The casting decision has both subjective and objective elements to it. As inconvenient as it may be, the subjective side doesn't have too much to do with us. It's other peoples' opinions, which are none of our business, and are also well beyond our control. This being the case, we are best served to leave the subjective interpretation of our work open to all. An offered gift to be received or refused, enjoyed or endured, while we focus on the objective task at hand.
The chef knows if they executed their dish correctly and achieved what they wanted. Whether someone thinks it's delicious or inedible is not the point. To know that objectively, they were able to plan, prepare, and execute correctly, and the willingness to assess and improve those elements, is really all there is. The master chef knows that an individual's taste has nothing to do with excellence. Excellence is not a matter of opinion, is a matter of fact.
"Excellence is not a matter of opinion."
When it comes to auditioning we often lose sight of this fact. It's hard to set the desire to impress, please aside, and focus on the assignment. We have a lot of life stakes in the game, and they often lead us astray. We mix the subjective and objective elements together, strive for some imagined version of 'getting it right' (aka 'what we think they want) and have a hard time making practical sense of what we should/shouldn't do, how to assess, what to adjust, and what and how to develop.
We need learn to assess our assessments, learning how to separate the objective from the subjective. Doing so will let you filter any feedback or note from anyway, weight it accordingly, use it to adjust if needed, or stick to your guns if they are not accurate.
To make the point, some objective elements are ridiculously obvious and simple ('was the camera on' didn't make the list, but arguably it's on there). Some require experience to see: "This scene commands a deeper emotional hit so that the audience empathizes with you later when they find out you are the killer and they are conflicted about the price you will have to pay."
Here is my list of the top ten Objectively Necessary elements of a bookable audition. I wanted to rank them in different levels and started thinking about video games. So… welcome to "Jeb Beach and the Levels of the Objectively Necessary". Yes, I'm a big kid and kind of a dork. Sue me....
LEVEL 1 - BASIC FOUNDATION
You can't play the game if you don't know what the buttons do. This stuff is mechanical and kinda boring compared to the rest of our job, but if you don't get these done, the job ain't happening….
Instructions are there for a reason. If we are missing them, it's hard to justify working with you. This could be file size, accent instructions, specific moments that need to happen - anything. Think of this as an opportunity to work with a director. It's DIRECTION. This does not mean that we are not allowed to think outside the box, but submitting a tail slate when they asked for a slate first, is just sloppy. The message is 'I don't listen and working with me will be difficult'.
We are allowed to look at the instructions, understand what they are wanting to achieve with them, and find a creative alternative to achieving the same thing. That's expertise, and I think ultimately the sign of a master actor. A master knows where and when they can break the rules, and they do so in ways that make everything work better. We are allowed to make things work better! A novice sees the master breaking the rules and assumes that rules don't apply. If you don't know the difference (yet), you will get there. For now, follow the rules, seek guidance before submitting, and test theories. Ask why until there is no more why.
"We are allowed to make things work better!"
This is super basic- it almost made it first, but it doesn’t go without saying. Make sure your lighting is good, we can see your eyes, and we can hear you well. Clean edits. All that good stuff.
Again, simple stuff to achieve. Be off book, or be good at delivering from script. If having script in hand puts you in your head and checks you out of your scene, it's not going to work. Those are really your only two options there.
Be visually believable in the part. Dress to suggest the part. Choose hair, makeup, and wardrobe that suggests the part and the world.
LEVEL TWO - GAINING INTEREST
Do you grab our attention in the first five seconds? This is an often-debated subject. I think because when people do it poorly, they simply try to be randomly big/sensational in the opening. Attention is the gateway to engagement, but the attempt to be interesting IS NOT INTERESTING.
While honouring the scene, how early have you found a way to make us interested in you and what will happen next? Maybe you gave yourself a moment before that sets up a discovery or decision in the scene. Are you standing out early? If not, was there a moment that made it undeniably memorable or interesting?
"Attention is the gateway to engagement."
The more time an audience spends engaged in our work, the more invested they become. Investment is a synonym for buy-in. Build buy in early by grabbing attention early.
Now that you've got our attention, are you resisting the temptation to direct it away with distractions? Are there choices, props, behaviours, etc. that are making it hard to stay in the context of the scene and with the characters or conversely, are there choices, props, behaviours, etc. that enhance our engagement?
