Booking It! Tony Nominee Warren Carlyle on Audition Mishaps, Showing Off Your Skill Sets, Where to Take Class and More

Playbill.com's new feature series Booking It asks leading industry members to share professional insights, need-to-know tips and essential tricks of the trade for up-and-coming and established theatre artists. This week we speak with Tony Award-nominated After Midnight director-choreographer Warren Carlyle.

Warren Carlyle
Warren Carlyle (Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN)

The U.K.-born director-choreographer earned his first Tony Award nominations this year for Best Director and Best Choreographer of the Broadway musical revue After Midnight, which conjures Duke Ellington's years at the Cotton Club.

Carlyle began his Broadway career serving as associate choreographer for Tony Award winner Susan Stroman on the runaway Broadway hit The Producers in 2001, and since that time he has delivered show-stopping numbers of his own as choreographer of the acclaimed 2011 revival of Follies and as director-choreographer of the 2009 revival of Finian's Rainbow and the cinematic 2012 musical Chaplin.

Carlyle, who imbues his work with a showman-like quality that evokes Broadway's Golden Age and the MGM movie musicals of yesteryear, has also served as the choreographer of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, A Christmas Story, The Musical and the forthcoming Broadway revival of On the Twentieth Century.

He recently reunited with pal Hugh Jackman, having directed and choreographed Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway in 2011,  to create a series of original musical numbers for the 68th Annual Tony Awards, which take place June 8 at Radio City Music Hall. Jackman will host.

In the latest installment of Booking It, Carlyle shares his personal insights on the audition process, what he looks for when casting shows, how to give the best audition you can and offers advice to up-and-coming director-choreographers. What are the first things you notice about a performer at an audition?
Carlyle: The way they carry themselves. I love performers who know themselves and are able to be themselves in the nightmare situation of an audition.

Are there certain qualities that you look for in a dancer?
Carlyle: Technique, musicality and rhythm. I was trained as a classical ballet dancer at a school in England. I love dancers with a good sense of line. I love dancers with a sense of adventure. Fearlessness is a quality I admire. Tiler Peck from New York City Ballet is an example of a fearless dancer whom I love working with. Tiler dances as if it were the last time, every time. Jared Grimes is another fearless one. Just when you think he is done, he does more. It's thrilling to watch and even more thrilling to create with. Karine Plantadit is another inspiration.

Tiler Peck

How important is it that dancers motivate their technical ability with acting?
Carlyle: To me, it's very, very important. The Broadway musical Chaplin was a cast of actors who could dance. Charlie Chaplin was a man who could tell an entire story without a single word. As a dancer, that was inspiring to me. I've loved growing older with some of my dancers. As their technique diminishes, their acting improves. There is a need for us all to communicate, no matter what.

What are some common mistakes performers make at an audition that stand in the way of them getting cast?
Carlyle: They cut themselves before I have made a decision. Stay in the room. Let me be the one who decides. I may be looking for a cover, or for something that they don't know about. Keep going. Never give up.

What's your advice to actors/dancers when they don't get cast?
Carlyle: Please don't take it personally. Keep going. So much of what we do is dictated by things beyond our control. If you are new to me, give me time to get to know you. Sometimes that means coming back four or five times. Eventually the right thing will line up.

What is proper attire for a dance call? How does it differ depending on choreography, choreographer or show?
Carlyle: I can only speak for myself. Think about the show you are auditioning for. Wear something that helps us imagine you in the show. Look good. Feel good. Wear appropriate shoes. Please don't come in full costume. [Show] your best version of yourself whilst keeping in mind the style of the show. Do your homework. Research the creative team and know their taste and style. Ask friends who have worked with them for advice.

Are there dos and dont's for dance attire?
Carlyle: I personally like ladies with long legs and pretty feet. Anything that shows you off to your best advantage. Generally, I choreograph the more classic shows. No boots or sneakers. The male dancers should be strong and well groomed. Simple, straightforward, honest. What is the best way to succeed at a dance call when you're primarily a singer-actor who moves?
Carlyle: Keep going. Do as much as you can. Keep saying yes. Keep dancing. Fearlessness is important. If you are a singer who moves, I will be able to see that from your resumé. Don't panic. My job is to make you look good. Sometimes I just need to explore. Ultimately I am trying to cast the show and give you a job.

