A friend of mine is serving as casting director on an independent theater project right now. It’s non-union, so I can’t submit for it, or do much of anything other than offer online moral support. For you see, my friend has taken to venting on Facebook about the incredibly wrong-headed submissions and requests she’s received. Nothing inappropriate – no actors have been named, no public shaming has occurred. Just stories about people submitting candid photos with their pets in lieu of headshots, of people auditioning for a play for whose production dates they won’t be in town, for people claiming to be local hires when they live five states away. All presented with the exasperate cry of “Why?” Why on earth, asks my friend, does anybody think this is a good idea?
And I can’t help but shake my head at the answer, which is that for just shy of forty years, actors have been explicitly taught that it is.
Michael Shurtleff’s Audition has been a key acting textbook ever since it was first published in 1978. As the title indicates, it’s more specialized than the works of Stanislavsky or Hagen, focusing on how to hone your audition skills and give fully-fleshed out and compelling performances in such a short and artificial setting. In writing the book, Shurtleff drew upon his extensive experience as a Broadway and off-Broadway casting director in the 1960s and 70s – and the advice the book gives is rooted in the business realities of the theater world in that particular time and place.
Advice like this, right at the beginning (p. 27 in the paperback edition):
“I think an actor should audition every damn chance he gets. If you’re twenty-three and blond and you get a chance to audition for an eighty-year-old brunette grandmother, go and audition. If the part requires someone six foot three and you’re five foot two and they’ll let you, read for it…you need the practice.”
Well, maybe if you’re still in college and there’s only a few dozen potential actors on your campus, this advice remains valid. But the rest of us have long since moved on from the off-Broadway world of the Sixties, when there was an explosion of production activity and a desperate need to find new talent and this audition-for-absolutely-everything credo made sense. Nowadays, there’s nowhere near the number of productions to find work for the glut of well-trained MFA actors currently on the market. Today’s casting directors are desperately trying to find precisely what they need, without anywhere near the appropriate amount of time or resources to do so. If twenty-three year-old you goes and auditions for that brunette grandmother, that overtaxed casting director isn’t going to admire you for having read your Shurtleff and followed his advice, isn’t going to extol your “gumption” or “moxie,” because we’re not living in that decade anymore. That overtaxed casting director is instead going to conclude that you’re nuts, and since insane people aren’t much fun to collaborate with in a theatrical setting, that overtaxed casting director is not going to cast you.
Ah, but that’s just the business aspect of auditioning, I hear you say. Surely Audition still has value when it comes to the craft of acting itself, no? Decades of bright-eyed young performers can’t be wrong, can they? And true, there’s plenty of common-sense advice to be had about the importance of communication, establishing given circumstances and stakes, and so on. And the anecdotes about discovering and working with folks like Ben Vereen and Bette Midler at the very beginnings of their careers never fail to delight. But the book is so much a product of its time that it’s apt to distract a modern reader at crucial junctures.. Not mistaking things like physical condition and sexual identity for the essence of the character you’re playing is crucial advice, for example – but when the heading for that section of text is “Lesbians, Whores, and Gays are People, Too,” will a modern student be understandably too offended to read it?
Moreover, the overall aesthetic of the book encourages actors to stand out by taking bold choices in their work. But this is terrible advice – if adhered to in a vacuum. Acting choices need to be rooted in an understanding of the text you’re performing, as filtered through your own personality and life experiences. Do that, and your choices naturally become bold and individual. If you try and manufacture the boldness without this understanding – if you try and force yourself to be an individual – you’ll just wind up looking like a lunatic.
I don’t advocating giving up Audition altogether. There’s plenty of common sense advice within its pages, and it is, as I hinted, a legitimate historical document. But you can’t take its advice purely at face value. You have to read acting textbooks as critically as you read the texts you hope to perform. Otherwise, you shortchange your art – which isn’t worth it, no matter how enjoyable my casting director friend’s anecdotes may be.