The Christmas show is snow-balling towards us. This time Rich and I drove to New York for auditions. 12 hours in the truck. Ok - let's be honest. Rich drove and i said "Can we stop so i can pee" for 12 hours. We were there for five days - but it zipped by soooo quickly. Rich found a great little sublet for us about 10 blocks from the audition studio. It's amazing how much we used to WALK! I love having a car in Indiana, and being able to dump groceries in the trunk... but Rich calculated that we were walking about 4.5 miles a day while we were back in the city - just to get back and forth from work and to the theater. And we used to do that every day. And it is NOT like getting back on a bicycle! But from Chelsea up to 42nd street they have created this beautiful new elevated walking park along the old railway tracks. And it is just so refreshing. Everyone is zooming along in the morning to get to work, but your surrounded by these incredible plants and field grasses. It's so cool - and you get to bypass all the stoplights and traffic - so your walk is a heap faster. Whoever thought of this thing is a genius.
We got to see two shows while we there. Newsies - which I had just expected to be fun - but it was fantastic. I loved it to death. And we also went to Spiderman, since the girl playing Mary Jane (Spidey's girlfriend), Rebecca Faulkenberry is someone I directed in a Little Night Music when she was 11. I was soooo proud of her. We also had a pleasant surprise as we were walking to our seats... Sam from last years Christmas show was our usher. We even had his aisle lol. He had just gotten back to NY after doing a four month theme park contract, and was back at Spiderman (where he had been working right before he came to us last Christmas).
We had a huge number of submissions this year. Which was really exciting - but - we only cast 3 people for the Holiday show, AND we knew Elizabeth was coming back (for her seventh... SEVENTH show). But that meant we only had 2 slots to fill. We had about 300 total submissions. We've learned not to box ourself into any pre-conceived structure...so we were looking for boys and girls and whatever arrangement provided the best talent, I'd pick songs around that.
In case your wondering how the process goes... (WARNING - anyone of you theater folks (and some others) will probably find this section dull and long...just skip down to the cute picture of the adorable mentally-handicapped weiner dog).
We post the casting breakdown (kind of like a classified ad) in two places. 1) A site called breakdown services (that is pretty much what every casting director uses... whether it's for a CBS pilot, a broadway show, a cruise ship, or a regional theater). The posting describes what the show is, what we're looking for in terms of talent, and what the contract details are. Breakdown Services is primarily a location for agents and managers - but actors can also access the information and submit themselves. Now 10 years ago this was all done by snail mail. Actors had to have a zillion copies of their headshot and agencies would mail or courier over a stack of resumes and photos for theaters to consider. But in this modern age the breakdown goes out, gets approved (they basically make sure you're not doing Porn-on-ice) and then agencies and or individuals submit themselves via the website to us... It looks like this...
And within about 2 days we had (through this avenue of reaching people) 200 submissions.
And you can click on each one and up pops a little window and you can look at their resume, and photos etc. You can also make notes about an actor (so if you see someone you like (or don't like) you can keep track of it next time they submit to you). The reason it's important is because you have to make sure you don't waste peoples time (by seeing them again if you aren't what you need), but ALSO seeing actors is really, really expensive. I'll explain that in a sec.
Then we also use a site called Backstage that is the primary way to reach actors (who don't have agents or managers - and for us, we tend to hire young performers who are early on in their careers - so there are a lot that don't have representation yet). And those come to me via email. Then you have to sort out WHO you want to see. You can't see everyone because it would cost a fortune. An audition room is about 35 bucks an hour. We are able to see about seven people an hour (sometimes they will be with us for five minutes, sometimes for 15). An you can't really do more than an eight hour day without losing your mind. And of course, the cost of our hotel/lodging/sublet is by the day. PLUS you have to play an accompanist to be there playing for the auditions allll day. On average they get about 40-60 bucks an hour. This year it was a huge help to have Nate - who is arranging the whole show - as our accompanist (since he was able to really get to know the voices and share his perspective). This is Nate's third Christmas show and he just kept saying "How do you find more Christmas songs?? I just don't understand how you find more Christmas songs!"
