Every Little Step

Hey, It’s me again, Justin Keats. Your pal in the world of musical theater. Audition season (or as I like to call it, the 'NYC hunger games') is just around the corner, and I’m back to give you some thoughts and tips on how to survive and thrive. Or at least tell you my unwritten rules to this game with no rules.

We can all agree that what we do/go through to book work is bizarre. There is no other profession that has a process like us. Then when we do book work, it’s just a matter of time before we are back to the audition grind again. So it’s important to know how to have a successful audition.

Booking a gig is not the only way to have a successful audition. I mean, it’s by far the best outcome, but I think any audition where you walk out feeling like you’ve done your best and there’s nothing else you could have done differently, is a success. It’s the kind where you leave the room with a sigh thinking, “I did it. It’s out of my hands, but man - I would hire me.” It definitely doesn’t feel like that every time, but hopefully it does more often than not.

I need less validation from auditions because I know I’m no less of a performer if this job doesn’t go to me.

So, how do I attempt to accomplish this? Well, first and foremost, *puts on Scar’s voice from The Lion King and sings* “Be Prepared!” And really be prepared for anything. Have all your shoe options. Not just Tap, Jazz, Ballet shoes, but ones for slippery floors and one for sticky, flats and heels. Always have multiple headshots and resumes. Have your audition book organized and easy to use. No loose leaf sheet music! A happy accompanist makes for a happy vocal audition, so know your song’s tempo and know how to give your tempo politely. If you’re given sides (lines to memorize), know them. Be on time. Warm up. Have tried out your audition song prior to arriving to the audition. Have spatial awareness (ok - that one is really for your fellow dancers but seriously, use your proprioception and don’t hit others. We are all in this together until you start throwing full out legs in a room full of 35 dancers trying to catch a step). I know most of this sounds like “Duh Justin, this is nothing new.” But before I get into my personal thoughts and the deeper side of auditioning, I wanted to make sure I covered the basic checklist.

Justin Keats at Telsey + Compay
Justin Keats at Telsey + Company

The biggest personal battle I initially faced was that I was desperate to be hired. The. Most. Eager. Performing is all I have ever wanted to do and to audition constantly and not get a job was my biggest fear. I was ready to prove that I was worth booking by using every ounce of energy I could muster. I’m sure I looked crazy. Now on my way to auditions I calm myself and break away from that fear of rejection. Being the nerd I am, I meditate to a quote from the science fiction novel, “Dune.” The quote goes “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.” After saying it as many times as I need, I do look inward and see only me, a strong, confident, calm, human. One who is able to provide what is asked of him authentically. I need less validation from auditions because I know I’m no less of a performer if this job doesn’t go to me.

Auditioning and hearing no over and over again can make you doubt so much about yourself. Someone who knows what they have to offer and isn’t trying to be someone else is a strong auditioner. You have to be able to build yourself into a strong individual outside of the audition room so that when you come to a call you have more than technique to share. Our career can be mentally and emotionally traumatizing. Know what you have to offer and own that. Know your skills and keep working on them. Know your type and share that. Have the look to match and the songs in your book that show that off.

Now having said that, I can’t help but hear my dear friend Eliza Ohman chastising me for not having auditioned for a particular musical because I didn’t think I was right for it. Her wise words were, “Never discount yourself from any show. You just never know.” And she’s right. To be honest, I never would have seen myself as a tourist in Escape to Margaritaville, but here we are now with me knowing every word to "Cheeseburger in Paradise" and "Fins". It never hurts to go to an audition and bring your truth to it. Who knows? Maybe you are what they’re seeking.

Justin Keats at Escape to Margaritaville
Justin Keats at Escape to Margaritaville

Dance auditions are pop quizzes with the answer sheet right in front of you. The choreographer tells you everything you need to know to successfully pass the test to the next round. It’s important to be able to snatch up choreography and details quickly but what is more important is that steps alone are boring. To me, the sign on a mature dancer at an audition is one who can build intention behind the combo given while maintaining the details asked of them. Without the intention, it’s just technique you’re showing them and I don’t know about you, but my technique alone is not always enough. Show them you’re an actor. No matter the genre of dance, make some choices that will heighten their viewing experience.

