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This article by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper

on August 25, 1999. All rights reserved.

Actors’ Lottery: Slim Odds

They’re either too young or too old

They’re either too gray or too grassy green

The pickin’s are poor and the crop is lean.

So go Frank Loesser’s lyrics to an Arthur Schwartz

melody in the 1943 film, "Thank Your Lucky Stars." And the

sentiments could well serve as the perennial theme for the stage

actor’s

audition.

Is it by merit, through contacts, or by way of a plain old miracle

that actors get work? Imagine any corporation — even the largest

one you can — that has no openings to fill but is compelled by

union regulations to acknowledge all resumes submitted, and to

personally

interview as many as 450 applicants for positions that do not now

— or may never — exist? It only happens in the world of

professional

theater.

For almost a century, the goal of Actors Equity has been to support,

protect, and defend its membership. Although Actors Equity seeks to

insure that fair and equitable means are used in the process of

employing

actors, its requirements are often perceived as ineffectively

obligatory

if not downright counter-productive. The New Jersey Theater Lottery

Auditions may be one such requirement.

No actor needs to be told how difficult it is to land a principal,

featured, or even a bit-part in a play or musical at a professional

theater company. Whether you are a member of the non-Equity theater

community (perhaps a recent graduate of a college acting program),

or whether you are a seasoned card-carrying, dues-paying member of

Actors Equity, getting an audition is a pain. Ask most actors, and

they will say getting an appointment to be seen is next to impossible.

Enter the New Jersey Theater Lottery Auditions — custom-made for

the gambling actor who has nothing to lose and presumably everything

to gain. Inaugurated 11 years ago to benefit both the actor and the

state’s professional theaters, the lottery auditions, given in

February

and August, give approximately 450 actors each year an opportunity

to impress representatives from over 20 theaters. These theaters

include

Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn; George Street Playhouse and Crossroads

Theater, New Brunswick; McCarter Theater, Princeton; and the New

Jersey

Shakespeare Festival, Madison.

Under the aegis of the New Jersey Theater Group, an alliance of the

state’s professional (Equity) theaters directed by Laura Aden, the

New Jersey lottery is an outgrowth and localized refinement of the

lottery system required by a form of Equity contract with the League

of Regional Theaters (LORT). New Jersey member theaters were

previously

required to participate in Equity’s lottery auditions in New York

City. Because it was "not run particularly well in the city,"

says George Ryan, NJTG’s director of artist services, the decision

was made to reform it as a collective endeavor, "to not only

mirror

but to fulfill the requirements of Equity, and do it within our own

state." In addition to a day of Equity auditions, NJTG elects

to also provide a day of auditions for non-Equity actors.

While the concept and execution of the lottery varies

in different regions and cities to comply with Equity rules, Ryan

sees the New Jersey Lottery as primarily fulfilling a need of the

New Jersey Theater Group’s member theaters to get a broad picture

of predominantly local and available talent. Before the state lottery

was inaugurated, individual theaters were required to hold their own

open calls. New Jersey boasts that it is the only statewide lottery

audition. Although the exact audition sites change to prevent those

actors who are not picked from crashing the already packed slate,

New Brunswick will host the August auditions.

One-hundred-fifty Equity actors will be seen on Monday, August 30,

and an equal number of non-Equity actors will be seen on Tuesday,

August 31. This selection comes out of the 2 to 3,000 resumes and

pictures sent in for each lottery. The February auditions are held

on one day allowing for 75 Equity and 75 non-Equity spots.

Notwithstanding the fact that it is expected of every professional

theater to participate if they don’t have their own open call, the

point and purpose of attending the auditions varies with each theater.

The representative for Princeton’s McCarter Theater is Grace Shackney.

However, in her capacity as administrating producing associate,

Shackney

oversees only local casting. She makes it quite clear that significant

casting for the main stage season is not a practical consideration

with the lottery auditions. "We would only be seeking non-Equity

actors to fill in as extras in the annual `Christmas Carol,’"

she says. However, McCarter maintains an up-to-date pool of area

actors

available for in-house play-readings, an activity crucial to the

workshopping

of new plays.

Confirming that all major and featured roles are cast through

McCarter’s

two New York casting agents, Shackney believes that smaller theaters

that do not have casting agents use the auditions as a means of seeing

and selecting talent. To her knowledge, no actor has ever been

significantly

cast at McCarter through the lottery audition. Shackney, in fact,

views the auditions as "basically non-productive" and would

prefer to attend these "two hard days with only two 15-minute

breaks, only when we are looking for someone."

Wendy Liscow, associate artistic director of George Street Playhouse,

sees the statewide auditions as having the potential for filling

smaller

roles, especially for non-Equity actors who do not have agent

representation.

Aware of the reality, she says "However, between our New York

casting director and David Saint, George Street’s artistic director,

we rarely have the need to hold auditions for major roles, although

this season we will have them in New York for our upcoming

musical."

Joe Discher, artistic associate at the New Jersey Shakespeare

Festival,

has been attending the auditions for the past seven years. In contrast

to the McCarter policy, he affirms that 10 to 20 actors are singled

out each year by the festival to read for upcoming roles.

"One or two may actually get cast," says Discher. "Because

New Jersey is our home community, the festival would like to find

talent from the state. It’s a way for us to give something back to

the state."

"There is definitely more value for us in the non-Equity rather

than in the Equity part of it," says Brian Platt, a producer at

Madison’s Playwrights Theater of New Jersey. Although small in

comparison

to many of the state’s other professional theaters, Playwrights

Theater

employs a New York casting agent. However, Platt can readily remember

two actors whom he noticed at the non-Equity auditions and whom he

subsequently cast in five plays.

