Bernard Telsey has worked in the theatre for over 30 years. He is head of Telsey + Company casting, a premier theatre and film casting company in New York. He is also co-founding artistic director of the Off-Broadway MCC Theatre, is New York vice president of the Casting Society of America and was recently appointed to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Board of Governors.
His many Broadway casting credits include Wicked, Rent, Newsies, Kinky Boots, Motown, Rock of Ages, The Normal Heart, All The Way, A Streetcar Named Desire, Hairspray, Legally Blonde, In the Heights, Porgy and Bess, Equus, Memphis, Bring It On, South Pacific, Next to Normal, 9 to 5, Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark, Catch Me If You Can, The Addams Family, the NBC musical series "Smash" and the forthcoming Disney film adaptation of "Into the Woods."
Below, Telsey speaks candidly about the pathway to a successful audition.
When an audition notice says to "show range," where is the line between finding a song that is rangy, yet appropriate?
Telsey: When we say we want to see your range, we want to see how big your vocal range is because all of these songs are written so differently. We want to know what you are capable of. But at the same time, don't overreach. Don't show me your range if you don't think you can sing that eight to ten times a week. So many times, actors wind up reaching too far and then we're seeing holes. You still have to be a ten and be better than everyone before or after you, but you have to recognize that you shouldn't jump too high if you can't do it.
Telsey: It's very important to read whatever clues are out there. Some actors don't even ask to read the breakdown if it wasn't given to them by the agent or the assistant. It's helpful information, but it's not the end all/be all. Many times we write these breakdowns and we start casting, and then we learn something different from the director. So it gets slightly changed, but you don't actually put out a new breakdown. You need to read it to see what you can pull from it to help you, but don't take it literally. Don't say, "This says the character is 23. Why am I here?" I've heard that so many times: "Why am I coming in?" What actors don't always know is that it changes. They don’t know that the character is 29 now. I feel that so many actors read it and then they pass, they say, "Nah, I'm not that." But it's open now, so that's why we're seeing you. What you want to take from it is stuff that's active. Use the personality stuff instead of the literal fact… It says, "He's the happy-go-lucky guy." Look for the stuff that will help you with behavior and character.
Should you submit, or go in for an audition, although you may not be right for it? Is this just a waste of everyone's time?
Telsey: Yes, yes, yes! If you have an appointment, if you have the opportunity to go to an audition, you shouldn't be the one doing the editing and saying "no." There are enough people who do what I do and sit on the other side of the table and say "no." Go and be seen. However, don't waste someone's time if you're 29 and they're looking for a 13-year-old girl, just to be seen. But again, don't take it literally. Get in there and get seen. So many times it changes from what they originally wanted. Try to take just the essence of the person rather than the fact.
Besides the quality of an actor's song or your monologue, what else are you looking for during the audition?
Telsey: The audition starts the minute you walk through the door. Of course, it's about the work, but it's also important for us to get a sense of whom you are. I always say it's like a blind date. The date starts the minute that person walks through the door. "Oh he's handsome. Oh, he's not. She's attractive. Oh she's not my type…" The minute you meet someone you start having opinions. Generally what people wear is really, really important in auditions. It's not about wearing costumes, but it is about trying to help the room be convinced that you can be this person. Wear an outfit that's appropriate to the character you are playing, or it's sometimes as simple as wearing an outfit that makes you look great. And again, when you go on a blind date, even if you're someone who only wears jeans, or someone who only wears a suit, go get the best jeans that look good on you, or the best suit that looks good on you. That's what every audition should be: Wear the color that makes you look good and wear the things that make you feel and look attractive.
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