The following is an excerpt from Breaking It Down: Audition Techniques for Actors of the Global Majority, by Nicole Hodges Persley and Monica White Ndounou, available now from publisher Rowman & Littlefield.
Telling the truth is a lifelong process, not a destination. Truth-telling is not as easy as it sounds. As you change over time, your truth changes. Depending on where you are in your career—beginning, middle, long, glorious end—not addressing this step can stand between you and every audition you take to book a job.
You have two places to focus: your personal truth and the truth of the character you are playing. To tell the truth, without any pretense, you have to decide what you want. Why do you want to be an actor? Do you want fame? Do you want to prove someone wrong? Do you want to be right? Do you want to be loved for your work? The entanglement of our truth, or lack thereof, with our career goals is complex.
Our advice is to figure out your current answers to these questions before you decide to take a job as an actor. Working as an actor is a different experience from working at Google, Starbucks, or any number of jobs that don’t require you to perform texts before an audience that may trigger emotional and visceral responses. This is not to say that emotional and physical responses to interaction do not come into play in non-acting jobs. However, actors engage with material intended to evoke emotional responses in audiences, and due to the nature of the job may encounter the emotions themselves in the process.
As an actor, you have to identify actions that can help you summon emotion on demand. If you consent to play a role as a woman who has suffered verbal abuse, you have no idea how you may be triggered by that text on the job. A response that is yours as the actor and not that of the character you are portraying can easily result in redirection from the director or even firing. If you have an emotional response on your non-acting job, you can excuse yourself and return after you compose yourself. On a stage, film, or television set, there are only so many times you can take a time-out to get yourself together before you are replaced. If you are walking into an audition in an effort to fix personal problems, pay bills, or make people love you, you will not do well. Your desire to be an actor has to be bigger than your problems, ego, or sense of being right. Due to the competitive nature of the business, it is vital to truly want to do this work, because many actors struggle for a long time.
If you are an actor of the global majority, your acting journey is even more challenging because you have to face the many stereotypes and microaggressions produced by the systemic racism in the entertainment business. As actors of the global majority attempt to reconcile their relationship to white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and other verbal violence, aggressions, and misrepresentations, you also have to learn your sides (segments of the script for auditions) and present yourself as confidently as possible in the audition room. To get to your truth is a journey that is better done with a therapist and a wellness plan in advance rather than with an acting partner during an audition. We highly recommend that you identify someone, professional or personal, with whom you can share your hopes and fears, traumas and triumphs, in a safe, encouraging, and productive environment.
We encourage you to get in touch with your personal truth as an actor as you separate yourself from personal obstacles in a script. Knowing your truth and what you will stand for and what you won’t can build your confidence before you walk into the room. As you enter the room as your full self, leave your baggage at the door or surrender it to someone who can help you sort out what you need and what you don’t. Knowing that you are enough before you walk into the room to get the job is half the audition battle. Knowing that you will not get in your own way gives you a competitive edge that will signal to casting directors and directors that not only do you know your craft or your brand, but you also know who you are and feel good in your skin.
Let’s Start With Personal Truth
Who you are is all you have. What does this mean? It means that you are an amalgamation of everything good, bad, and indifferent that has ever happened to you. Your emotional DNA, experiences, and culture are wells you can draw from to prepare for your audition, rather than expendable material to be discarded due to shame or uncertainty.
Acting is one of only a few professions that asks you to constantly deal with your personal life experiences, emotions, and traumas. Many casting directors, directors, and acting teachers may not agree with this idea. Many acting professionals or teachers may say that all you have to do is say the lines written by the playwright or screenwriter; some others might say you have to “become” the character, while others suggest that your personal life and the character’s life have nothing to do with one another and the rest will come. No matter what your opinion, one fact remains: You are the performer playing the emotional, social, and physical circumstances of the character. With this in mind, you have to consider the emotional impact and toll on your mind, body, and spirit when you play roles that may trigger your life experiences in some way.
Acting teachers are not therapists, nor are casting directors and directors. However, these various occupations do hold power. You are surrendering your emotional and physical safety to a director once you book a job. The more in tune you are with yourself and what feels right and safe for you, the more prepared you will be to accept or reject parts that may place you in a vulnerable space that does not feel comfortable or help you achieve the most productive performance. Be professional. Know your limits. No job is worth you feeling as if you have let yourself down because you crossed a personal boundary.
