What a Director Looks For in your Self Tape | Improve your Self-Taping

What a Director Looks For in your Self Tape

Written by on | Acting Industry

Earlier this year, I had the great privilege of casting a stage production in Sydney, Australia. It was for the premiere of a new play, produced by my theatre company Ratcatch, and necessitated an extensive search for seven performers. We did a callout across our social media pages—asking for a CV, headshot and short comedy monologue—and set a modest deadline, hoping we’d rope in around five or six performers per role for us to choose from. Just two weeks later, we’d received a whopping 140 submissions! If you’re wondering how the hell you might distinguish yourself in a pool that large, let me give you as much insider info as I possibly can…

If you’ve ever wondered what a director looks for in your self tape, there are plenty of factors within your control that you can use to maximise your chances of being cast, or simply seen again. Be aware of the video quality (and accessibility), how you realise the scene, play the character and what kind of impression you give as an actor and collaborator.

Before we move onto good stuff, a quick disclaimer: I was not the director of this production, only the producer. Along with the director and the playwright, I made up a little less than one third of the casting power on this show (the director always has final say.) What was interesting, though, was how few disagreements our casting team had when it came to the actors we saw. Here’s what we took note of, and where you are sure to find ways to put your best foot forward.

A Quick Note on Independent Theatre Casting

When auditioning for an independent theatre show, you immediately have a greater chance of being noticed. Sure: 140/1 odds sound pretty awful, but an indie company is going to take more notice of who you are, as the connection you make reaching out to audition is personal. You can count on them remembering your work beyond the audition process if you make an impression; you may even find yourself contacted by the company directly for a future production.

I have had the great pleasure of having this exact conversation with actors—who auditioned for something that wasn’t quite right for them only to be cast in a later show on the strength of the same self tape. The truth of it is: in independent theatre, we’re all in this together. Good companies, directors and producers keep tabs on the people they like the look of.

What a Director Looks For in your Self Tape

A Working Link

Let’s get an obvious one out of the way. If your video doesn’t play, is set to ‘private’ or requires a password you didn’t send us, odds are we won’t have the time to chase up a replacement link. You’d be shocked to learn just how many actors send out links that don’t work; with a small team and a strict deadline, this becomes an opportunity to weed out potentially careless contributors.

As a rule, check your link works on a device not logged into your accounts. You may discover video permissions are blocked that you wouldn’t otherwise have known about because of being logged in automatically. And if you realise you’ve made a mistake, a simple email explaining the error with a fresh link is happily accepted.

Self Tape Proficiency

Ensure your audition conforms to the basics of self-tape etiquette and protocol: make sure we can see you, hear you, film in front of a plain background, and keep distractions to a minimum. Nobody is looking for a whizz-bang-self taping studio, so don’t worry if your background is a white wall and not a blue screen with professional lighting. But make sure there aren’t any distractions and present yourself well.

Of course, self-tape set-up is about more than the taping of your audition itself. It’s a chance for you to frame yourself as a professional and indicate that you take your work (and this job) seriously. If the tape looks thrown together, or like you couldn’t be bothered to pick up your laundry before filming, what kind of message are you sending about the kind of worker you are? And do you really care about this job if your video looks so hastily shot?

As one of the StageMilk team responsible for providing feedback to our Scene Club each month, I find myself giving this piece of advice to good actors with unprofessional self-tape set-ups: your work deserves to look good. Your self-tape deserves to look like you respect yourself, the script and the job you’re going for!

A Suitable Piece

If we ask for a comedy scene, submit a comedy scene: don’t serve up Medea when the brief is Mel Brooks. ‘Good’ actors often think that the ideal submission is a piece that suits them and not the brief—maybe they’ve been perfecting it for a few months, or got a call back with the same material from the last audition callout.

Pick something fresh that suits the audition brief. If you don’t, you risk throwing off the director who has to readjust their expectation of what you were going to present. If you’re not confident with a particular genre or style, think of the audition as an opportunity to show the production team that you’re willing to experiment and branch out (don’t forget, they’ll have your CV and can gauge what your usual typecasting is.)

And if it’s really not your thing, then ask yourself why it is you’re auditioning for the role. If you need to change the brief to go for the gig, it may not be the one for you. No shame in admitting that.

The Moment Before

Let’s say you clear all the other points and there’s nothing sitting between your performance and the director. Grab us from the very first frame! I tell actors to do this all the time when coaching them, and I usually have to follow it with: “I’m not saying give me Nicholas Cage.” Grabbing a viewer is not about going big—it’s about dropping us into the drama of the scene in a way that makes the excerpt feel part of a larger narrative world.

The ‘moment before’ is one of the most under-utilised tools you can employ as an actor performing a self-tape. Ask yourself what has come before the scene for your character. What have they just experienced? What has just been said or done to them? How does this instigate the scene in question? Say your character is about to tell somebody their relationship is over. If the moment before is them hearing ‘their song’ on the radio as they travelled to the house, it may give the scene much more emotional charge. If they just got splashed by a car as they crossed the road, that might heighten their sense of anger.

Determine the ‘moment before’ in an audition piece. This will help you ground the scene and not have it feel like you are simply “switching on” the performance. And when you can show us that, we’re sure to find your performance more memorable for it.

