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Online Teaching and Auditioning for Musical Theatre: a primer

Posted on: April 19, 2021

Written by Joe Deer, Distinguished Professor of Musical Theatre at Wright State University co-author, with Rocco Dal Vera of Acting In Musical Theatre: a comprehensive course and author of Directing in Musical Theatre: an essential guide

The New Normal - Most teachers of acting and musical theatre are now having to address questions specifically related to both teaching and also auditioning via online, web-based video platforms. While there are easily a dozen versions of this kind of platform, the questions and challenges for student actor and teacher are consistent. Faculty choice of which to use largely has to do with what your teaching institution subscribes to and your own preferences and comfort level with advanced technology.

At this time of year, students are auditioning for both school productions and college theatre programs – almost all of that online. In the old (pre-COVID) days, the number one question I used to hear from early career singing actors was, “What do I do with my hands?” I’ve spent the last 25 years helping answer that for thousands of people. But it’s been replaced with a new one for online auditions – “Do I look at the lens or not?”

Can I Use the Lens as My Partner? - That’s actually a great question! And there’s no single correct answer. Here’s why. The advice students may receive from coaches about not looking at the auditor in a physical room has mostly to do with giving those auditors some “safety” to look at you without becoming your acting partner. It also allows them to write notes, read your resume, etc. So, placing your imaginary partner just over their heads (at eye level) is the usual advice. And it’s pretty solid, unless you’re asked for something different.

Video auditions are a very different format than in-person auditions - Often, students are pre-recording (sometimes called “pre-screen” or “pre-tape”) and will never see the actual auditor during the audition. At other times, auditor cameras may be off during the audition. So, there’s no problem with having time to look away at a student resume and letters of reference. They can even pause the audition if needed. Thus, actors using the lens as their partner isn’t an issue. And, even during live online auditions, auditors have a lot of safety because, if the student actor is looking at the lens, they’re not seeing the auditor’s eyes. So, there’s no practical reason not to use the camera lens as your partner.

The reasons to use the lens – or not – really have to do with taste and the nature of the piece you’re doing. Students will receive lots of opinions about this their advisors. So, I’ll add my own.

Online auditions are a form of screen acting. That’s the truth. No matter how stage-like your behavior, how loud you sing or how physically expansive you are, we auditors are still accessing it on the same screens they watch their favorite streaming content. So, as viewers, we automatically jump to interpreting your acting work through those eyes. Embrace this. On-camera acting rarely asks you to look directly into the lens unless it is a soliloquy-style song or monologue. In most other cases, the partner is just off-camera to the right or left of the lens. (Thinking of the lens as a clockface, the partner is often at 10:00 or 2:00). So, there’s long precedent for you to employ those two distinctions in your own work.

Soliloquy - If the monologue or song is a soliloquy (you’re alone or addressing the audience directly), it’s very easy to justify looking into the lens. You’re not expected to keep your focus glued on the lens. You have room to search for or discover ideas elsewhere. But your “partner” is your touchstone that you return to as you make each point. Beware of finding your next thought on the ground or below the lens level. When you do this, we lose access to your eyes and your thought process.

Monologue or song to a specific partner – You can place your partner just off the lens to right or left and you’ll do what most actors on camera do when they’re in a two-person scene. You can even have a living partner there if you like – no one will ever know. However, it’s completely fine to use the lens as your partner for this kind of song or monologue, as well. It gives the viewer a different level of intimacy and access to your emotional life. Some people find that it gives us a sense of how you’re reacting better than working off the lens. But, again, that’s a matter of taste. Students can test each of their audition pieces with both options to see which you like the best. Teachers can invite students to try both ways and then review them together.

Simple Guidelines

In every case, when you’re auditioning online, the following recording rules are essential and non-negotiable:

  • Camera at eye level – never looking too far down or up at you. This can be subtly unflattering. We liked to see you eye-to-eye in the center of the frame.
  • Your face should be brighter than the background – So, no bright lights or windows behind you. If the background is very light colored, you’ll need to lower (not eliminate) the light there and increase the light on your face.
  • Framing your torso – If you’re doing a fairly stationary song or monologue, framing from the waist up may be fine. If you’re using more movement or bigger gestures, frame more full body.
  • Get away from the wall – Give at least four or five feet of space between you and the wall behind you – more if possible. This adds some visual depth and stops the audition from feeling like a police line-up.
  • Balance the speaker volume and your voice – One of the biggest bugaboos of online auditions is getting balance of voice and accompaniment right. Since you’ll be singing live (even in recorded tapings), you want to be sure that the accompaniment is less dominant than your voice. This can be modified by adjusting the volume of the speaker and its placement in relation to the computer microphone. You must test these two factors by pre-recording some tests with you singing at performance volume, then viewing them.
  • Check the volume limits on your recording microphone – Some audition platforms and computers have limiters that automatically reduce the volume of a recording if the singer gets too loud. Unlike our ears in an acoustic space where we naturally accommodate for louder and softer moments, a computer may instantly reduce volume when you get loud. You can either adjust the controls on your platform or modify the loudest, beltiest places in your songs. Conversely, microphones on your computer or phone are quite sensitive and can often pick up quiet singing and speaking. So, your tests should involve quieter pieces, as well.

If you take the time to work with the technology and experiment a bit on your own and, if you’re a teacher, with your students, you’ll probably find this format actually has advantages you’ll hang onto once we’re able to teach in person again.

Affordability and Accessibility - There are economic reasons for including at least some component of online auditioning for all college theatre programs. The expensive travel requirements attached to in-person college visits, or attending organized group auditions are sufficiently prohibitive to eliminate some excellent and very deserving students. The social justice aspect of including video auditions as fully viable alternatives to in-person auditioning are substantial. As educators, it’s imperative that we examine the ways we create economic and cultural barriers to all students having access to excellent Liberal Arts and pre-professional Theatre training. I encourage you to embrace this option, as I have.

I wish you luck with your video teaching and audition processes. Let me know how they go for you.