Let’s talk about notes given in the room. As dancers, we are used to this with choreography. When it comes to music and sides, however, it feels different. But much like choreographers, directors or music directors give you notes to see how you handle taking direction. It’s not that you’ve done anything wrong. In fact you’re probably doing something right and they want to see what it feels like to work with you. Can you be guided? Can you make fast adjustments like you would have to in tech/previews of a new musical? Do you have more than one idea for a character? Or, they like you but the choice you made is super in the wrong direction but they want to see if you can do it like they see the character in their head. Don’t be jarred by this. Don’t let your insecurities turn on defense mechanisms. Go in expecting them to ask you to do something different.

You have to be able to build yourself into a strong individual outside of the audition room so that when you come to a call you have more than technique to share.

If you take one thing from this article, let it be that those auditioning you want you to be the person they want to hire. I’m gonna say that again and I want you to read it and believe that it’s true. The people in the room are looking and want to hire you! They are hoping you’re the one.

Along the same lines, we as a community should be rooting for each other. This industry is too hard to be hateful. If you know that the person next to you is singing the song in the wrong octave as they are practicing outside the room with you because the sides are written in the wrong octave, TELL THEM! If someone asks you for help with a step on the side and you can discretely show them and not pull focus, DO IT! If someone forgot their tap shoes, or kneepads, or whatever and you have an extra or can share, SHARE! It will make auditioning more enjoyable for everyone. You may even make a new connection. Talent will get you a job, but kindness and attitude could be the make or break with getting hired by the same team again.

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Other dance captains or associates have called me in the past, inquiring how someone acted in a show as a human. Honestly, the answers they receive from calls like that really do affect their casting choices. People want to work with good people. Whoa - this is becoming way deeper than I planned! Let me break the tension with my next tip which may seem like a sassy read, and goes against what I just said about being nice, but I promise you it’s for your own good. It’s just tough love.

The people in the room are looking and want to hire you! They are hoping you’re the one.

Fouetté turns, cartwheels, round-offs, forward rolls, sloppy, loud front handsprings, and coffee grinders are not considered tricks. I know. I know. I’m sorry. But when they ask if you have any tumbling or tricks to show, these do not count. I’m not discrediting your abilities or the time it took you to learn them but when it comes to tricks, it should be something that most people in the audience can’t do and really something that not everyone in the room can do and it should be clean.

While we are on the subject of special skills, I think it’s a smart choice to have one on your resume that is a conversation starter. With that though, I should say that if a skill is on your resume you should be ready to show it if it’s possible to do in the room. That means, if you say you can do magic, maybe have a small card trick with you always. If it says you can put your fist in your mouth, be ready to eat your knuckle sandwich. If you say you can tumble, be prepared to throw a trick and stick it. This all is with the caveat that you can ask to warm up for a skill. Don’t hurt yourself at an audition. But also remember that if you do it in an audition you can and will be asked to do it eight times a week. So if you don’t want to do something eight times a week, maybe it shouldn’t be on your special skills. And by maybe, I mean it shouldn’t. Like seriously stop reading and go delete that skill you can’t actually perform.

Ok welcome back! Aren’t you glad you did that? I know I am. Moving on! Let’s say that you’re at a call back with sides with a quick turn around to learn them. I felt the groans from here, and I haven’t even finished writing this for you to read yet. I know we get a lot of sides and that it takes a ton of time to prepare them and feel good about performing them. Let alone to the blank wall or to a reader who, god bless them, has done the same side countless times already that day. It’s important to remember, though, if you’re asked to do them, be excited! Not only is this a sign the audition is going well, but this is your moment to perform. Turn the weirdly not quite white, echo-y, walls of whatever audition room you’re in into your favorite Broadway house. And if you have prepared six sides and they ask for only one (or even worse - none!) don’t be upset. Don’t ask if they want you to do a side. Don’t make a joke about how many sides you didn’t do, or as I once did say “wow, that went faster than I excepted.” Just don’t. It’s not worth it and it taints their perception of you. 

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This is something you can control so take charge. Say thank you and exit quickly. They have other people to see and a lot to talk about. That actually goes for when you have a successful audition. The people behind the table get about ten second to talk between people and they are eager to have their moment. After your bit is done, say “thank you” and go. You shouldn’t run, another common mistake I used to make, but you definitely shouldn’t stay in the room to reorganize your music. It causes awkward tensions in the room.

