Bernard Telsey has worked in the theatre for over 30 years. He is head of Telsey + Company casting, a premier theatre and film casting company in New York. He is also co-founding artistic director of the Off-Broadway MCC Theatre, is New York vice president of the Casting Society of America and was recently appointed to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Board of Governors.
His many Broadway casting credits include Hamilton, Wicked, Rent, Newsies, Kinky Boots, Motown, Rock of Ages, The Normal Heart, All The Way, A Streetcar Named Desire, Hairspray, Legally Blonde, In the Heights, Porgy and Bess, Equus, Memphis, Bring It On, South Pacific, Next to Normal, 9 to 5, Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark, Catch Me If You Can, The Addams Family, the NBC musical series Smash and the Disney film adaptation of Into the Woods.
Below, Telsey speaks candidly about the pathway to a successful audition.
When an audition notice says to "show range," where is the line between finding a song that is rangy, yet appropriate?
Telsey: When we say we want to see your range, we want to see how big your vocal range is because all of these songs are written so differently. We want to know what you are capable of. But at the same time, don't overreach. Don't show me your range if you don't think you can sing that eight to ten times a week. So many times, actors wind up reaching too far and then we're seeing holes. You still have to be a ten and be better than everyone before or after you, but you have to recognize that you shouldn't jump too high if you can't do it.
What clues in a breakdown tell you what type they are looking for?
Telsey: It's very important to read whatever clues are out there. Some actors don't even ask to read the breakdown if it wasn't given to them by the agent or the assistant. It's helpful information, but it's not the end all/be all. Many times we write these breakdowns and we start casting, and then we learn something different from the director. So it gets slightly changed, but you don't actually put out a new breakdown. You need to read it to see what you can pull from it to help you, but don't take it literally. Don't say, "This says the character is 23. Why am I here?" I've heard that so many times: "Why am I coming in?" What actors don't always know is that it changes. They don’t know that the character is 29 now. I feel that so many actors read it and then they pass, they say, "Nah, I'm not that." But it's open now, so that's why we're seeing you. What you want to take from it is stuff that's active. Use the personality stuff instead of the literal fact… It says, "He's the happy-go-lucky guy." Look for the stuff that will help you with behavior and character. Should you submit, or go in for an audition, although you may not be right for it? Is this just a waste of everyone's time?
Telsey: Yes, yes, yes! If you have an appointment, if you have the opportunity to go to an audition, you shouldn't be the one doing the editing and saying "no." There are enough people who do what I do and sit on the other side of the table and say "no." Go and be seen. However, don't waste someone's time if you're 29 and they're looking for a 13-year-old girl, just to be seen. But again, don't take it literally. Get in there and get seen. So many times it changes from what they originally wanted. Try to take just the essence of the person rather than the fact.
Besides the quality of an actor's song or your monologue, what else are you looking for during the audition?
Telsey: The audition starts the minute you walk through the door. Of course, it's about the work, but it's also important for us to get a sense of whom you are. I always say it's like a blind date. The date starts the minute that person walks through the door. "Oh he's handsome. Oh, he's not. She's attractive. Oh she's not my type…" The minute you meet someone you start having opinions. Generally what people wear is really, really important in auditions. It's not about wearing costumes, but it is about trying to help the room be convinced that you can be this person. Wear an outfit that's appropriate to the character you are playing, or it's sometimes as simple as wearing an outfit that makes you look great. And again, when you go on a blind date, even if you're someone who only wears jeans, or someone who only wears a suit, go get the best jeans that look good on you, or the best suit that looks good on you. That's what every audition should be: Wear the color that makes you look good and wear the things that make you feel and look attractive.
Can you go a bit further on how to dress for an audition? For example, if an actor is auditioning for Rent, how far should they go with the look? Where do you draw the line?
Telsey: If you're going in for Rent, hopefully you’ve seen the show and you know it’s about these groovy, St. Marks-type people, so why not wear a groovy shirt? Why not wear something that’s going to be a conversation piece? Not a costume, but whether it's the funkiest scarf, the boots, or the hat, you want to stand out.
Or, if you're going in for Galinda in Wicked, don't come in wearing a Galinda dress, but don't come in wearing just jeans and a sweater. Come in wearing a skirt or a dress. The essence of Galinda is a girl, so be a girl, a girl who's into wardrobe and fashion. We see girls who come in wearing jeans and sweaters and it's too easy for someone to say, "Oh, she doesn't have that that girly thing." You have to know what the essence of that person is.
How do you feel about vocal embellishment/riffing during audition songs?
Telsey: If you are going to do it, it has to be organic and it has to be emotionally driven. It can't just feel like, "I’m a baton twirler, so let me show you how high I can riff!" That's when it feels like embellishment and riffing. It's not connected emotionally to the story. In all of these songs we want to hear range, but we don't want to hear range first and foremost. We want to hear your range as you're incorporating it into the material that you're delivering. If the riffing and the range are first and foremost, we're not connecting to the person.
