Making auditions fun again

Years ago there was an actor here in Chicago who used to book a lot of commercials, parts on TV and films and voiceovers. He always had a positive outlook and he was one of only a handful of actors in town making a living at acting.

When I’d see him in the waiting room for an audition I would automatically give up and think, “Why did they even call me in?” Because I knew he’d get the part.

One time after an audition, I asked him “What is your secret of getting so much work?”

He said simply: “I look at an audition is my opportunity to perform. It’s my time during the day where I get to come in and perform, showing them what I can do.” As he spoke, you could see the joy coming from his face. I did not look at auditions that way. In fact, I resented auditioning and did not even know it.

That actor gave me that advice at least 10 to 15 years ago, but I’m a slow learner and did not fully understand it until last week.

Lately, I haven’t been auditioning much, and I’ve been improvising even less, and I need that outlet, not only for professional reasons but for psychological ones. So when my agent called and said he had an audition for me for an independent short film, I jumped at the chance. Sure, I liked the script and loved the character, but I wanted to perform.

Typically, when I get an audition I am filled with anxiety because I put so much pressure on myself for getting the part, which is really more about me validating my existence than getting the part. But this time was different. I felt excited and happy to go in and perform and show them what I could do with the part. The thought that “I have to get this part or I am a piece of shit” was gone.

So I hired an on-camera coach, Catherine Head, and even that was different. Instead of thinking, “God, Catherine, help me get this part. I need it for my low self-esteem,” it was replaced by the excitement of getting to learn from her. This was not me. Catherine gave me lots of tips I had heard before, but this time, I heard them differently, and in about an hour, she had me in good shape for the part.

The next day, I went to the audition with my new mantra: “I want to perform. I want to perform.” As I sat in the waiting room with the other actors, I could hear laughter coming from the closed casting room door like there was a party inside and I wasn’t invited.

Sometimes I can use that to psych myself out, but I’ve been around long enough to know that just because you have the room dying in laughter does not mean you going to get the part. I have been on both sides of that equation before. Finally, the door opened from the casting room and out shot three actors. One of them was Brian Bolland, who had been on the Mainstage at Second City and was someone I like and respect. I forced a theater hug on him and he said, “You are perfect for this part.” He knew my work and I felt he meant it, and I really appreciated.

Then I went into the room. I got to audition with the two other actors, which is always better than just reading the lines with the casting person’s assistant or the intern. Then I did what I always do: my nerves and my neuroses kicked in and I rushed through the scene forgetting my new mantra. Then the director gave the three of us notes, and he told me to slow down, which was a note Catherine had given me, and told me that my character was a know-it-all. The second time through, I took his direction and something amazing happened — I discovered the character. It was the most fun I had performing in a while, and I felt proud of what I did.

On the ride home, for the first time in years, I didn’t second-guess myself and my choices or beat myself up, because I knew I had given it my best. That night, I checked my e-mail, and my agent contacted me saying congratulations, the filmmakers wanted to check my availability to do the film.

I hope I end up getting to do this part, because I want to keep performing.

Thanks for continuing to be such a big fan of my blog! I wanted to let you know that I will be teaching only one more Fundamentals of Art of Slow Comedy Class this summer starting on June 21st. I limit this class to 12 people so you get the reps you deserve and the plenty of personal attention. So whether if you are a seasoned improviser looking for a new approach or relatively newbie to improv, I would love to work with you. Have a great summer. — Jimmy

Trust your instincts

I used to think when I auditioned for parts on TV shows and films that I could tell right away if I got them. Thank God, I’ve lost that the superpower (though I never really had in the first place). First of all, sometimes you will have killer auditions, and for circumstances beyond your control, you will not get the part. And second of all, my perception is broken and has been for a long time.

Recently, I went on an audition for “Mind Games,” a one-hour drama on ABC that is shooting here in Chicago. When my agent called, he told me there was no script, they just wanted me to improvise with the producers in the room. I was ecstatic because I am a lot more confident about my improvising than my acting, and it’s always good to get in front of the producers — it’s essentially like getting a call back.

The audition was not at my casting agent’s familiar office, but instead inside a dimly lit office building in an industrial part of the city. The walls were paper thin, and from the waiting area you could hear the other actors auditioning. The door would shut behind them and then they would start “improvising,” saying a couple of funny lines, causing the producer to howl with laughter.

They called me in. Two producers sat at a conference table in the back of the very sparse office, finishing up a hearty laugh like it was bowl of the best homemade beef stew they had ever eaten.

The casting director gave me the scenario that they wanted me to improvise: She would be pretending to throw a cup of hot coffee in my crotch.

Typically when you hear they want you to “improvise” it means they want you to be funny, so, I think I better say something clever or witty. But that is not always the case. Knowing this was a drama, going for the laughs did not seem to make sense here.

So, I asked the producers some questions, which can always be a scary thing for me in an audition. They gave me some very important information: that this whole “coffee in the crotch” was a set-up that the character was doing to create a diversion because he was part of scam that was going down in the cafe.

I thought if my character was truly part of a scam, I would want to be believable so I wouldn’t get caught. And that’s how I played it. I reacted to how I would react if I got hot coffee in the crouch. I did it only once, and got no laughs, none, and then the producers thanked me and I left, not getting even close to the response the other actors before me had gotten.

Other people’s approval is my oxygen, and as I drove away, I went into the whole “I’ve blown it, they called in the ‘improv guy’ in and I did not make them laugh. I fucked up.” This is called shame and I went into a mini, 24-hour depression.

The next day I checked my messages and my agent had been calling my cell phone. The producers wanted to check my availability for the part of Coffee in the Crotch Guy. Typically when they ask for your availability it means it’s down to you and somebody else. The point is they liked what I did, I actually did a good job, and my perception is all fucked up and I need to bring it in to get repaired.

If I got the part or not, it didn’t matter. I realized I had made the right choice for that situation, and that is almost as as good as getting the part.

A day later, my agent called back, and I could tell in his voice that I wasn’t getting the part.

I was fine with it, really I was, because this was the second time I had made it to the “check on availability” stage for this series, and if the show stays on the air, my experience tells me I will get an even better part. And more importantly, I am grateful that my improv training has given me the gift of being able to trust my instincts even when I don’t trust myself.