PLUS I can only really miss one day of classes. So - each slot for each actor probably costs us about 15 dollars said-and-done. So you have to narrow them down ahead of time.
How do you do that? I look at their resume. The good thing about all this being electronic now is that it's really easy for actors to submit. The bad thing is that it's really easy for actors to submit. It's a click of a mouse - no great effort on their part, so many, many people just submit for everything. Spaghetti against a wall, hoping something will stick. We get submissions every show from people that have never done a musical. Despite the fact that our ad says "must be an excellent trained singer, preferably with a music of musical theater degree). So you have to sort through those. I look at the schools they go to - there are some schools that (after doing this for five years) I know just don't prepare kids for the kind of shows we do at the moment. There are some programs that consistently DO produced the kind of musicians we need. So I will always see them. And they aren't necessarily the most famous schools. Programs also come and go in quality. A school that used to be THE top musical theater program in the country has started admitting almost 5 times the number of students...so the quality plummetted and we've never hired someone from there. So I don't even seem people from that school anymore for The Supper Club format.
So - that narrows it down somewhat. Then I start web stalking. I try really hard to see if each person has any video footage online. If they have worked a lot, or if they really consider themselves a competitive singer - they should. In this day-in-age with laptops having video cameras and built in music studios, it is highly unlikely that someone who is fantastic won't have SOMETHING you can find online. Whether or not THEY were the ones who posted it there. So I scour youtube for each candidate. And watch every video I can find. In general if THEY'VE posted it online my assumption is that THEY thought it was great. So that footage should be a representation of what they think they can do at their best. And I start narrowing from there.
For instance, here's some footage i found of one of the fantastic girls we've hired for the Holiday Show... Meet the amazing Jessica
and here's one for Nicole, diva number 2 :)
It also means that I get really excited about some people before I've even met them. And sometimes people will come in to the audition room and I'll tell them not to sing something because I've already heard them do it online... or we'll WANT to hear them do it live.
I keep a excel spreadsheet of everyone who submits to us so that I can try and keep track of who i've already vetted...and who we really like. Sometimes someone will submit and then get a job and not be available - and I will want to try and get in touch with them down the line for another show. Or, in this instance, if we had anyone submit who was a really fierce sassy r and b belter - no matter how great they were there was no point in hiring them. Because they would be doing the same thing as Elizabeth. So sometimes I'll email people and say - 'we don't have a slot for you know, but you're amazing, keep in touch'.
Then you have to SCHEDULE them. Which is my least favorite part of the process. You have to co-ordinate with agents and managers which means everything has to go from them to the actor, to them, to you and then back. And there really is not much of a way to make it go faster if they don't want it to. Some agencies are great, and immediately respond and sometimes not. In some cases the actors that they submitted were actually submitted by an intern who works at the agency who had no idea what the actors interest or availability really was in a job like ours. The nice thing about a submission directly from an actor is you at least can ASSUME the actors already knows what the job is, what the pay is, what the dates are - and they were interested enough to click with their mouse. Now young actors almost always have real-life jobs to help pay the bills. So you can't just say "be there at 4:00pm at this address). Maybe 1 in 5 people will be that easy. But I'm trying to schedule about 80 people and they will all get back to me and say "i have work till 5", "can I come at 11:00am", I'm out of town on Thurdsay".
And here's the trick - you have to leave enough wiggle room in the schedule so that you fill up all the time (because, like I said, it's very very expensive to sit in that room twiddling your thumbs...and paying the piano player to twiddle their thumbs) - but also have enough ability to move people around when they say they need to re-schedule. it's a nightmare. I hate it. I soooo want us to have enough money someday to hire someone to do the scheduling part! Rich dreads it happening because he knows i'm a basket case for 2 week-solid period. And you would also be amazed the number of people who don't check their email every day.
