Translating theatre from the physical to the online world means that every stage of development has had to mutate, including auditions. I sat down over Zoom to catch up with actors and directors who have delved into this new world and discovered the comfort and confinement of virtual auditions.
Dorothy McDowell and Maggie Moriarty both worked together on the Not the Way Forward production of Richard II at the beginning of lockdown (yes, the beginning). “I was just really relieved there was something I could do,” Maggie said. “We had no idea what this was going to be like but I automatically knew this was going to be worthwhile because at least someone was trying to do something.” Dorothy and her producer, Juliet Dowley, were these people attempting to adapt Shakespeare’s historical epic for a new and alien format. It’s hard to imagine but, at this point in the process, Zoom was only a faint whisper and, for Dorothy, sending in a self-tape “felt like the closest thing to a real audition”. Yet even these pre-recorded monologues fell short of the audition room environment Dorothy explained, “I think the biggest thing was knowing there are other people in the house- you could tell on the Richard II tapes, people were deliberately keeping their voices down for someone else in the neighbouring room.”
Maggie agreed, “You’ve always got this awareness that you’re in a space that’s not meant for auditioning. When you go into an audition room, everyone is there for that one purpose so when you’re at home you keep thinking to yourself ‘Am I disrupting them?’ or ‘Are they gonna disrupt me?’ It’s another level to think about.”
Virtual auditions demand a consideration that is irrelevant in a physical space; an actor’s performance has to adapt to an unnatural platform which is more akin to the screen than the stage. Director Maximus Woodward discovered this through workshopping an actor’s Shakespearean monologue over Zoom:
“There are real physical confinements of Zoom. In virtual auditions for the stage, you are probably better off backing up a bit and showing the panel how you use space. With Shakespeare, however, it was difficult because we really had to find a way of limiting movement without awkwardness. I would say that Zoom can actually bring out the strength in an actor’s performance because often, as actors, we move out of comfort. With Zoom, we can’t do that so we focussed on voice and intentions- purely the way you want to say the line. It’s so unnatural because you feel like you have to censor your impulse so it makes it tricky.”
Laura Milton, an actor who is currently auditioning herself, found this challenging also, “It’s weird because you are very aware someone is watching you. On the stage, with lights, or with more space to move around, you can forget someone is there but auditioning screen to screen is not like that at all.”
Laura’s experience auditioning with a renowned youth theatre company was entirely alien and, instead of travelling from Scotland to Newcastle, she auditioned in her childhood room:
“I had to perform my monologue very still. I was in my bedroom which is very small and I was a bit self-conscious about that. I couldn’t move around the space so I felt a lot more confined as an actor because sometimes moving around says so much more than the actual words but in this case I could only rely on the words, body language, facial expression. That was it. I didn’t really have any scope for movement or building a character through gestures which was odd. A lot of it for me was memorising and really focussing on delivery and I was so focussed because I didn’t have anything else to think about.”
There’s a kind of enclosure that comes with the frame of virtual auditions yet for Maximus the familiarity of home put him at ease. “I think in some ways it’s almost nicer. There’s something quite comforting about acting in your own room, you feel so much more at home, more comfortable. I’d just finished my coffee, I had my script, sitting at my own desk whereas it can be nerve-wracking going to a foreign context. It feels friendlier over Zoom. Zoom for us has a nice association. We call our friends on it and chat and virtually hang out so when you sign on and see your audition panel on a screen rather than behind a table, it puts you at ease.”
And it’s not just the individual experience that changes with virtual auditions. Suddenly, location was no longer a barrier and so directors were able to hear from actors all over the UK. Laura Milton explained what this was like for herself, “I’ve mostly dealt in Scottish theatre so this is my first foray into the outside world. I think virtual auditions have been really good for that because in the UK most opportunities are in London and often very tailored towards English people. There is a massive issue with not casting Scottish actors especially considering the travel costs- even getting to Manchester, it’s very expensive. So it’s good now you don’t have to worry about where you are geographically.”
Virtual auditions do not entirely iron out the inaccessibility of the theatre industry, however, as Milton continued, “Problems still remain. Virtual auditions work under the assumption that everyone has a laptop to themselves for an hour, with stable internet connection and time and space. Again, it’s just more barriers to what is already fairly inaccessible.” Virtual auditions by no means revolutionise theatrical practice.
These auditions, although virtual, still present actors with a pressure that is not unalike to those found in a physical audition room. The unnatural confinement of a screen is at odds with the sprawling mass which theatre is loved and known for. As Maximus said, “No one is expecting you to be able to overcome the dilemmas of the internet” and this new realm of live performance is an on-going discovery which throws up questions for all involved. Until the world becomes a little more familiar, Zoom auditions are very much a thing of the present but “there is nothing that beats live performance,” Maximus assured me. “You can’t capture the essence of it online, there’s this veil of engagement you just don’t get over a screen.”
Yet the work we’ve seen created over these past few months isn’t trying to be theatre. It has purposefully mutated as we play with a new, sometimes unstable, technical form. Perhaps it has reminded us of the physical space we take for granted, but it has also revealed a world that needs improving, opening up- a bit of a refresher to be honest. If Zoom auditions have meant directors have been able to hear from more actors than ever, then what do we do when our world becomes a little less strange? Do we shrink back? When the masks come off we may (hopefully) reinvigorate the theatre that we love that, nonetheless, could do with some updating.