Just weeks before the world shut down in 2020, a variety of theatrical companies convened at the Southeastern Theatre Conference (SETC) in Louisville, TN. As is often the case, SETC was the last stop on a long casting tour for SSMT; there had also been the A1 conference in New York City, on-campus auditions in Virginia, and a midwest college tour which covered parts of Michigan and Ohio. But SETC was the big one — the one where we have often found those few remaining needles in the haystack. And what a haystack it was! In 2020, there were some 800 actors auditioning at SETC over the course of three days – each allotted approximately 90 seconds to sing a short selection and/or perform a monologue of their choosing. Meanwhile, it was becoming impossible to ignore the burgeoning story of the pandemic having reached our shores. But there was work to be done – a season to cast. So we sat in that convention center and routinely slathered ourselves with hand sanitizer from a comically large bottle that, within a matter of days, would be worth its weight in gold.
In 2021, as we all know, “different” has become a matter of routine. So, instead of traveling to watch auditions, we developed a (temporary) model where all auditions were electronic video submissions. Mind you, this was not an entirely new adjustment; in recent years, we have become popular enough to request pre-screens videos before granting an applicant a formal, in-person audition. SETC’s 800 actors only represent approximately 35% of the 2,250 applicants we see for 35 onstage positions in any typical year.
When casting, we often seek out actors that fit the needs of a full season of three shows (in which case triple-threats are often a must). But this year, with only “GREASE” on the docket, we could tailor our audition request to fit the show’s specific needs — one musical theatre selection and one pop song from the 1950’s. (“Where the Boys Are” as sung by Connie Francis was easily the most popular selection, and it still made me smile every time.) With travel suspended, we also focused our attention on current Shenandoah students and recent grads. There were 90 actors to choose from – only 4% of the turnout we usually see.
So — you may be asking — were there any benefits (aside from health and safety) to casting solely online? Sure! For starters, I made it through the entire process while wearing sweatpants in my living room. Also, to remain fully present and offer an auditionee your absolute attention takes a surprising amount of energy, especially in a conference setting with three straight days of one after the next. Plus, the video auditions did allow me to spend more time with each actor, to pause and rewind so I might make a deeper assessment of their connection to the material.
But that’s not to say this new process was a bed of roses. Far from it. I sincerely mean it when I say that I would have been happy with our final cast even if 10,000 people had auditioned; they are all wonderfully talented actors, and each bring something unique to these well-worn roles. But video auditions are, by nature, totally impersonal. It feels as though I’ve hired a group of distant cousins without so much as the opportunity to say, “Hello,” let alone offer any adjustments that might benefit their performance. I don’t have a sense of anyone’s real presence and acting onstage is very different from acting on film. Stage actors need personalities that can fill a room, while acting for film is often more nuanced (though truth is the objective in either medium). In the case of filmed auditions, what you see may not be what you get; I know full well I never saw the first take. Videos allow our actors to only send what they felt was their most successful attempt, which is a luxury that cannot be taken onstage.
Was it different — very. Was it better — nope. Hopefully next season as we see a return to whatever used to be normal (is “normal in theatre” an oxymoron?), we will find ourselves back in the room together. And when we do, I can assure you that the smile I use to greet actors will be one of genuine affection and gratitude.
Producing Artistic Director, Jeremy Scott Blaustein