Although a song is known to be overdone, would it still be okay to use if you sing it well?
Telsey: Yes, because it's just to get a little tasting. We're in an office of 19 casting directors here. As much as we're on the same page and we work hard to be that, everybody here has a different taste as to what's their favorite song and what song they’re sick of. It's like trying to order pizza the day after Thanksgiving with your family: No one is right. I can't even sit here and try to say what is an overdone song. It might be my favorite song, but it might not be a favorite of another casting director's. And that’s not something the actors can control. But have choices for us. That's what I keep trying to tell everyone. That really is the answer. I sit there in the same room with a different musical director and a different director, and many times they are more black and white than even we are. They will say, "I hate that song, don't do it." So you've got to have choices. Unless you come in and they say, "What do you want to sing?" I think it's great to walk in and say, "Hey, what would you like to hear? I'd be happy to do any of these songs." And then we can jump and say, "Oh, let me see what's in your book!" Give choices so you don't have to worry about whether or not it's an overdone song or not and so you can accommodate the people that are in your room.
If you're a soprano, how important is it to develop your belt voice to be more versatile, or vice versa? Should you play to your strengths, or try to cover as much ground as possible?
Telsey: You have to play your strengths. Go in with your strongest shot and then if you do, and they like what they hear, then they can ask to hear your soprano, or your belt. Even if one is a little weak, they're still in love with you from the other song, so they'll be open to adjusting and working. It's too easy for a casting director to say, "No, that's not right," if you don't play your strengths first.
How do you feel about non-union performers waiting to be seen for union EPAs?
Telsey: I love it. Sometimes you just can't get to them. There’s not enough time in the day, or there were too many Equity actors signed up, but you’ve got to go. You've got to go if you're not Equity, because there's that time when a casting director sees the non-Equity person and they get cast. It happens so many times.
Even the other way, I've heard so many Equity actors say that they're not going because it's pre-cast, or that only an associate casting person will be there. The person who is in that room is casting the show, or they're an associate on the project and they're making the decisions on whom to callback. I ask actors, "You're not going to come because I'm not in the room?" I know it's hours and hours of waiting, but people need to go to the EPA, especially if they're not getting the appointments any other way.
What are some tips on how to format an acting resumé? What information is key for the casting directors and creative team?
Telsey: We've got to be able to read it. It's got to be clear, especially for people who are reading something really fast; you just want the info there. I think more information is good, but it's not about trying to impress someone. Just because a director you worked with isn't a famous Tony winner, doesn't mean you shouldn't include them. You don't know if I know that guy. I tell my Juilliard students this all the time. They have guest directors all their fourth year, and I tell them to write their names down on their resumés even if they don't think anyone knows them. I might know the person and then my eyes are already staying on your resumé five minutes longer. So, I could ask to see more or even call them and ask how your Three Sisters was. Give information without impressing us. I don’t expect an 18-year-old to have Broadway credits and have worked with Joe Mantello. But, I want to know who you did work with at Ohio Summer Theatre.
In a callback, how important is it to have your sides memorized?
Telsey: For film and TV you have to have stuff memorized so you can act to the camera. Because if you're looking down at your sides, the camera picks that up and you've dropped out of the scene. For stage, you don't have to have it memorized. You want to be really familiar with it, but I would always say to an actor to hold on to it. We're watching your whole body. If you know you're not fully immersed yet, it's good to be holding on to something and not look too uncomfortable.
What are some challenges that actors face now that are new to the industry as it evolves?
Telsey: It's such a world of the Internet and technology that you've got to, as an actor, be able to self-tape for auditions. The Internet is the great thing. Even with different SAG and Equity rules, we're all self-taping and we're all using taped auditions as a means of getting hired. I'm not saying it's the end all and be all. With theatre you're doing live auditions, but there have been certain plays and musicals that we have cast from tape. That's the exciting challenge. You can be working at St. Louis Rep and not lose out because you can put yourself on tape. If you live in L.A., you don't have to spend $800 on a plane ticket to NYC. You can put yourself on tape, so then when Joe Mantello sees the tape and likes it, he'll tell you to fly in and spend the $800 when you have have more of a chance. What's not acceptable is when an actor says they can't come in because they're in L.A. or out of town, and they can't self-tape. You can self-tape on your iPhone. You need to be technologically savvy and we are expecting you to understand how to audition for tape. It's all happening so fast. Casting is so much faster now because of the Internet.
Clients expect things tomorrow because you don't have to wait a day to get an actor the material by messenger or FedEx. I can email this material and you can audition in an hour. Can you read the script? Can you find out more about the character before you go in to the audition in that amount of time? I think it’s a good thing because you have access to the Internet and information, but there's less time to prepare and you've got a lot more homework as an actor.