Self taping is a massive part of an actor’s life. Especially in the wake of Covid-19, self taping is and will continue to be the norm for auditions. This means that we all put a good amount of practise into self tape technique so we can nail those auditions. However, one thing we don’t talk about that often is how to facilitate a great self tape experience for a friend, even though this is something we potentially do more often than audition ourselves.
It’s a pretty big responsibility hosting someone’s self tape or simply being their reader, and it’s worth us figuring out how to get better at this skill. In doing this we can make the process more enjoyable for ourselves and our friends, we can get better at acting in the process, and we can feel like we’re giving back to the acting community. Generosity goes a long way in this game!
So let’s go, here are ten tips for being a killer self tape partner:
#1 Set Your Own Boundaries
“Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.” – Brené Brown, PHD
Let’s talk boundaries right at the outset. This is the foundation of being able to give generously to others: taking care of yourself. Hosting a self tape or being a reader is, at face value, a pretty simple and unobtrusive favour to do for a friend. Usually a self tape session will only consume 60-90 minutes of your life. That’s no big deal, right? Well. 90 minutes once or twice a week adds up to a significant commitment over longer periods of time. I’ve noticed that occasionally one of my friends will get a bit of a reputation for being ‘a great reader’ or having a great self tape set up, leading to everyone in their network pleading with them to help shoot an audition.
We need to be clear with ourselves about what our boundaries are, even if we risk disappointing people. It’s one of these odd situations where a bit of selfishness actually allows us to be selfless.
Say you’ve already conducted a number of self tapes for friends this week. You’re now running behind on your own personal commitments and another friend asks you to help them out with “a quick tape”. You oblige, even though you really don’t have the time. Think about how that might impact this person’s performance? Your stress and lack of presence in the room with them is only going to distract them or add to the nerves they’re already experiencing. You’re far better off being clear about your boundaries, being honest with them about your limited availability, and in doing so you allow them to reach out to someone else who has more head-space to help this time around. It doesn’t mean suddenly you’re not a generous person, it just means you’re taking care of yourself.
Setting a boundary can be as simple as prioritising your own time. It can also be done by setting a time limit on a self tape session, as we all know too well how self tapes can drag on for hours whilst an actor tries take after take until it feels ‘right’. Another boundary you might like to set is requesting the actor come to you prepared, rather than arriving hoping to use you to learn their lines or workshop the scene. Be clear with your friend about what you have the time and head-space to give, so you may both honour the arrangement in a professional manner. It is work, after all.
#2 Clear Your Time
Now that you’ve set your boundaries, it’s important to be present within them. Be really clear about the time you’ve set aside, and as best as you can, remove the factors which will distract and interrupt that time.
My self tapes are a strict no-phone time. I don’t need this time interrupted by calls or messages which are going to throw me or my reader off mid shoot.
Additionally, it’s worth being realistic about your commitments on either side of the self tape. If you’ve scheduled something 10 minutes after the session is supposed to finish, you might be inhibiting your ability to be present for the person who is taping.
Be clear about the time you’ve allocated to the tape and honour it by being present within it.
Now, you might be thinking, “What could I possibly have to prepare for someone else’s audition?!” Well. Think of it less as your preparation for performance, but rather your preparation to support. What do you need to do in the time leading up to the tape to clear your mind ready to read? Do you need to get the camera set up ready or can that be done within your allocated time? What work of yours do you need to clear so you’re not still thinking about it mid-shoot? Have you let your house-mates know that you and another actor will be using the room and potentially be making weird noises?
In terms of acting, you might also like to do some preparation to best serve the person auditioning, if it fits within your boundaries. It can be useful to read the scene prior to get a sense of it. For example, you might read the scene and find that it’s a high stakes shouting match between two people. If this is going to upset your neighbours, best to figure that out early and relocate rather than stress out about this during the shoot.
Set your friend up for success by preparing effectively for the self tape session.
#4 Be a Good Technical Assistant
Actors wear a lot of different hats; in a self tape environment as a reader, you’re an actor, cameraman, gaffer, soundie, director and generous friend all at the same time. It’s important to feel confident about the technical elements of a self tape so you don’t negatively impact the quality of your friend’s work.
Be clear about the equipment you’re using. Much better to be honest with the actor about any confusion you feel about using their equipment early rather than poorly execute the filming.
#5 Remember Empathy
Auditioning is hard. It’s an experience which compromises us and can make us feel vulnerable, nervous, inadequate and frantic. We all know this and have experienced it first hand, but for some reason it can be easy to forget that other people go through it too.
Tap into your empathy before your friend arrives to shoot. Put yourself in their shoes for a moment, think about how they might be feeling. In doing this, you’re far more likely to be able to support them better. Even if what is needed is some clear cut direct advice, coming from a place of empathy will increase your ability to read the situation and assist the actor.
A useful motto to think is “How can I support this person in a way I’d want to be supported?”, and then conducting yourself in that way. Allow time and takes for getting into the zone, the work doesn’t need to be perfect at the outset. The more supported the actor feels and the more you are on the same page as them, the more successful they’re likely to be.
#6 Give the Feedback That Is Needed
This one is huge. Every actor is different, with different processes and needs. Each actor will also need something different from you in terms of the feedback and direction you give them. Establish at the outset what the actor needs from you in terms of feedback, and encourage them to be as clear and honest as possible.
I’ve done tapes before where my reader has cut the camera mid scene because they wanted to redirect me. The reader meant well by doing this, but for me and my process it was counter intuitive and made me place more focus on getting it “right” and doing what they wanted me to do rather than staying true to my method and pursuit of honesty in my work.
