that and use it to advantage.)

Whether you are doing a cold reading or performing a memorized monologue, (1) do not put your hands in your pockets and (2) if they happen to wander there of their own nervous volition, do not have anything noisy in them like loose change or keys that could create a distraction.

Treat every audition like an actual show. Do your best performance when it’s your turn, and accord your competitors the same respectful attention they deserve when it’s their turn.

Before you leave the theater, it’s helpful to find out when call-backs or final cast lists will be announced. For college productions, these announcements are usually posted on the theater arts department bulletin boards. For community theater shows, either the director or an assistant will call those who have either successfully been selected for roles or who are borderline candidates being invited back for a second look. If you have not heard a response from anyone by the given date, you can assume that all parts have been assigned, freeing you to go audition elsewhere.

Last but not least, never accept a role in a play unless you fully intend to honor the commitment of staying with it for the full duration. To back out of a show at the last minute not only inconveniences your fellow cast members who were depending on your participation, but requires the director to scramble for a replacement—a situation which could not only jeopardize the success of the scheduled production but also nix your own chances of ever working for that theater company again.