Digital auditions, once favoured for screen rather than stage, have become the mainstay of the casting industry since lockdown. Actors, agents and directors tell John Byrne how auditionees can adapt to online
Online auditions have been a growing phenomenon for some time, but until recently they were mainly used when actors and casting professionals were separated by distance, work schedules or time zones.
The camera-based nature of Skype, Zoom and other video-conferencing platforms has also meant that, traditionally, this type of audition has been favoured for screen rather than stage castings. But the Covid-19 lockdown, and the health concerns and distancing restrictions accompanying it, have changed all that. Now, being able to audition digitally is an essential skill that every working actor needs.
Connect Entertainment manages some of the largest international audition programmes for clients including Universal Studios, Disney and Royal Caribbean. Company director Jaci Testro recently took on the mammoth task of merging two of them – Universal Beijing Resort and Universal Studios Japan – into a combined online audition campaign.
“While it has become increasingly popular, and almost the norm now, for screen actors to simply submit a reel rather than attend an audition, the process is far more difficult and complicated when auditioning live performers with skill sets including singing, dancing, acting and stunts,” she says. “For this reason, we prefer to always see the final performers shortlisted live when we can, even if only online.”
She also advises that the same preparation and attention to detail required for an in-person audition is key to standing out in an online one. “Follow any advance instructions you have been given to the letter,” she says. “Be professional in the way you present yourself and don’t forget that we can see what’s around and behind you.”
Actor and theatre director Jonas Cemm has just completed online auditions for this year’s Jack and the Beanstalk pantomime at Welwyn Garden City’s Campus West venue. He agrees that offline best practice also applies when auditioning at home. “Be ready at your computer or other device well before your slot. You may be admitted early or asked to read something remotely beforehand.”
He continues: “Listening is important – be mindful that although you are not physically in the room, you are still under detailed scrutiny, perhaps more so online. If a member of the panel asks you to stop, start again or do it differently, make sure you are aware of them making these requests and not lost in your own surroundings. If you haven’t learned a piece, it can be positioned just off camera so you are free to move and perform more freely, but remember to give that small lens eye contact. The panel really want to see you.”
Authenticity is essential to a successfulonline audition, according to Darren Darnborough, an actor and producer whose TV credits include series such as Magnum PI, MacGyver and True Blood. He is also something of a pioneer in the video audition field as co-founder and chief executive of the WeAudition platform, which has been hosting casting related video chats since 2015. “Video chat is intimate and what’s nice is that most actors and casting directors report that this leads to the freedom to be more authentic, as actors are more relaxed and without outside stressors,” he explains. “We have always championed diversity and inclusivity. I think the video chat format aids this by bringing down barriers of geography, finance and social status.”
Actor and presenter JD Hunt, a regular video auditionee agrees: “One big plus of auditioning at home is that I’m not having to travel and contend with overcrowded public transport and delays, so I’m economising on time as well as on fares.”
Sam James, agent and director at Marcus and McCrimmon, reminds actors who may be concerned about the technical aspects of online auditioning that, within reason, it is performance rather than state-of-the-art tech that makes the difference.
“Don’t worry too much about your set-up. Everyone knows you’re at home. The most important thing is to ensure your Wi-Fi connection is decent, as much as you can,” he says. “Check which platform the audition is being held on and that you’ve downloaded anything necessary to make it run smoothly. Know where the controls are for that platform – you don’t want to accidentally mute yourself and be panicking about how to undo it.”
He continues: “A plain background is best and make sure your phone or laptop is stable – prop it up if you haven’t got a tripod. Checking what you look like in that set-up is crucial, so always take the time to do a dry run.”
Despite the convenience online auditioningoffers actors and casting professionals alike, it is worth remembering that the internet has always been a hunting ground for scam artists aiming to prey upon the starry eyed. When travelling to a casting in an unfamiliar venue, it is wise to be cautious. In the same way, you should be careful of your safety online, especially if the audition offer was unsolicited.
“Research the company and/or casting director you are auditioning for to determine how legitimate it is,” advises intimacy director and coordinator Lizzy Talbot. “Find out in advance what the expectations are around recording the audition and ensure no personal information is on display in your background. There is never a reason for you to be nude in your audition. If you are asked for nudity in the audition, end the session immediately and report it to Equity.”
‘Find out in advance what the expectations are around recording the audition and ensure no personal information is on display’ – intimacy director Lizzy Talbot
Although much less serious, there are other potential pitfalls to online auditions that are also worth taking precautions to avoid. Cemm’s online panto auditions included at least one real-life panto moment: “The auditionee was so into their performance and focused on us on the other side of that lens that they completely missed their mother bursting in behind them, who then slowly realised before backing out surreptitiously. We tried to keep it professional our end, but it was comedy gold.”
Actor Sharon Jones adds that unexpected cameo appearances are not limited to humans. “Get your cat out of the way before you switch the camera on. Mine decided to jump into shot while I was filming recently, although in this case there was a happy ending as we decided to keep the ‘cat take’ in the final edit.”