Casting call

Here’s what theater companies and casting agents look for in auditioners

Auditioners must have a look that the camera can love.

Auditioners must have a look that the camera can love.

Photo by David Robert

Over the course of a Friday at Nevada Casting Group Inc., approximately 60 actors and actresses, many driving in from Sacramento and San Francisco, try to win roles in various insurance commercials. A man in his early 30s, spiky-haired and spectacled, enters a small room with four white walls and five strangers—three of whom will decide if they want him performing on behalf of their insurance company, and the other two from Nevada Casting.

Casting Director Deaet Kieft quickly goes over the scene the man is auditioning for. He is supposed to pretend his wife is at the hospital on the verge of giving birth. He runs into her room, ecstatic about some great insurance quotes he just received, and she is not happy. Imagining his wife shoots him a look from hell, he says “Oops,” looks terrified for a moment and tells his wife that he’ll just wait outside.

A nervous smile occupies the man’s face as he hears Kieft’s instructions. He performs the scene while Kieft videotapes. He clearly lacks the intensity she requested of him.

“I want more,” Kieft says. “Your wife is tired and exhausted and here you are talking about insurance. Imagine how angry she would be. It’s OK to over exaggerate.”

He makes a second attempt. This time, there is more facial expression, but not much.

“Let’s try this one more time,” Kieft says. “That was good, but I sill want more shock and fear on your face. Imagine your wife just flipped you the bird. How are you going to react to that?”

The man brings it up a notch, but still seems rather out of character. The more he does it, the more nervous he gets. His last performance is the finest, but there is no promise that the surplus of actors who will follow him won’t outshine him.

“I’ve done a lot of auditioning myself,” Zak Gilbert, owner of Nevada Casting, says. “The biggest thing not to do is to talk with other people. You should come focused on the script. If you’re going to portray a nurse, you want to think about all the actions a nurse goes through. You want to think about what’s involved. If you’re chitchatting about your kids or about a TV program you watched last night, you’re not getting in that zone. It’s really important to put yourself in character.”

Gilbert says that a good casting director will try to help the actor relax by making jokes about the scenario—but always focusing on the matter at hand.

Onnoleigh Sweetman, director of local dance-theatre company Millennium Performing Arts, says that making people comfortable is crucial to the audition process.

“I’m not your typical company,” she says. “I don’t have technical auditions. I went to plenty of auditions with friends and I knew they weren’t auditioning up to their potential because they were so intimidated. I don’t want to intimidate people.”

Sweetman’s auditions consist of teaching a choreographed number to all auditioners, handing them glow sticks, and then watching them move to techno music.

“It’s not about a person’s level of experience," she says. "It’s all about the passion and the movement. If they have that, we’ll take them in."