Steven Sabel’s Twist on the Trade: To see what I have seen, “The Auditions”

Steven Sabel


Here it is, as promised. The auditions version of some of the strangest, most outlandish, and downright horrible things I have seen. In preface, after producing and/or directing 138 productions, I have watched thousands of auditions. Some simple math puts it at around 10,000 monologues I have witnessed. Many of them were well prepared, well delivered, and led to many great casting choices. Many did not. O, the things that I have seen…

As I wrote at the end of last month’s column, I think I’ll lead with the guy with the banana. There I was conducting auditions in the theatre of a favorite colleague of mine, watching slates and monologues, taking notes, and shuffling head shots. A young actor came into the room looking disheveled, in a 90s grunge sort of way, with his hair in his face, and his hands in his pockets. He slated. I honestly don’t remember his name. He told us what his monologue was from – a film script, if I recall – and he began. Midway through, he reaches into his pocket, pulls out a banana, takes a giant bite, peel and all, and tosses the rest on floor. My colleague, who has a very strict rule about food in his theatre, almost leaped from his chair. The kid finished his monologue, picked up his banana, and left. That’s when my colleague turned to me and said: “What the (*#@$) was that?”

It’s bananas to bring props into an audition!

Needless to say: Don’t bring props to an audition. In fact it is best to choose audition monologues that have no need for props. It is just never effective to “pretend” to be on the phone, or to “need” to look through your purse during a monologue. It isn’t it a comedy sketch. It’s an audition monologue. Don’t make it about the props. Make it about you and your talent delivering the text with emotional truth, not faking it with a prop. Besides, don’t forget props hate people. You don’t want to bring a potential adversary into the audition room with you.

The only prop I have ever seen used effectively in an audition is a simple piece of paper or a book. The best use of a piece of paper I have seen has been as a “note” for Julia’s monologue from “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” That piece can be a very effective piece for auditioning for a classical comedic role, if it is executed well. That requires plenty of rehearsal with plenty of pieces of paper, and even then, you are taking a risk that the prop won’t cooperate the way you want it to in the audition room.

Worse than props, are costumes. Yes, I’ve seen plenty of costumed auditions. I have had actors called from the lobby to the audition room who had to scramble in from the restroom because they were changing into their costume. From period clothing to Halloween attire, each and every time an actor comes into audition wearing a costume, it makes me think of that famous story about Sean Young and Cat Woman. Epic. Legendary. Infamous. Don’t do it. I really don’t need to see you in tights to learn whether or not you can deliver effective classical text in character.

Here’s a piece of paper you definitely don’t want to walk into the audition room with in your hands: the text of your monologue. If you don’t have it memorized, stop wasting everyone’s time. It’s not a side you have just been handed. It’s supposed to be your well-chosen, properly thought out, fully rehearsed, and peer reviewed best foot forward work. If you can’t come into the audition room off book, then don’t come into the audition room at all.

It saddens me to recollect how many times I have watched an actor walk into the room with their monologue on a sheet of paper in their hands, but this one takes the cake. Once I had an actress come into the audition room with several sheets of paper stapled together. There were visible pencil scribblings and highlight markings on the pages, and it was evident that it was some pages of a script. After the actress slated, and I asked her what she was going to perform, she handed me script, and asked if I would read in the other characters for her to perform the scene she had prepared for the audition.

“I don’t know any monologues,” she told me. “But I know this scene from a play I was in at my college. It’s on my resume.” And so it was, but I wasn’t about to become her scene partner for the evening. Unbelievable.

Here’s a good hint: Look like your head shot. I can’t tell you how many double takes and triple takes I have had in an audition room while holding a head shot in my hands, but looking at someone completely different standing in front of me. Don’t be the cause of double takes. Come in looking as close to the head shot you submitted as you possibly can. Once we had a trans-gendered person submit a very male head shot, but then arrived to the audition in very female appearance. The actor told us they could “change back” if necessary for the role. Now that’s an extreme example, but if your head shot shows you with blonde hair, and you decided last week you wanted to become a brunette for a while; well then you better get new head shots.

As I have admitted in this column before, my head shot is way outdated, and I am way over due for a new one, except that I so hardly ever use my head shot, that I just haven’t made it a priority. I don’t have time to audition for other people’s projects. I’m a producing artistic director. I barely have time to get on stage at all, and when I do, I pay for it dearly. But that’s another column for another day.

Clothing. O, boy, the clothing. I’ve seen three-piece suits, pant suits, and zoot suits. I’ve seen shorts, shorter shorts, and “Dear Lord, what were you thinking” shorts. There have been jumpers, rompers, and overalls; baggy pants, skinny jeans, and jeans of every color. I have seen dresses, gowns, and skirts of every length, as well as shirts, blouses, tops, and sweaters of every sort. I once had an actress come in wearing a bikini top, and I’ve seen muscle shirts galore. Please just remember this great word of advice we were all taught by early acting teachers and coaches: dress like it is an important job interview. Great practice, but with this caveat: make sure you are comfortable, and make sure you can make proper physical choices in what you are wearing. I’ve seen more than one breast flop out of a top during a vigorous call back.

Take off your coat or jacket, no matter how cold it is in the audition room. I have seen so many auditions destroyed by a heavy coat or constricting jacket. On occasion I have stopped actors to ask them to remove theirs coats and start their monologue over again. I want to see you physicality as an actor. It’s called “acting,’ and it is 90 percent what you do. Only 10 percent what you say. But you can’t effectively say anything, if you can’t do what you need to do as an actor. And you can’t do that underneath a heavy coat, unless you are in the cast of “Almost Maine,” or something like it.

As more and more casting directors turn to video submissions for their first round of auditions, the landscape for audition monologues will continue to change. Just as you should have at least four worthy monologues prepared and available to you at any given time (comedic contemporary, dramatic contemporary, comedic classical, dramatic classical), it is a good idea to line up a good camera with a good operator, book some time, and have all four of your monologues recorded to video files you can easily share or upload for any audition. Don’t wait until it is asked for, and then you have to scramble to find a friend through social media posts to help you with your “self-tape” by holding your smart phone for you while you recite your monologue. Plan ahead. Select the proper back drop, the proper lighting, the proper clothing. Clean yourself up. Prepare for the shoot date. Do a practice run, and look at the footage. Make corrections. Do a final cut, and have them all in digital files on the desktop of your computer, ready and waiting to land you that call-back.

Or you can just walk into the audition room with a banana….

Steven Sabel has more than 30 years experience in theatre production, including more than 20 years in production management. He is an award-winning producer and director with more than 130 successful productions to his credit. He also served for 12 years as a community journalist and newspaper editor, and he has 17 years experience as a theatre arts instructor for adult actors and younger students: His independent production company, STS Productions, has produced successful theatrical ventures in a wide variety of venues for more than 20 years. In 2010, Steven founded the Archway Theatre, where he serves as producing artistic director.
As the founding artistic director of the Redlands Shakespeare Festival, Steven managed the creation and foundation of the organization from the ground up, and served as both artistic director and executive director of the thriving organization for nine successful seasons.