Recently, I was asked to direct a musical for a community theater group. As a long-time actor and singer, I’ve always been curious about what goes on behind the table at a musical theater audition.
What happened after I got to be the one in charge?
It completely changed the way I audition.
The experience was so much more powerful and informative than I ever imagined. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that it is the single most useful thing I’ve ever done in the theater.
I saw what makes a person stand out — for better and for worse — and what makes a director think, “oh hell no,” even as they smile and say “Great job, thanks for coming in!”
If you’re not planning to direct a show, don’t worry! Read on to discover the most important things I learned, and how you can integrate them into your own process to nail a musical audition.
(Keep in mind, these tips are directed specifically toward community theater performers, but many of them apply to any audition setting.)
1. Read the Audition Information
In community theater, the director often writes the announcement personally, based on her specific vision for the show. Everything she includes is there for a reason: to help actors craft the most effective audition.
That means that the director is telling you exactly what she needs. This is valuable information that can help you nail a musical audition.
Whatever you do, do not brush off the audition announcement. If the director requests something from the Golden Age of musicals, don’t come in with something from Hamilton. If she asks you to dress for dancing, don’t wear flip flops. If the audition announcement for Carousel asks for songs in the style of the show, don’t sing something from Rent.
When you ignore audition instructions, it does two things:
- Shows that you can’t follow basic directions (Which probably means you’re a nightmare to direct)
- Makes it more difficult to consider you for the role you want (After all, someone who can crush “Take Me or Leave Me” might crash and burn on “If I Loved You.”)
If you’re uncertain about something, just ask! Directors might seem intimidating, but they’re just people who want the best possible show. They’re almost always happy to answer questions.
2. Show the Director Something New
Many community theaters use the same directors over and over again. Others “promote from within” by asking regular actors or crew members to direct shows. That means that every new director almost always knows the local actors — including you.
Before you audition, take a moment to consider what the director knows about you — then, figure out how to show them something new. Has she seen you act the romantic lead and sing high soprano songs? Come into the audition with a comedic character song. Has she only seen you do sidekick roles? Prepare a stunning ballad that shows off your high range and your gorgeous voice.
At a loss for what to show? That leads me to my next tip…
3. Ask the Director What She Needs to See
If you’re not sure what the director needs to see from you, just ask! Send a brief email that says, “Hi! I see you’re directing the next show! I’m auditioning for Character A — is there anything specific that you need to see from me in order to consider me for the role?”
This is useful in all cases, but crucial if A) You want to branch out from your “usual” type of role, or B) You’re auditioning for your first principal role.
Contacting the director does two things in your favor:
- It gets the director to imagine you in the role. As a result, she’ll probably pay closer attention during your audition.
- It gives you a competitive edge. Personal advice from the director is like a free audition coaching session; it lets you know exactly what you need to prepare.
Keep in mind, not every director will do this, but as long as you’re respectful, it can’t hurt to ask. Auditions are hard, so many directors jump at the chance to help actors give a more effective audition. It makes their job easier, so they can find the best possible cast.
4. Don’t take advantage of your relationship with the director!
Please, please, do not assume that the director is going to cast you because you’re friends. Or because you’ve done shows together. Or because you’ve had leading roles in the past.
Community theater circles tend to be small, so there’s a good chance you’re already friendly with the director. I’m part of a relatively small community, and I knew 90% of auditioners personally. The majority of people were fantastic and respectful. Several people…were not.
If your friend or acquaintance is directing a musical, here are some behaviors to avoid:
- Dropping broad hints about getting a lead role
- Making “jokes” like, “If you don’t cast me as a lead, I’m going to be so angry at you”
- Acting as though you have a specific role in the bag
- Elbowing the director conspiratorially, as though to say, “It’s me, right? These other people shouldn’t even bother auditioning”
- Asking for inside information about the show
- Gossiping or bad-mouthing other local actors
(All of these things happened to me.)
I guarantee that any of these things will make the director extremely uncomfortable and more than a little irritated — it could even cost you the friendship.
The thing is, when you assume you’ll get a great part simply because you’re friends with the director, you miss a huge opportunity to show your stuff — and while other actors are preparing great audition material, you’ll be left behind.
Rule of thumb? Always be respectful, and keep your friendship separate from the actor-director relationship.
5. Take Risks
If you do only one thing from this list, this should be it. For the love of God, please do not just stand there and read lines with a straight face. Do not just stand there and sing with an earnest expression.
Do that, and you’re instantly forgettable. Is the director just supposed to assume that you’ll suddenly come to life if you get the role?
A few ways to stand out at a community theater audition:
- Commit to an accent (when appropriate!), and pair it with a complete physical transformation
- Interact with other actors when you’re reading scenes together
- Embody the emotion of your song with your facial expressions and tone of voice (especially if you’re singing a song that doesn’t call for physical gestures)
I get it —it is terrifying to make bold choices. To do an accent. To commit to a character. To attempt comedy. It requires you to be incredibly vulnerable, especially in a group audition.
But if you can get past that fear and just go for it, I cannot tell you what a difference it makes. When it doubt, go bigger than you thank; it’s much easier for a director to reel in an over-the-top actor than to force someone out of their shell.
Take a risk: it makes an impression!
6. Don’t assume that the audition results are a reflection of your talent
Oh, the heartbreak I could have avoided as an actor, had I only understood this lesson earlier.
In most musicals, there are two leading roles, two or three major supporting roles, a few minor roles, and a chorus. If a director gets 10 fantastic women, only one can get the lead.
That does NOT diminish the talent of those other nine women!
Two important things for actors to understand about casting:
- It’s not objective. You know how they always say that when you meet the right person, you just know? It’s the same with casting. In many cases, the director makes a decision based on a gut feeling — not a rational or practical assessment.
- Sometimes, it is entirely practical. In some situations, the director has to work within practical limitations, regardless of how they feel or what they want. In community theater, this usually happens because not enough people turn out for a specific role. If there’s only one guy who can hit the leading man’s notes, the director has no choice but to cast him. That decision affects other casting choices. If you’re significantly older, or if your voice is too different for a vocal match, or if you don’t have chemistry, you’re probably not getting the leading-lady role — even if you’re the best singer and actor in town.
What does that mean for you? Sometimes, a less-talented singer or actor is going to get a bigger part. And that has nothing to do with you or your talent.
The best part? You have absolutely no control over either of these situations, so you can relax! Instead of spending your energy worrying, focus on preparing a killer song and developing your own unique take on the character. I guarantee you that this will help you nail a musical audition.
7. Have fun!
As an actor, you’re well aware that a show is a huge time commitment. Take that time and multiply it by five — that’s how much time a director spends on a community theater show. Blocking, planning for rehearsals, managing schedules, working with the crew, promoting the show, finding volunteers, marketing…the list goes on and on. She probably also has a full-time job, so all of her “free” time will be spent with the cast and crew.
What does that mean for you?
The director wants actors who are fun to be around! After all, no one wants to be trapped in a theater with an asshole during a 6-hour tech rehearsal.
During auditions, the director is looking for more than talent. She’s also looking to see if you:
- Have a good attitude
- Can laugh at yourself
- Are flexible enough to roll with unexpected changes
- Are respectful and welcoming toward other actors
- Are having a good time!
Even when you’re nervous, remember: theater is meant to be JOYFUL! Relax, have fun, and spread the love to everyone else in the room. If you can manage this, it’s easier to nail a musical audition.