In the auditions... yay - the fun part. Particularly fun because the rehearsal studio sells the greatest cookies known to man. Serioulsy - I crave the cookies all year. They are the size of a football and I allow myself 1 a year :) Our auditions are way nicer than a lot of peoples. You know within about 10 seconds of someone walking in the room (before they even sing) if they are a viable hire. If they have their act together. if they are too scattered for the work-load. If they take the audition seriously. If they are looney toons. You don't know if they ARE the right person in 10 seconds...but you know if they aren't. Many places will just let them sing for about four seconds, stop them, say 'thank you', and that's it. But we try to be really warm and respectful and, even if someone is NOT right, we let them sing what we asked them to prepare. For each set of shows that's different - but for the christmas show the instructions went like this:
We asked for 32 bars (about one minute of music) of... Women: 1. if you are a strong legit singer please prepare either something classical (it can be in a foreign langage if you like) or a classic musical theater soprano piece (laurie, julie jordan, eliza etc.) 2. A standard (pretty/lyrical) more in 40/50's vein (rosemary clooney feel). 3. A country or r and b piece. Something that shows a strong belt if you have it.
Men: 1. Something lyric, sweet and pretty. Showing tone and control. Not big and loud. 2. A legit piece if you consider that your strength (it can be musical theater or operatta). 3. A pop/rock or country piece that shows personality.
We also ask them to tell us a joke. It does not have to be a clean joke. You would be amazed how much you can tell about someone by the way they tell a joke. Words of death: "I don't have joke...but i have a funny story". 99% of the time the story is not funny, somewhat disturbing, 20 minutes long and makes the person look anything but fun. You would also be amazed at the number of people who tell this joke: "two muffins are in the oven. one says 'oh my god it's so hot in here'. The other one says 'o my god, a talking muffin'.
I would say about 50 people have told us that joke. At least. I ask you...Does this deserve to be the most popular joke in America????
Anyway, if we like what they do then we'll ask to see their audition book and look for songs that will give us more information - or let us hear them sing in different styles. That's the hardest thing for the Supper Club shows. In a musical an actor only has to be able to sing in one style as one character. For us we need people that can sing in a bunch of different ways. Sometimes we'll have people sing like 10 songs in their first audition. Then, if we want to see them again for a call-back (think of it as the semi-finals) we ask them to prepare specific material. I came to NY with about 10 songs in different styles that I thought might end up in the show. And everything i brought needed to be something that we WOULDN'T have Elizabeth sing. For each person we wanted to see again I picked about three songs from that list and sent them the sheet music and a recording.
And after THAT you have to figure out how to build the best cast. And we video tape everything and go back at night and on my laptop review all the options and start narrowing down. Someone might be great but they aren't always great for a Holiday Show. A guy came in who was a really strong rock voice - but he wouldn't work on any of the more traditional Christmas songs. If it was a girl we had to make sure she was a different quality, personality and sound than Elizabeth.
We need the show to have humor - so that's another factor. And we ended up with 2 girls that we loved. And amazingly they had the same agent (that has never happened) and the agent was great and they both said yes within 24 hours. And that's also a nightmare. Because if one person turns down the job it changes the whole equation...because your puzzle pieces change. So sometimes we can't offer a job to one actor until we know if another actor has said yes. It's a delightful, hellish joy ride :)
One of the most fun things about the auditions is we invite alumni to come and sit-in. It's a great way to catchup, and actors really love how much they can learn watching other people. Sometimes we get a little traffic-heavy and some poor actor will walk in and be confronted by seven people in the room like we're a team of people casting the musical version of The Ten Commandments (which, by the way, was not so good. it starred Val Kilmer. Really.) At one point we had quite the posse...
There's Nate, who played beautifully for all the auditions. Will and Kyra from this summer and, of course, La Urbanczyk. With sassy new short hair cut.
The GREAT thing about it is that if we like someone we can send one of them out into the hallway to talk to them about the theater and answer any questions. It shows that we have a good relationship with people who have worked with us... means the actors can get an honest opinion about the pros and cons AND when our folk come back into the room sometimes they will say "no. no. crazy. so much crazy." and that can be very instructive. This year Kyra, because she is basically the nicest person on the planet, cleared three days in her schedule and stayed with us the whole time. She brought people in and out of the room, she looked after us, she talked to people about how nice we were to work for. It was amazing. This Christmas, give your loved ones an impish Jewish girl...they are very very handy to have around.
So that's pretty much how it all comes together...
xo Jo Jo