Dear reader, welcome to the first installment of the Official Theatre People Mentor Program. In this two-part series, we will interview six performers who have successfully auditioned for professional productions and share their experiences and advice on how you could do the same; we have asked the questions so you don’t have to.
Their responses, always interesting and frequently entertaining, are intended to give you a personal taste of the reality of working professionally in our industry for the first time. We hope you enjoy this series and that the advice herein will assist you all in achieving whatever goals you have set yourself for the future.
Theatre People: When did you decide you wanted a career in musical theatre?
Adrian Li Donni (http://www.adrianlidonni.com) played the role of Lun Tha in the world premiere of the original and newly restored orchestrations of The King And I for Lyric Stage in the United States last year:
There have been many important people and events that have pointed me in this direction, but in a “professional” sense one moment comes to mind. When I was 18, my family and friends encouraged me to audition for The Lion King and I sang “One Last Cry” by Brian McKnight (what was I thinking). The casting director said, “Thanks, but you’re not what we’re looking for.” As I was leaving the building, hurt and feeling like I had just blown my only chance to be an actor, the back door opened and there he was, Disney’s casting director, asking me to come back for a call back! I was called in maybe five times throughout the run of the show and during these auditions I was getting advice from the team about what I needed to be doing to be cast and about professionalism. I was terribly inexperienced. I was told that I needed training.
Claire George has performed many roles with Disney Cruise Lines and played Betsy in The Production Company’s Crazy for You:
Growing up in the George household, my parents were busy taxiing three kids between swimming lessons, little athletics, gymnastics, piano lessons, tennis lessons, when out of nowhere my younger brother (then aged 6), said he’d like to try ballet. It didn’t take long for me to follow in his footsteps. My older brother (then 9) played Oliver in the senior school production, which I apparently found quite moving – my parents love to tell the story that it all started with Miss Claire, aged 7, crying “It’s just so beautiful” in the emptying school theatre. I can’t recall a particular moment I decided I wanted a career in musical theatre, but I always knew that it would be a part of my life. I suppose the decision was made when I chose to study musical theatre full time. I do remember having a difficult time deciding which path to take when I finished school; although I spent a lot of time performing, I also had a keen interest in languages and travel, and as well as musical theatre, I was also offered a place to study flute at the [Melbourne] Conservatorium of Music. Interestingly, after I had accepted my place at the [Ballarat] Arts Academy, my flute teacher confirmed my choice, saying: “You don’t want to be in the orchestra pit, you need to be on the stage!”
Danielle Matthews (http://www.daniellematthews.net/) was the inaugural winner of the ANZ Rob Guest Endowment and has performed with Tokyo Disney:
Hmmm that’s a hard question. I’d almost say that I never decided as such, I just knew from a young age what I liked doing was performing and I never considered doing anything other than what I liked! But I do remember going to the West End when I was 8 years old and seeing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express. I just remember glowing for weeks after seeing it, imaging being in it, singing all the songs and thinking about it over and over. I mean singing dancing acting and rollerblades!!!! I think I fell in love with the magic of theatre at that point.
Jessie Yates played Elphaba in the Universal Studios Japan production of Wicked:
For me, I want a career in theatre, I’m not limiting it to music theatre… It’s a very limiting genre, especially when you don’t dance. My idols? The great actresses: Bette Davis, Maggie Smith, Cathy Bates, Joan Crawford among others.
Nicholas Kong performed in Sydney Theatre Company’s Australian premiere of Spring Awakening:
A career in theatre is something I always silently wanted to achieve but was never sure if it would actually happen. My parents played a very big role in nurturing my singing and acting and were very encouraging to me when growing up. They would drive me to classes in Melbourne on a weekly basis from the country. They are proud of me and what I want to do and that makes me extremely happy. The main inspiration I found was from cast albums. From a very young age I was addicted to [Les Misérables], I used to pretend I was Gavrosh scrambling around the barricades a.k.a. my couch, from there I just discovered an unhealthy obsession for everything musical. However there is sadly a realist in me (even still). There are so many people wanting to break into theatre and only so many jobs. For a boy who does not dance that limits the amount of shows I am eligible for. There has to be some form of backup.
Sam Ludeman is currently playing Joe Vegas in FAME at the Regent Theatre, Melbourne:
After I finished year 12, I asked my drama teacher what I should do with my life… She mentioned that I could go to uni and do a Bachelor of Arts in Music Theatre, as she knew I enjoyed the school productions. I didn’t know if I wanted to do that but I couldn’t think of anything else. Once I started the course I still didn’t know if it was the right choice, I felt a bit out of place being a pretty typical country kid, I thought music theatre was a bit sissy and wouldn’t really get me anywhere. By second year things changed. I started to fall in love with music theatre and nearly every aspect of it. If anyone was my influence it would be Miss Amy Porter, my drama teacher at school.
TP: What did you do to get there?
AL: I started taking acting classes with Colette Mann, because I wanted to learn more about the craft. I got an agent though a friend and through the agency I started taking singing lessons with Will Conyers. Will encouraged me to audition for the top schools here. I auditioned for [the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA)] three times, never being accepted. It was after that last audition that Will suggested I look overseas, mainly New York, and specifically Circle In The Square Theatre School. I flew over to audition and was accepted into the program a week later.
