Booking It! Tony-Winning Spring Awakening Director Michael Mayer on Auditioning and Directing

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-winning director Michael Mayer.

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Director Michael Mayer, who returns to Broadway this spring with the upcoming Neil Patrick Harris vehicle, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, is known to helm musicals that expose new talent to the theatrical landscape — evident in the Tony Award-winning hit Spring Awakening (for which he was awarded the Tony for Best Direction), the pulsating rock opera American Idiot and the dance-happy musical Thoroughly Modern Millie, which skyrocketed Sutton Foster to superstardom.

Mayer, who also directs for film and television and was at the helm of the NBC musical drama "Smash," is a Tony nominee for A View from the Bridge, Millie and You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. His directing credits also include Triumph of Love, Side Man, The Lion in the Winter, Uncle Vanya, An Almost Holy Picture, After the Fall, Everyday Rapture, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and 'night, Mother.

Below, Mayer shares insight on the audition room, qualities that creatives are looking for in an actor and how to break out into the world of directing.

You're known to direct musicals that introduce some brand-new talent into the world, like Spring Awakening and American Idiot
Michael Mayer: It's so much fun for me to discover talent… As an actor, how is it possible for one to "burst onto the scene"?
MM: I don't know that you can, as an actor, to tell you the truth. One of the sad truths about the life of an actor is that you are not in control of enough. You can't control how you get cast, but what you can control is the attitude that you bring into the audition room and the attitude you have about yourself. I think that we live in a society that encourages so many artists to label themselves in a very particular way, and I think that we're all encouraged to do that thing that we "do" — that we're known for in that moment… Every artist, including actors, can really be expansive in the way that they think about themselves, [and] I think [it] is all for the good.

I've previously talked with Lindsay Mendez and Ryan Scott Oliver about "breaking types." A lot of young actors say, "I'm this type, and I'm going to audition for this role." Is it better to mold yourself into a type or create your own type?
MM: That's a good question. I think that "types," in general, are an antiquated concept. They don't tend to interest me a whole lot. In particular, I feel that it is limiting not only to the actors own sense of potential in his or her artistry, but it also limits me in my imaginative capabilities, so I like to play against type whenever I can. I like actors who do that as well… When Jonathan Groff came in for Spring Awakening, he was a typical chorus boy who walked in — that was his experience, he'd been in the chorus, and that's how he presented himself. And, it was through the audition process that I was able to find other levels in him, and it was because of his own unbridled, personal interest in exploring all facets of his personality that I was able to see even more potential in him, so we were a very good match that way. Suddenly, he's a leading man, and that happens very rarely because, I think, of these boxes that people allow themselves to be put into… They're boxes they create for themselves because they look around and see that's how the world works. Unfortunately, that is — too often — how the world works, but I think it's up to all of us as artists to buck against that.

John Gallagher, Jr. and Rebecca Naomi Jones in American Idiot.
Photo by Paul Kolnik

When casting shows like Spring Awakening or American Idiot and looking for young, fresh talent, what is the fine line between fresh and new talent and being completely green? Do you know what you're looking for?
MM: I always think I know what I'm looking for, and sometimes I'm looking for exactly what I think I'm looking for… But, just as often, I'm really open to being surprised. The difference between being green and being [fresh]… I think they're not mutually exclusive. I think you can be fresh and new and green, but you can also be fresh and new and have a comfort in your own skin and a real point of view, even if you haven't been on the planet that long, and that's very attractive to me, as a director — to work with actors who have a "take"… They come in with an idea about the world and about the play and about the role and are unafraid to bring their point of view to bear on the scenes when they're auditioning or [with] the song or in the dance call. I've seen personality emerge in the dance call that was absent during the singing [audition], and I've often called people back to act some more from me based on what I saw when they were dancing…

I think it's this funny combination of the people who are so comfortable with who they are that they are willing to be someone else in that moment, but maintain their perspective on it. It's so hard to talk about without sounding idiotic or contradictory, but that's what excites me, when it is this sort of living contradiction — someone so young has such a strong take on the world. I love that, and even if it's not the right one, we can figure it out, but I know that that person isn't afraid to have an opinion and isn't afraid to claim their own individuality.

Although an actor may not think they're right for a role, is it still worth it to get seen at the audition?
MM: Look, if an actor thinks they're wrong for the role, and that role doesn't interest them, then they shouldn't go in for it, even if their agent is telling them to [or] even if they're asked. I've asked actors to come in for stuff plenty of times, and they've said, "I don't really see myself in that part." Sometimes, they'll say, "I don't see myself in that part. Can I read for this part?" And, I'm always open to that. Just as often, I've seen actors come in for one part — [casting director] Jim Carnahan will tell you I'm sort of famous for this — I'll see them do that, and then I'll have them read the other part, and that's the one they end up getting because I see something in them that nobody else was thinking about in that moment. And, usually, it's because of the "type" thing, but I think that an actor, who — if they have an appetite for the role, even if everyone says, "You're not right for this" — has got nothing to lose and everything to gain by saying, "I want to read for it anyway."

Mayer and Hedwig composer Stephen Trask
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

What about non-union performers going in for EPAs…
MM: Definitely! I've cast so many non-union actors from open calls — so many. This business is really, really not made for people who are easily discouraged. I think that's a big first lesson right off the bat. If you don't want to wait for hours in the hopes of that lucky thing happening, then don't do it, but then you can't blame [anyone else]. You're never going to get the job if you don't try — that I can guarantee you. If you don't show up, you won't get the job, and if you do show up, you might. You've got to try.

