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UPTA: Lessons from the Other Side of the Table

March 14, 2013

In early February, I attended UPTA in Memphis, Tennessee, as both an actor and producer. A theatre’s Stage Manager would be in production over the weekend, and since I have worked with them so much and was already going to Memphis, it made sense to offer them a hand. What I learned walking around the hotel and the audition site with a red producers’ badge was quite insightful, as a person whose primary function is as an actor.

The first, and most distinct, difference I noticed was the disparity of attention given depending upon whether I was wearing my red producers’ badge or my white actor’s badge. As a test, I went out and about the hotel wearing my red producers’ badge, then shortly thereafter wearing my white actors’ badge. When the elevator doors opened with my red badge around my neck, conversations were stopped, mid-sentence, as I was greeted with bright, cheerful eyes, though a bit over-eager, as actors furtively sought out the name of the theatre under my name. Dreary, tired, pissed, or snarky expressions immediately vanished into happy, shiny, cheerful dispositions. It was simultaneously humorous and obnoxious. Particularly when compared to the looks I got when I changed into my white badge. Then, the doors would open, the expressions wouldn’t change except to look me up and down, sizing me up, then to turn back to their conversation. Lesson learned: Smiles should not be reserved just for producers. Also, not all “producers” actually have any hiring power – case in point, me (and a few other red badges I ran into over the weekend who were similarly there just to help out).

The most offensive elevator exchange happened when I wasn’t wearing a badge at all. A group of actors who had been sitting awhile in the bar, I imagine, decided to unabashedly mock another actor who came onto the elevator. Had I been in a position to hire, each one of those actors would have immediately been passed over because they demonstrated that they were both unprofessional and, quite honestly, just not very pleasant folks to be around. Were I hiring, I would want people who are both professional and decent, who demonstrate modest social graces, at the very least. Lesson learned: Be careful how much you drink in the conference hotel bar, and act like a decent human being. You never know who is watching.

I have often heard, and oft repeated, the adage to be nice to everyone because you never know who it is, exactly, you are dealing with, and this was brought into focus at UPTA. Even more lessons were gleaned sitting through part of the 200-a-day auditionees.

Lesson #1: Your selection does not matter that much.

I agonize over choosing just the right piece for each audition. I want to demonstrate that I understand what is required of the show, what the personality of the company is, what the qualities of the character are. Perhaps for a single show, or a single company, the selections would have made more of an impression, but mostly I noticed whether the actor had any chops. Also, sitting with the rep from a family theatre, I was keenly aware that some actors simply did not fit the type. They may have done a lovely job, but there wasn’t a role in the upcoming season they would have fit.

The only pieces that stood out as very poor choices were ones that seemed ill-suited to the situation. There are many family-oriented theatres at UPTA – theme parks, cruise ships, big summer musical producers – and selections that were unnecessarily racy or vulgar seemed completely out-of-place for the seasons most of the companies had posted. I am not a particularly sensitive person, but a handful of pieces were uncomfortably out-of-place for a house of people looking to cast VeggieTales, Beauty and the Beast, Steel Magnolias, or Twelfth Night.

Lesson #2: What you wear doesn’t really matter, either.

Yes, by all means look put together and professional. But, honey, don’t try to hard, okay? If you can’t walk in those heels like a human, go for a pair of flats. If you have long, beautiful legs, congratulations, but don’t make me wonder if the people in the front row can tell me the brand and color of your panties, if you’re wearing any under that shirt you are trying to pass off as a dress. And please, for the love of all that is holy, wear clothing that is the correct size and pressed. Weird wrinkles where the buttons don’t quite come together, or looking like you slept in your clothes, makes a poor impression. Other than that, what you are wearing makes not a hill of beans worth of difference. I did notice that the cruise ships called back the leggy girls with the short dresses and exposed shoulders, and that’s a marketing choice, but speaking generally, the only time the actor’s clothing caught my attention was when it was a disaster.

Lesson #3: It really is all about type.

Before many actors even opened their mouths, I could have told them if they were going to be considered for a show with the theatre next season. Again, I had no hiring power, but I knew the shows for the upcoming season, and there were a lot of people who just didn’t fit any of the types they are casting. This is something I knew, but to see it marched across the stage, one after another after another, it became crystal clear how much casting has nothing at all to do with your monologue or song. Do you fit a part that I need?

  • Yes? Great, can you act? Great! Callback!
  • No? Next!

Lesson #4: Just be yourself, and know that you are enough.

We listened with amusement one night to one actor tell another all about how the auditions go. I mean, like, for real, like, she had, like all the information, for real. Like, really for real. It was a scene enacted all over the hotel, during the shuttle ride, and at the audition site throughout the weekend. There was the over-helpful actor who knew it all about everything. There was the above-it-all actor, who apparently didn’t need a job, they were just gracing all of us with their presence. There was the bubbly-girl or gregarious-guy who really turned it on at the sight of a red badge. But the people who really made an impression were the ones who were polite, professional, and just who they were. It was amazing to wear that red badge around the hotel and to see through a producer’s eyes how much just being comfortable in your own skin was the most eye-catching trait any actor had. It gave off confidence, without having the appearance of trying to give off confidence.

It was an educational weekend, to be sure. Lessons I’d heard time and again were reiterated, and I gained a new perspective on what it’s like to sit through a full slate of auditions, which I hope will result in more successful auditions in the future.

ClaraHarris.EnterprisingActor.Signature

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 14, 2013 8:47 am

    This is a great post! Thank you for your frankness. I also think it’s great to hear from someone behind the table who spends a lot of time in front of the table–it gives a lot of authentic perspective to those points we worry about constantly, from someone who actually deals with them as well. It’s not that hearing these observations from a CD or director has less weight, but coming from someone who actually is actively thinking about those things, too, perhaps gives them more potency.

  2. The Enterprising Actor permalink
    March 14, 2013 9:32 am

    I’m glad you liked the post. So many of the things I have long heard from folks who spend most of their time behind the table popped into focus that weekend. In the next couple of weeks, I’ll also have a post from the director I was accompanying, who just finished watching three days of auditions at SETC. I’m giving him some time to get over the PTSD before we sit down for an interview.

  3. March 14, 2013 7:23 pm

    It’s so different hearing the advice and then seeing it play out for yourself, right? Great post.

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