Talking about auditions

On a relative whim, I auditioned this past week for three groups I had an interest in working with. These were longshots and I did not expect to get called back let alone cast (sure enough, I was not). I mostly wanted to test how I handled improv auditions, and see after all this time how it felt.

I had fun for the most part. I felt like I could play and have fun with all the other players in the room. I felt that, if the process had been completely (unrealistically) objective, most of my auditions were more than good enough for at least a callback, if not serious consideration for a role. (That’s not to say I deserved anything. But the work I did felt that solid.)

I’m lucky: I not only have (and have had) opportunities to practice and perform going forward, but have the wherewithal and ability to create my own opportunities. So for me the auditions were not my only shot at a regular opportunity to perform. They were an inquiry. Either way, I’ve got things going on and places to practice.

However, I feel for many of the others who auditioned. A lot of these people were super good, and many feel they don’t have anywhere else to go. For many of them, improv is pretty much their passion and creative outlet, and if they can’t get cast in something, they won’t get any experience or chances outside of classes or jams.

So let’s talk about auditions. There’s two big issues I have with the dog and pony show that is Chicago improv auditions.

One: Auditions themselves, in a big and talented metropolis like Chicago. Every director ever says they wish there was a better way to select talent than auditions. The problem with such a statement is that there *is* a better way that better serves most shows, ensembles and directors, a way that for various reasons they simply won’t utilize: Simply hand pick and solicit the people they know and most want to work with, and not waste anyone else’s time. You know the talent, you know the risks and potential, and you can comfortably trust those people.

This is even easier if the production company in question has regular classes, workshops or drop-in jams. They’ll see a lot of talent come and go, or come and stay and study. They should have a fairly good idea of many player’s skillsets and abilities, plus have some sort of relationship with many players.

Simply put, today’s audition will not shine a beacon on some new undiscovered talent that will compel you to offer them a significant commitment like an ensemble role. You’re going to go with known quantities, whether they’re people you know or people with significant history or training from somewhere known.

Sports teams don’t just draft prospects sight unseen. They scout talent at college games, workout showcases and so on. They watch a ton of video of every potential draft pick. By the time they make their picks they have seen quite a bit of every potential prospect and have a strong idea of what they’re getting. It baffles me that in 2015 directors still think that one-off auditions are a way to discover talent or determine who to cast.

Whether or not they have shows of their own, why aren’t these auditors sitting in on advanced classes or showcases? They know they’re going to produce shows. They’re already planning to spend time to hold auditions. And they’re not *that* busy: Sitting in on a couple of shows or classes every week or two is no herculean task. Regular improv work doesn’t take more than 4-5 nights a week of your life, and that’s if you’re actively working on multiple projects and/or playing on several teams/cast with weekly shows. Many aren’t. A lot of auditions are audited by multiple people. Even if you can argue the AD is too busy to go see shows, others in the company can certainly make the time. So I don’t buy the likely excuse that a director or auditor is simply too busy.

And if in fact they are scouting shows/showcases/cabarets/classes/workshops/whatever else… then why the hell are they holding open auditions? They already know quite a few active, available players in the scene (inexperienced or experienced) they’d love to work with. Why not just ask them to come aboard, or audition a group of those known players, and not waste the time/money of the other 100+ people who otherwise have no chance in hell?

Shit, back in the day, this is how Second City and iO casted their shows. They just plucked people out of class to fill or create teams. Now, with the sheer quantity of trainees and existing teams, they’ve been spooked into going Broadway on their selection process. But even now I don’t think that’s necessary, or even productive, on the local level (maybe for the touring or cruise ship stuff shit, where regional directors obviously can’t know everyone everywhere… but local companies don’t have that excuse). Those players who aren’t in know it’s tough to get in. Auditions don’t make it easier for them.

Two: Young, inexperienced performers looking to these auditions for opportunity, instead of at each other. Let’s face it. With the big improv schools spitting out dozens of fully trained improvisers every couple months into a scene already ridiculously saturated with trained improvisers that have nowhere to go… the companies are never going to provide the best long term opportunity for a lot of these young players. They’ll be more than happy to take their money to host them for the umpteenth run of a class, because that’s understandably how they make a lot of their money. But aside from a token curated midweek showcase or a class showcase at the end of the curriculum, the opportunities for these students to play probably aren’t coming unless they win out at an audition….

… or they create their own. Know where I formed a good portion of my improv experience and working relationships? It was not in class, and it was not in an improv show I auditioned for. In fact, I never successfully got cast in a Seattle improv show from an audition. My experience came when my classmate Chris Wong asked me and a few others to start meeting and practicing as a group. We did, almost every week for a couple years, and that’s how Wonderland happened.

The groups Illuminaughty and Biblical Proportions (which splintered off Wonderland) exist because we all took that initiative to create and maintain that group. The current Seattle group Human Propaganda similarly began before that when Wilfred Padua solicited his training partners to start meeting and practicing together. Interrobang began when my friend Dave Clapper and other colleagues began meeting and practicing as a group.

All still produce regular shows today. Many of their cast members have never been part of a big theater’s ensemble, or didn’t join a main ensemble until well after they formed their indy groups.

A lot of those groups you see in improv festivals? Most are not Harold style teams formed by a theater company. Most are just groups that came together independently to practice and do their own shows. A lot of improv theaters themselves came about from independent groups that over time grew their own thing into something bigger.

I wish I could grab every talented but un-casted improviser I saw in these auditions by the lapels and tell them, “Get together and form your own groups! Pool a few bucks together each week and rent a rehearsal room for 3 hours. Throw in to do a one off show or an opening set every month or two. You can do it YOURSELVES! You don’t need these auditions to get experience!”

And this is Chicago. Seattle has a relatively big scene, but it was harder than it is in Chicago to do your own show. Pocket Theater and others have made it easier for groups to play, but back in my day if it wasn’t for the generosity of Rik Deskin at Eclectic Thetare, or joints like The Rendezvous, it would have been very difficult and expensive to produce a show. And no one was looking for improv openers.

But in Chicago, there’s not only all sorts of barprov and open mic options, but serial cabaret shows are constantly soliciting for groups to do quick opening or under-card sets. Sometimes I wish I had a current group that I could submit for some of these opportunities. Many shows happening nowadays can’t find any improv groups to open or fill slots! Which is amazing, because this is Chicago! The Mecca of Improv!


Basically, we turn auditions into gatekeepers for our improv practice, when we really can create our own opportunities. And with this much talent in this community, there’s no reason we don’t have what it takes to do our own thing.

This is not a mark on the companies holding these auditions. I’m not even saying that auditions in themselves are bad. I’m mostly saying for many there’s better ways to mine talent. And those auditioning have a better way to practice and grow outside of class.

(P.S. – Congratulations to the folks who did win roles from this week’s auditions! No joke. You clearly did a tremendous job and have considerable talent. Best of luck!)

(For everyone else… let’s form some groups, throw in a few bucks a week, and let’s do something.)

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One thought on “Talking about auditions

  1. […] When I called into question the utility of auditions, I alluded to but didn’t really discuss an important point: The ability of performers to empower themselves and create their own opportunities, rather than rely on auditions to get performance opportunities outside of classes and jams. […]

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