Booking It! Kinky Boots' Jerry Mitchell on Training, Bringing Your Personality to the Audition and the "It-Factor"

News   Booking It! Kinky Boots' Jerry Mitchell on Training, Bringing Your Personality to the Audition and the "It-Factor"
 
Playbill.com's new feature series Booking It asks leading industry members to share professional insights, need-to-know tips and essential tricks of the trade for up-and-coming and established theatre artists. This week Tony Award-winning director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell offers advice from the other side of the audition table.
Jerry Mitchell! Handsome grooming! Electric blue suit. Dark turtleneck. Chic, very CHIC!! And a nod to Halston!
Jerry Mitchell! Handsome grooming! Electric blue suit. Dark turtleneck. Chic, very CHIC!! And a nod to Halston! Joseph Marzullo/WENN
Jerry Mitchell
Jerry Mitchell Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Tony Award-winning director-choreographer Jerry Mitchell knows all about the life of Broadway babies who are "pounding 42nd Street to be in a show." Fresh out of college, he was selected by Michael Bennett and Bob Avian to join the national tour of A Chorus Line and made his Broadway debut in the 1980 revival of Brigadoon.

After appearing in such shows as On Your Toes, Jerome Robbins Broadway and The Will Rogers Follies, he went on to cement his career as a choreographer, creating the dances for You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown; The Full Monty; The Rocky Horror Show; the knock-out crowd-pleaser Hairspray; and a 2004 revival of La Cage aux Folles, for which he earned his first Tony Award.

In addition to choreographing Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Catch Me If You Can, Mitchell took on the role of director-choreographer with the Tony-nominated 2007 musical Legally Blonde and the 2013 Tony-winning Best Musical Kinky Boots, which garnered him a second Tony Award for Best Choreography. Aside from his packed Broadway schedule, Mitchell also found time to create and stage Broadway Bares (now in its 24th edition) and mount the Las Vegas striptease spectacle Peep Show.

Playbill.com spoke with the tireless pro as he was in Las Vegas preparing a whole new group of Angels to launch the national tour of Kinky Boots. Below, Mitchell answers questions about the ideal dancer, what it takes to be lucky enough to make it to his rehearsal room and "that thing" that all performers need to have to book a job.

As a director and choreographer, what do you look most for in an actor? Is it skill set, vocal range, strong choices? What excites you about a performance in the audition room?
Jerry Mitchell: It's the thing that none of us can define. It's that thing, it's that thing, right? What is that thing? That thing is moxy, that thing is presence. Really, I look for somebody who's present. I look for great actors and singing and dancing. The better they are, of course, for the role that they're being considered will play into it, but first and foremost I look for people who are present, people who want to be in that room and people who get it.

Jerry Mitchell
Jerry Mitchell Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

What else are you taking account of when someone walks into the room to audition for you, besides the quality of their audition. What else are you taking account of?
Jerry Mitchell: Well, first of all, every single person who comes into that room, I want them to get the part. And that's not a lie. I'm rooting for them to be fantastic. But, you know, every role is different and there's a requirement of what is necessary in being able to do it. The Angels, for instance, in Kinky Boots, their singing became a huge issue as we started to create the show. At first I was looking at only back-up dancers, and then I realized, "Oh, wait a minute. They've got to really be able to sing." And Stephen Oremus wanted them to sing really high and Cyndi Lauper was writing this incredible rock stuff for them, so their voices became a big component. But more important than all of that was their individual personalities and what they brought to the role individually. First it was their personality, and I'd say second was their singing voice, and third was their dance ability.

Are there certain qualities that you look for in a dancer?
Jerry Mitchell: I think training shows. You can see if a dancer has training. Most choreographers in most shows nowadays don't start with a ballet audition like they did when I was a dancer; the first thing you did was a ballet audition and then you were either kept or cut and then you went on to the jazz audition or the choreography that was required for the show. That's not the way it's run, most of the time, nowadays. But I am looking for dancers who have technique. And I feel like technique allows dancers to take on many different styles much quicker than dancers who come into the room without technique.

How important is it for you that dancers motivate their technical ability with acting?
Jerry Mitchell: It's incredibly important. It's what musical theatre is all about. Otherwise, they study ballet and dance in Balanchine ballets where it's a different skillset. The theatre is about acting, telling the story first. That's what the theatre is about.

Are there certain things you would tell dancers or clues they should look for in the information that you're providing them to help them in that type of audition?
Jerry Mitchell: Usually I get up and I do it. [Laughs.] And if they do it like that.

Can you talk a little about attire? Different choreographers have different preferences and maybe it changes from show to show. What do you like to see dancers wear to an audition? Are there dos and don'ts?
Jerry Mitchell : No. For me, the "do" is, what is the role? What is the requirement of the role? If a dancer comes in to me and auditions for Legally Blonde and they're dressed like an Abercrombie and Fitch ad, I probably would take that as a costume for the audition. If someone comes in and auditions for the revival of Dancin' that I'm doing for Bob Fosse, I probably want them in black head to toe and skin tight. I think the actor has to look at the role he's auditioning for, and try to dress appropriately, unless he knows specifically that that choreographer or that director prefers everyone in black head to toe. I'm not that person. I'm looking for individual personality. So unless there's a specific thing I say I need to see, "I need to see leg line. I need to see pointe. I need to see technique," I like to see personality and what the actor's going to bring, what kind of personality they're going to bring to the piece.

