J O U R N A L
‘Passion and personality’ Casting director Rob Decina on what makes a good audition BY DON CORATHERS
F THE FORTY STUDENTS in the national Thespian cast production of Ragtime School Edition that’s in rehearsal for this year’s Thespian Festival, well over half say in their playbill biographies that they’re planning to spend their college years preparing for an acting career. So it’s no surprise that when Emmy-nominated casting director Rob Decina met with them in Las Vegas this spring, they had a lot of questions for him. Decina, casting director for the daytime drama Guiding Light, attended the first Ragtime rehearsals as a representative of Procter & Gamble Productions, which produces his television show and is the major underwriter for the national-cast musical. He spent forty minutes answering cast members’ questions about the nuts and bolts of being a working actor. The first question was about college, which Decina strongly endorses. “I think it’s very important to go to school,” he said. “Very important to go to college. Don’t feel like you have to go right to New York, or right to L.A., or right to Vegas or wherever it would be for you, to start working right out of high school. You have to think of a career in the arts or in acting as a really long journey.”
Guiding Light casting director Rob Decina responding to a student actor’s question.
Less important, Decina said, is where you go to school. “It doesn’t have to be the Juilliard School of Drama. It doesn’t have to be NYU. It can be anywhere in the country that has a program.” The crucial question that students who want to have an acting career should be asking the schools they’re considering, he said, is “Do you have a graduating showcase?” “It’s happening right now. From March through May is showcase season. Colleges from all over the country come to New York with their graduating students and say, ‘Here’s our graduating class,’ and everybody does a monologue, or a song, or a two-character scene, and the whole
class is done in about fifty minutes. The entire industry goes, hundreds of casting directors and agents. It is how you get introduced to the industry. “Here’s an example. I have a girl in [Guiding Light] who went to Otterbein College. Where is Otterbein College?” “Ohio,” a chorus of the geographically astute cast members replied. “Okay, some of you know. I didn’t know. I’d never heard of Otterbein College. We went to see Otterbein College’s musical theatre showcase. There was a girl who sang a beautiful song, she was perfect for a role. My assistant brought her in, she walked into my office, I said ‘you’re perfect for a role,’ I brought her to my executive producer, that was on a Thursday, MAY 2005 • DRAMATICS
she had a screen test on Monday, she started on the next Thursday. “That’s not a guarantee that that will happen, but it can’t happen if Otterbein doesn’t go to New York and say, ‘Here’s our graduating class.’” Once they’re in the job market, Decina said, actors must be realistic and pursue attainable goals. At Guiding Light he casts “maybe four contract roles a year,” he said, but the show uses between twenty and thirty extras and under fives (speaking roles with fewer than five lines) every week. Actors who make themselves available for extra work are much more likely to get a call from the casting office, and working on the set will give them a chance to get to know the players and see how television production works. Decina said he looks at all of the headshots and résumés he gets in the mail. “My philosophy has always been, if you take time to write it, I should take time to read it. But if it doesn’t serve me it ends up in the garbage. That’s just the way it is.” For young actors who don’t yet have an agent, a better tactic is to write to assistant casting directors, he said. “In this industry everybody moves up quickly. That assistant will one day be an agent. Or that assistant will one day be a casting director. “So if my assistant goes to see you in some Off Off Broadway showcase and likes you and remembers you, well one day I’m going to turn to her and go, ‘Hey, do you know anybody who’s right for this role?’ And she’ll go, ‘Well actually, yeah. I’ve been keeping a file for two years, and these are all the people that I like.’ And maybe you’re in that file.” Even for established actors who are represented by an agent, it’s extremely difficult to land one of the featured contract roles on the show. When one becomes available, Decina reads about three hundred actors and typically recommends ten to his executive producer. Ultimately eight people—the casting director, the executive producer, the head writer, the DRAMATICS • MAY 2005
‘You have to think of a career in the arts or in acting as a really long journey’ sponsor’s executives in charge of production and creative affairs, and network programming personnel in New York and Los Angeles—all have a say in casting decisions. “It’s very difficult to book a job on any television show because of that,” Decina said. “So many things have to go right. First you have to be evaluated correctly by the casting director. Two, you have to be evaluated correctly, or you have to be on your best day, for the executive producer. And then three, you have to do a great screen test, and then all of these people who have different opinions have to agree, or at least come to some compromise.” “So what makes an actor stand out in an audition?” one of the students asked. Decina, who is the author of a recent book on the subject (The Art of Auditioning: Techniques for Television, published by Allworth Press), contemplated the mystery for a moment and said: “I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s very hard to pinpoint.” Then he gave this answer: “There are people who know how to audition well, and they’re not very good actors. There are really great actors, and they can’t get through an audition for some reason. “As a casting director, I have probably passed on people who went on to have huge careers. Or passed on people for a specific role and later thought, boy, I should have given them a callback. There’s human error involved.
“The one thing that I do know. What I like to see are people that are believable, that you can believe in the role, you believe what they’re saying, you believe what they’re doing, and that’s not unlike theatre. I have this term I use, ‘thinking feeling living beings.’ That I believe that they’re alive in the room. That they have a certain aliveness, they have a certain energy. Watching them you go, ‘This person is thinking about what they’re saying. This person is thinking about what is being said to them. This person has a feeling reaction to what they’re hearing and what they’re saying.’ “In my book and when I teach, I always tell people that when you’re auditioning for a major role—not a small role, but for a major role—you have to raise the stakes and have urgency. Raising the stakes is an understanding that this event is the most important thing happening in the character’s life… You as an actor need to embrace it with passion and personality and a sense that it is the most important thing happening in the character’s life. “The actors that bring passion to it, thoughts and feelings, risk, most important thing that’s happening in the character’s life, and urgency, it’s happening right now—those are the ones that stand out. “Other than that it’s just a vibe. That’s my interpretation of the vibe, I guess.” The casting director closed with a reminder that for all of the difficulties facing young actors trying to get established, they have a strength, too. “Passion and personality, charm and personality, are two qualities that you all have,” he said. “You could not have said I’m going to go audition for this project here, I’m going to audition for my school show, I think I want to be an actor, when that moment happened for all of you, you had charm, you had personality, you had passion. I say had because most actors in New York lose it. The industry gets them down. It knocks them down and they forget that they had those qualities. You guys I should say have it. You have to remind yourself of that.”