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Local theater companies take different approaches to auditions

THEATER: The trials of trying out 

Local theater companies take different approaches to auditions

When depicted in the movies, theater auditions are usually fraught and drama-ridden. They can be that way in real life too, but most theater companies try to save the drama for the production, and to be as fair as possible. Different local community-theater groups do have different approaches to the all-important subject of auditioning, depending on their mission, their perceived audience, or the show they happen to be doing.

If a group is doing a play with a cast of one or two, it's obviously going to be a demanding evening for the actor(s), and it makes sense that a director might pre-cast the play with specific ones in mind. Those are relatively rare, though, and most community groups in the Rochester area have an underlying philosophy about auditions for their shows: if it's community theater, anybody in the community should get a chance to try out.

"Pre-casting has no place in our mission statement," says Lauren MacDonough of the board of Webster Theater Guild, which in September will hold auditions for its January production of "Peter Pan." "Our mission statement stresses our focus on enriching the community of Webster and beyond. Directors may have ideas about who would be able or willing to play certain roles and encourage those people to audition, but no parts are ever pre-cast."

Many established theater groups have a pool of performers who try to be in every production they can, and the result is often like a repertory group: the young soprano who always plays the ingenue, the older guy who is always the comedian, and so on. They often expect to play those parts in each show, and often the audience expects to see them. But as MacDonough points out, directors need to strike a balance between indulging favorite performers and encouraging new talent.

"It's up to the directors' discretion to cast those who are right for the roles, old or new," she says. "It's typical in Webster to have the same people try out for our shows, and many Webster performers limit themselves to performing only in Webster shows. But that trend has seemed to shift in the last couple of years, with performers branching out to other theater groups and new talent pouring in for auditions."

Artistic decisions for WTG productions — which include the choice of audition materials up to callbacks and casting decisions — are typical in that they're made by the show's production staff, including acting director, musical director, and choreographer.

Board members like MacDonough also play a part in the audition process, though she says it is a behind-the-scenes part: "The board schedules and administrates the audition process, such as registering performers and helping with audition flow." (If you've ever gone to an audition that did not run smoothly, you can probably attribute that to the board as well.)

If it is a large or demanding production, or if there have been a large number of applicants (for example, almost 150 people tried out in June for Pittsford Musicals' upcoming production of "Les Misérables"), there are callbacks — the audition after the audition. At callbacks the creative staff narrows down possibilities, and the actors start checking each other out very carefully.

"We always have callbacks," says MacDonough of WTG. These are more specific than open auditions. "When we make the calls for callbacks, we inform the performers what is needed, which varies from show to show: difficult dance moves, duets for leads, dialogue between characters."

The group putting on Out of Pocket Productions' "Radio Gals" in October started from a very different, but equally valid, point. Last year four local theater performers and directors — Rochelle Pray, Deb Tompkins, Amanda Lobaugh, and Charles Palella — got together to put on a production of "Always, Patsy Cline" presented by Black Sheep Theatre. They got along famously, the show was a success, and they decided to stick together.

"Yup — we precast!" says Lobaugh. "Simply put, we had so much fun working together on 'Patsy' — with NO backstage drama, I might add — we wanted to do it again. We tossed a few show ideas about and finally chose 'Radio Gals' to fit the billing for next show, casting three more friends who were talented actors [Albert Young Jr., Bob Osgood, Robin Morris-Gaylord, and Sarajane Fondiller] to fill out the seven-member cast."

"It's very much the Little Rascals, 'Hey, let's put on a show!' approach," adds Palella, who is also the show's music director. (Interestingly, all the cast members have performed with the Off-Monroe Players, the Rochester Gilbert and Sullivan group whose approach exemplifies community theater: anyone can join the chorus for one of their shows without auditioning, just by signing up.)

The next step, according to Lobaugh, was "finding a theater company willing to let us do the work, but under their name. We approached Out of Pocket Productions at a TheaterROCS event. They produce performances for charity fundraising and were game for our proposal."

It's a much less structured approach to putting on a play than usual, but Lobaugh says it has been well worthwhile for a small-scale show like "Radio Gals." "We've learned so much by taking the lead on this ourselves; it's helped us realize our own strengths and weaknesses," she says. "I'm amazed at all we've learned that we can apply to help other theatre groups too."

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