How to Audition- and how NOT to Audition- for Community Theatre
Image downloaded via Shutterstock
Community theatre is a funny little world that one can’t fully understand until they’ve been swept up into it, and once that moment has happened, it cannot be undone. Never again will you have a normal human being’s perspective where matters of the stage are concerned… you are a Thespian, you’ve been converted, you’ve gotten the ill-fitting, T-Shirt with the production’s name emblazoned across the front of it, and you’re going to cherish it until you get the next, because almost everything else about being in a show is fleeting: the applause fades, the make up is wiped off, the lights are dimmed, the sets are bumped out, your best theatre friendships are immediately put on trial for long-term sustainability, the transformations are reversed, and within days or weeks, the program and your memories are shelved so that you have the mental capacity to tackle the next production.
A lot of people scoff at community theatre, sometimes even those whose lives have been most overtaken by it, and once you’re in that little world you’ll start hearing ‘Who cares? It’s just community theatre. It’s not like we’re getting paid or famous here…’
But the fact that you’re not getting fortune or fame out of it, is what makes these local productions so important to people. For some, it is a stepping stone they want to hop off on their quest towards seeing their name in lights but for others- those that didn’t make it, those who never tried, those who have too many kids to support to try, or those who didn’t realise how badly they wanted it until it was too late to try (not that I believe any of these things matter for those ambitious enough to try and damn the consequences) this is their moment. This is their spotlight. Perhaps they will never get to see their name in lights, but they might get to see it in the newspaper, or receive a standing ovation or even, if you’re like me- get a rush out of being literally surrounded by so much talent and music and beauty and art that your little overdramatic heart runneth over. I came because I wanted to sing the songs I loved- I stayed because there’s nothing quite as magical as hearing, and feeling, a perfect harmony resonating off the walls off someone else’s high school gym. And also because as good as the acoustics and as grand as the mirrors are in showers and elevators, there’s never enough space to really bring it home with a high kick.
As you can see, I got the T-Shirt, and I intend on collecting many more because ill-fitting or not, they were hard-earned.
‘Don’t go around complaining if you don’t get the role you wanted, or even cast at all! In the big picture of the production the casting team needs to consider ages, balance of males and females, and which skills are most needed in the ensemble. You might have a great voice, but be edged out by someone who maybe has a slightly less great voice but also dances and acts magnificently.’- Anonymous MD
But trying to inch our way into community theatre is a tricky thing to do, especially for those of us that haven’t come out of a performing arts school, and haven’t had any sort of formal vocal/dance/acting training at all. It can be intimidating enough to walk up to a group of incredibly talented, self-assured people that are well known to each other (and have more inside jokes then a bunch of Star Wars fans at a Comic Convention) even if you do have years of classes and programs up your ill-fitting sleeve… but if you don’t, then trying to edge your way into a group is like proclaiming: ‘Hey, I might be talented enough to hang with you! Mind if I give it a try?’ and it’s daunting. In fact, it’s terrifying because if you want to get your foot in the door, you’re gonna have to start with an audition.
Confession? I hate auditions. They terrify me. Put me in a room full of one thousand people and I am perfectly at ease- put me in front of a panel made of two local drama teachers, a freelance vocal coach and a choir conductor and I sweat bullets. I sweat, I shake, I find it impossible to breathe and worst of all- I mess it up. A lot of people in community theatre won’t admit that, but I have no shame so I’m happy to announce that I must be one of the world’s worst auditionees for everything. I can nail a song in the privacy of my home/ car/ shower/ karaoke/ drunk at a wedding and sometimes in my kids’ school parking lot (no shame, at all, it’s not a joke, I actually have high-kicked in an elevator) but make me sing in front of just a couple of people that are LOOKING at me at short-range and I fall apart.
And I’ve noticed that the longer I’ve stayed in community theatre and the better I’ve gotten to know the people on the panels, (though ever changing) I have gotten much worse. I don’t know what it is, but I suppose it’s harder to pretend to be someone you’re not when the people you’re in front of know exactly who you are, and this is an issue that people have in community theatre that people on Broadway aren’t going to have unless they’re so talented that no introductions are necessary. You’re trying to impress people that not only know how good you’re not at certain things, but know how awesome the person waiting behind you in line is. What Jerry Seinfeld once said about dating is true for auditions in community theatre: ‘It’s like Magicians trying to impress one another with the same trick. You pulled out a rabbit? So what? I’ve got a high C.’
‘Once you have completed your audition try to put it out of your mind and think of something else! It’s easy to get caught up in over analysis, which only shakes your confidence.’- Anonymous Thespian.
