Self taped auditions are incredibly popular these days with on-camera projects. With the accessibility of equipment, user friendly technology and the fast pace of the industry actors are frequently asked to submit a recording of their initial audition, and callback too sometimes, to be considered for television and film projects. They are especially useful when an actor is in a different location than those making the creative decisions. Theatre companies are sometimes willing to have actors send in video to be considered for stage productions for similar reasons. This got me thinking; if actors pursuing on-camera work have on-camera reels to represent their work, shouldn’t stage actors have the same tools at the ready as well?
Now, there are issues with stage actors using filmed stage productions to represent their work. So to be clear, that’s not what I am suggesting. When a performance is captured on camera, especially if it is for professional or promotional purposes, the viewer will expect good production value, meaning a clean, sharp image and clear sound. Because of the way stage productions are lit, along with the distance the actors are from the camera(s) and microphone(s) the actor’s work never translates well for the camera. Another issue with recording stage work is if you or any other actor in a production are members of Actors’ Equity, the union has strict policies on recording performances, and the use of those recordings. The types of video clips I am referring to are those of a stage actor’s audition pieces, normally done in the room, that they can send to an auditor, just as an actor submitting for an on-camera project would send a scene from their reel that shows they are suitable for the role they’d like to be considered for. Think of it as having those hip pocket pieces of yours ready to go, but these are on your hard drive going long distances rather than in the room when someone asks, “What else have you got?”
When I was in Los Angeles working as an actor and recording self tapes for actors I had a regular client, a wonderful stage actor, who frequently submitted auditions to regional theaters. They would supply him the sides as a casting director for on-camera projects would, and we would record and submit them. More recently though, living in the Twin Cities area, I had a client come in who wanted to record a monologue and song to submit to a theatre company in a different market. After talking with this actor and brainstorming on the subject I thought if an actor living in one market wants to try their hand at or is already being considered for projects in another market, why wouldn’t they have the same materials they have prepared to walk in an audition room with, pre-recorded and ready to send to these remote auditors? With a quality recording set-up an actor could record their contemporary dramatic monologue; their contemporary comedic monologue; comedic Shakespeare or other classical playwright; dramatic Shakespeare or other classical playwright; their contemporary dramatic song; contemporary comedic song; their ballad (you get the picture). The actor can then have these grouped in clips according to type of audition (contrasting contemporary, contrasting contemporary/classical, monologue/song, etc.), or with the ease and speed of today’s technology they also have the ability to tailor the pieces to an auditor’s needs with a quick edit before sending it off. Now of course the actor can always record these on an as needed basis and then submit them. The big benefit I see to having them ready to go at a moment’s notice is the actor does not then have to go through the stress and time it takes of putting everything into action to get their pieces recorded, edited and sent off. This is especially important if an opportunity comes quickly with only a brief period of time to respond. With their material ready on the hard drive or stored on Vimeo or YouTube all the actor has to do is prep an email and “Send.” And with a quick response time and quality material to represent their work, the actor will look that much more professional.
Years ago I was taught when doing a monologue for an audition to always have another one ready if they should want to see more of your work. If the auditors requested one piece, have a second ready. If two were requested, have a third.
This practice proved to be true years ago at an audition for a large regional theater. They had requested two contrasting pieces. This was a big opportunity for me, my first for this company. I knew I needed to be more prepared than I’d ever been, so I had five ready. The two contrasting pieces went well. She asked if I had something else I could show her. After that she asked for another. When we were done I’d shown her four of the five pieces I’d prepared. A rapport had been established, which lead to a relationship with the theater and the auditor, who I would work with as a director in a few years time.
This week the practice played out in a different way. This company asked to see one contemporary piece. I had a second ready. After beginning my piece I got to a point about a third of the way through when I experienced every actor’s nightmare - I went up. This hasn’t happened in years. I can’t remember the words. For me, in times like this, I start to function on two different levels. I continue to do the piece trying to redirect where it needs to go; find a way or the words to get to the next moment. So, part of me is still in the piece experiencing the moment, doing the work, while the actor inside begins to work incredibly quickly trying to find the thought, the words that will compel the piece to move in the direction it needs to. The image that came to mind was me (in my head) taking a series of hard drives, one at a time from a shelf and putting them in the slot to discover, “That’s not it.” Take it out. Try the next one. “That’s not it.” Repeat. This of course happens in a flash yet feels like an eternity. I could not find it. I knew if I continued it was going to look like an actor riffing, go way off course, and result in me crashing and burning. This is of course bad, but I’m also auditioning for two directors, one of whom I worked with years ago. I also knew if I restarted the piece I was not certain I would be able to remember the line, and I'd end up in the same place. I very quickly and professionally stopped and said, “I’m going to do another one.” I efficiently turned, took a chair, placed it and sat down to begin the other piece I’d prepared. This one went well, so well I was shocked considering what I’d experienced seconds before.
This had never happened to me before. No class or words of wisdom ever prepared me for that moment. I hope I, or any other actor never experiences it. I know having years of auditioning experience, having to respond quickly to the unexpected helped. But what saved me was being able to quickly go to the other piece I had ready.
I've had a few demos in my 15 years in Los Angeles. I'm happy to say the material has improved over time as the quality of projects I've been fortunate enough to work on has improved. Having picked the brains of casting directors over the years, worked with my agent on my demos and viewed many an actor demo I feel I've formulated some worthy opinions on the subject. Recently on an actor-centric Facebook group the subject of demo lengths came up. An actor in Vancouver said people there were recommending 6 minutes as a length for actor demos. He asked the members of the group what their thoughts and experiences were. After adding my 2 cents I thought that would be a nice first endeavor at something I've been putting off, the blog. So, here is my first, and hopefully not my last, blog entry.
"No one will watch a 6 minute demo except person who is using it to represent themselves or that person's mother. A minute and a half to 2 minutes has become the norm. I don't know why anyone would suggest anything longer than that unless they've been in the business since the 80s and have a strong emotional connection to the work they've amassed, which frankly the people casting today, producers included, don't have the time or patience to watch. Casting directors I've spoken with have repeated emphatically when it comes to demos they want to see "the meat and no fat," meaning your BEST work as an actor even if that includes editing down the scene to exclude the other actor's work, even if they are a known talent. No filler. No one-liners. No you giving George Clooney the keys to a Maserati on the Vegas strip saying, "Your keys, sir." or worse, nothing at all. The professionals watching these videos don't have time to watch anything other than your best work, in a brief period of time, and the actor as a professional doesn't have time to show them anything other than their best work."
One thing I didn't mention in the Facebook comment that I wanted to is no montages. They don't show the actor acting. They show the actor in different outfits with different expressions on their faces. Again, not acting. Montages fall under the "filler" category.
This only addresses the length of an actor demo, and some content to include and avoid. There is so much more to the subject I hope to address at another time that I include in my classes and workshops. For now, this is a start.