Reflections on the auditions

There was a lot I loved about our auditions, particularly the fact that they resulted in us adding four amazing people to our group. There was a tiny bit I hated about the auditions, primarily that we had to pass on some folks whose work I respect a ton. Perhaps the thing that I loved the most about the auditions, though, was the commitment given to us by all the auditioners, the levels to which they all pushed themselves, often having to go far out of their comfort zones.

In large part, the auditions were designed with that in mind. Often, I think, auditions play to the auditioners’ strengths, especially when casting for a given show. And this makes sense: if there’s a very particular format (as there often is for a specific show), you want to cast the people whose strengths best suit that format. When casting for an ensemble that may switch up format fairly frequently, however, it behooves both the company and the auditioners to find the areas that could use work.

Since that’s also the way we approach the work itself during our rehearsals (and performances), this made even more sense to us. A big part of the process with Interrobang is issuing challenges to one another, based on what we’ve seen in recent rehearsals and performances. For example, I’m fairly often challenged to play low-status characters and/or very empathetic characters, as my comfort zone tends to lie in playing alphas. And I love that the company keeps pushing me there, and will keep pushing me there until they see low-status characters as one of my strengths and hone in on a different area that needs work.

With that in mind, we structured auditions quite a bit like the way our rehearsals are structured: a couple quick warm-up games to shake off the angst of the day, followed by exercises that target physicality and emotional stakes, followed by a half-hour open form improv in which we mixed in members of the company with auditioners (after a brief meeting among the cast to narrow down the group to just a few people we needed to see more). Throughout the process, based on what we’d seen, we’d offer individual feedback on what we wanted to see at each phase.

I’ll skip over the specific warm-up games, because they serve the purpose of shaking off the day’s angst and awaking people’s brains and bodies, but aren’t (to me, at least) the real work of improv (I’m eagerly awaiting a coming post about warm-ups on Ian Schempp’s blog, a blog every improviser should read). I feel strongly about the exercises we gave the auditioners, though, and will delve into those a little bit.

Abbott & Costello: This was brought to us by Chris Allen (who, in turn, got it from Ian Schempp in rehearsals for “Unspeakable Horrors”) when he joined us for a rehearsal a while back (this is something else we periodically like to do: bring in other improv friends to play with us in rehearsals, although we’ll probably hold off doing this for a while, until we’ve found how the company of ten plays together). In A&C, one person is the straight man, the Abbott. This is the person who initiates the scene. The other person is something crazy, the Costello. Some character traits are given to them by the next person who will do the exercise. Ideally, the traits they’re given should be less about character motivation, and more about physicality, emotion, etc. A favorite example was in a rehearsal where Randy was assigned to be a half-octopus half-vampire woman with a sexually transmitted disease—the voice and body that he took on were completely unlike anything I’d ever seen him do before. The two characters in the scene should know each other well. In other words, while the straight man shouldn’t treat the weirdness as completely normal, (s)he should also not be surprised by it—(s)he’s seen it for a long time. After they’ve done their scene, the Costello moves into the Abbott role, the Abbott moves to the back of the line, and the next person in line moves into the Costello role. Everyone did one Abbott and one Costello. We use this primarily to move us away from stock character choices.

I thought this worked really well. A lot of improvisers are incredibly clever and quick, but don’t embody characters very different from their daily selves. This gave us a good sense of who could (and would) move out of their character comfort zones. I do think would have worked better if we’d assigned the character choices, instead of having auditioners assign them. In a few cases, there were assignments given that were more about motivation (you’re a shoe salesman who has only left shoes in stock and desperately needs to sell them all) than about physicality (you’re a leprechaun bullfighter). I don’t blame this on the auditioners at all—many of them were new to the game, and the energy that comes with auditioning is better directed to the scene work.

Juicy Stakes: For a long time, we called this the “Carskee Game,” as they taught it to us in another rehearsal, and we never remembered the name of it. (If ever you have an opportunity to go see Carskee, go, go, go.) So we finally gave it a name of our own. There are two phases to this exercise.