Yes I hate auditions. In fact, if it was up to me, there would be a revolving door so you can come in, fall apart, stuff up, walk out, kick yourself sensible… and then waltz back in ready for take 2. If auditions worked that way I think I’d fare much better but like I said, everything in community theatre is volunteer based, so no one’s got the time to indulge everyone’s panel-fright. You gotta get in, get it nailed and then get it out and then pray like hell that the other people going for the same part as you sucked worse.
So although I am no expert on auditions, I have gone for a few and have been on a panel for a few now, so I have a pretty good idea on what to do, and what not to do. But in the quest of offering all wannabe Thespians some well-rounded advice, I have asked a few local directors/ musical directors/ producers/choreographers and long-term performers to give me some tips to share with you about what to do, and what to definitely NEVER do in an audition, so I hope you take something away from this… So long as it’s not the part I want. 😉
I’m going to start with my own two cents, which tends to turn out to be seventy-five cents or a dollar and change, but for what I lack in talent I make up for with self-awareness and attention to detail.
Mackay Musical Comedy Players, Red Giraffe Theatre, Thespian Ink.
Although most of my theatre experience is from the ensemble POV, I’ve produced four of my own scripts as theatre restaurants with Thespian Ink, over the past eighteen months and go into auditions with very specific expectations, probably because the characters have never been portrayed before but have been manifested inside my head.
In addition to that, I’ve played Amber in Hairspray (MMCP) had the leading role of Angel Delight in Stiff, (MMCP) and have been in the ensemble for Rent (Red Giraffe Theatre) Ma Baker’s Tonic (MMCP) A Wink At The Sphinx (MMCP) Beauty And The Beast (MMCP) Wicked. (MMCP) and Rock Of Ages (MMCP).
I also do some freelance critiquing and those who can’t do, review 😉
*Know the show. It’s not often that an audition panel will want you to sing ‘The’ song from the production, but another. There’s no point in preparing yourself for an audition if you don’t attempt to familiarise yourself with everything that the role will entail. Also you will most likely be asked to read dialogue and if your characterisation is in the Cats ballpark for a Hair production, you’re going to look like a dolt.
*Breathe. I cannot stress this enough. I hyperventilate when I’m nervous so I always end up sounding less than effortless when I’m in an audition than I would at any other given time. I’ve actually started putting vocal warm-ups and breathing exercises on my iPod, which I listen to with headphones before I go in. I don’t think it’s gotten me any parts, lol, but I haven’t died in an audition yet so it’s something.
*Try and get some audition help from someone that you know you can trust to give you honest feedback. If you no someone that’s directed before, or who usually has a lot of interesting stuff to say about other people’s performances, ask if you can do a mock audition with them and demand blunt feedback. It might end up disappointing you but then again, one or two of the right tips could get you into the role you want or save you a lot of heartbreak.
*Do love being in the ensemble if that’s what you get, or find a way to love it. Make friends, learn something new, hone other skills and it could be so much more rewarding than having a lead role can be.
*Treat every single rehearsal as an audition for the next show. Be prompt, be professional, be prepared and be a pleasure- regardless of whether you’re the lead or ‘Guy in crowd #5’. If there’s a fundraising opportunity, put your hand up as often as possible. If there are sets to be painted, show up and offer to help. If the sewing ladies look overwrought, ask them what you can do to help and if you can’t help, find an Aunty Thelma that might. Being in the ensemble can mean a lot of sitting around and waiting, so take a book or a tablet or work on something that needs working on so you can kill the time productively instead of complaining, and be respectful of the people that are being utilised by keeping your voice low. If you only promote the shows that you’re the lead in, other people are going to notice. If you bring a bad attitude every time, someone will remember. If you throw a diva fit or get yourself a reputation as a gossip or a slacker, there’s a good chance that it will come back to bite you because in community theatre, the person sitting next to you in the alto section of the choir now could end up being the one on the other side of the audition panel the next. In my shows, I assume that people that are constantly late, lazy, unprepared or miserable to be around are asking for a much smaller role next time, or to be shelved onto the ‘Do not cast!’ pile all together.
*Go to effort with hair, make-up and dress but not overboard. Try to dress in basics, like black work out clothes, or something that will help them envision you in the part without being distracted… but I’m not a fan of people arriving in character costumes unless they’ve written down that they’re only after the character, and not interested in anything else. Worse still, I think, is when people look completely sloppy. The directing panel are going to have the responsibility of looking after the production for months- why show up looking like you haven’t given their ‘baby’ more than a few minutes’ thought?
