Adventures on the wrong side of the camera – Part 4 (Auditions)

6 years ago 3
Posted in: blog

Previous parts here:

1) Basic ways a director can help an actor.

2) How actors will analyse your script (and why you need to know this).

3) Actors and script analysis (continued).


In two days I’ve been on both sides of the auditions process and I think some of the things I’ve learned should be useful – for directors and even writers – and will help you make sure you’re getting the best from an actor in that short period.

So, my experiences: Yesterday I auditioned for the lead in a short film being made by some university students and today I auditioned some young actors for a role in a short I’m hoping to make next month.

To avoid any confusion, when I’m talking about the experience of me auditioning for a role as an actor, I’ll refer to it as ‘the audition’, and when I’m talking about me (as a director) holding auditions for young actors, I’ll refer to that as ‘the casting’… Hope that makes sense.

The audition – I was given a script in advance and some idea of specific scenes to look at and prepare. I met the director and producer of the film, chatted about the role and my interpretation of the character, and then played out a key scene a few times. The director gave me some notes, we talked about elements of the character, and then I gave him some variations and ideas on ways the scene could be performed.

The casting – I attended the workshop for young actors (age 10-12), observed some of the warm-up games, and then spent some time with likely candidates explaining my background, the project, and the format of the audition. We then looked at a very simple scene together (I’ll reproduce a variant of it later in this article) and read through it a few times. Audition over.

Things I’ve learned.

LET THE ACTOR CONCENTRATE. Acting is an awkward craft and often takes some coaxing. For an actor to really have a chance of setting some magic free they need to be able to concentrate. In an audition context, you can help an actor by not overloading them with information and distractions. Keep chat short and sweet – it’s a nervy situation already, and you don’t want to further complicate things by giving your actor a thousand new ideas to process.

DISCUSSIONS ARE GOOD but you should primarily let the actor take the lead and work through their own ideas. The director at my audition positively encouraged this and it was definitely helpful in the build-up to my own performance. Sometimes as an actor it’s good to be able to talk through your ideas out loud. Equally, if an actor doesn’t want to discuss it, let them be quiet – they’re trying hard to hold all that concentration and energy together. You can always give them some notes after they’ve had a crack at the scene.

Which leads us to – GIVE NOTES. Let the actor take a run at the scene first, without too much interference – it’s a good opportunity to get warmed up, and it may also bring up an interesting new approach. Then give them some simple notes – a new subtext, a different goal. You’re looking for an actor who will be a collaborator in your film and this is your chance to see how they respond and develop ideas.

Some simple notes might be along the lines of: ‘You really don’t want to talk to this person, because they’ve lied and got you in trouble. Try to get out of this conversation’. In some acting schools of thought, even that might be too complicated… If so, simplify it again – ‘Shut this conversation down’. Run the scene again and see what the actor does. You can always bring more tones and nuances into your notes as you go along – what’s vitally important is that you give them a chance to show you if they’re capable, responsive and creative.

PREPARE A SIMPLE SCENE. Your ideal scenario is that you have a perfect dialogue scene in your script, and a couple of actors ready and waiting to try it out. You’ll be able to see their chemistry together, their delivery of your wonderful lines…

And so on… Ideal, perhaps, but also unlikely- particularly on a low budget shoot where the logistics of getting everyone available at the same time for auditions can be nightmarish. If this is the wary stages of the casting process, you can worry about getting your favourite actors together to check chemistry at another point, further down the line. Right now, you don’t have any favourites- you have a long list of people to see, they’ve all travelled a long way to get here and they’re waiting politely for their chance to show you what they can do. You need to be prepared.

It doesn’t have to be a scene from your script, though obviously it’s helpful. With some scripts there’s a definite danger that it might not even be a particularly good way of judging if this is the best actor for the role. So what to do?

Definitely don’t go looking for a monologue in your script. They’re generally undramatic, unnatural and unengaging. If your scripts are like mine, you might have trouble finding anything suitable – Short scenes and little/no dialogue? It can work in an audition, but it can be bloody difficult too. It doesn’t give either the actor or the director much opportunity to really get the ball rolling, and it’s hard to judge what potential is there.

There’s always the option of improvising something around a scenario from the script, and this can work well – but I don’t think it should be used in isolation. The actor you’re auditioning is already putting together a lot of stuff creatively in a very short time – it’s not always fair or appropriate to heap improvisation on them too.

I’d recommend doing something like this- Take a scene from your script, or a basic idea/scenario that’s important to your character. Speak with your writer very politely, and see if they can help you develop it into an audition piece – this is not necessarily the same beast as a script scene. You’re looking for something that lets you see an actor play with aspects of the character you’ve written, with plenty of wiggle room for notes and discussion.

In addition, write something new (and simple) that will help you see other aspects of that character. In my casting sessions, I’d use something like this:

Sample Audition Scene

A – Go on

B – What?

A – Now

B – No

A – Sure

B – Yes

A – Really

B – Stop it

A – What?

B – You know

A – Forget it

B – Fine

That’s taken two minutes to write. It’s not Shakespeare – in fact it’s quite bland – but for once that’s not actually a bad thing. It’s a blank canvas that’ll be useful for a whole range of different situations. It has some kind of tension going on between the two characters, and the potential for a reversal of the power dynamic when ‘B’ starts to push back at ‘A’. You could use it in any number of scenarios.

For example – ‘A’ is a teacher. ‘B’ is a pupil. ‘A’ is victimising ‘B’ and trying to force them to squeal on some friends. You can bring in two actors for something like this, or if you want to see them in isolation you can take one of the roles. Let the actor be ‘B’, you (the director) can be ‘A’.

Run the scene.

Notes…? ‘B’, take it further and really try to get out of talking to me.

Run the scene…

And so on. Play around with it – see what the actor can do and how they respond to direction.

Alternatively – ‘A’ and ‘B’ are friends in a bar. ‘A’ is trying to get ‘B’ to approach someone. ‘B’ is very shy.

Run the scene.

Notes..? Same basic setup – two friends in a bar, ‘A’ encouraging ‘B’ to approach someone… but this time ‘B’ is in a relationship and suspects that ‘A’ is trying to break it up.

Run the scene. And so on and so forth.

If you use an exercise like this, in addition to some script discussion and piece from your script you’ll give your actors the opportunity to collaborate in the creation of something, and really show you what they can do.


3 Responses

  1. Alex, great series of articles summarizing what you’ve been learning in acting class. Great job hitting all the important points. I hope other directors will be inspired to take at least one acting class as well. I’m sure your experience will translate into more communication with your actors when you direct.

    I’m sorry it took me so long to read your articles. I meant to some time ago – but I got busy with work. Thanks for sharing. Keep up the good work.

    • Alex says:

      Hi Randolph – glad you liked the posts. I’m learning a lot at the classes and I’ve started to act in some short films (I’ll be posting the results on here soon) – all of which is definitely changing my writing and directing.

  2. Brilliant post Alex. Fantastic read (from an actors perspective).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *