FIRST HAND ADVICE FROM A PROFESSIONAL DIRECTOR/CHOREOGRAPHER AND PERFORMER
Many times, I have gotten asked from aspiring performers what I look for when I cast a show, dance piece, or vocal solo’s. In constant search for the Holy Grail, these aspiring performers are looking for the magical recipe that will break them through to the other side. Some performers will assume that I am looking for dance technique perfection. Others will assume I am looking for an actor that is well versed in Shakespearean content. In this article, I am going to share my personal & professional opinion when it comes to casting. First, I would like to share some of my personal story so that you can understand the background that I come from. Please note: each directing mind is very different with the decisions they make, so, again-this is just my personal opinion based off of my professional experience.
As a young dancer, I grew up in a very musical world. Lots of singing and lots of acting, but not a lot of dancing. A lot of it was in part to what schools I went to as a child. If you haven’t already heard my interview on “Fred Talk” online, then you will be hearing it here for the first time. I went to parochial schools (private schools) my entire life, so there weren’t a lot of options as far as the arts were concerned, especially with dance. Although, dance is a legitimate art form with decades of history and evidence on how it has greatly impacted the course of this world, some parochial schools have a difficulty allowing the instruction into their schools for different fundamental beliefs.
Understanding this, and growing up a Christian myself, I knew to seek outside training on top of my regular schooling hours. In addition, I participated in regional theater houses where I received additional performance and vocal training as a musical theater artist. What I found interesting was the depth of nepotism I experienced in these regional theater houses. This observation didn’t deter me from pursuing envied leading roles- I have never been one to view myself as a victim or to back down from a challenge- I used it as fuel to train even harder, in order to become a victor when the time was right. Now, please note, every performer has their time, but my question to you is “Can you wait for it?“. Can you? Will you still pursue your dreams after the first “No” you get? After 5 “No’s”? After 100?? If your answer is genuinely yes, then this is the avenue for you. If you question yourself at this moment- you may want to rethink your path. It is not for the light of heart. You will be required to be a vulnerable warrior who puts it all out there for world to see, over and over again, and be expected to weather the harshest criticism that WILL come your way. Can you take it?
I divert- back on track. My story continues into diving deeper into the dance world once I graduated high school, because I was able to immerse myself into a quality dance department at a local college for 3 times less the cost than a local studio. The quality of instruction I received there was bar none, and I was even introduced to a couple of new genres I knew nothing about: modern & contemporary. My very first modern class-I’ll never forget- I felt completely like a fish out of water and clearly a dancer that required more in depth training, but I loved every second of it! I fell in love and I have been in love ever since. My modern teacher was Kathy Meyer, and she still remains my mentor to this day-in fact, she came both to my wedding and my baby shower. I love you Kathy! I left that class an entirely different dancer and then I knew it was time for my jump to the professional world.
My dream was to perform at Disneyland as one of their highly esteemed dancer/performers in the shows and parades. When I was a senior in high school, I visited Disneyland with my theater friends and I remember catching a show that forever changed the course of my life. It was a brand new show being introduced to the park, and being a Disney enthusiast, I just HAD to see it. Name of the show- “Fantasmic! A Night-Time Spectacular”. As I watched the magic unfold with real-time characters and pyro-technic’s- my eyes filled with wonder and my heart jumped out of my chest. Real life pirates, a pirate boat, dancing Jungle Book monkeys on moving water barges, EVIL VS. GOOD– it was EVERYTHING you would expect from Disney, and MORE! Barnette Ricci, Disney Legend/Vice President/Show Director, is the author and creator of “Fantasmic!”, and this lady was someone I would come to know in a very personal way in just a few years. When the final beat of the glorious orchestration played as Mickey states “Some imagination, huh?” and shuts off all the lights- I knew. I looked at my friends and stated, without hesitation, “Mark my words: I’m going to be in that show.”, and that my friends was just the beginning of my ‘Fantasmic’ adventure. Little did I know I would be on that stage, just two years later as the Snow White Queen (pictured below in collage).
You are probably wondering to yourself, “How did she do it?” How did I break through- a young amateur dancer who had no professional ties or connections- how did I get through the Disney doors and land the role of a lifetime? First, and foremost, none of my career would have happened if God didn’t have His hand in it. God continues to reveal to me that He clearly has a path for my life and I work very hard to trust every step He asks me to take. He calls us as Christians to be diligent and perseverant, and that was what I did- I trained over 60 hours a week to be ready for the moment He had waiting for me.