*Don’t go in there assuming you have anything in the bag. Prepare yourself for the fact that you might not be the best fit for the part, even if it is your dream role. In community theatre we tend to think we’ve got everyone pegged but there’s always an upset because one hundred people cannot be squished into eight roles. Blondes will be cast as brunettes, older women will be cast as younger and vice versa, and you might only end up being as worthy as your audition buddy is tall. Walking in there and knowing this might just give you the confidence boost you need, because we often give more of ourselves when we figure we’ve got nothing left to lose.
*Don’t slack off in the dance/group auditions. I know some of us have two left feet, but I’ve seen so many people actually just give up or laugh their way through without going to any effort at all, and it’s face-palm worthy. The panel might be able to overlook the fact that you’re not a dancer, but not that you think you’re entitled to try less than the others. Even if you’re not required to go to the dance audition, go anyway and give it your best shot.
*Don’t turn down the opportunity to be in the ensemble just because you think you’re better than that. Being in the ensemble is the best chance you have of proving it, so unless you’re not the right fit (for example, I didn’t go for the ensemble parts in Bonnie and Clyde because I knew I didn’t make sense as a gospel singer) take every opportunity you can get to get your foot in that door and make it a revolving one.
‘I learned never to bring props into a audition. I’m not saying what it was for but I was doing I Go To Rio and brought maracas. Self playing maracas- I just couldn’t stop shaking!’ -Ethan McCarthy, Thespian.
‘Accept that in community theatre, pre-casting happens. It might not be acknowledged and it could be blatantly denied, but it happens when the talent pond is small and the stakes high. It can be a hard pill to swallow, but it’s one that should be taken with every audition pack before you dare to get your hopes up. Walk in there determined to be the best you can be, yes, but as soon as you walk out, release your hopes to the universe and accept that for every leading man bathing in glory, there’s an ensemble member that was just as if not more deserving of it that might have other things to offer aside from talent, whether it be a generous donation, a history of solid performances and reliability, or a friend or three on the panel’- Anonymous Director/Choreographer/Thespian.
WHO: Cheryl Peppin Mackay Musical Comedy Players, Valley Players, Kucom Theatre, Red Giraffe Theatre, Fame Talent School.
Cheryl Peppin is well known for her incredible talent, brutal honestly and effortless execution of everything she sets out to do. She’s played the leading lady, featured roles, ensemble, director and producer, and brings more energy to a production than I bring coffee- which is a lot.
*Be nice to EVERYONE. Director, receptionist and anyone in between. And not just surface nice – try to be genuine. It goes a long way.
*Be confident or fake it til you make it. There’s nothing worse than people apologising when they know they’ve done a crap job . We all heard and saw it too so there’s no need to explain – just move on and do the next thing better to make up for it.
*Never try to ‘psych’ other auditionees out at an audition (or any time for that matter) all it does is make you look like a total tool. It’s horrible behaviour and so unnecessary.
‘Do whatever it takes. I didn’t know any songs for Bonnie & Clyde at the audition so I sang “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” and I got a role, lol!’- Jay Shipston, Thespian and Radio Host for Triple M.
Affiliated with: Anonymous.
Our anonymous judge has been in front and behind a lot of audition panels, and has played everything from the lead, to the ensemble. Not only have they always accurately predicted how my auditions may pan out, but they have the same sense of prophecy when it comes to their own, so take the advice!
*Do warm up your voice before your audition! They may not have time to do warm ups with you in the room.
*Register for your audition early, and ask for a time slot that suits you vocally. Get the audition info pack as soon as it becomes available. You don’t want to be singing first thing in the morning if you’re a night owl or vice versa!
*Consider your suitability for the role, in terms of your age, look, skill set. Research the role and find out which Broadway/West End Star is considered to be the best portrayal of this role. Do you sound like this singer? Do you appear to be a similar age? Do you have a similar look (if that is critical for the role). No amount of putting your hair up in pigtails will make a late 30s early 40s woman pass for a high school student (with the possible exception of Stockard Channing!)
*Watch the great performers performing the role you’re after, and treat with caution a college production that’s been uploaded on YouTube (some are great and some are not). You want to make sure you’re choosing good role models! Consider asking a singing teacher / vocal coach for some help in preparing.
*After researching the role, considering your suitability for it and deciding that, yes it’s you, you should go for it! Prepare your audition material as requested.
Keep it in the original show key and don’t bring the soundtrack (singing over a star won’t show your true ability).
Bring the sheet music if you’re doing your own choice of song. Find out how the accompanist wants the music to be prepared, e.g. some prefer bound copies, some like to work with display folders. NOBODY likes to play from loose sheets of paper.
Good luck!! But seriously, make sure you can stay in key. Get a teacher to check this for you if you’re unsure. If you know you can’t do this, it may be an indication that the role is out of your skill set.