Black and non-Black actors of the global majority do the majority of their acting from scripts that are not written by people who look or sound like them. What happens when you have to play a character who is written as supposedly “Black,” “Asian,” “Native American,” or “Hispanic,” yet nothing they say or do resonates with the experiences of people of the global majority in the social and cultural contexts that the writer documents on the page? Our reactions to bad writing and stereotyping of people of color happen in the audition process, and the impact varies. We hear the words coming out of our mouths, but we often cannot reconcile the actions of the characters because they feel fake to us. When your acting does not align with stereotypical expectations, it may limit your ability to book the job, or it can open new avenues for considering the characterization, assuming the performance is rooted in the character as written on the page, even as it departs from the stereotype.
Overtly negative reactions to the stereotype while in the room may also affect booking potential but may be necessary if it does not align with your goals and purpose. This is why it is helpful to know as much as you can about the role and creative team in advance and decide whether or not you are willing to take such a role. In short, productive adaptation of a problematic stereotype could work for or against your ability to book the job. Reconciling the quality of our work with the quality of the texts we play is a lifelong journey. Performing according to your truth and the truth of the character beyond the stereotype is the key.
Though this book is not about personal therapy, we do recommend that you seek professional assistance and opportunities to discuss experiences that may block you from performing difficult texts. By difficult texts, we mean those that contain the following challenges, which may trigger emotional and unreconciled responses from actors of the global majority:
- Playing White characters (when you are not White). This can be extremely difficult, particularly when casting directors and directors present you the role as a “gift” or “challenge” that is important for you because you are an “actor of color” or that somehow by erasing your racial identity or ethnicity you are proving you can act. These are microaggressions that fuel the racial, ethnic, and cultural omissions that occur when you are forced to pretend that your body’s history does not come to bear on the text you play. Race does matter. History matters. Culture is a deep well that can source performance in any role.
- Stereotypes. Specific triggers might occur when you are asked to “act” or “talk” more like your racial or ethnic identity, as if that were even possible. Questions such as “Can you act a little more Black? More Asian? More Latinx?” are basically offensive directives that presuppose a way of being and becoming that is based on dominant mythologies of race.
- Dialogue. Some texts contain dialogue that is written to sound generically non-White. In some cases, this vernacular is written as “urban,” with little racial or ethnic specificity in the written historical context. This can also work in reverse, when actors of the global majority are assumed to be unable to speak in prose or verse with heightened texts simply because they are not White. Likewise, we want to underline the assumption that AGM have fluency in vernacular language usage, which may not be the case.
All of these incidents can produce emotional triggers that make it difficult for actors to do their jobs, specifically because they are tied to attributes and qualities that have nothing to do with an actor’s talent or technique. Recognizing the historical risk in doing so, we recommend thinking critically about work that you choose to audition for in the entertainment industry and be prepared to stand up for yourself as needed. Weigh the risks in relation to your values and know that you do have greater choices than those who have come before you, although the industry may tell you that you do not. The industry patterns will tell you that actors of color have to take what they can get in the entertainment industry because you have to “pay your dues.” We don’t believe that any actor should have to “pay dues” by playing roles that seek to demean underrepresented communities directly or indirectly due to poor writing or performative representation. The industry can and should do better, and there are artists who can value you and your work even if they have limited access to resources.
Acting is therapeutic, but it is not therapy and, in our view, should not be used as a surrogate for counseling, and doing so in the audition process could be disastrous. You have the right to accept whatever jobs you choose without explaining or defining your choices to cultural insiders or community members. You are a free agent. Your body will sometimes represent your entire community. With that said, stand strong in who you are and what you believe, and leave your personal drama at the door, or, better yet, at home as you bring your full self into the audition room, and the role, if you book it.
If you read a script and it does not align with your views or skillsets, you’re better off passing than going to the audition to prove a point to yourself or to someone else. The legacy you build as an artist begins as soon as you accept work. What you leave behind is up to you.
Nicole Hodges Persley (she/her) is an associate professor of American studies and African and African American studies at the University of Kansas. She has published articles and book chapters on hip-hop theatre, hip-hop studies, directing, acting, and Black theatre. She is the artistic director of Kansas City’s KC Melting Pot Theatre and a co-founder of CreateEnsemble, a social media platform for creative artists of color. Hodges Persley is also a member of SAG-AFTRA, Actors’ Equity Association, and the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society.
Monica White Ndounou (she/her) is an associate professor of theatre and the 2017-18 Sony Music Fellow at Dartmouth College. She is the founding member of the National Advisory Committee for The Black seed, the founding executive director of The CRAFT Institute, a co-founder of CreateEnsemble, and the award-winning author of Shaping the Future of African American Film: Color-Coded Economics and the Story behind the Numbers. Ndounou is also an actor, director, and member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society.
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