Actors will request different things from you. Some may need no feedback or direction at all. Some will like to put down a few tapes first to get the cobwebs out, then seek an outside eye for redirection. Other actors will want you as deep in the story as they are, asking for constant feedback and direction. There is no right or wrong about any of these processes, but it’s important you serve what each individual actor needs rather than placing your method on top of their process, no matter how right you think you are!
This does not mean, however, that you cannot offer advice. My recommendation to you would be to simply check in with where the actor is at first, rather than throwing a note into the mix before the actor is ready to take it on board.
With all direction, it’s important to also consider the manner in which you give it. Think about what is going to be most useful for the actor and what the actor is actually going to be able to take on board in the moment.
Giving a line reading, for instance, is probably not going to be useful for the actor, as they will now be more focussed on saying the line how you said it rather than connecting to the given circumstances. Speaking at length about your interpretation of the scene, how you would play the role or introducing the actor into complex techniques that have worked well for you in the past might have a positive effect, but will most likely crowd the actor’s already flustered mind.
#7 Be Clear About Your Performance
OK, the camera is rolling. We’re on. Your actor friend is giving it all they’ve got, it’s an Oscar-winning self tape performance. What is required from you? It’s an interesting balance, and we need to consider a few factors.
Firstly, as always, what does the individual actor need from you? Some of my friends request that I read for them in a near-robotic way, acting as a blank canvas for them to bounce their performance off. Others, however, like to include me in the scene itself and build the world of the scene around us, removing the artifice as much as possible. There’s no right or wrong; serve their need. However, we must also consider point two:
What is the casting director going to experience? You’re an actor who knows how to audition, you’re intuitively going to understand the scene and what is required from you to best be able to showcase the actor. If you’re doing a high stakes emotional scene and you’re giving it everything you’ve got as the reader, that might be great, but you’re also standing right next to the microphone. If your performance is going to drive the casting director insane because of how loud or prominent it is in the tape, dial it back. Strike the balance between serving the needs of the scene and serving the technical requirements of the taping process.
This is true too for accent work. Say the scene is in an accent you’re unfamiliar with or it’s not the strongest in your toolbox – don’t do the accent. Others may disagree with me on this but for me this is a point where I’d err on the side of safety. If a casting director is distracted from the actor on screen because of the terrible twang in my Southern States US accent, that’s not ideal.
What the actor and scene needs and what success of the audition demands requires a fine balance.
#8 Be Aware of Resentment
Here’s a tricky one for us. This point brings us right back to our boundaries conversation, because it’s all interlinked. You know yourself, and you know whether or not someone’s career success will bring up negative emotions for you. This point deserves an article in itself, (in fact I might pitch it to the team here at StageMilk) but for the purposes of this article I’ll be succinct.
Resentment, envy and feelings on injustice do come up for us actors from time to time. It’s a common experience, and one that deserves its own special attention in our practices of self care and improvement. As our dreams drive us so strongly, watching as our friends and colleagues are given opportunities which we are not can cause us suffering. This is an unfortunate reality of this game. I’ve experienced it and am striving to rise above it, as I know that the success of my peers will only mean positive things for me. “The rising tide raises all ships” as the saying goes.
With this in mind, my tip for you is to be aware of and manage any negative feelings which arise for you. If the person asking you to help them tape is a person who you do experience a lot of envy towards, acknowledge that and decide on the best course of action in spite of that. The best course of action might be to decline the favour to tape. It also may be best to help them, but consciously decide to put any feelings of jealousy aside for the duration of the taping process.
Serve the actor’s needs. If you’re unwilling to commit to the scene because you think you could do the role better or you wish you could audition for the role too, acknowledge that, and do something about it. No-one is going to benefit from your resentment and you’ll only beat yourself up after the fact if you’ve half committed because of it.
#9 Checklist for Success
This one is simple but can be a lifesaver. The worst possible outcome for a killer self tape is a camera which isn’t recording or a microphone switched off. Develop a simple checklist for the technical elements of the tape so you don’t make a mistake and so there is one less thing for the actor to worry about.
This checklist might be as simple as:
- Frame is good.
- Microphone is on
- Camera is rolling
Saying this checklist out loud or to yourself can be reassuring to the actor taping, as it’s one less thing for them to think about. Nothing worse than pouring your heart and soul into a take only to watch it back and realise the lighting is no good or your head is half out of the frame.
On that note, be clear and specific with the actor about the parameters of the frame they’re in. Spend some time before the camera is rolling allowing them to move around the frame and get a feel for the space they’ve got to move around in.
#10 Value Add
Finally, a useful tool for making a self tape experience as good as possible is for you to value add to the experience. A simple and effective example of this is one that I have put in place with my friends: Every time they do a tape, I do a tape. Regardless of whether my tape is just for practise, impromptu or well rehearsed, either way I’m getting in front of the camera, and increasing the value of the self tape experience for myself. This reduces any feelings of time concern, resentment or that I ‘should be doing something else’, as you’re using the time to get better.
Other examples of this might be:
- Practicing an accent
- Learning the lines for practise
- Rehearsing the role you’re reading for
With any of these ideas, ensure that you’re still serving the needs of the actor and that your focus is primarily in serving them, but allow yourself to be curious about how you can learn from the experience too. Even stepping into their shoes to vicariously experience their nerves is useful practise, as it may allow you to be more focused the next time around that you need to shoot a tape.
Helping friends out with self tapes is a big part of the life of an actor, and without care can actually cause a surprising amount of stress. By using these 10 tips, you’ll greatly increase your ability to support your fellow actor whilst looking after yourself and increasing the benefit of the experience for all involved. Be generous, be clear, and have fun! There are too many factors about this career pursuit which are stressful and out of our control, so it’s important to take our processes and optimise them to increase our chances of success.