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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
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
interview as many as 450 applicants for positions that do not now
— or may never — exist? It only happens in the world of
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
actors, its requirements are often perceived as ineffectively
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
and August, give approximately 450 actors each year an opportunity
to impress representatives from over 20 theaters. These theaters
Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn; George Street Playhouse and Crossroads
Theater, New Brunswick; McCarter Theater, Princeton; and the New
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
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
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,
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
available for in-house play-readings, an activity crucial to the
of new plays.
Confirming that all major and featured roles are cast through
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
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
roles, especially for non-Equity actors who do not have agent
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
Joe Discher, artistic associate at the New Jersey Shakespeare
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
"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
to many of the state’s other professional theaters, Playwrights
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
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
Actors who sing or need musical accompaniment must give the
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
or a "yes" reply and an appointment time. Ryan explains the
process of placing actors into the different categories for the
Men and women are subdivided into four categories that include Equity
singers, Equity non-singers, non-Equity singers, and non-Equity
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,
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
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
and are only sent to licensed agents.
While the selected actors get their chance to be seen by all the
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
"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
principal roles. Ryan recalls a time, five years ago, when Peter
the artistic director of the Forum Theater, Metuchen, found a
replacement for an actor in a leading role who had to leave on short
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
Monday and Tuesday, August 30 and 31. Deadline for applications was
July 30. For information on next year’s lottery, call call
or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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