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Samuel West: Self-taping has changed the auditions process – maybe not for the better

Self-taping is the new normal but actors need to know that directors are not looking for immediate perfection, says Samuel West, they want people who can be flexible and are able to alter their performance in the audition room

Recently I directed The Watsons at Chichester Festival Theatre, the first time I had directed for a few years. I immediately noticed how auditioning had changed, and I’m not sure it’s for the best. As an only occasional director, casting a group primarily in their 20s meant meeting a lot of actors who were new to me. I looked at their online showreels, which were almost universally excellent (bar the few who insist on a montage at the beginning; boring), to get a sense of their acting styles.

There’s clearly a new generation of young actors of remarkable skill and truthfulness on camera, influenced by the best of US, Scandinavian and British television. That screen skill, though, doesn’t necessarily translate to an ability to portray a character from a different period in a different style in the theatre. So a director has to meet them and find out if they can do it on stage.

The Watsons review at Minerva Theatre, Chichester – ‘inventive adaptation of Austen’s unfinished novel’ [1]

We didn’t make any offers up front. We auditioned everyone, seeing about five people for each part in a cast of 16. The casting director, Charlotte Sutton, had an excellent knowledge of the piece, the register, and the talent concerned. She brought in people who, without exception, were worth meeting. Nobody wasted our time. And I learnt something from every audition: about the part, or about the play, and always about the person.

The audition process, over six days, 20 minutes at a time, was pretty good. Everybody seemed to like the play – and if “I loved it” is the ubiquitous response to my first question after a getting-to-know you chat, then fair enough: the beginning of an audition is not a time for expressing doubts.

What struck me as having changed from when I last directed a play was how remarkably well prepared people were for the scenes they had chosen. In one case, someone played a five-page scene, off-book, syllable perfect. But during the process, I noticed something less useful: while people arrive very well prepared, they sometimes aren’t flexible about the performance they come in with.

I wonder if this might have something to do with the rise of the self-taping culture. Nowadays, actors can get calls to self-tape several times a week. Our lives, if we’re lucky, become a constant round of learning, borrowing friends to read with, looking for blank walls to stand against, polishing those few lines until they shine. And that brings its own problems.

When you go on tape for a screen role without meeting the director, you try to film something immediately memorable, striking, something that will stand out from the dozens of others pouring in digitally from every corner of the world.

The actor directs themselves, possibly in great detail, so that every line is truthful, spontaneous, idiosyncratic, what you will. This self-direction isn’t a bad thing. A film director may not want to bother giving you acting notes; many directors like talking about acting but many don’t, and all of them have lots of other things to think about. Filming is expensive and fast; instead of rehearsal questions, what film and television mostly want from actors is footage.

But this is not how theatre works. For a start, the director is always in the room and is there to work with the actor. They don’t want a finished article; they are (or should be) interested in process, not results – at least not immediately. Our currency in theatre is time, and though there often isn’t enough of it, five weeks for a two-hour play always gives you room to explore.

I look for something other than immediate perfection in an audition: talent, niceness and rightness for the part, in that order.

I can think of nothing worse than casting somebody because they gave a perfect audition, then discovering they’re unable to change it in any way

Talent goes at the top, because the process of rehearsals allows you to cast people who may not be able to play the part quite yet, but are talented enough to get there with time. I can think of nothing worse than casting somebody because they gave a perfect audition, then discovering they’re unable to change it in any way. Rehearsals are for getting things wrong, not for getting things right. I don’t pretend to have all the answers when we start on day one, and exploration is what makes rehearsal fun.

Niceness sounds twee, but it’s vital. We don’t want wankers, we don’t want bad listeners, who come on with what sounds like a tape of their performance and expect you to fit the other speeches into their gaps. We want people who are present, who throw the ball back instead of holding on to it, whose performance will alter according to what the other actors give them. We want people who leave their narcissism and insecurity at the door. Nobody’s making much money – you might as well have a good time. As part of an ensemble cast, I’m also looking for playfulness: Is someone open to new ideas even if those ideas might not turn out to be right? Can they go with a note they don’t agree with for shits and giggles, just to see where it takes us? Often, I’ve said to someone I ended up casting: “I’m not sure that was a good note, but you took it very well.”

So the only other thing I do in auditions, apart from getting to know the actor and hearing how they do it the first time, is give a simple note and see if they can take it. And very often, the people who were best prepared, and most reliably off-book, were the least flexible. They gave a beautifully shiny performance, I suggested a couple of small tweaks, and they did the beautifully shiny performance again, exactly as before. If self-taping is making this problem worse, young actors need to know. Because however good an actor is, if they can’t take a note, I can’t cast them.

My suggestion for agents and casting directors to pass on to actors is not to learn the material too well – of course, if you’re dyslexic or find sight reading difficult, do as much work as you need to feel comfortable – but prepare to be flexible and alter your performance in the room.

Self-taping can also encourage actors only to think of their “sides”. Once or twice, people arrived not having read the whole play. This is a deal-breaker. You must read the whole play, not least because every page you’re not on may have something to say about your character.

Some of the time spent bashing that one scene until you are completely off-book could perhaps be better spent reading the whole play, finding out about the period, thinking of a couple of good questions to ask. But go sparingly: no director likes to hear complex theories from an actor about the themes or moods of the production, particularly when many of us may have fewer ideas about those than the person auditioning, at least so far. Have some questions, make some decisions, and be ready to change them.