In the first, two improvisers are given a relationship and situation with high emotional stakes. The improvisers are supposed to play this as realistically as possible, as they themselves might act in a similar situation. Example: the husband of two newlyweds has just found out that he won’t have to ship out to Iraq again, and has been assigned stateside. (This is at the happier end of the spectrum. Most of the scenes, for some reason, tend to be more in the realm of “sad-prov.”) They are asked to remember their emotions in the scene, the levels of those emotions, and their arc. They are specifically told that the details of the plot of the scene are unimportant, i.e., they don’t need to try to remember the way they phrased things. It’s the emotions that are important. Next pair does another scene with a different situation/relationship assigned, same instructions. Go through all the pairs.

In the second, we cycle back through the same pairs. Using the same emotional arc—levels, intensity, changes, etc.—they are given a relatively unimportant situation: Example: the pair that did the newlywed scene is now a couple friends, one of whom (the husband from the first part) has just opened a bottle of Coke to find that the bottle cap is good for a free Coke. Play that scene at the same emotional levels, arcs, etc.

I love this exercise, a) because it can be funny as hell, b) because it illustrates really well that any situation can have high stakes, and c) because playing things as realistically as possible is often outside of improvisers’ comfort zones, and pushes them to develop realism as more of a tool. I actually prefer the first portion of this exercise for that final reason.

Those were the core exercises for each of the three nights of initial auditions. They gave us great foundations upon which to issue challenges to the improvisers who stayed for the open format play time at the end of each audition. For example, one improviser used his size exceptionally well, and was particularly good at playing seething anger. For the open format, we asked him to, at least once, play a physically smaller character, and we’d like to see happy and/or sad.

The callbacks featured similar exercises with similar kinds of stakes, but I feel like I’ve already written too much. Also, I feel like the initial audition formats were where our strengths as a group were most clear. There are definitely lessons to be learned for us from the callbacks as well—we really need to book three hours instead of two to ensure we can see everything we need; MAD/GLAD/SAD/AFRAD probably needs to run longer to see how people use their initial emotional outbursts (another point Ian makes in his blog); going outdoors for any part of an audition is really tough (and this is part of the comment about booking more time); as much as possible, it’s best to know our full format before auditions are underway (we met between auditions and callbacks to discuss format for callbacks, based on what we’d seen); etc. I don’t know how long it will be before we’re likely to have auditions again, though, so… time to start wrapping this post up.

What blew me away throughout the process was the generosity and commitment of the improvisers. Because the auditioners gave so much of themselves, the amount of time given to making decisions almost equaled the amount of time spent in the auditions themselves. More than once, I found myself crawling into bed at about 2:00 in the morning after intense discussions about what we’d seen on a given night. For every auditioner, every member of the company was given time to speak about what they’d seen, what they’d like to see, etc. At times, it got very emotional. Yes, there were actual tears shed.

I’ve often heard from directors at auditions how exciting the process is for them, how grateful they are to the auditioners. Having not sat in the director’s chair for over twenty years now, I’d forgotten how true this is. Having never, until now, sat in the director’s chair for an improv group, I can see that the feeling is exponentially greater. Because there is so much risk in improv, because improvisers are asked to work without a net, and perhaps most because of the knowledge of how closely we’ll be working with the improvisers cast, the process emotionally (for me, anyway) falls somewhere between auditioning for a show and having a child. Maybe that sounds completely over the top, but the sense of exhilaration and anticipation (and heartache, too, when thinking of people we didn’t cast who had given of themselves just as much) once we’d made our decisions was, and continues to be, enormous.

Some amazing people who have joined our group: Becky Bartlein, Jillian Boshart, Phoebe Richards (please also read her excellent post on the auditions), and Bryan Sullivan. The level of commitment I saw from everyone already in the group—both during the auditions themselves, and especially in the discussions afterward—was everything I’d hoped for when starting an improv group. And the gifts that every auditioner gave us, whether cast this time or not… thank you all so much… you humbled us. Because of those three things, I am more excited about Interrobang going forward than I’ve ever been. Rehearsals with this group make Tuesday a night I look forward to every week.

2 thoughts on “Reflections on the auditions

  1. Awesome post. I look forward to reading more about Interrobang behind the scenes stuff! Also, consider me reminded that I promised to write about warmups. I had kinda forgotten.

    Totally agree on the difficulty of casting for an ensemble rather than a specific show. It always takes 3-4 times as long to argue about specific people…we ran into the same problems with Funbucket. Even though it is a specific show, the content is so wide open it may as well be an ensemble.

    And finally, congrats both on your new members and to them!

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