LEVEL THREE - IT'S GETTING REAL
TRUE TO TONE
This is a major one. If we don't understand how to deliver correctly, our characters are going to be from somewhere outside the show, and they are likely to stay there. Often times actors don't know what to do with this so they just 'play it truthfully'. The problem with that is that they are playing it 'truthful' compared to our reality and not the reality of the world that the show has created. Maybe they'll underestimate the technical complexity of the work and simply deliver the wrong experience for the audience, making it too emotional or drawn out. Maybe they will deliver an idea of the tone based on rumours that exist out there and end up giving us a theatrical, cliched performance.
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PRESENT, GROUNDED, NATURAL
If you've got all of the above taken care of - especially that last one, now you are in a position to be truthful within the actual circumstances of the universe of the show and situation of the scene. All too often, actors play their idea of tone, or their idea of what a moment should look like (the ellipsis on the page, a direction to take a sip of your drink). They commit to the action ahead of time and it becomes the focus of the work, at the expense of truthfulness.
Once we've done the preparation work, we have to let go. We have to surrender to the moment, and let the unexpected truth of it move us through. Most actors (at least initially) find this really challenging when it comes to delivering what I call "Observational" material. They get caught up with what they know the requirements of the tone are and their intention goes toward making sure it happens - "I must move fast, I have to make it extra positive, I have to make the danger of this moment hit" and that becomes their focus. They are just showing us their work in progress. It's time to give in.
Relative awareness is really all the audience has, and as the auditioning actor, it's your responsibility to give it to us because you are all we have.
The key relationships in the scene extend well beyond the person or people they are speaking with in the scene.
They are any element that the character 'relates with' and more importantly, they are the system of interrelation of those elements with one another. Their significance can be minuscule to monumental. They may be vital to discoveries that happen in the scene (even though I’ve never told you, I always knew you cheated on me five years ago, this is the same dinner you made the day I found out, it used to be my favourite, but now it’s the reason I can’t eat it in front of you), or they could be character build-out elements (there’s a ton of blood in this scene - what if your character can’t stomach the sight of it? - shout out to JBA Teacher Tammy Gillis on that one).
Have you crafted an appropriate web of relationships based on the story/tone, etc., that affect one another, and how well have they pulled us through the narrative? This is why I prefer the term “RELATIONSHIP PLACEMENT” to the term “EYELINE”. The second term is useful for people on the other side of the camera. For actors, it’s another obligatory result to stay ahead of. We do that by thinking “I’ll put this relationship X here, relationship Y there. That way, when (and IF! - the moment must tell us, not our pre-decisions) I look from X to Y, the audience will witness and experience the context of the relational tension that exists between the two.
Thinking and executing relationally on everything including how it lands on the screen on which it will be watched pulls the audience through our character's world and journey.
LEVEL FOUR - FINAL QUEST
PURPOSE OF SCENE
Did I, as the audience, feel, learn, experience the whole point of the scene. Am I set up for what is going to happen next? Has the scene’s purpose in the larger reference of the bigger story been clearly understood and fulfilled? Did you plant the future nemesis seed subtly but undeniably with the lead? Did I feel and understand the full context of the scene through the Dominant Point of View ? (DPoV: the person through whose point of view I am experiencing the story aka The Lead or The Series Reg with whom your character is interacting). Did I feel the full context of the key moment or moments of discovery for the DPoV through your application of all of the above elements?
We want the show creators (writers/showrunners/directors/producers) thinking, "YES! Now when we move on, our lead feels this, knows that, and will have to deal with that! This is exactly why I put this scene here!"
Is your character serving the FUTURE STORY? (read more on what I mean by that here)
LEVEL FIVE - END BOSS
On top of all of the above, while satisfying all those things, did something truthful, honest, and UNIQUE happen through your performance?
Many will use the term “Interesting Choices”. I use that term often as well. It may be purely semantic, but in the spirit of the point of this piece, I like “Uniquely Yours”. I think oftentimes the term “Choice” can make actors fall back to level two, and the scene becomes about delivery or presentation of their choice. As a result, they are not in the moment, and we don’t see any of the stuff that really matters. We see an actor trying to be interesting.
When we do our homework, get deeply prepared, get present, and step forward into the unknown, our unique self will make discoveries and decisions within our crafted context. Each moment becomes totally our own, we satisfy the point of the scene, the character, and we have nailed it.