*Take the time to learn the harmony parts! The MD will generally need the following:
Super high singers
Confident Harmony holders in the lower ranges
Every guy they can get
*Don’t complain about being sick at the audition. Too many people use this excuse to cover up for nerves or not being able to reach the high notes (see above). If you’re well enough to do the audition, you’ll be ok. If you’re really unwell contact the producer to reschedule or withdraw.
*If the MD asks for a song that is not from the show, that does NOT mean choose a random song! Don’t sing True Colours by Cindy Lauder at your Eliza Dolittle audition. These days you can search “audition songs for (character)” and a list of great choices will appear. These songs will relate to the vocal style and/or character of the role you’re after (ideally both).
*Audition for the lead role in every show your local company puts on, regardless of suitability. That’s setting yourself up for disappointment after disappointment, and will earn you a reputation which can even work against you when you go for a role that actually DOES suit you. Don’t fake a coughing fit through the high / tricky part you can’t quite nail.
*Copying another performer down to every last detail can result in you coming across like a great impersonator. Learn from the best in the business, but don’t be an exact copy – ensure you also give it a touch that is all your own (choosing roles that REALLY suit you will help with this).
*Be an overconfident guy (see above) and decide to “wing it” i.e. turn up not knowing what to sing, relying on the MD to teach you the song at the audition!! It’s not only rude, there’s a fair chance you won’t get it well enough to really shine. However if you’re a well prepped male Chorus auditionee you may find yourself being asked to try for a lead that you hadn’t previously considered.
‘Ladies, you could seem perfect for a lead role and get a call back! But once they decide to cast someone really short or really tall or much younger or older for the role of your onstage husband, suddenly you don’t fit when seen together. If the male role is a bigger role or there are only a few men to choose from, always prepare for disappointment when auditioning for a “couple” role. This can also apply for males who have to appear together on stage in non-comedic pairings e.g. Marius and Enjolras in Les Mis.’ – Anonymous Thespian.
WHO: Joel Bow
Affiliated with: Joel Bow Productions, Red Giraffe Theatre.
Joel Bow is a producer, director and choreography, with a heavy performance resume and a lot of relationships with super stars, like Dirty Dancing’s own Kurt Phelan, and a column in The Daily Mercury as the theatre voice for Mackay. I believe his eye for talent is equalled only by his passion for the performing arts. His advice is short and to the point, but to be taken very seriously for that fact.
* Do be on time, please, dressed appropriately and listen to all instructions in your audition.
* Please be VERY familiar with the show. EVERY song in the show.
* DON’T audition for a role or a show you aren’t right for. Make sure your vocal range, age, acting and dance ability are in line with the requirements of the character.
‘The one time I didn’t research a role I went in and did an American accent for a British person. Director said: ‘Why American? Did you research the part?’ And I said: “No I just assumed he was American.” Fail big time.
I don’t think I’ve blown an audition, but I’ve not gotten roles due to certain things, height, vocal range and experience.’- Anthony Edwards, Thespian.
Affiliated With: Mackay Musical Comedy Players
Marina has directed and starred in many community theatre productions over the year and is currently directing Wicked. She’s also a big fan of watching musicals, and knows what she’s looking for as far as the performing arts go because she’s been heavily invested in her love of theatre for decades.
*Do come prepared. Know your music nothing a directing team hates more than not being able to see your face. It helps you sell the song and the character.
*Know and understand the context of the song. How you use your body to convey the emotions of that character in the song will shape your performance with more clarity.
*Don’t be inflexible. This is were things can get difficult for you may have done all the Do’s right but the directing team sees the character differently. Sometimes it looks like the auditionees have all watched the same youtube performance….which doesn’t help the auditionee stand out.
Thank you so much for listening to my pearls of wisdom, and to those I borrowed from my personal go-to theatre gurus and friends. It’s a bit of a trope yes, but at the end of the day, we’re in community theatre to have fun, and if you’re always fun to be around, people will look forward to working with you again.
I hope this has helped my readers in some way, and I’m going to leave you with one final bit of wisdom from someone I adore working with. Thank you so much to my contributors, and if you’re interested in checking out their projects, please search for their Facebook pages by company name on Facebook!
‘Try hard not to be a selfish, self cantered cast member . Think of the crew, backstage and anyone assisting on production team . Sometimes your solo is NOT the most important/crucial thing for the benefit of the show over all: learn to be patient and don’t sweat the small stuff. Just continue on learning your pieces and wait for further instruction instead of jumping the gun and being a hinderance to crew by asking a million unimportant questions’ -Cheryl Peppin.