Unexpected Productions auditioned about seventy people last weekend, and cast six improvisers to join the Seattle Theatresports ensemble. There are far more than six great improvisers in Seattle, and there are always a lot of disappointed people. Many of the people we can’t take are friends, supporters, students, and people we want to see on our stage: either down the road in Theatresports, or in other shows.
I’ve been on the other side of the fence. I was rejected in my first audition for Theatresports, in 2007, after waiting over a year to audition. I was a strong students, and many people told me they thought I had a great chance. It was a pretty big letdown, and while I stuck with it, I remember having a nervous two weeks waiting to hear, and another lousy two weeks after hearing “no”.
Anyway, I like to eavesdrop auditioners’ feedback about the process, as well as what people think about before and after auditions, and I thought I’d talk about some common misconceptions that I don’t think are helpful, now that I’ve seen the other side of the fence a few times. I’m going to talk about our ensemble, but I suspect much of this applies to most professional improv groups: at least those in cities where politics and “who-you-know” hold sway. All of this is my own, personal opinion, and doesn’t necessarily reflect the opinions of my theater.
Misperception One: We Always Cast “The Best”.
People love to form rankings, and it’s easy to imagine that you can make an ordered list of improvisers, based on skill. And, sure, there are definitely clear distinctions in improv talent, but realisitically, people are very different. As an auditioner, you’re often looking to fill certain needs. Maybe the ensemble needs younger, more energetic improvisers one year. Maybe it needs more experienced actors another year. Maybe it needs drivers who know how to put the pieces of a funny scene together to make a good story. In an ensemble, you’re usually looking to complete your toolbox. A director may audition an amazing screwdriver, but if she already has a great screwdriver, she’ll end up casting a hammer, even if the screwdriver was more experienced.
Misperception Two: If You Excel At Everything We Teach, You’re “In”
We have an improv school. We teach improv, and we mostly teach it the way we like to play it. And we focus on teaching people to be improvisers first and performers second. We may point out when better acting would help, but we’re not an acting school.
It’s easy to imagine that what we teach is mostly what we’d cast on, and obviously, those who have gone through our school usually understand the sort of improvisation we’re looking for. But… Because we know how to teach people to be good improvisers, we’re often looking for the skills that we DON’T teach. Acting is an obvious example, and seasoned actors often do great in auditions. We love to see musicians, dancers, stage tech, writers, storytellers, mimes, and anyone who can bring something from the outside.
There are also things that can’t easily be taught. Generosity is something that’s hard to teach. Confidence is something that people have to develop on their own. Stage presence is tough. Theatricality is a weird combination of experience with theatre and the courage to play things differently. We can’t teach a lot of things, and that’s what we have to make sure people bring with them (or at least the smarts and willingness to develop them outside the ensemble).
Misperception Three: Being Cast Is Recognition of Support
This is a hard reality, and it can seem unfair a lot of the time. We REALLY appreciate all the hard workers who make our theatre work, from tech, to box, to people who step in to judge, to volunteers, to long-time students, to everyone who makes UP what it is. We DO take the amount of work people do into account, since one thing we audition for is the likelyhood of the auditioner staying involved, helping out, etc. And we want to reward those people who work hard. But in the end, we need the right people on stage, and we’ve learned that we really don’t do people a favor when we put them on stage if they’re not ready. Theatresports is a pretty steep curve, even for those who are ready, and for those who aren’t, the feedback from both audience and fellow ensemble members can be pretty hard. Theaters need to find a better way of rewarding those who help than stage time, and the improv world needs to do a better job of creating a path for those who excel in off-stage improvisation to excel, grow, and be honored for the work they do.
Misperception Four: Joining a big ensemble is the way to “Arrive”
There have long been two primary houses of professional improv in Seattle, along with a few smaller groups that audition less frequently (as far as I know). This year has seen the addition of ComedySportz to the mix, and there are a few groups in surrounding communities. More experienced improvisers who arrive in Seattle often look at these big groups and decide they’re not interested, but to new improvisers, it can seem that joining one of these is the only way to succeed. I understand why: its helpful to have someone else schedule regular performances, and to be part of a community of improvisers, but its also frustrating.
As a teacher, I like to think I’m teaching my students how to do more than just Theatresports: I hope they’re developing skills to do all sorts of improvisation, not just Theatresports. I teach people who would be great in specific roles in plays across Seattle, but might not have the jack-of-all-trades aspects that Theatresports requires: I hate to see these people getting frustrated that they’re not geting into an ensemble, rather than creating their own projects, or taking their skills to things other than traditional short-form or long-form improvisation. There are plenty of improvisers who are vastly talented in Seattle who aren’t part of one of the big improv houses, who have had the courage to form their own path and not look back.
We will audition again. We don’t know when, but we will. We’ll probably see some of the same people and some new people. Hopefully, those we’ve seen before will take the time to grow and develop. I hope they do it, not to get into Theatresports, or JCI, or ComedySportz, but because they love what they’re doing. I hope it changes their lives for the better, and they find a way to change others for the better. And I hope that those who remain frustrated or feel themselves getting bitter, and don’t feel rewarded if they can’t get in: I hope they find something new. In any art, its hard to have your self esteem tied to somebody else’s opinion: it has to be tied to your own.
Tony Beeman has lived in Seattle as a writer, performer, director and software developer since 1998. In addition to performing, directing and serving as Artistic Associate at Unexpected Productions in Pike Place Market, Tony performs regularly with 4&20 Improv, Seattle Experimental Theater, and Improv Anonymous. He has taught workshops in seven countries. His Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is INFP.
I think, improv and auditions are a double bind situation in itself: Because you learn that improv is so much about cooperation, collaboration – and then you find yourself in a competitive situation. Tara DeFranciso and Coleen Doyle from the iO in Chicago, when asked the same same question (“How does the Hippie spirit of collaboration in improv go together with castings?”), answered this way: Improv is for EVERYBODY. But performing improv on stage is not. I still don’t know how I should feel about that :/
Thanks for sharing these insights, though!