There’s no doubt about it—self-tape auditions are all the rage and certainly here to stay. And, with pilot season fast upon us, the timing is perfect for talking about what makes a self-audition submission likely to succeed.
A quick Internet search will yield an abundance of self-tape how-to articles and videos, which is great, and I encourage you to watch and read them. But they mostly focus on the technical aspects of the process (cameras, lighting, sound, setup) and far less on the actor’s craft.
So, I’ve designed this article with the actor’s performance in mind. After all—the strength of the audition is still the primary driver for getting the part.
A word before we start. Like anything in this ever-evolving world, there are pros and cons to this shift from in-person to on-tape auditions. The pros are pretty obvious—you can submit from anywhere at any time. This increases the amount of auditions you can submit for as well as decreasing expenses for travel and time. You can also do numerous takes to get the audition you and your agent want, which I’ll talk about more as we go.
The cons involve the same imbalance that I’ve noticed in the ’Net tutorials—self-tape puts a lot of weight on the technical and less on the personal aspects of the audition. When I started making the rounds in the 1990s in Philadelphia and New York, it was all about personal networking—the more auditions you had, the more you got to know casting directors, directors, and other actors. That familiarity figured into how we approached an audition and often played into the outcome.
A casting agent, during a seminar where we were both teaching, gave me a tip that I employed every now and again… as you leave the audition room and the heads of the other actors come up from their sides, subtly clench your fist, bring your arm into your side, and whisper: “Yes!”
The good old days.
Another con is that actors often book gigs because of their ability to make adjustments on the fly. In other words, “directability.” A self-tape audition is a fixed thing, which kills that advantage.
So how do you overcome the lack of person-to-person contact that the traditional audition allowed?
As a teacher and director, I work with more and more actors via online video, both as a coach and for self-tape auditions. The things we’ve learned working through this particular camera frame help to solve some of these cons, because we concentrate on overcoming them as part of the work.
Here’s what we’ve learned.
Where you tape your auditions says a lot about you as a person and a professional. Keeping in mind the requirement of a neutral background and soft, even lighting, you can make almost any space look professional with a little time and effort—even a hotel room or back room at work.
In addition to the technical requirements, the space must also be one where you can be calm, focused, and confident. It needs to be quiet—not just for the quality of the recording but for you.
Take a few moments while you’re setting the space to get in synch with its energy. Think good thoughts. Imagine how the audition process will go and how the audition will be viewed and received.
The work of my students and clients who rush the self-tape process always suffers.
I am including The Slate here because it represents you as the professional the decision-makers are evaluating. The Slate is your chance to make that connection that in-person auditions allow. Remember—it’s so much more than just a technical who, where, when, and what. The Slate is your opportunity to show your personality before you shift gears and become the character.
This is another area that is well covered in the self-tape how-to’s out in the ether, with the exception of props.
A quick review: choose a wardrobe and do your hair and makeup so you look your best for the role—if that’s what it requires. Otherwise, choose clothing and do your hair to approximate the character for which you are auditioning. No need to rent a costume—it’s just an approximation, but an invaluable one, to both you and the decision-makers—because costume and hairstyle give you energetic and physical cues for a character.
I always use an approximation of my costume early in rehearsals and for auditions. Shoes are key—you stand and shift weight differently in boots, flip-flops, high heels, dress shoes, or barefoot. Tight, loose, or layered clothing governs posture and mannerisms. Scarves, ties, and hats change how you move your head and neck. The list goes on.
So choose wisely.
Props are rarely if ever talked about. But I have my clients and students experiment with them during the takes. Cigarettes, eyeglasses, a fan or handkerchief… these are the primary props we’ve used. Because they can be part of the “psychological gestures” of the character, as Michael Chekhov called them. They can show confidence, nervousness, thinking—and the all-important shifts between beats. More on this later.
Self-tape gives the actor the opportunity to better control the audition.
This starts with the sides. Print them out and mark them up. Underlining for emphasis, slashes for pauses (don’t ever underestimate the power of a pause), circling significant punctuation, and phonetically spelling out difficult words are the basics that I stress.
Next, mark the changes in beats with active verbs: “to convince,” “to seduce,” “to humiliate,” etc. Mark the most significant turns in the character’s approach, tone, and personality. If the casting director did their job, the sides should have at least one. These are the moments where you’ll truly show your skill.
