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So You Want To Be A Star


Posted on May 30


Sacramento offers performing opportunities for everyone, from the undiscovered genius to the talent-free neophyte.

You spend your days mating socks and nuking corn dogs for your toddlers. And you love it. You really do.

Calculating statistical risk for an insurance company? A respectable, nay, honorable way to make a living.

And who could knock the life of a surgeon, mending bodies and banishing disease? Certainly not you.

But lurking among the ranks of happy moms, contented actuaries and satisfied surgeons are more than a few people with a craving for the stage—an itch for performing that won’t be scratched by Saturday-night karaoke. These closeted show folk aren’t necessarily jonesing to run away with the circus, but they wonder if it would be asking too much to feel the warm glow of the footlights, maybe just once.

The answer is no.

The Sacramento area boasts scores of performing arts organizations representing dance, symphonic music, theater, opera, improvisational comedy, choral music—you name it. And most of these companies throw their doors open to all comers in open casting calls.

That’s right. You've got to audition.

As Greg Alexander, artistic director of The Studio Theatre, puts it, "Anyone with the courage and wherewithal is absolutely welcome to audition."

Gulp. For many, it isn’t easy. “You’re trying something that you could fail at spectacularly, in front of people,” says Jeff Kean, executive director of Woodland Opera House Theatre, which specializes in musical theater. “It’s very hard to get over that hump. It can turn you into a teenager real fast—shy, awkward, nervous.”

It could all be worth it, though. Kean says the chorus is a good place for people to get their start. “Just about everybody can sing in a group. And we’re always looking for men. If you’re male, your odds of getting cast increase dramatically."

Dennis Yep of InterACT (Interactive Contemporary Asian Theatre) says, "There’s always somebody who comes to audition who has never been on stage before. Sometimes you see a certain energy and just think, "This person has to get on stage. We need to develop that talent."

Matthew Burlingame of Lambda Players, which produces works by gay, lesbian and transgender writers, says, "Casting an amateur happens at least once or twice a show. Our directors are very good at spotting new talent.”


WHAT YOU'RE IN FOR

Even if you’ve never set foot on stage, you’ll be expected to be as well-prepared for an audition as a professional. Here’s a look at how your audition is likely to go.


Theater

You’ll most likely be asked to perform a two-minute monologue that you’ve memorized. It doesn't hurt to prepare a second monologue as well. You might be asked to read from the script of the show being cast or to prepare a scene with another auditioning actor.

Luther Hanson of the Sacramento Shakespeare Festival asks for a 90-second monologue from the Bard. “We hear Viola’s speech from Twelfth Night a lot,” he says. What about Hamlet’s soliloquy? “Very few people have the courage to do it—and that’s good,” he says with a chuckle.

Singing

For musical theater, you will be expected to sing an up-tempo song. (“Not ‘Happy Birthday,’ says April Hass of the Sacramento Theatre Company. “That doesn’t go over well.”) The pros say it’s best to choose a piece similar to the genre of the music in the show being cast, something that demonstrates you could be a great lead singer and a contributing member of the chorus. Bring sheet music in your own key for the accompanist.

When auditioning for cabaret, prepare your best two or three numbers—rousing showstoppers—and bring your own sheet music.

If you want to sing with a choral group, come with a prepared song and the sheet music. Jim McCormick of the Sacramento Choral Society & Orchestra says singers frequently are asked to sing “America” (“My Country, ’tis of Thee”). “Our musical director, Don Kendrick, has heard this a million times, but he can glean from the way it’s sung how musical the singer is. Also, we do an ear test: We sing a line and they sing it back in tune. We clap a rhythm and ask them to clap it back.”

For the Sacramento Opera, Timm Rolek requires singers to come prepared with “two songs in two languages: your choice.” (For those who find simple speech in just one language difficult enough, the only way onto the opera stage might be as a supernumerary, or “super,” basically a nonsinging role in a crowd scene. See sidebar.)

Dance

Dance auditions for musical theater are lengthy affairs at which the show’s choreographer teaches step combinations developed specifically for the show being cast. Dancers then are auditioned in groups of two or four. Says Chris McSwain of Music Circus, "Some dancers have no expectations of being cast, but they get the experience of taking what is essentially a first-rate class from a veteran choreographer for free. It's great experience for them."

While the Sacramento Ballet holds auditions only in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, artistic director Ron Cunningham occasionally invites dance hopefuls to come to the ballet’s daily dance class, where he can observe their skills.

"There are 10 dancers for every job in this country,' says Cunningham. In other words, ballet auditions aren’t the place for wishful thinkers. He says he might invite “a very talented amateur to work as an apprentice or nonpaid trainee for a season.” (For the amateur, your best chance of appearing on the ballet stage, much like opera, is as a super.)

