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Michael Donovan is one of a tiny handful of casting directors in Hollywood who specialize in live theater and as such, he is a very, very busy man. After earning his degree in theater arts from the prestigious St. Michael’s College in Vermont, Michael began his acting career in New York, where he found considerable success both on stage and on camera. At the urging of various friends and mentors “in the know”, he decided to leave New York back in the ‘80s in favor of the greater film and television opportunities afforded actors in L.A.
“I made many of the classic actor mistakes when I left New York,” Michael tells us. “Instead of remaining with my agents there, I foolishly closed that door and quit them. It never occurred to me that I could maintain that relationship long-distance and better yet, that they might have been able to introduce me to some agents in Hollywood.
“Of course, I had to buy a used car when I got here – I couldn’t afford a new one! – and it instantly needed about $800 worth of repairs. Even though I had brought $5,000 with me (a small fortune in those days), it was very quickly eaten up: The car, the first-and-last month’s rent, classes, L.A.-style headshots, etc. So…I became a waiter. Nothing wrong with that; it’s really an ideal job for an actor and it allowed me to continue pursuing my career.
“Several years later, I directed a play. The wonderful commercial casting director, Beth Holmes, happened to attend a performance of that play and was so impressed by my directing abilities, she asked me if I’d like to help direct some of her casting sessions. Well, I’m no dummy – it was a paying gig working in my area of expertise – so of course I took the job. I eventually went into partnership with another great CD, Megan Foley, and continued pretty much specializing in commercial casting, as well as some TV and film. Eventually, I decided to give up acting completely and I’ve never looked back.”
We wondered how it happened that Michael made the transition to legit casting several years ago.
“When the huge and awful commercial actors strike happened in the late ‘90s, there was literally nothing for me to cast. As a SAG member myself, I refused to cast any project that had originally been union and there weren’t enough new, never-union spots to go around. When someone asked me if I’d like to cast a play, I thought, ‘Sure. Why not?’ After all, the legit stage was my first love and by this time, I knew hundreds of terrific actors who were dying to do theater.
“Today, I cast for the International City Theatre (ICT) in Long Beach, the Hollywood Bowl, Reprise and loads of other houses. One of my favorites is The Pasadena Playhouse, which, unfortunately, has recently been forced to close its doors, due to financial problems. I can’t wait for it to start up again! Of course, I still cast films and commercials, too, but it’s live theater that is my main focus.”
We asked Michael why he thinks it is important for actors to work on stage, even if it’s in Equity 99-seat contract (i.e., virtually non-paying) theaters.
“Are you kidding? As far as I’m concerned, no one can call himself An Actor if he doesn’t do stage work and doesn’t have theater credits. Stagecraft is the basis for all other facets of acting. I realize that acting is acting, but…without the basics, you simply aren’t a pro, in my opinion.”
Michael was happy to share some insights and tips for actors regarding the audition process for theater. Some of this may seem obvious, but we all know that unfortunately, far too many actors enter the audition room poorly prepared, which is a waste of everyone’s time and an embarrassment to everyone involved, particularly the agents who represent these non-pros.
“I wish I didn’t have to mention this kind of thing, but you wouldn’t believe how many so-called actors come to auditions totally unprepared. But instead of listing all of the things they shouldn’t do, let me just give you some basics of what they must do.
“Let’s start with the play itself. If it’s a published and/or well-known piece, it is the actor’s absolute responsibility to be familiar with the entire play. In other words, get of copy of it and read it before coming in to audition for us. This isn’t TV, where you might get to appear in one scene and really don’t have to understand much about your character, other than the obvious. A play is an entire story and you’re going to be part of that story for weeks to come, should you book it. The more you understand about your character and the other characters, as well, the better chance you’ll have to show us that you’ll be able to handle a whole play.
“Now, if this is a brand new play and you can’t obtain a copy of it, try to look at the sides for all of the other roles. They will give you a much better sense of what’s going on than merely going by your own character’s sides.
“Never, ever ad lib your lines at a play audition. I’ve actually had people ad lib Shakespeare and we couldn’t get them out of the room fast enough! The writer’s words in a play are set in stone; they do not change, unlike the scripts for TV and film, which are constantly being rewritten. Stick to the script for a play.
“Even if you’re one of those actors who can memorize very quickly,
keep the sides in your hand when you audition. For one thing, if you don’t, you make it seem as if you’re giving a ‘performance’, not an audition. For me, personally, if I see that the actor doesn’t have the sides in his hand, I’m subconsciously waiting for him to go up on the lines. So, instead of concentrating on his audition, I’m looking at the sides in my own hands, in case I have to prompt him. Obviously, that can really work against you.
