How to Put on a Musical
by John Kenrick
Auditions are the theatrical equivalent of a job interview. Unlike most interviews, they are not one-on-one. Performers sometimes face potential humiliation in front of a room filled with people. Talk about the "valley of the shadow of death!"
This process is also nerve wracking for the decision makers. Casting can make or break any musical, amateur productions included. And with only so many roles to go around, no matter who is chosen or how the process is handled, any number of people will be disappointed with the results. However, no better means of casting has been found in the last few thousand years, so audition we must. It helps if you manage the casting process with some compassion and civility. The guidelines below will help.
Set auditions about three weeks before the first rehearsal this will give you time for callbacks, etc. This is also the time to call for crew members. You may be surprised at the number of people who will be interested in working behind the scenes on lights, sound, costumes, etc.
Your announcement should include the time, location and requirements for auditions. Give everyone at least ten days to prepare, and be clear about what sort of material you want the performers to present a song, a memorized scene they select, or some lines you will give them. Do not require them to prepare material from the show in question. It can be a real hassle to get sheet music from certain shows, and you will get tired of hearing the same number massacred several dozen times. Let your hopefuls focus their energies on presentation, not research. Provide an accompanist. Otherwise, you will face a parade of energetic relatives "lending a hand." Another way of handling this is to have a capella auditions but I think this is a last resort. Let your hopefuls audition with accompaniment if you possibly can
Have performers make specific audition appointments. Five to ten minutes per person is plenty. Place a sign-up sheet in a supervised location office, local business, etc. and check it periodically. If you have no takers, you may have to drum up talent. On the other hand, if all your slots are reserved way in advance, schedule more auditions.
From announcement time onwards, make it clear that this show will demand a total commitment from cast and crew members -- you can't repeat this point too often. If a spotlight operator or one of the leads keeps missing rehearsals, you will have a major problem on your hands. Ask everyone who wants to get involved in the show if they have obligations to a job, sports team or other activity. Good intentions (you know, the things that pave the road to hell?) will amount to nothing if someone has to choose between your show and a playoff game.
Run Humane Auditions
Auditioning in front of an audience of peers is a nightmare, especially for amateurs. My college stage director and musical director had aspiring performers gather in the auditorium, where each of us had to get up on stage and sing. Almost everyone loathed this approach! As a director, I recommend taking a more professional approach. Have the performers in a supervised waiting area, from which they can be shepherded into a separate audition room. They perform for the decision makers and no one else. Performers will still be nervous, but their potential for humiliation is reduced. This also makes it impossible for the "I saw everyone who auditioned and you were robbed" gossips from spreading bad feeling. (These rats lurk in every community, including yours.) Your decision makers can include the director, musical director and choreographer. Keep the number small.
No matter what you do, disgruntled people who don't get starring roles will grumble that your casting was fixed or unfair which makes it all the more crucial that your auditions always maintain the spirit and appearance of fairness. Treat all performers with equal tact and courtesy. Make it clear that everyone is expected to show up on time. Those who show up late for their appointment must wait until there is a break in the line-up, or until everyone else is finished. Be sure someone in authority (stage manager, assistant director, etc.) is in the waiting area to maintain order, sooth nerves, and see that the schedule is followed. This person can also make sure you have accurate contact information for every performer.
When performers enter the audition space, greet them in a polite, formal manner and let them present whatever they have. If they have nothing prepared, have them read a scene and/or sing a song they know. When I ran auditions for elementary school productions, I found that even the most terrified child could be persuaded to sing "Happy Birthday," a good belt number. Maintain an upbeat, encouraging attitude. Each performer is taking an emotional risk appearing before you, so be supportive even if their singing is so off key that it lands in another state. You are not expecting a finished performance . . . you are looking for potential. Be prepared to coax things along and offer suggestions. But stick to your schedule. If you are not sure about an individual, you can have them audition again.
Initial auditions often leave you with a few question marks. There may be two or more people who would be right for a particular role, or you may just want to see if certain performers were quite as good (or bad) as they seemed in the first go round. For callbacks, performers may be given specific songs or scenes from the play to prepare. Contact each of the performers in question, and arrange for them return for another audition within one to three days. Use the same two room system, with only decision makers witnessing the auditions.
Making the Decisions
If it is any consolation, professional producers and directors loathe this step as much as you do. Some helpful hints
- Please do not gossip with anyone about your decision process. Word gets around, and people will be sensitive enough as it is.
- Even when you have certain people pegged for major roles, stay open minded. You never know which surprise talents will be unveiled during auditions. The most unlikely people can be sensational. Many a class pariah has blossomed as a stage comedian or villain.
- In selecting leads, do not cast individuals with other major commitments. Never put the star of a sports team in the position of choosing between your show and a playoff game. You will either lose a star, or win the lasting enmity of the sports coaches.
- If more than one performer would do justice to a major role, keep the full context of the show in mind. Let me explain . . .
When my college group presented Camelot, the director found himself with three actors who could play King Arthur one of them was yours truly. For the callback, we had to memorize Arthur's opening number and the soliloquy explaining how he became king. The director and conductor ran each of us through the material, making suggestions and seeing how we responded.
So how was a decision made? The director later told me that he was stumped until he looked beyond the one role and considered the full picture. Two of us would clearly be the most effective choices for other roles. The young man cast as Arthur had to work like hell on that complex character. He gave a marvelous performance, but I wouldn't have traded places with him for anything. Playing Mordred, I had the time of my life -- as did the talented fellow who played Merlin.
Post the Cast List
As soon as your decisions are made, post your final cast list. Do not make a physical announcement save the drama for show time. Just tack a list on an appropriate bulletin board or website, with instructions where and when to report for first rehearsal.
Most disappointed performers will keep their feelings to themselves. Occasionally, someone will react badly, or you may have to deal with unhappy friends or relatives. You may want a private chat with individuals who are upset -- use your best judgment. Do what you can to reassure them, and try not to take their statements personally. Let them vent a bit, but if anyone gets abusive, walk away. I've rarely seen it reach that point, but it can happen. Hell hath no fury like a parent who's little angel is not cast as Annie!
With casting done, catch your breath and enjoy your final few days of freedom. Once rehearsals begin, free hours will become as rare as true platinum blondes.