Fantasia Barrino in After Midnight.
Photo by Matthew Murphy

Do you have any tips to help non-dancers pick up choreography at a dance call?
Carlyle: Don't panic. Learn a phrase at a time. Try not to be overwhelmed. If you can find someone to teach you the combo ahead of time, do it. It will help you relax in the room. Try not to give up all sense of character or of yourself. Be yourself as much as you can while delivering the choreography.

When choreographers give auditioners the chance to improv, is it beneficial to show off all you've got? How far is too far?
Carlyle: For me, it's ok to show your skills. It's ok to be creative and go for it. I'm interested in who I will be creating with. Imagination is good. A sense of humor is good. Think about the style of the show. Don't leave the room thinking, "If only I had shown them..."

How important is having "tricks" in your arsenal?
Carlyle: There are certain shows that demand tricks more than others. Hopefully the casting breakdown will be clear. Often for me it's enough to be a quality dancer and not have any outlandish tricks. I was the kind of dancer who could neither flip nor do anything much beyond a steady double tour to the right. When I watch dancers, I want to see them string a sentence together, not just deliver fancy words or "tricks." The phrasing of dance is important to me.

Where do you recommend taking classes? Are there certain classes (or teachers) that dancers should make sure they are attending/working with?
Carlyle: Many of the dancers I work with take jazz and ballet class at Steps. Also, there is a great ballet class taught daily at New York City Center. Broadway Dance Center has many master classes offered by folks within the Broadway community. Find the ones that challenge you the most.

Do you have tips for dancers to stay healthy and take care of their bodies?
Carlyle: Every dancer and every body has different limitations and maintenance needs. Some like pilates or yoga. I go to Jen Green at PhysioArts and acupuncturist Tripp Hanson for routine maintenance. Take care of your instrument. Do your PT exercises. Warm up and cool down. Drink water. Be good to yourself. Your body is how you make your living. It's important. You choreograph a wide variety of styles. How important is it that dancers have a wide range of styles in their dance vocabulary, or can it be in your favor to be really strong in one particular area and to focus there?
Carlyle: Recently shows have started to employ smaller casts. It means that being a triple threat has become a necessity. Personally, I like hiring dancers who can do everything. I like knowing that if I suddenly decide to make a tap number in rehearsals it won't be a disaster. I love not feeling limited.

Are there particular challenges that you think dancers face today that they didn't before as the industry evolves?
Carlyle: Triple threat. Triple threat. Triple threat. It's the biggest challenge of all for all of us. The industry is starting to demand more and more of dancers as well as choreographers. Every season I ask my dancers for more. Personally, I am trying to reach and push the boundaries of my work, and as an extension of that my dancers have to reach, too.

For choreographers, how do you break into the business? Is assisting the way to go, or is it better to choreograph stock and out of town?
Carlyle: Each of us has their own journey. I personally loved assisting. I was not born ready to choreograph or direct. I needed to learn and watch how it was done. Working in regional theatre was a great experience for me. I loved it. I always tried to find a wonderful director who was patient and willing to take a risk on a new guy. I did as much work as I could, happy to choreograph any free benefit or gala. Take advantage of any opportunity to meet and work with professionals who are the best at what they do. Take any chance to be in the room with really smart people.

What are some of the most valuable things you learned from dance teachers?
Carlyle: Just say yes.
These words have always inspired me...

Make voyages
Attempt them
There is nothing else.

What are some of the most valuable things you learned assisting, perhaps by watching Susan Stroman, with whom you worked for many years?
Carlyle: Stroman is the sole reason I am a director and a choreographer. Seventeen years ago I had the pleasure of dancing her glorious choreography in the chorus of Oklahoma! at the Royal National Theatre in London. Stroman is a force of nature, a creative genius and a kind and loving human being. She changed my life. I have learned many, many lessons from Stro both as a director-choreographer, but perhaps more importantly, as a human being. Be creative. Be prepared. Be kind. Be strong. Be musical. Listen to the people around you. Learn about lighting and sound and scenic design, those skills will make you a better collaborator. Treat everybody with respect. They deserve it. Laugh. Do the work. Every season I watch Stroman as she continues her journey. I am humbled and inspired to do more and try harder.