An insider conversation with Duluth Playhouse executive and artistic director Christine Gradl Seitz about auditioning, preparing, and the casting process.
Interview with Oeuvre editor-in-chief Dennis Kempton
Do you usually know right away if someone’s “got it” when they come in to audition for a show?
If you mean, are they right for the part, I would say, no–it isn’t always so apparent. Sometimes it takes actors a little time to warm up and get comfortable. Other times it takes the director working with an actor and seeing if they can pull out of them what they are looking for. There certainly are those who can walk into the room and grab your attention, but there are equally those that sneak up on you and all of a sudden you find yourself saying, “Wow, I see something in this person that I didn’t see earlier.”
Have there ever been times when you might not have liked someone in their initial audition but called them back anyway?
It’s not a question of liking someone, it’s whether or not they seem like the right type for the show, regarding performance skills or physical/vocal type. Like it or not, “type” is very much a part of casting. And yes, many, many times actors are called back after the initial audition even when a director is not sure if they are right for a part, and this is usually because the director wants to see more of what’s there to work with. This is when an actor should be sure to be in control of their audition. Often they can change the mind of a director and can certainly persuade a director to go in another direction that perhaps was not their original concept .
What do you think is the most agonizing part of the audition process for the director? For the actor?
Actually having to choose who gets in the show and who does not is very hard, and I have witnessed most every director agonize over having to make choices. It’s so sad to have to turn anyone away. Likewise, I think waiting to hear who has been cast is probably the most agonizing for actors.
Does the Playhouse post audition notices in the newspaper? If not, do you think publicizing audition notices with local media might bring in more people?
Yes. We send press releases to every media source we can. It is usually listed in the Duluth News Tribune calendar and sometimes in other news sources, I suppose as they see fit. Unfortunately, we can not control who will print what. We rely heavily on our newsletters, email blasts, and Web site, because we can control that.
How do you think the Playhouse and other venues in town can cast a wider net in getting newcomers to come down for auditions?
Gosh, we work hard at that, and I think having more than 300 individuals attend auditions last year is evidence of making impact. However, new opportunities to speak publicly and seek diversity would be fantastic. Though it’s important to understand it’s not just about getting newcomers to audition. That can be very discouraging if the newcomer has no idea what to do and little training to back them up. I think the real answer is providing education and training, so that when someone comes to audition for the first time, they stand a better chance. Its terribly discouraging for someone to come to an audition and not get in the show. Like it or not, auditions are competitive and to have a good chance requires learning, first, what the expectations might be, and second, getting training so you stand a chance against those that have been doing this for years. It’s really not any different than wanting to play on a sports team. I think it’s interesting when someone may ask, “Why don’t you give someone new a chance?” We had 40 new faces on the Playhouse stage last year alone. However, again like playing for a team, it increases the odds to have some skill and some basic training or you may end up on the bench for while until you learn to play the game better, right? There are always exceptions, of course.
But in general, the same principles apply to acting as to sports. It’s a craft and most (working) actors have had training. While many actors take classes to increase their skill base, others are eager to fill any positions offered in a show–even backstage–and they learn from this experience either by watching from the wings and seeing others perform–a powerful way to learn–or by being a part of a cast in any way .
Tell us about your very first audition experience as a young adult.
While in high school, my first audition, outside school plays, was for a nearby dinner theatre. It was a paying gig, so I went to see what it was like. When I got there, I was terribly embarrassed because I didn’t understand how to prepare for an audition. I didn’t realize I should have been ready to sing and dance on the spot. I had no music with me and I did not bring dance clothes. I was very fortunate that they were patient with me and gave me music to sing, and I danced in my street clothes. I was definitely out of my element. They offered me the job though, and it was because I was trained as a dancer and singer and I was able to to power through the audition, even though I was totally under-prepared. This is an example of how a new person who may not have any experience auditioning or understand the process can get a part, though in this scenario having some training may be essential.