“This may sound like a no-brainer, but I cannot emphasize it enough: Always, always bring several headshots and resumes with you to every audition, not just the ones for stage. Even if you think that electronic submissions have you covered, you never know when someone in the room is going to say, ‘Wow – I have another project you might be right for. Can I have your pic and res for that one?’ Besides which, what does it hurt to always have them with you?”
We asked Michael for some information about the mysterious world (to many of you) of musical theater, knowing that he casts quite a bit of it.
“I suppose it can seem slightly scary. Just because someone has a great singing voice does not mean she knows how to prep for a musical audition, so this should help:
“Most, but not all, musical auditions request that the singer bring in two pieces: 16 bars each of an up-tempo number and of a ballad. You should find out what the tone of the show is (‘The King And I’ vs ‘Rent’, for example), so you can bring something that would demonstrate you can sing the appropriate type of music. You can even ask if it’s okay to sing something from the show itself. Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t, but it can’t hurt to ask.
“Bring your own sheet music, in your key. Do not ask or expect the accompanist to transpose the music for you. That isn’t his or her job.
“Know your vocal range. If we ask you what your high or low note is, know the answer. If it’s a mystery to you, we know instantly that you aren’t a pro.
“If you really want to work in musicals, spend the money on a singing coach who can help you find the answers to those issues. A coach can determine your key, your range and help you choose appropriate sheet music that will serve you well in various auditions.
“OK. So, if we need a double- or triple-threat, the audition process will start with the area that’s most important to us. If it’s the singing, that will be your first audition. If we need strong dancers, we start there. If you pass the first phase, whatever it may be, then we call you back for the second phase. Usually, the acting audition comes last, after you’ve shown that you can handle the singing and/or dancing.
“Speaking of dancing…for heaven’s sake, bring your dance shoes with you. Again – a no-brainer, right? Well, guess how many so-called dancers show up with either no dance shoes at all or the wrong type for what we plan to do. You can’t tap dance in jazz shoes, folks! And no – we do not want to see you dance barefooted! (Yes – that has really happened. Unbelievable!)
“A note about how to dress for a musical audition: Guys should wear an appropriate shirt – usually a dress shirt – and clean, pressed slacks. If you must wear jeans, make them a stylish-looking pair, not something you’d use to change the oil in your car. Women should always wear high heels and a skirt or dress – we need to be able to see your legs. Hopefully, you’ll already know how to walk in heels,” Michael smiled, “because we really don’t want you toppling over as you cross the stage!” And for both men and women…for heaven’s sake, never, never, never wear flip-flops to an audition. We do not want to hear you literally “flip-flopping” across the floor. Guys – we really don’t want your ugly, naked toes staring us in the face! And ladies (this should really make my point), flip-flops make your feet look fat!”
We asked Michael if he agreed with us that for an audition, makeup should be kept to a minimum. “Absolutely,” he said. “I realize that an actress may feel a bit “naked” for a stage audition, knowing the lighting is different and there are no ‘close-ups’, but try to keep it as natural as you can. For on-camera auditions, we want to see the real you, not the you that comes out of a cosmetics bag. If you’re hired, you’ll have a pro applying the appropriate makeup. Before that, think of yourself as an empty canvas, waiting for the casting director to paint you as he or she needs you to look.”
Michael summed up his advice with this little gem: “No matter what type of project you’re auditioning for, behind the table in front of you there might be 4 or more people – the casting director, the director, a couple of producers, writers, etc. – all of whom, throughout their own lifetimes, will be going on to do many, many jobs. Now, doing some quick math: Let’s say there are only 4 people there that day. If each one goes on to do 25 more projects –and that’s being conservative – you have just auditioned for 100 possible jobs!
“You may not have booked that particular job, because it simply wasn’t your turn. But…if you gave a solid, professional audition, you left an excellent impression and believe me, you will be remembered and those 4 people are going to want to see you again and again. I hope that gives the actors reading this insight into the bigger picture – that it isn’t just about this one, particular audition of the moment.
“Here’s a little secret: I do not always agree with the final casting decision on every project. I may have preferred the 2nd choice, but of course, the producers have the final say. However, the next time I need to cast someone in that category, I’m going to remember my preference, Actor #2, and will be sure to bring him in.
“The point is, it is the actor’s job to give the best possible performance at any given time. That’s what all of us on this side of the table are hoping for and that’s what we will remember the next time your headshot or name come across our casting desks.”
Michael will be casting, along with Margery Simkin, Neil Patrick Harris’ production of “Rent” at the Hollywood Bowl this summer (2010) and he’s really looking forward to that new project.
Michael Donovan teaches acting at UCLA and offers occasional seminars elsewhere throughout the year. Find out more about this very popular casting director at www.michaeldonovancasting.com.