Mitchell with his <i>Kinky Boots</i> Tony Award
Mitchell with his Kinky Boots Tony Award Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

What is the best way to succeed at a dance call when you're primarily a singer-actor who moves and you're not necessarily the greatest dancer in the world?
Jerry Mitchell: Pay attention. Try to do what's asked of you, and if you receive a note from the director or the associate or whatever, do your very, very best to accomplish that note because, often, I will give a note to someone to see if they can listen and change. And if I can understand that they can actually learn specifically from me when I give them a note, then I think, "Okay, in four weeks I can teach this person to do the show."

Are there places that you recommend taking class, or certain types of dance that people auditioning for Broadway should not miss out on and should have in their vocabulary?
Jerry Mitchell: I think people forget how important it is to have a ballet base.

Do you find that there are common mistakes that performers make in the audition room that may stand in the way of them getting cast?
Jerry Mitchell: I think one of the traps is trying to second guess what the people behind the table want and trying to be one thing as opposed to being yourself when you come into a room. I'm looking for you. I'm looking for you at your truest self and what that self will bring to the project that is being created. If you're a brunette, I don't need you to put on a blonde wig if I'm looking for Elle Woods. I need you to be the brunette. I need you to be the fiery person who's inside of that body. It's about knowing who you are because, ultimately, what I'm looking for is individuals. My casting is always about the individual. If you look at the ensemble of the original cast of Kinky Boots, those people were all cast based on their individuality. And that individuality helped build the world of Northampton. I look for the exact same thing every time I recast the show.

Speaking of individuality, although an actor might not think they're right for a role, do you think it's still right to go in for the audition?
Jerry Mitchell : When I was a kid and I was auditioning, I auditioned for everything. If they'd see me, I'd go into the room and audition. Often, I'll be sitting at a table and someone will come into the room for a project that I'm having that audition for and I will write on the resumé, "Not right for this, but let's call them back for this other show," because Telsey might be casting that particular show for me, but they also are casting four other musicals for me. That's the other thing about an audition, when you go into an audition and don't get it, it doesn't mean that you didn't do a good audition, and it doesn't mean that whoever's behind that table may not see you for some other project they happen to be working on. So that's another thing about not losing heart. The process is process, and I want the person to succeed. They may not succeed at this audition, but that may spark an ember and make me think, "Oh, God, they're right for this, let's call them back for that."

Mitchell watches a rehearsal
Mitchell watches a rehearsal Photo by Monica Simoes

Tell me about collaborating with an individual performer. What's that process like? How much is "Jerry Mitchell" and how much do you want your cast to bring to the table when it's time to create a show?
Jerry Mitchell: The writing is the writing. The choreography is the choreography. And the notes are the notes. But none of those things work unless you can find an actor who can take those and internalize it. So, once the show is written, or as the show is being written, the actor may inspire the writer to write something or make it work in a certain way. I often will use the inspiration of the actor to influence the character. They're not writing the show. Let's not get confused here. They're not writing the show. Harvey [Fierstein's] writing the show. Cyndi's writing the show. I'm shaping the show with them and helping them write the show that we all create. But there's no question that Annaleigh Ashford influenced the way we wrote the show or influenced the scenes we wrote for her out of town in Chicago.

Do you have tips for dancers or performers in general to stay healthy and take care of their bodies? Are there things that you should always pay attention to and do?
Jerry Mitchell: Diet. Diet. Diet. Diet. Diet. It's not about diet meaning don't eat, it's about actually eat a lot and eat the right thing. It just helps. And the more you exercise and stay active, the longer you'll be able to do what it is that you love to do.

As someone who's been in the business for a long time, from being a dancer in a show to now directing and choreographing, are there particular challenges that performers face today that they didn't before as Broadway evolves?
Jerry Mitchell: I don't think there are any new challenges, but I think the difference is that the focus of a performer has widened. There are so many opportunities now in web series and television and film and theatre, and all of the different ways for an actor to get involved, and I think they're all viable and they're all great. But I think the true way to succeed is to focus on one and accomplish that. And if you can focus on one thing and spend your time and energy on focusing on that thing and make that happen, it may lead to some of those other things you want.

For choreographers, and directors as well, what do you find are great ways to break into the business? Is assisting a great way to go? Or working out of town and getting to stage productions in regional or stock theatres?
Jerry Mitchell: I can really only speak for myself. For me, it was assisting and staying in town.

Jerry Mitchell
Jerry Mitchell Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

What were some of the most valuable things you learned from the dance teachers that you took class from?
Jerry Mitchell: My dance teacher in college said, "A day away from the barre, you notice, and a week away from the barre, everyone else notices."

Were there mistakes that you made or hard-knocks in the business that you felt were essential learning moments for you that you've been able to turn into positive experiences?
Jerry Mitchell: I think one of the traps of a young director/choreographer is that you aren't listening. And the musical theatre, the art of musical theatre is about collaboration. Every musical needs a director who leads the ship. But a smart director, I think, is a director who listens to everyone else who's on that ship and somehow gets everyone moving in the same direction. I think as I've grown and I've matured and had the experience of Jerry Robbins, Michael Bennett, and most importantly, Jack O'Brien, who is the true master of collaboration, I've learned the importance of listening.

You're starting work on On Your Feet!, the new Gloria Estefan musical and have launched a nation-wide search for people who can submit via video. What is the way to stand out and to get the creative team to notice?
Jerry Mitchell: Be yourself. Be yourself. Know who you are. Because once you know who you are, you can fly.

If you had a wish-list of qualities the "castable" actor-dancer-performer must have, what would they be?
Jerry Mitchell: Boundless energy, positive, positive, positive attitude, and wanting to be here more than anywhere else. Present. Wanting to be present in the room working on this project more than anything else.

(Adam Hetrick is the editor in chief of Playbill.com. His work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com, as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter @PlaybillAdamH).