As a professional, I very clearly remember my first audition in New York City. I walked into the room with about 20 other young ladies; we stood in a line, they asked us to step forward and say our name, and then they cut about 75 percent of the ladies in the room. I was cut. I don’t have any idea why. Probably, simply, based on the way I looked.
What’s the most common mistake people make when it comes to auditions?
There are two common mistakes: sometimes actors have not researched the show and then they don’t understand what they might be “right” for; conversely they sell themselves short because of nerves or they have not prepared well . The over-arching issue is not being prepared, and not maximizing one’s strengths, including “type,” to their benefit. Everyone on this planet is a unique person. And that is our greatest asset. Sometimes actors make the mistake of trying to be what they “think” the director wants. Instead of saying, ”This is who I am, and this is what I would bring to the part.” Actors really should be knowledgeable about the show, the roles, and what their “type” is. I know there may be some actors that don’t like to hear this, but if you have ever directed, you understand exactly what I am saying. The way you look, your age, your body type, vocal range and quality and natural energy and presence can all play a part in getting a role. There are some roles that “type” isn’t as important, however, there are other roles where it may be deemed critical. It’s just the way it is and an actor can’t really do anything about that. I always tell actors to embrace who they are. Love their strengths, love their look and their voice and their body and be the best they can be .
Do you think it’s possible to do well in an audition if you aren’t familiar with the show but just want to act?
Sure, you can do well not knowing the show or characters, but it’s not advisable. Chances are greater by understanding the show and the relationships between characters .
How long and how do you think actors should prepare for auditioning?
It depends on the role the actor wants, and it depends on the actor. There is no formula. Some may prepare for months, and professionals will prepare for years waiting for the opportunity to even audition for a certain role. On a community level, I would say at least a couple of weeks might be advisable if wanting a lead role, particularly if you are not familiar with the show. Doing research on a show really is the basic tool.
Why did you choose to direct Chicago?
I love to direct and choreograph and Chicago is a a show I have always wanted to do. However, the demands of my job are growing every day, and it is always possible that it would be necessary for me to step away from taking on a show I love to keep the Playhouse moving forward.
Will we ever see Christine Gradl Seitz guest star in a Playhouse show or other production around town?
Probably not. I would not want to take a role away from another actor. I actually feel very blessed with my job as the executive/artistic director and it is very creative. I really don’t desire to perform so much. I had a long and lucrative career as a performer and in some ways, I cherish that time in my life and want to keep it close to my heart as I remember it. I wish I had more time to teach–and again, direct.
What one show have you always wished you’d been in during your career?
One? There are many. I would have liked to play Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street because I love tap dancing, and Roxie in Chicago , because I love the show. Wicked, and several other “newer” Broadway shows would have been greatly appealing if they had occurred 15 years ago! I had the opportunity to be in CATS but was under an obligation that I could not break–that was a bummer, and I would have liked to have performed in that show.
Are there any directors you particularly admire either from afar or from personal experience?
There are few directors I don’t admire in one way or another. It’s a very challenging task, and every director is different. Just like performers. I learn from them all, and I respect their process.
What makes a director good? What casting practices make a show a good one?
This is purely my opinion and cannot be a comprehensive list of attributes. However, I think some valuable traits include a director who studies and analyzes scripts and characters and does a fair amount of research on a show, is insightful and sensitive, able to visualize, work collaboratively with a team, is open and listen to other opinions and suggestions, communicates well. I don’t think there is a particular casting practice that makes a show a good one. I think it is the director’s process that makes the show a good one.
Any real advice for people who aren’t called back after auditions?
Lots of advice…but there’s no flat answer, in my opinion. It’s personal and depends on the actor. Starting this year I have been encouraging actors to give me a call. Several have taken me up on this. My goal is to help them do better and improve their chances. I am there to make sure casting is a fair process, and I am proud to say, it is very fair at the Playhouse. Those that are new can sometimes be the underdogs and they can improve their chances with a little more knowledge and preparation.