When coming in for a callback, how important do you feel it is to have your sides memorized?
MM: I think that sides should be memorized, [but] I think that holding the scene in your hand is crucial. You shouldn't come in with a choreographed presentation — I think that can be deadly — but really know the lines. Have the sides there to refer to, and don't memorize them in a way that commits you to any particular choice because the whole point of the callback is to get adjustments from the director. You want to be as familiar with it, so that you can do anything that the director suggests, but not know it so well that you're rigidly attached to any particular choice. What else I would say is that it's okay if you pretend it's not memorized, even if it is. As a director, what do you look for the most in an actor — their skillset, their vocal range, storytelling, strong choices? What excites you by a performance in the room?
MM: Well, it's a whole bunch of things. It really depends on the demands of the particular role that they're auditioning for and the makeup of the rest of the company. But, in general, I would say what impresses me the most is when an actor can walk into the room comfortably inhabiting their own humanity and that is a partner to the character that they're reading for, so that I'm always clued in to what their take is on it — what their idea is. I really like to get to know something about the performer. I don't look for a finished performance, let me put it that way. I'm interested in their relationship to the role, as much as I am in what their idea [is] of how it will ultimately be performed.

You also direct for screen. What are the challenges that musical theatre actors face when they audition for film?
MM: It's a cliché at this point, but if you think it, we'll see it on the screen. The camera will see it if you're actually "in it" and you are playing your actions. [If] you are thinking the thoughts, then the camera sees it. The minute you start projecting it as though you are doing it for a stage, no matter how small the theatre is, it looks too big, and it tends to look a little fake-y on camera. It's a very tricky thing, but the actors who can do it, and who can go back and forth between the stage and on-camera work, I think they're the luckiest actors because they have so many more opportunities to work, and I think it's really a worthwhile thing for theatre actors who haven't done much in the way of onscreen performance to try to learn that. It is a skill, just like anything else.

Jonathan Groff in Spring Awakening.
Photo by Joan Marcus

At the same time, what about shows such as "Smash"? What is a director looking for, and how does that balance work in those situations?
MM: The intent behind "Smash," at least during the first season when I was working on it, was to be as authentic as possible, so it was of great interest to us to have performers who knew how to perform on stage and could deliver that kind of performance in the musical numbers, but also knew how to adjust their performance appropriately, in a more subtle way, in the dramatic scenes — in the "book scenes" of the show. That was crucial, and I think [there were] a lot of wonderful actors I love working with — I love watching their work — who ultimately we weren't able to cast because they didn't know how to make those adjustments for the camera.

Switching gears… For aspiring directors, what is the best way to break into the industry? Is it beneficial to direct concerts and cabarets around "the scene"? Should you be cutting your teeth on new work?
MM: The world now is so different from the way it was when I was first starting as a director that I don't feel equipped to give too much practical advice, but I would say absolutely two things. Number one: Direct anywhere and anytime that you can. Seize any opportunity that you can to make work. Number two: Because when you're starting out you don't necessarily have the luxury of picking and choosing the kinds of work that you do — and sometimes you're working on stuff that maybe isn't your favorite — find something in that work that you love, and let the love for that be your anchor and your guide, and I think you won't really make a false move that way. And, you learn as much from your mistakes and from your failures as you do from your successes, if not more, generally, but really [try to] find something to love in the project… If you're doing a cabaret show, and there's one or two songs that you just love, and maybe you're not crazy about the rest of them, and it's not up to you what the material is, then find a way to make what you love about those songs kind of [inform] the rest of the evening, so that it carries you along and gives you energy because then you'll be able to give the performers energy and support.

I would say that if you're offered something that you can find absolutely nothing to love in or if you find that ultimately the message of the piece or the method of presentation is distasteful for you, then really don't do it because doing something that goes against what you believe or what you hold to be an artistic vision, then it's probably not worth doing.

How do directors get their name out there to become an associate or an assistant on a production?
MM: The best way, I think, is to get in touch with the directors you really admire. Write to them, and if you don't know where they are, you can write to them care of the union — the SDC [Stage Directors and Choreographers Society] — or you can write to them care of their agency… If they have a show on, you can write to them care of the theatre, and just be really honest about what you like or admire about their work and why you think that it would be beneficial for you to have that experience and what you can bring to them. I think that's really the best way to do it — to have that personal contact. And, I think it's very moving. I always feel very delighted if I hear from someone who feels like my work has inspired them or touched them in some way. It makes me feel really great, and I'm always happy to meet with those people if I can, and I've definitely hired assistants whom I've met that way. Also, there's a great program that I'm affiliated with at the Drama League of New York, the Directors Project, and young directors should definitely check that out if they haven't. And, there's an Observership program that is through the union, through SDC, that you can apply for. Those are wonderful opportunities to actually just be in the room. You're not necessarily assisting, but you're observing, and that's a fantastic way to learn. I did that a lot when I was much younger, and I have no regrets of the hours that I spent with directors, some of whom I thought were brilliant, and I learned so much about what to do, some of whom I learned [from] what wouldn't work for me if I was actually in the director's chair at that point. Both of those programs are excellent. I wish there were more opportunities for directors, but you have to jump through whatever hoops are out there to try and get into the programs that are there.

(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)