If you memorize the sides, do it exactly. The last thing you want is to indicate to a casting director/director that you play fast and loose with the words. I prefer to know them well but still refer to the paper. Current wisdom is to memorize and have the papers in front of you to show that it’s a work in progress—another way to demonstrate “directability.”
If you don’t fully memorize the sides, here’s a simple technique: use your thumb as a marker to keep your place; glance at the paper, look up, and deliver the line. Move your thumb. Repeat.
And make sure to have your reader watch where you’re holding the paper, so it isn’t blocking your face or otherwise cutting off your energy and connection to the camera. Hold it almost out of frame, at eye level.
Practice makes perfect.
A strategy from a client: If a line or beat breaks awkwardly on the page, do a little old-fashioned cutting and taping to avoid having to flip a page at a crucial moment.
The traditional role of the director applies. I often serve as director and reader, and if you can find someone who has both skill sets, all the better.
A key focus for the director is the Breakdown, which is full of valuable information. Information you MUST adhere to for your audition to be considered. A director can be invaluable in interpreting and getting you to adhere to the requirements in the Breakdown.
Once I’ve read the Breakdown and the sides, and the Breakdown a second and third time, I have the first call with my client, setting a strategy based on what we’ve read. We typically set up the self-tape for the next day, giving us an opportunity to adequately prepare.
Another area where the director is invaluable is deciding when to stop. In other words, when the best take has been captured. More on that in #7.
I am quick to recall the times in the audition room when I was paired with either a bad actor or—worse—a casting assistant or some other staffer who fed me the cue lines in a stumbling monotone. It was our job as actors to overcome those hurdles.
One of the most exciting things about self-tape auditions is that they encourage using good actors as your readers. And those readers don’t need to be in the same room—I serve as reader for many actors who live a good distance away.
They put their smartphone on a tripod with a good phone bracket and place me right next to the camera they are using to tape the audition.
So there’s no reason why you can’t go out and get the best reader or readers you can find. They don’t need to fit the part—they just have to work with you to produce the best audition you can muster.
It’s a great exercise for a reader to have to prepare different types of parts—I have read a variety of young and old, ethnicities, genders, and so on. It’s a great selling point for finding good readers. They will benefit as much as you do.
I am always careful to be secondary to the actor doing the self-tape, never pulling focus with volume or an over-sized choice. That’s part of the discipline of any actor whose character is not primary in the beat or scene. More good practice.
A major benefit to actors doing self-tape auditions is the ability to do numerous takes so you can choose the one that’s best. In order to make the most of this, as you are marking up the sides and doing your rehearsals, work with your director to make strong, clear choices and try to achieve them in the fewest possible takes. I explain why in #7.
After each useable take, check the tech. There is nothing more disheartening than doing a strong take and realizing the camera was never turned on or a dump truck went by and ruined the sound.
da Vinci said that art is never finished but abandoned. What I think he meant is that Perfection is unattainable, there is a gap between what we envision and what we manifest, and there is danger in going too far in the quest to make it better.
I believe that, if the actor has done the correct preparation, the third or fourth take holds their peak performance. The director’s feedback is key. Doing endless takes trying to squeeze out a few more tears or a slightly crisper turn or beat shift or surprise moment can be counterproductive, to say the least.
Remember: the camera’s very sensitive… it can pick up the slightest tension, or magnify the briefest hesitation or second-guessing. So know when to stop. Know when you’ve gotten the take that is your best at This Moment, at this stage in your development as an actor.
A caveat. Once we get a strong, useable take, we go for one more. Honestly, it’s rarely better. And it doesn’t need to be. But sometimes you strike gold.
Then you edit, send, and move on to the next one.
As you can see, there are lots of benefits for the actor when it comes to self-taping.
Apply these tips, practice them as often as you’re able, and go forward with confidence knowing that your next acting job might just be a strong self-tape audition away!
After 25 years in the theatre as playwright, actor, director, and teacher I have spent the past 5 years putting my focus on screenwriting, developing an audio drama series, writing storylines and designing puzzles for immersive theatre-based Escape Rooms, and creating Historical Education programming with a focus on the Golden Age of Piracy and the lives of Che Guevara and Allen Ginsberg. I am the Artistic Director of Seven Stories Theatre Company and Creative director of New Mystics Enterprises, a multimedia production company. I am also the author of three novels, 5 nonfiction books, and 17 produced plays.
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