If you’re a working actor in this day and age, you have probably filmed and sent off a self-tape audition. Self-tapes are standard practice for film, television and commercial casting; we talk about them a lot on StageMilk, as a successful self-tape can be the deciding factor on whether or not you book a gig—regardless of talent! What we tend to talk about less is the process of self-taping for a theatre audition. Theatre self-tapes were once quite unusual, but they are now becoming increasingly commonplace. National touring production companies may send out requests to see a wider array of potential artists; even smaller theatre companies may ask for submissions for general auditions, if not for their programmed pieces. And this is to say nothing of the practice booming in the COVID era, as theatres begin to re-open and try to insulate themselves against any unnecessary health risks.
Much of what goes into a theatre self-tape is the same for any other job. However, there are a few differences worth your consideration, which we’ll cover in detail below. The trick is not to think of self-taping for theatre as a dilution of the in-person experience. While it may be an adjustment, there are countless things you can do to support—and even enhance—your performance.
Equipment and Set-Up
We have covered technical requirements and personal recommendations a few times on this site. If you really are looking for any foundational info, click through to the links below:
We also have the incredible Self-Taping Crash Course with Pat Cullen and Indiana Kwong.
When it comes to a theatre self-tape, your biggest considerations are space and sound. Generally, casting directors want to see more of you in a theatre self-tape—watch you work with your body and explore the character’s physicality. You may find that your usual, tighter-framed film/T.V. set-up won’t work, and you need to pull everything back a bit. Experiment with different frame sizes, different lighting states. Watch yourself back on an unfamiliar screen (different to the phone/camera that you filmed on) to get a sense of how big or small you look. You don’t want to appear tiny in the final product after you give yourself all that space to roam around in.
On the subject of sound, you will generally be louder than usual as you are looking to project your voice above a ‘Netflix whisper’. Tinker with the audio levels on your microphone/recording device. You will need to bring the volume up slightly to accommodate your wider shot, but not too much so that your speech is lost in atmospheric sound. This is the kind of situation where an external microphone can be handy. A ‘shotgun’ mic like the Rode VideoMicPro is directional: it’s going to pick up sound wherever it’s pointed, and less so from the room around it. Whatever your equipment looks like, be sure to do some sound tests where you speak at your loudest (this goes doubly for a musical theatre audition where singing is required). At all costs, you need to be sure that your audio doesn’t ‘clip’—go into the red and distort.
A lot of actors fail to see the advantage they can give themselves when they properly prepare a theatre piece for a self-tape. If the play you’re auditioning for has been published, get your hands on a copy and read it! This is a luxury you are seldom afforded with a film/T.V. commercial script; often you are working with a short excerpt and (maybe if you’re lucky) a synopsis. Give yourself the leg-up of reading the whole story and getting a sense of your character’s entire emotional arc; those who you are reading for will certainly have done the same. There are no points for “bold choices” that make no sense in the larger context of the play. Do your homework; don’t sabotage yourself.
Performance, in a theatre self-tape, is a matter of balance. Balance the ‘real’ with the ‘theatrical’, give more of yourself than you might in a film audition but don’t leap around the place. Project your voice in a way that shows a director you can fill a theatre, but not so that you sound like you’re in a pantomime. It can be a tricky thing to get right. The best way you can adjust your acting for a theatre self-tape is to watch yourself back and correct things accordingly. Think about the kind of screen you’ll be seen on, the kind of speakers you’ll be heard through; throwing your arms up in the air might look and feel great in the moment, but will it look ridiculously over the top if played through Vimeo?
Working with a strong reader for a theatre scene can be an asset. If you’re feeling less than confident, pick an actor you know who can get you out of your head—somebody who will help you direct a performance out of the confines of the ‘screen’ and at them. Even though theatre carries the tacit acknowledgement of an audience in the space, resist the temptation to barrel the camera. But do be aware of performing to something beyond the lens; think about where the stage begins and ends, and picture that audience out there in the dark.
While this topic technically falls under the purview of “Performance”, it’s worth discussing on its own as it warrants some serious thought. Just because you have the opportunity to be a little more physical in a theatre self-tape, doesn’t mean your audition should be a physical free-for-all. Plan and choreograph your movements; have an action ready to justify every single deviation you make from actor’s neutral. As we talked about above, your movements can start to look big on a small screen during playback. Don’t distract from the good work you are doing by thinking your performance can be bigger, better. Less is always more; there are few scenes that won’t work just as well standing still than they do filled to the brim with motion.
When it comes to props, consider this scenario: an actor begins a scene holding some important prop. At some point, they draw it up into view, showing it to the camera/audience/scene partner in for dramatic effect … and then it drops by their side and, just, stays there. Hanging loose, being waved about. By forgetting about the prop, the actor has robbed it of its previous importance. And what’s worse, it’s all the casting director can focus on: “Are they going to put that down?” “Is it coming back?” “I wonder if it’s heavy…” Props can be effective tools in a theatre self-tape. They can also be extremely distracting. Once it finishes serving its primary purpose in a scene, make sure it isn’t drained of its dramaturgical importance. You may forget about it, but your audience won’t.
Singing and Dancing
A quick note on musical theatre self-tapes: the above advice applies doubly to these in the areas of space and sound. If you are dancing, give yourself enough room so that you’re not too close or far from the camera, or the edge of frame. There is nothing worse than watching your performance back only to realise you’ve cut yourself off at the end of a routine. Your framing will be the widest it has probably ever been; re-examine the space in which you shoot to ensure that you’re not capturing anything you wouldn’t normally be filming (distracting backgrounds, piles of washing, housemates), and consider resetting to a tighter frame if you have to sing/speak as well. For singers, be across your levels and the quality of your audio. Clipping, distortion, sound pollution of any kind can be a powerful distraction. As with dancers, re-examine your self-tape zone in case a different, quieter space with better acoustics might warrant a relocation.
Theatre self-tapes require adjustment. While they can sometimes fill like a less restricted means of performing on camera, the technical considerations around them require no less diligence than their film/T.V. counterparts. This is to say nothing of the micro-adjustments required to tune your performance for the in-between of not-quite-live, not-quite-prerecorded. Above all, take the time to find comfort in the process. Learn what works for you, and how you plan your approach. Film practice versions and watch them back on a variety of screens. Eventually, you’ll start to enjoy the freedom they offer to make choices in regards to performative style, physicality and character! Invest your time and effort in getting used to them. It’s likely they’ll be a big part of your craft from here on in.