The Radical Audition: A Quest
Updated: Aug 7
What’s the best way to do auditions?
There’s no feeling like that of sending an email to say no to someone talented who’s poured themselves into it, mused over coffee breaks, and maybe, on another day, would have got it.
But what’s better?
The goals seem to be:
A system that finds good people.
A system that doesn’t soak up resources (to begin with, let’s assume resources are infinite as we seek an ideal world).
A system that doesn’t hurt people more than needed.
A system that doesn’t require too much effort from applicants.
A system that doesn’t exclude people who might reasonably get the job.
The best answer for the producer is one that gets the ‘right’ person 100% of the time, first time. This system probably does not exist.
The best answer for the actor is one where they get 100% of the auditions they go for. This is also unlikely.
So, what else works?
Initial Lazy Answer To 1 - A System That Finds Good People
Headhunters - if you have talented casting directors picking the ‘right’ people, fewer people get rejected. But you also fall afoul of 5, because some suitable people will be out of the headhunters’ loop.
Initial Lazy Answer To 2 - Doesn’t Soak Up Resources
Any number of systems where applicants do all the work (preparing CVs, audition tapes, forms etc.) and are rapidly filtered out. The costs (time, labour) are soaked up by the applicants, rather than the organisation. The problems with such systems is why 3 and 4 are on the list.
Initial Lazy Answers To 3 - Doesn’t Hurt People
Cast your mates/people you already know! Fewer people get rejected, after all. But it falls foul of 5.
Recently, ‘give individualised feedback’ has been growing in popularity as an answer of ‘best practice’. But is it a process that is ‘helpful’, ‘fun’, or ‘supportive’ enough?
Not to mention that for some people, the feedback might be ‘you weren’t right for the role; it’s simply a matter of flavour’, or - perhaps worse, perhaps better - ‘we did not think you were a good enough actor.’
And, having been the person writing the feedback, it really does (no matter what some people on Twitter claim) take quite a lot of time, which is usually unpaid. Better that than nothing, but it's not ideal.
Let’s try and be utopian and think of a better answer.
Initial Lazy Answers To 4 - Doesn’t Require Too Much Effort
Some low-effort systems (just film a 2-minute bit! Send us a recording from anything!) are an improvement, but still favour those who do put in a huge amount of effort editing, reshooting, and so on. The perfectionists’ reshoot has become well-known in lockdown.
At the other end, CV-only approaches require minimal effort, but exclude people without the ‘right’ CV.
Initial Lazy Answer To 5 - Doesn’t Exclude People
Open calls - anyone can apply. But not everyone will hear about the opportunity, which excludes people. Also, if every call were open to everyone, we’d run afoul of 2 - most organisations, even if they have the money to pay actors, probably don’t have the money to spend 10-15 minutes on every possible applicant of the hundreds in London alone.
More Radical Answers (That Try To Meet All Points): En-masse auditions
Rather than having individual actors take the strain of audition after audition, have a week-long get-together of all the producers, casting directors, and so on where actors can come and present a 10-15 minute bit, along with a form of their availability, talents, and interests. Then you can do call-backs afterwards.
Yes, it takes more effort for producers (which week will it be? Who will host it?) and would likely need callbacks (after all, people would need to choose generally-useful audition pieces), but it could at the very least reduce the number of first-round auditions.
Though I’m pretty sure this is, in theory, just a Spotlight profile with a decent showreel. The problem remains that there are barriers of who gets chosen to do what - do you go in with your tight 5 queer standup bit that’s perfect for a month-long fringe run, or something that might get you into the Globe company? So how do you make a system where everyone gets something right for them?
More Radical Answers (That Try To Meet All Points): Actor-led companies
Following the Shakespearean model, how about an actor-led company, with writers/devisers creating pieces for that company? While there would still be regular auditions for new members, once in, it’s much easier to develop things to suit that company. You could create shows where all are equals - or, at least, everyone is in a role that suits them.
Yes, this is the devised company. And requires a fantasy of collectivism which sometimes works, but often does not when faced with the reality of competing ambitions and visions.
Crucially, it also locks down jobs - either you’re in, or you’re out. It gives stability to some, but not to all. However, given the number of actors, how do you ensure they all get work?
More Radical Answers (That Try To Meet All Points): Break Capitalist Theatre
The essential problem is that, under capitalism, where supply exceeds demand, the buyer will get a better deal. Modern capitalism tends to screw over individuals, especially when they lack collective bargaining power.
So what are other models? A collective-under-capitalism model was discussed, but how about a more anarcho-syndicalist approach under capitalism?
We could turn acting into something akin to certain medieval religious orders, where actors don’t get paid to act, and therefore are also expected to have other crafts of use to the community - teaching, farming, shopkeeping… which is the de facto situation now. It allows for some specialisation, which is valuable artistically, but also means that theatre is pushed to the sidelines as a hobby, excluding many people who lack time for recreation.
More Radical Answers (That Try To Meet All Points): Infinite Casts
What if we destroyed the theatre industry altogether, and treated ‘I perform’ as an innate human need? Rather than set things up so there’s a limited number of roles, we could create massive shows/LARP scenarios where nobody is rejected (and perhaps a few facilitators get paid). People might chip in to be a part of it.
True, you lose a lot of the aesthetic benefits of specialists. But equally, there’s an interesting potential here to rejig our aesthetic ideas towards the beauties one can find en masse.
More Radical Answers (That Try To Meet All Points): Infinite Cats
Let's just have no theatre and embrace the way modern entertainment is really going: cat videos. They're free, popular, and the talent doesn't even have a concept of money.
We've had our time, creators of the world. Let us surrender to our adorable feline overlords. [Yes, it's old. I still like it.]
None of these are good answers. There’s a tension between what’s good for the actor and what’s good for the producer.
Anyone with better radical suggestions, do feel free to share them.
For now, I think my main take-home message for now is “how can the burden of effort be shifted away from individual auditionees to the companies seeking to hire them?”
Beyond, y’know, massively reducing supply so as to force better practices as a means of recruitment-advantage.
Though that does sound pleasingly like a tried and tested strategy known as "going on strike."