CG: I followed my brother into ballet classes, I loved going to drama classes at St Martins, I spent a few years with the Young Australian Broadway Chorus, and I took every opportunity to perform while I was at school, and in various amateur productions. I spent three years studying for my Bachelor of Arts (Music Theatre) at the Arts Academy, University of Ballarat. And I’ve spent a lot of time auditioning!
DM: I took private singing classes from age 12 and dance and drama classes etc.. Then when I finished school I simultaneously took on Certificate 3 in Dance at the Dance Factory and Music Theatre at the [Victorian College of the Arts (VCA)].
JY: Basically I was a hermit, I stayed in when my mates would go out. I didn’t drink (my how times have changed!) so as to keep my voice as healthy as possible, and I studied drama, music and theatre studies in yr. 12. I had singing lessons once a week and practiced for an hour each night without fail!
NK: I think you have to be very persistent. High on my priority list was to get an agent. My first one was just horrendous. She would promise things that would never evolve. However I pushed her to get me certain auditions. I was very lucky in that Spring [Awakening] was only my third pro audition. I think you have to have a very strong mind set. I have been very lucky at the auditions I have been to since and before Spring, in that I have gone further than the initial casting call. You need a thick skin and not to get overly upset if it does happen to be a ‘no,’ you have to realize that it is part of the gig. Once in a show the doors open up. Agents start to approach you and opportunity’s to perform at certain things arise, which makes it somewhat easier. You definitely have to have a strong drive and determination to have this as a career.
SL: Completing my BA in Music theatre at the University of Ballarat was the first big stepping-stone. It taught me the fundamentals for the industry. I improved my singing, learnt the basics of dance and acting. However this course was not enough, I knew if I wanted to be a real contender in this very competitive industry I would have to do extra work outside of uni. I had private singing lessons once a week for nearly a year, I did summer dance courses in the gaps between 1st and 2nd year and always tried to do casual dance classes whenever I could. This is my 3rd year out of uni and not much has changed, when I’m not in a show I will get singing, dancing and acting lessons. You can always keep improving.
TP: Was it easy?
AL: I spent two years at theatre school and after the course ended I was entitled to stay for an extra year on a working Visa, which meant that I could go out and audition. At first I was successful in getting call backs for a lot of the roles that I went for, but after a while I started to feel fatigued by the whole experience. There could be something like four auditions a week that I would be right for, sometimes a few on the same day. Because I wasn’t an [Actors’] Equity [Association] member, my friends and I would have to get to the venue very early (sometimes getting up at 5 a.m.) so that we would have a better shot at being seen. Quite often I would have an ‘audition buddy’ who would sign me up at one audition, while I signed them in at another. Once I was done singing my song, I would run to the next venue. It was mad! After many months of this, I started giving sloppy auditions and started feeling worse about never getting cast. It was almost a year out of school until I booked a show and it was because I finally realized that I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself and start doing the work necessary to get the role. I focused on the show and started thinking and behaving like I was already in rehearsal for it. I went into that audition room ready to walk on stage. It was an Equity production of The King And I and I would be playing Lun Tha with a 35-piece orchestra in a world premiere of the restored original score.
CG: I wouldn’t say easy. There’s been a lot of hard work and patience involved. But the performance part of it, even just taking class or auditioning, is easy – because that’s what I love to do! I have spent the majority of my time since graduation working overseas, and one thing I am experiencing at the moment is how difficult it is to establish yourself within the industry here in Australia. I have three years of professional performance experience, but I do think that Australia is a little slow to recognise overseas work.
DM: It was at the VCA where I realized what a difficult craft I had chosen and how hard I would have to work to be good enough to work professionally. The VCA pushed me to my limits as a performer and as a person mentally and physically, it was tough! But I realized that even through all that I still loved it more than anything so I knew I’d chosen the right path.
JY: When you love something so much, there’s no other option but to work for it. It was just second nature to hide away and practice my singing and acting.
NK: Was it easy? I would say yes, but in a round about way. I would say I was more lucky than anything else. By the time I got to the final call of Spring Awakening it wasn’t a matter if I was able to sing, dance or act. I had passed that hurdle in the previous four rounds of auditions. The decision in my casting was now totally not in my control. It now became the issue of did I fit what they were looking for: Was I too tall or old? Did my voice fit the sound they wanted? Was I too fat? Or too ethnic? In the end your ‘talent’ can only take you so far. The ultimate choice of casting is out of your hands. That part of the process is very difficult.
SL: By no means was it easy. Financially it was always a struggle to do things I knew were necessary in order to get where I am today. By second year of uni I would work on my voice and flexibility for dance every day. It was hard to stay positive all the time as well, to not doubt yourself and your abilities, there is always someone who can kick higher and sing better, that can sometimes get you down and make you want to give up. It was important for me to figure out my strengths and weakness and work on every area to make me more employable in the industry. You often get more “No” than “Yes” when auditioning, you must understand you’re not always right for the role/show, it’s nothing personal.
So there you go. We hope you enjoyed part 1 of the Official Theatre People Mentor Program – keep your eyes peeled for part 2!