by Paul Russell
‘Paid Auditions’: Who’s to Blame?
An acting studio advertises: “Get seen by Agents and Casting!” In reaction do you picket as a dissenter? Or participate as a presenter? Are you an artist above self-advocacy? Or an actor trudging the self-promotion trenches? Whatever your action or inaction the bedrock has been set.
The sediment first formed as showcases at acting studios. Actors learned under the advisement of iconic teachers. At the end of the class semester, be it six months or a week, an agent, casting director, or director was invited to view the progress of the actors.
Then the earth quaked.
A valuable asset of the class—an outside industry-insider’s eyes—was bastardized by mom-n-pop one-night forums. A host sets up shop in cheap real estate. They wrangle agents and casting directors to watch actors—not part of a class for improvement—but as cattle waved through a door to read for either the modest price of a movie date night or an extortion of savings.
The ‘paid audition’ created discourse among actors, and worse blemished what respected acting studios had been for decades offering as a fringe-benefit; industry eyes. The acting studios witnessed precipitous declines in enrollment. What to do? Include alongside of the traditional classes a one-nighter pay-to-be-seen by industry.
The paid audition scenario for actors to be seen and heard by industry flourished quickly like fro-yo stands. The market demanded more opportunities. The market being actors vying for visibility alternatives, and frustrated by a lack of career momentum.
In 2009 with my clients going belly-up in a dire economy I looked to what I could do to fulfill my obligations for existing while keeping within doing what I love. I thought I’d share with actors my decades of knowledge culled as an actor, director, and casting director. I always wished to teach, why not offer what I myself learned? I offered modern marketing make-overs, plus branding combined with audition technique study as a four-week class. Just actors and I working on how to improve actors getting more work for before, during, and after the audition.
Slight problem arose before my rose-spectacled intentions. I couldn’t sell the damned class. Despite my being invited to university theater programs to teach the master class version of this offering plus my career history and authoring a popular book on acting I couldn’t sway actors towards my offer of assistance. I panicked. I dropped the registration fee to ninety-nine bucks. The response? Frozen tundra.
After much hand wringing I added an agent panel. Sudden thaw! Actors rushed me. Wait lists formed and grew. I was ashamed, and somewhat disheartened. But I want to share what I’ve witnessed work well for actors. And my shame and sadness vanished upon witnessing attending actors succeeding.
I’m not naïve as to what some of my students seek in the seminar. I can’t fault their ambition for an opportunity to snag an agent’s attention because that’s partly what I’m teaching actors to do: How to effectively agent themselves to agents and casting. I repeatedly stress to the attending actors not to focus on the agent panel but to leverage knowledge gained during our time together. I ask at the beginning of each Access to Agents, “What other than the obvious do you hope to gain from this class?” I seek truthful responses. One once was overtly honest, “I want limousines,” he said.
Too often a percentage of actors bitch about agents and casting directors receiving a professional stipend to attend non-instructive seminars. This mostly stems from a, “I didn’t get what I paid for” knee-jerk response. Meaning the self-denial Sandys and Sams, who willingly registered for what was basically a wham-bam-thank-you ma’am audition, expected their thirty-five to forty bucks pooled to a paid auditor would sway subjectivity. Now who’s sporting rose-colored Oakleys?
Each actor must assess realistically what their participation in a seminar attended by entertainment industry will do for their career. Is the offering educational with a focus on improving the actor’s career long-term? Or is the opportunity an education-free evening where the actor hops onto a conveyor belt of actors with a short-term gamble they’ll be picked, processed and packaged prettily?
There is no ‘blame’ to be assigned here. How can we fault our peers their desire to improve their position when our self-identified definition of success may mirror theirs? I could offer Access to Agents sans agents. I tried once, twice, and even thrice. Crickets. Actors desired agents. I teach what I’ve learned—with guest agents—so that others may succeed.
Paul Russell’s career as a casting director, director, acting teacher, and former actor has spanned thirty years. He’s worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. Paul’s taught the business of acting and audition technique at NYU, and speaks at universities including Elon, Yale, Temple and the University of the Arts. He is the author of ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor. For more information, please visit www.PaulRussell.net.