SUMMER IS A TIME to relax and unwind, unless, of course, you work in theatre. For aspiring professional actors, singers, dancers, and tech crew, summer is the busiest season of all. Entertainment organizations and summer stock theatres around the country cumulatively mount hundreds — maybe thousands — of performances in the warmer months, and many of their casts land those roles in the spring at a unified audition.

“Our auditions run the gamut from outdoor and repertory theatres to large-scale shows and cruise ships,” says April J’Callahan Marshall, director of professional theatre services at Southeastern Theatre Conference, one of the largest unified auditions in the nation. “To get a slot at our auditions, a college student or recent graduate goes through a prescreening audition, which we host at various locations throughout the winter and spring.” Those who mount that initial hurdle then head to the big show: an event where 3,000 or more people are vying for about 650 jobs.

And they only have 90 seconds to nail it. “They go into the audition room in groups and get up one right after the other,” J’Callahan Marshall explains. “Callbacks with the 60 to 80 companies who are hiring happen that same day. It’s a long day. We run from 8 a.m. to about midnight. America’s Got Talent has nothing on us.”

Kirsti Carnahan, managing director of StrawHat Auditions in New York City, says the callback is important, but that first 90 seconds onstage is vital. “The callback gets you the job, but the 90 seconds gets you the callback,” she says. “If you think about being introduced to someone in a social situation, you exchange maybe a sentence back and forth, and most of the time that’s enough to make a first impression. The 90 seconds you have onstage is your chance to make a good one. For summer stock that typically means, ‘You can trust me to walk onstage, know exactly what I’m doing, and have fun doing it.’ You’re also trying to say, ‘I’m a person you want to spend 11 weeks in a non-air-conditioned barn with. I love doing this, I’m good at it, and you should find out more about me.’”

J’Callahan Marshall agrees. And while it’s important to have your 16-bar song and monologue polished before you hit the stage, she says a performer’s personality is the most important thing casting directors are considering. “You’re there to show them who you are,” she says. “So, you walk onstage as yourself, show a transition into a character, and also show that you’re someone they’ll want to work with. Most of the people who come to us are early in their careers. This is sometimes their first experience at a unified audition. It’s not about having glitz or glamour or even ‘star power,’ so to speak. It’s about getting up there and showing that you can do this and you’re ready to work.”

That’s important, according to Colin Keating, resident music director at New Hampshire’s Weathervane Theatre and an accompanist at the StrawHat Auditions, because summer stock is certainly a lot of work. “With summer stock, the pace at which you work is unlike anywhere else in the business,” he says. “This past year, we put up Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in four days of rehearsal and one day of tech. I think putting yourself through paces like that is necessary as a young artist. You need to find the summer program that’s going to make you better. It’s not really about landing a great role; it’s about becoming a better artist.”

Carnahan says summer stock is an invaluable experience for many young artists, who head back to college in the fall with a huge amount of hard-won professional experience under their belts. “You come away from that 10 or 11 weeks with four, five, maybe six shows on your résumé,” she says. “That says, ‘I understand how to do the work.’”

Stephen Walley, 21, has performed for the past two summers with the company at Ohio Light Opera. He was surprised by the level of dedication required, but he also says the experience helped to sharpen his focus on the craft. “It consumes your life while you’re there,” Walley says. “It’s rehearsals and performances every day, and you just have to be up to it. It’s great to be in a professional theatre setting with people who are focused on the same art as you and who really care about it. We did seven shows throughout the summer, with 58 total performances, but everyone wanted to be there for every minute.”

Walley says his success at unified auditions comes from trusting his instincts and performing pieces he feels absolutely confident about. “The most important advice I got is that you should do what you do well,” he says. “Don’t try to tailor yourself to a specific role during the audition. Just do what you know you can do. The most successful auditions for me have been when I’ve gone with my instincts. I’m more confident, and I think that shows.”

Keating agrees wholeheartedly. “I just worked for a theatre that did Joseph and Chicago in the same summer,” he says. “We’re telling a Bible story, and then we’re dancing in our underwear. You have to be able to pull out every trick in your bag: the ability to be sexy, charming, fierce. You have to do it all. So sometimes it stops being about finding the song that says, ‘I’m your Billy Flynn,’ and more about saying, ‘I’m going to sing this, because I’m at my most genuine when I sing it.’ Young actors have to trust their instincts. There are way too many who think, ‘I don’t know if that’s right, does this cut work?’ Just sing the darn song, because your first instinct is probably right.”

While some unified auditions don’t require actors to prepare a monologue, Keating says going without one is a faux pas. “It’s inexcusable for a young actor to come to an audition like this and say they don’t have a monologue. That happens so much more than you’d think,” he says. “You have to demonstrate that you can stand onstage and talk, especially in those first 90 seconds. You have to say something that’s not your name.”

Once you’re in the callback room, Keating adds, you should take the opportunity to demonstrate that you’re not only talented but also likeable. “I want to know you’re a real human being,” he says. “We call it the kitchen table test. We’re going to be spending 11 weeks together in the mountains in New Hampshire. When the show’s over, are you someone we want to sit around the kitchen table and chat with?”

Evan Benjamin, a 22-year-old actor who first honed his skills in Thespian Troupe 2204 in Centerville, Ohio, says unified auditions can be a bit overwhelming. In a sea of equally talented competition, it’s important to stand out. “I’m primarily a comedic actor,” he says. “I’m capable of doing the leading man or the male ingénue, but what I do best is dorky boy. So, I go in with my comedic song, and most of the time I’m targeting the theatres doing seasons with comedic shows. I also list things on my résumé like the fact that I know how to use a bullwhip.”

In fact, Keating says the special skills section of a résumé is one of the first things he’ll look at, and it’s the perfect way to catch a casting director’s attention. “Recently, we had someone say they could impersonate a dinosaur being hatched from an egg,” he says. “Of course, we had him do it. It was the funniest thing. He got cast, and I’d hire him again in a second. You can set yourself up to have a conversation and get people laughing.”

Funny sells. As Benjamin says, “These summer programs are generally doing commercial theatre, so doing a monologue from some depressing play probably isn’t going to showcase the skills you need to do a season that’s Hairspray and Mamma Mia. Keep it light, and show what you can do that other people can’t. If you can find a song that’s active, funny, has a money note, and showcases who you are, then you’ve hit the jackpot.”

Last summer, Benjamin worked with a large company that casts actors for theme parks. He says the biggest benefit is the connections he made over the course of the summer. “The job opportunities with just that one company are endless,” he says. “Now, I have that connection to people there who know what I can do and what my experience is.”

J’Callahan Marshall says the actors who audition at SETC know what they want out of a career and are ready to demonstrate their dedication to people who matter in the theatre community. “We have a niche market, and it’s primarily the first-timer, the early-career actor who hasn’t quite become a professional yet,” she says. “During the school year, you learn the craft; during the summer, you learn the business. You learn how to sell yourself, to follow up, to not screw up, and to make those connections.”

A network is the most valuable thing an actor can have, says Carnahan, and for young professionals just starting out, summer stock and unified auditions are good places to begin building one. “Typically in a summer season, it’s not just one person directing all these shows,” she says. “In a season with five shows, you might work with three or more different directors. Some of them might be working somewhere else the next summer, and they’ll remember you. You’re beginning your industry network. You’re also learning from your peers, making friends, and gaining skills that will last you a lifetime.”

This story appeared in the December 2018 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine. 

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