Balancing new classes, living arrangements and social settings in the fall is notoriously stressful—what better time for theater auditions?
The many theater production teams at Northwestern hold general auditions (aka generals) every quarter, where prospective actors perform a single audition to be considered for several shows at once. The process is overwhelming for everyone involved but if you make it through, the experience can be extremely rewarding.
For first-year theater major Clay Lawhead, the auditions were exciting but nerve-racking as they came so early in the school year.
“If you didn’t prepare before coming to Northwestern, you didn’t have much time to prepare,” he said.
On the production side of things, Noah Kudman, co-chair of the Northwestern Student Theatre Coalition (StuCo for short), detailed the extensive process of organizing auditions, planning callbacks and coordinating casting.
“It’s sort of a balancing act,” he said. “It is stressful for the casting teams because it’s a lot of making sure that the people who you want really like you and wanna be in your show.”
The stress on both sides is not unfounded: getting cast or even called back is no easy feat. Kudman estimated that late fall generals see 100 to 150 auditioners, of whom 75% receive callbacks and 50% are ultimately cast. The competition only increases as the year goes on, Kudman explained, since the number of auditioners typically rises to 150 to 200 for winter and spring generals.
The audition process varies for every student. In Lawhead’s case, the experience continued well beyond the initial audition, receiving callbacks for five productions.
“The callback experience was a lot, only because if you got called back for multiple roles, you had to plan it on your calendar, make sure you knew which place to go to ... and [there] was also getting used to classes and things like that; it was hard to balance each of them out,” he said.
Callbacks may have been overwhelming, but Lawhead is very satisfied with the role he received, and he considers it “an amazing experience to be in a cast.” You can see him as Brett in The K of D, performing in Shanley Pavilion next month.
Some students have had great difficulty finding success with auditions. Jack Meynardie, a senior theater major, has auditioned for generals six times but has never been cast or even received a callback. He had hoped this time around would be different, but no luck. Still, he maintains a generally optimistic attitude regarding future auditions, saying, “I’ve done it before; I’ll do it again.”
Not all students can find the same optimism. Medill sophomore Fred Tippett was turned off from auditioning by a bad experience at spring generals last year. He experienced every actor’s nightmare: forgetting his lines.
“I walked into the room, said two lines, forgot everything, started over, could not remember any of it—they let me go outside and try and remember it and then come back in if I wanted, but I just left.”
This was Tippett’s first audition experience, at Northwestern or elsewhere, and it gave him a pessimistic outlook on theater in general. However, he’s found a different way to express his theatrical tendencies.
“I found a new method for getting myself on a stage in front of people. And it involves one where I don’t have to audition, and I can just say stupid shit. And that’s stand-up comedy.”
Tippett may have chosen a field outside of drama altogether, but it’s not difficult to get involved in theater if you’re willing to step behind the scenes.
“The things that are most exclusive are acting and directing. Those are the fields that have the highest ratio of people who want to do it versus spots that are actually available for those people,” co-chair Kudman explained, basing his assessment on his experience with StuCo. “But if you’re looking to be a designer or just a general member of a production team, there’s always a way to get involved with that.”
Lawhead cited this accessibility as his favorite thing about the theater program at Northwestern: “I’m very happy with the theater program, mostly just because everyone can join. Like, everyone can join the theater process and be part of a process that they want to be a part of, and there’s so many options.”
Meynardie, having never been cast or called back for a show, also acknowledged that theater was accessible outside of acting. However, he thought that if someone wants to act, they should also have that opportunity.
“I do wish there was a less competitive form of student theater,” he said. “There should be something for people who can’t get parts to still be able to act.”
Considering the difficulty of actually getting into a show, here’s the million dollar question: is auditioning worth it? Regardless of experience in the program, everyone interviewed for this story said yes.
Kudman said that above all else, the practice is invaluable. “It’s more [about the] experience of getting in front of a group of people and doing the thing, doing the audition. Because that is a skill in itself, learning how to audition, and doing it enough times where it starts to feel routine and the nerves don’t really hit you anymore.”
Even with his discouraging track record, Maynardie had a similar outlook. “Maybe you don’t win anything, or you don’t get a callback or whatever, but I think there’s still growth just, like, being in the room and trying.”
And Lawhead, fresh-faced and optimistic as can be, had a simple answer: “Hell the fuck yeah. It’s worth it because, even if you don’t get cast in a show, or you don’t have a confident audition, you can audition so many more times. They have it every single quarter. You can audition more and more and more and get better and better and better.”
So yes, auditioning can be daunting and often fruitless, but that shouldn't necessarily deter you from stepping out of your comfort zone and into the audition room. Lawhead gave a succinct piece of advice in regard to auditioning: “Do it.”