Improvisational Comedy

Don Dumonchelle of the Free Hooch Comedy Troupe, a local improv group, does some warm-up exercises with newcomers “to get rid of the jitters, then throws them into two or three improv skits with other auditioners.

Symphonic Music

Musicians might be asked to prepare a concerto, plus music that represents their range, says Matthew Yasner, development director for the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra.

Again, this is no place for amateurs. Even to bang the cymbals? "Even to bang the cymbals," says Yasner."It's not as easy as it looks. In the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, there is a flurry of eighth notes that the percussionist has to hit. And they all have to have exactly the same volume and tone. It takes years to learn that." (Take heart—you might be able to buy your way onto the symphony stage. Several years ago at a fund-raiser, the Camellia Symphony Orchestra auctioned off an opportunity to conduct the symphony.)


"THANK YOU . . . NEXT

Be prepared to be thanked and excused in less than 30 seconds, no matter how brilliantly you think you performed. As Scott Eckern of Music Circus says, “You have to be ready to accept ‘no’ a hundred times more often than you’ll hear "yes.'"

So what does it take to get the nod rather than the hook? For every discipline and every casting director, there are different performance criteria. A sampling:

David Czarnecki of Garbeau’s Dinner Theatre says, “All you’re looking for are sincere people who are emotionally verbal. We’ve cast lots of nonactors, although we’ve never cast a novice in a major role.”

Dumonchelle of Free Hooch says, "It's not that you’re so funny. We’re looking at how you work with others. What’s your potential? Are you easy to direct?"

“It’s obvious things,” says the Shakespeare Festival’s Hanson. “Do they speak well and project? Do they have energy in their body? Have they made choices about the character? I know within 30 to 45 seconds.”

“I’m looking for something that transcends being able to memorize a script or hold a note," says Eckern. “I look for the actor who, right in front of me, becomes a real person having a real experience. That’s what makes live theater such an amazing experience.”


IF AN AUDITION'S NOT FOR YOU

If you just can’t muster the courage to audition, you can avoid that step through workshops and open-mike nights.


CLASS ACTS

There’s another route to the stage: You can always go back to school. California State University, Sacramento, UC Davis and all four local community colleges have well-respected theater and music programs. And there are dozens of private schools and coaches to choose from.

WORKSHOPS

A few theaters in the area cast almost exclusively from their own actors workshops. Participating in the workshops may well land you a legitimate role. Actor’s Theatre of Sacramento, run by veteran actor Ed Claudio, is one such house. "We've put over 500 people on stage here,” says Claudio. “And several dozen have gone on to be professional actors."

In Claudio’s Wednesday-night classes, each student is given a script and assigned a scene partner. The partners discuss the scene, rehearse it and perform for the class. First-timers and more seasoned students mix it up together.

"Acting is a team sport,” says Claudio. “The veterans are very helpful to the amateurs."

YOU, TOO CAN BE SUPER

If you think that a walk-on role as a supernumerary, or “super," might satisfy your performance urge, you’ve got to make yourself known. Send e-mails or letters to the artistic directors of local opera and ballet companies, and ask for a role as a super. Be sure to mention any stage, dance or public-speaking experience you might have. And add that you’ll make yourself available for all rehearsals.

Also, haunt fund-raising auctions for all the performing arts groups. If a group is auctioning a walk-on part, ask yourself just how much hard cash it’s worth for you to get on stage.

OPEN-MIKE NIGHTS

Pianist and musical director Mark Ferreira hosts an open-mike night for singers at Sacramento’s Faces nightclub every Tuesday night. All singers are welcome and must bring their own sheet music for piano accompaniment. Ferreira also hosts a quarterly “Cabaret Cash Night” at which music professionals judge the singing and award cash prizes. “We’re hoping to attract people who don’t have a lot of public singing experience,” he says. “So far, we’ve had some amazing singers.”

Stand-up comics rarely audition. They typically jump right into performing at clubs such as Laughs Unlimited, The Punchline or Fox & Goose during open-mike nights. Comic hopefuls sign up early in the evening, then take the stage to do their five to 10 minutes of material. “Open mikes are a comic’s apprenticeship,” says local comic Jack Gallagher. "You keep polishing your material and coming back," he says, until a club owner invites you to perform for money.

Enterprising comedians have been known to create their own opportunities by inserting themselves at cabaret open-mike nights. Gallagher remembers how he grabbed stage time when he was getting started. “I used to go to bars during happy hour and give the manager 10 bucks to let me perform. When the band took a break, I’d go up and do 10 minutes. If I was good, I'd get my money back. If not, he got to keep the money."

For workshops and open-mike nights, check out the websites mentioned elsewhere in this article.

*For the rest of this article, pick up a copy of Sacramento Magazine's October issue.