Though I am happy to get the chance to step out of the director's chair and onto the stage for once, recent events and some interesting conversations have gotten me thinking about directory things, specifically about my thoughts on how to run auditions. There's a lot of etiquette swirling around audition processes which sometimes make it tough, especially for a novice director, to figure out the best way to conduct them to get all the information they need and work things out properly with their actors. Here are some thoughts on how to do it well.
I have a preference for efficient auditions. Some directors like to have people read for all sorts of things just to see what comes of it. It's how I ran my Hamlet auditions, mostly because at the time I was inexperienced enough that I wasn't sure what else to do. I will say that since I didn't know most of the people I saw it gave me some ideas, but ultimately I think it was too much screwing around for too little useful information. So now I try to have people read only a few roles that I would actually consider them for, plus one or two roles that they would like to read. People can surprise you, you must always be wary of pigeonholing them too much, so I like to give them a chance to to impress me with something I may not necessarily have expected. I have the mixed blessing of the fact that I have a very good eye when it comes to quickly sizing something up, which allows me to get a pretty good picture very quickly, but I really don't have a very good review process once I've hit on my initial conclusion. So when I'm right, I'm right, and when I'm wrong, I am dead wrong. Letting people read for a role they want to try for is my way of combating that, and of balancing efficiency with fairness.
The traditional operational form, I think, tends toward keeping things opaque throughout-- not letting the actors know what you're thinking, or doing anything that could compromise your apparent objectivity. Many directors are rightly concerned with maintaining as fair a process as possible, giving everyone who comes out the same chance and the same opportunities, and not making it seem like they are giving anyone any preference, advantage, or disadvantage. It's also good for keeping people from getting wrong ideas about what's going to happen. The opaque, totally egalitarian process is also the most polite way to handle an auditioner that you're pretty sure you don't want to cast. That happens sometimes, unfortunately, that maybe you just don't like the person's style, or maybe it's something out of their control, like you need someone with a deeper voice or a person who's strong enough to pick up another-- that last sounds odd, but I did a show where that had to be considered. So what you do is you listen intently to their piece, giving them as much a chance to prove you wrong as you possibly can, without giving any indication of your opinion. It's also sometimes a good idea to ask them "Can you do it a little angrier?" or something just to make absolutely sure you haven't made a mistake. But the point is you show them the respect of not dismissing them out of hand while still not wasting too much time. At least then they don't leave thinking they didn't get a fair shot, or automatically conclude that they sucked.
The problem with this, however, is that this Chinese Wall approach discourages honest communication between all parties that could lead to workings things out better for everyone. The more I direct, the more inclined I become to a more transparent audition process, more so the more I know the people trying out. I'd rather tell people what I want and see if they can give it to me. I know as an actor I would rather have a director say, "You know, Phoebe, you're reading is too serious, we want a lighter interpretation of the character, can you do that?" or "This is feeling a lot like how you did Puck, and we don't want that for this role. Could you change it up?" and give me a chance to change what I'm doing to something more like what they want, rather than have them silently conclude that I CAN'T do it just because I'm currently not. Some directors feel like they shouldn't say that sort of thing, but I think it makes you more likely to see the real situation-- if an actor actually does have it in them, or if they're probably not going to be able to give you what you want after all.
The Merely Players tryout was completely transparent. I didn't have a single person come out whose acting I wasn't already familiar with, or would have been unhappy to have in the cast. I asked everyone who they wanted to play, and in return told them what I was thinking, explaining what I hoped to see from them. I made my preconceived notions obvious from the start, and invited responses and opinions. The final decision was of course up to me, but I wanted to see how people felt about my intentions and whether or not they could give me what I would ask for, because that would influence the roles they accepted. I even said things like, "I'd like to use you, but know that if you're a significant part in Margaret or too many other shows I won't cast you," so that they could make an informed choice and I wouldn't have to replace an actor I picked but couldn't end up using. It allowed me to get a cast I was satisfied with while still making the show as practically functional as possible.
You can blend the two styles, but it's tricky and requires judgment. Sometimes it can benefit you to be more open with one person than with another-- if, for example, you want to make someone you have a working relationship with aware that you want to push them out of their comfort zone, but also show respect to someone you know you're not going to cast. But you need to make sure that rumors don't get spread that might lead to resentment or assumptions of bias. Make it clear in that case that you've taken someone into your confidence for the sake of getting the best fit for roles, and that they are not to make assumptions or consider anything promised or definite until the cast list comes out.
And I know some actors go into auditions with prejudices and preconceived notions of their own about how the process should go. To that I say, respond to your director as much as you can. If they ask you change your performance, do the best you can to make the change, even if it's outside your comfort zone. Do your best to give them what they want. If they ask you a reasonable question that is actually helpful to their casting process, answer it honestly even if it doesn't conform to your notion of how auditions traditionally go. You have no idea how frustrating it was to me when I asked an actor what they wanted, and they refused to answer for ages because they had a sense that it was not appropriate to "make demands during casting." The answer would have helped me, and I was explicitly giving permission!
So, yeah, just some thoughts from my experience and preferences. Others of you who go to theater auditions, or have had the chance to hold them, what do you all think? What do you think works best?