Also if they don’t ask you to do the sides, you can try to find the silver lining of the moment. You were given something to work on and you took the time to work on your craft. You learned a new song that maybe you discovered you really like, or got to do some work on a character you didn’t really see yourself playing but it was a fun exercise to figure out how you would want to play them. I’m not saying I’m a champion at this, but it’s definitely better than rolling your eyes and saying “well that’s two nights of my life I’m not getting back.” Alright, you got me - we all know most of the time when you get the largest packet of sides you've ever seen, its at 6pm and the call back is the next day at 10am. But hey, who doesn’t love a challenge and an excuse to cancel your plans and stay home?

In those moments when you do get last minute call back with a load of sides, its important to be able to prep them quick. Most of the time now they do come with a piano track, but as some musicals are holding auditions during the creation process, they may not always. I find it super helpful to know a few people who know how to play piano. Consider yourself lucky if you can plunk out notes yourself, but I haven’t mastered that on my ukulele yet, so I have to phone a friend. It’s worth the favor you’ll owe them or the bit of money they charge to have the peace of mind that you are in fact going to be singing the song correctly. 

Talent will get you a job, but kindness and attitude could be the make or break with getting hired by the same team again.

When I auditioned for Paramour, the music was so new there wasn’t even written accompaniment to go along with the notes written for me to sing. So I had to call for help and get someone to plunk them out for me. I then, in a drastic measure to book my Broadway debut, bought the cheapest ticket to their first preview just to hear how the song went. I don’t recommend this pricey trick to become a habit, but I have used it a couple times and then have written it off as tax-deductible research. Do what you got to do to be prepared. You’ll feel so much better walking into the room. For me the fear is almost nonexistent if I have a sense of what I’m going to do.

Lastly, I want to say that when it comes down to actually booking a job, most of it has nothing to do with you as a performer. There are so many things that go into casting a show that are out of your control. I have watched headshots be removed from consideration because of the trickledown of someone else getting a job, which means they no longer need a baritone so only tenors are on the line but they also now need a tenor who can tumble. None of the tenors we have can tumble? Ok, well back to the pile and now we will take this option which eliminated all tall people because blah blah blah. The puzzle is real and just making it into the puzzle is huge. 

If you hear you’re in consideration for something, pat yourself on the back because now it is out of your hands. They are trying to find the best version of a cast at that point, and all you can do is hope that you’re one of the pieces in the picture their making. As much as it drives my mother crazy to hear that, it’s true. It’s not about you. So after an audition that feels successful, treat yourself. I personally go get ramen at Tabata 2 across the street from Ripley-Grier. I have a nice warm bowl of Tabata with no egg and read, or text friends, or do anything to distract me from things I can’t control. I go home and work on making myself a better, well-rounded, kinder human because that is something I can control and that’s what I have to offer.

If you hear you’re in consideration for something, pat yourself on the back because now it is out of your hands.

And if you can accomplish becoming a fuller human you will have the lasting power to remain in this industry. I have seen so many friends get torn down by it. I myself have had some very dark times, but never giving up is a huge part of it. I aspire to one day be the old guy of a cast. A man in his sixties who shows up and is happy to audition and even happier to work. A man who has a full life with lots of love, and hobbies, and travel. There aren’t too many sixty-plus year-olds still auditioning for new musicals that have out of town tryouts or national tours. I’m hoping I’ll be willing. Find what keeps you whole and sane and interesting and keep showing up.

So happy hunger games everyone. May the odds be ever in our favor and know that even if no one else is, I’m rooting for you. *Puts on Tyra Bank’s voice* “WE [ARE] ALL ROOTING FOR YOU!”

main photo: Every Little Step

About the author

A competitive dancer for ten years, Keats then made the leap (probably a switch second) to college and after earning a BFA in performance dance from the University of California, Irvine, he made the jump (Sauter de chat for sure this time) from working as a parade performer for the Disney corporation to dancing on cruise ships. After a year at sea, he taught as a guest artist in residence for a semester at Colorado Mesa University. Since moving to New York, Keats has been fortunate to work regionally (Pioneer Theater/ Sacramento Music Circus/ Alabama Shakespeare Festival/ La Jolla Playhouse) as well as performing in New York with Radio City's Christmas Spectacular (fittingly as the Sugar Plum Fairy Bear) and on Broadway in Escape to Margaritaville and Cirque Du Soleil's Paramour. He is a passionate, full out dancer who enjoys cultivating an entertaining life in NYC.