Theatrics and Dramatics

Too many actors feel that a self tape is about showing us inner truth in an intimate, whispered performance. I can’t tell you how mind-numbing this can be. Don’t show us a character in a quiet, internalised moment. Show them pursuing an objective, and utilising every trick in the toolkit to achieve it: beats, actions, character traits… Again: grab our attention and hold it!

It is vitally important to showcase your vocal projection if you are auditioning for a theatre piece. Don’t be afraid to speak up and out, to frame the camera wider and show us a bit of physicalisation of the character. Remember that a director would rather see you go big and tone you down, than encounter the opposite.

A Fresh Take on the Character

This is more of a general audition note, but if you’re auditioning with a pre-written piece (there’s a 99.9% chance you won’t have written something for the audition), ensure that your take on the character/scene is different to the original version. This tends to be more of an issue with screen rather than stage material, as ‘definitive’ versions of stage performances are less likely to exist. However, in the glorious age of National Theatre at Home, among other great theatre streaming services, I have started to see a few renditions of famous monologues/soliloquies performed as facsimiles of existing versions.

In short, make it your own. And if your version feels similar to an existing performance, make sure it’s backed up by script analysis so that, if challenged, you can show your dramaturgical math.

Leave us with Something

Other than the first few seconds of an audition piece, do you know which moments let actors down in self-tapes the most? The last few seconds. (That sounded less predictable in my head.) If you deliver a banger of a performance—absolutely transport us to some place new and magical—you do so much damage by failing to land the piece and cutting it off in the middle of a moment. Don’t break your performance off abruptly because you’ve finished saying your lines! Give us a second or two in silence to think about what we’ve just seen and what has changed.

It can even be as simple as letting a clip fade to black rather than simply ending. But ensure that something shapes and contours the end of your performance. I like to get actors I’m working with to think about the dark of a cinema after a really good movie ends—that magic, liminal moment before the credits roll and the lights go up. Most of us could sit in that patch of darkness forever.

The Things You Can’t Control

So: we’ve looked at the things you can control when it comes to what a director looks for in your self tape. The things you can’t control … well, I’d warrant there isn’t enough internet for that list, let alone space in this article. External factors to you getting/not getting the gig are limitless; that’s not to say you shouldn’t be aware of them.

I’ve listed a few things below worth keeping in mind. Think of them as reminders that you can do it all perfectly and still not progress to an offer or callback. That’s part of the job, and nothing to do with the actor, artist or person you are. Take it from the person on the other side of the process. And let it comfort you, if it can.

  • The director’s vision. Sometimes you’re not right for the part. Who’s to say, amirite? Sadly, the director. They’ll have a million factors in their head that will affect casting—from their idea of the character, the setting, changes to script or tone you may not yet be aware of.
  • The other actors cast. Sometimes, you’ll be the perfect choice for the role. You felt it, we felt it, we’re all excited for the journey ahead! But then we look at the other actors cast and realise it’s not the right fit. You might be similar to somebody already locked in, or incompatible with the age of another performer/s.  This point can feel particularly cruel, as it forces the casting team to make a choice between you and somebody else. Just know that the choice is always a tough one, and usually keeps you on our radar for future opportunities.
  • Timelines and availabilities. If you’ve categorically stated that you can’t rehearse Tuesdays, Thursdays or any weekends, that may be a dealbreaker when it comes to your casting. Sometimes the perfect actor/director pairing falls apart because of the schedule. Just know that when this happens, it’s never seen as your fault—after all, you gotta eat and pay the rent. And if a director does take offence … that’s a big red flag and you’ve probably dodged a bullet.

Conclusion

Let me leave you with one final point: as of writing this article, over a month since our initial audition tapes began to roll in, we’re still not locked in to seven performers. We’re still looking at choices, fits, comparing styles and personalities, doing chemistry reads and hearing people read in their third/fourth callbacks. Casting is just as tricky for directors and producers as it is for the actors.

But of those 140+ actors, an overwhelming number of them have gone onto our list of people to see in the future. Many of those were respected friends and colleagues in the first place (and there were a handful in the mix I’d come to know personally through StageMilk’s Scene Club, which was a particularly wonderful thing to witness.) Many of these actors we’d love to work with. Others we’ll be lucky to see again—given how some careers can rocket out of the independent scene almost overnight.

Asking what a director looks for in your self tape is smart, but it also implies that they know, for certain, themselves. Put your best effort into it, show off your process and give us a glimpse as to what it might be like to work with you. No matter the outcome, I wish you the very best of luck and all of my respect as a colleague.

About the Author

Alexander Lee-Rekers

Alexander Lee-Rekers is a Sydney-based writer, director and educator. He graduated from NIDA in 2017 with a Masters in Writing for Performance, and his career across theatre and television has seen him tackling projects as diverse as musical theatre, Shakespeare and Disney. He is the co-founder of theatre company Ratcatch (The Van De Maar Papers, The Linden Solution) and co-director of Bondi Kids Drama, a boutique drama school offering classes to young people in the Eastern Suburbs. Alexander is drawn to themes of family, ambition, failure and legacy: how human nature can flit with ease between compassion and cruelty. He also likes Celtic fiddle, mac & cheese and cats.

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