I teach a Musical Theater Audition class at New York Vocal Coaching for a group of very eager, talented performers in which I give useful information, helpful hints, factual discoveries and motivational anecdotes that have helped me during my career. At the end of each class I like to check in with my students and discuss their auditions from the previous week. My personal goal is to help prepare my students so well that they feel confident about every audition. I am aware that this is nearly impossible, however, my students often feel great about their work in auditions, or, at least, learned something valuable that will help them in the next one. As nearly all of us can attest, feeling good about an audition does not guarantee that you'll book the job, but doing your best and feeling pleased with your time in the audition room is it's own satisfaction.
At the end of class this past week, I asked, “How do you feel about your most recent auditions?” The answers were about the same as every week: “They were great!” or “They could have been better,” or “I didn't audition much this week”-the worst response for any audition coach to hear! I can respond to any of those answers with helpful feedback, no question, but one student in particular threw me with his response: “I know my complexion makes it harder.”
I looked at him and noticed he had great skin and was very handsome. Then it hit me. By complexion, he meant the color of his skin. He is African American. I found myself upset, hurt, and filled with just about every emotion at that moment. What can I possibly say to make this bearable while we wait and push for the day when an actor's race doesn't affect the way he or she is received in the audition room? First of all, realize that your weight, size, looks, and race are not something you can change like clothes or choices for dinner. You can do your best to present the very best 'you', exercise, eat well, and take good care of yourself, but even then, your genetics are preprogrammed. From there, you have a choice: you could view your traits as a struggle, make excuses for them, or give up since you can't really change them…
You can find strength in the traits that make you uniquely you! Celebrate your special combination of characteristics, because guess what? Nobody else is exactly like you. That's an auditioner's blessing! Now, you are right in thinking these characteristics may keep you from booking certain gigs. There is no real way around that-and that's ok. However, you can go into that room and challenge the minds of the people behind the table! Be so stellar that you cause them to think differently about a character, a scene, or a song. You may not convince them to change their mind today, but you can force them to look at you as a cast able option, and that is a successful audition experience.
As a performer, I love to go in for things that may not be the obvious, or traditional choice for me. I covered the role of Prince Eric on Broadway in Disney's The Little Mermaid. It was a departure from traditional casting of the role. The role is not traditionally African American, but I gave a non-traditional audition and went for what I would do best. I am pleased with the work I did on the show, and even more pleased I was a part of a historic moment on Broadway.
A similar occurrence happened recently for me in Les Miserables on Broadway. I was cast as one of the covers for the role of Marius. Once again, this role is traditionally not African American, but my audition caused the people in casting to see the role in another light.
In an ideal world we will not have to consider race when we think of casting shows, but for now we do not live in that ideal world. We have to accept that race and overall looks will play a huge part in the casting process. As actors, we have little to no control over that. Our job as actors is to be a part of a director's vision, though sometimes we may not agree with that vision.
Before class is dismissed, I love to leave my students with challenges. My challenge to this student was to let go of his own issues with his looks and race. He is not being paid to judge that for himself. His one and only job is to go in and be a viable option. Give the casting directors no choice but to see the role differently by doing exciting, challenging, and entertaining work.
Stop defeating yourself due to any struggles you may feel are holding you back in someone else's eyes. Challenge yourself to see your struggle as a strength. Strength to evoke conversation about race and performers. Strength to work stronger and harder. Strength to make bolder choices. Strength to see yourself as a viable option.
As far as Color Blind Casting… This has been an ongoing issue for ages. I was quoted in Ebony Magazine a few years ago on the subject. You can read that article here.
I recently read another article on color blind casting by David Marcus that said:
“Unlike almost every other line of work, there are times when taking the race of a performer into account is perfectly legitimate.”
David Marcus is a senior contributor to the Federalist and the Artistic Director of Blue Box World, a Brooklyn based theater project. Full article here