Platt also expresses his feelings about certain of the state’s larger

theaters that decline to send personnel with real casting clout to

the auditions. "Maybe if they sent somebody with a genuine eye

for casting, they wouldn’t feel the way they do about attending,"

says Platt, who feels that no producer or casting agent should rule

out the possibility of finding an actor this way.

The lottery audition format allows each actor 2-1/2 minutes to do

anything he or she wishes. For the ambitious actor, this could mean

reciting a few lines from "Medea," performing a time step

to eight-bars of "42nd Street," and concluding with a fast

segue into one chorus of "Memories." But, as George Ryan

suggests,

for the actor who is "torn between `Medea’ and a comedy piece,

do the comedy piece." However, he adds, "If the actor is well

known for his comedy roles then by all means choose the serious

piece."

Actors who sing or need musical accompaniment must give the

auditioners

advance notice. Because the actors auditioning are not up for specific

roles, Ryan stresses the need for the actors to showcase themselves

in the best possible light. Although New Jersey actors are encouraged

to enter, the lottery is open to actors from every state.

As a former actor, Ryan recalls with pleasure a New Jersey actor who

told him "I’m so glad I got in this year, because this is my sixth

year trying." When an actor sends in his picture, resume, a copy

of his Equity card (if he has one), whether an accompanist is needed,

and a stamped self-addressed envelope, he will definitely get a

"no"

or a "yes" reply and an appointment time. Ryan explains the

process of placing actors into the different categories for the

lottery.

Men and women are subdivided into four categories that include Equity

singers, Equity non-singers, non-Equity singers, and non-Equity

non-singers.

Depending on the number of responses in each category, each fifth

or ninth entry is blindly picked from each group.

An Equity actor who wishes to remain anonymous,

remembers

his own experience of auditioning in the non-Equity category, that

is "packing your food and camping out with everyone for a whole

day. You do your 2-1/2 minutes and notice that some of the people

there may actually put your picture and resume in their folders. It

probably won’t get you work, but it’s fun.

"It’s probably harder for the people who have to watch you,"

he continues. "Can you imagine how hard it is after listening

to 149 hair-pulling shows and then having to listen to number 150

do Lady Macbeth?"

Although this actor has been cast by some of the New Jersey theaters,

he says "nothing ever came as a result of the lottery audition.

The actors who stand a good chance are the really young and really

old people and talented ethnic types."

Asked whether auditioning is, by definition, good for the actor, this

actor’s response is informed. "Professional actors don’t feel

the need to put on a show — unless they’re just out of college,

and have been working for the past four to six years on contrasting

monologues. No professional actor is ever asked to do that. Usually

`sides,’ (i.e. pages of the script) from the play are sent to the

actor to learn the day before the actor reads for the director. That’s

the only audition that counts. What really counts is if your friend

from college gets a break and wants to work with you again."

While many non-Equity actors continually face the enormous odds of

getting picked for a role by type-casting out of what is

euphemistically

called a "cattle call," the younger ones consider it a coup

if they are selected for an apprentice program at one of the many

professional companies. While technically nurtured at the theater,

it can take an apprentice two years before he or she finds themselves

on stage and before being eligible for an Equity card. And unless

the theater is willing to pay for services that it used to get for

free, or for non-Equity wages, the actor is out on his own.

Out on his own, the actor soon finds that the casting at professional

companies and for individual plays, locally and nationally, are the

playground of agents, casting agents, and directors. Unless a director

or an agent champions an actor, his chances of being seen are remote.

Except for the slim pickings found in Back Stage magazine and similar

publications that display casting notices, the actor has no way to

find out what roles are being cast by whom and where. It is almost

unheard of for an actor without agent representation or without being

submitted to a director by a casting agent to read for a role. The

specifics of the various roles in a season of plays are called

"break-downs"

and are only sent to licensed agents.

While the selected actors get their chance to be seen by all the

representatives

of 20 or so theaters, there are no guarantees. And actors who are

lucky enough to win a spot to audition are not eligible to apply again

for two years. Ryan sees one advantage of the audition over being

submitted by an agent for a particular role: that the actor can be

seen in a different light to the one he or she may have been typecast.

Whether the actor is a child, a mature adult, or an actor of color,

type casting remains the bane of the actors’ experience. It is true

that an actor who has regularly worked at a particular theater may

not have to audition there. "But, this is the opportunity,"

says Ryan "to showcase your work for theaters that don’t know

you.

"Although this audition is a long way from actually being cast

in a show, this is the most actor-friendly audition I’ve ever seen.

I’ve got a very generous file of happy letters from actors who wrote

what a wonderful experience it was," says Ryan.

He tries to dispel the idea that the potential is only for bit parts

and that it may be seen as a waste of time for an actor used to

landing

principal roles. Ryan recalls a time, five years ago, when Peter

Loewy,

the artistic director of the Forum Theater, Metuchen, found a

last-minute

replacement for an actor in a leading role who had to leave on short

notice.

When Ryan concludes by telling me that he can’t think of any theater

that hasn’t benefited from the auditions, I find myself wishing he

had said, "I can’t think of any actor who hasn’t benefited from

the auditions." Whether or not a few get call-backs, most of the

actors will inevitably come away from the auditions singing a slight

variation on that great old tune, "We’re either too young or too

old."

The New Jersey Theater Group Lottery Auditions, New

Brunswick,

Monday and Tuesday, August 30 and 31. Deadline for applications was

July 30. For information on next year’s lottery, call call

973-593-0189

or E-mail njtg@nj.com.


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