As I have stated in prior posts, I go on to detail the circumstances you must be able to overcome if you are going to be successful in the professional world (ie. 1,500 auditioning people, competitive environment, etc.) If you are curious, read my post titled “Is the Disney Magic Slowly Disappearing?”. What I can tell you is that I learned my very first lesson as an amateur dancer trying to go professional by being cut from Disney on my very first audition for them. It was Fall, and I carpooled with a friend of mine to Disneyland to audition for “The Lion King Parade” (the best parade EVER- but that’s just me). My friend, Kori Peterson, was one of the most amazing modern/lyrical dancers I had ever seen, and I wanted to try auditioning for Disney. Out of the two of us, I was clearly the rookie, having newly been introduced to the art of modern and lyrical dancing. I didn’t know how to bring my expressions/performance through my face with my dancing yet, because I thought that all that was important was my execution. My kicks were high, my turns were solid, my athleticism was strong, but my artistry….my artistry. Not present…AT ALL. I was cut. However, my friend was not, and being that we had carpooled to the audition, I had to wait for her to go through the entire day of cuts and casting.
Luckily, the directors were kind enough to allow me to sit in the rehearsal hall (a miracle from God) while she continued with her DAY LONG audition. Yes, it was a long day and I had a very long face, but then it occurred to me…why not turn this into a learning opportunity? What did I do wrong? What do I need to do next time? And I watched. I studied the directors. I watched how they selected their dancers and what material they would give the dancers in order to continue the ‘weeding’ (ie. elimination) process. My friend would turn to me, and asked me if her kicks looked good, and I would slyly whisper to her “Drop your hip” and then pretend like I didn’t say anything to her at all. She landed the job and I was heartbroken. However, my friend inspired me to work harder. I wanted to work for Disney, and one “No” was NOT going to get in my way. In fact, now I had the inside scoop to go off of when pursuing my training on the side, and I would be ready for the next audition.
That winter, the illustrious “Fantasmic!” show was having auditions for their summer season, and I knew that this was my moment. It was a really, really long line and a really, really long week, but I was in it to win it and I wasn’t taking no for an answer. I auditioned every night for 6 hours-Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday- to come back and fight and dance again! When the directors gave me a correction, I took it! Then, I took it to an even higher level of performance which gained the favor of their eye. I knew they were looking at me, and it felt good. My dancing was flawless and fierce, and my performance had broken through to another level. I had learned to use my face and be expressive, and the directors were liking what I was doing. When it came to casting time, the directors gave me one more test- they didn’t give me dance tricks or choreography to perform, they gave me a character to perform through. I had to act like a crippled old hag- me! This young 19 year old dancer! I had to embody a character I had nothing in common with nor had any experience performing. I went for it! Limping on one leg, hanging my head, writhing my hands, and contorting my body. Everything and more they could possibly want, I gave it to them. EVERYTHING! And they took it!
That night I received the coveted casting card (a little 3×5 index card) detailing my role that began my journey with the Walt Disney Company. My father had driven me to the audition that evening, and when I walked out to the parking lot, he got out of the car to hear the news. I couldn’t contain myself, I jumped up and down with my cast packet and screamed “I got cast! I got cast!” and jumped on my Dad and gave him the biggest hug I could muster from inside of me (mind you, I had been dancing for easily 7 hours straight, and it was now 2am)…He cried.
It’s a moment that we treasure to this very day.
Now, of course, this is just some of my story, but from this part of my story, I want you to learn something. Why was I cast? Luck? Training? Timing?…What do you think? FACT: It was God’s timing-ABSOLUTELY– AND, He taught me what directors look for!
Now that I myself am a director/choreographer, I can elaborate on that for you which is why you are reading this post “What do directors look for?”.
I was collaborating with another director/choreographer not too long ago, and I asked him what he looks for when it comes to casting, and funny enough, both him and I both said the same answer.
It doesn’t matter if you can out trick the other dancer in the room. It doesn’t matter if you can out sing the opera singer in the room. It doesn’t matter if you are able to do 15 bazillion fouette turns- if all you are doing is simply dancing, then it is not good enough. Sorry. This is where I am going to ask my dancers to get a pulse on their humility and ego. Never, in my whole career at Disney, did I ever stop training. When I wasn’t working, I was in class or in rehearsal. Eventually, the choreographer/directors at Disney saw my commitment and desire to become better, and, eventually, they promoted me to the best part in the show!. I was given the privilege to perform EVERYBODY’S part (it’s called a ‘Standby’- a very trusted position in the show) and eventually an assistant choreographer to the show whom trained new incoming dancers! That’s another phone call I will never ever forget. These are those moments that are frozen in time- moments that no one can take away from you- and that is what I am wanting for you!
Do you feel like you already know everything and deserve a front row spot because you perceive that you are the best dancer in class? Do you feel like not learning new styles of dance because they are out of your comfort zone? Do you feel like performing/expressing yourself through a dance piece given to you is beneath you or maybe not relevant? Then, I, as your director, will tell you that you need to go back to class and truly evaluate why you do what you do. If you feel you know everything already, then I can’t teach you anything.
You have to be humble. You have to be driven- no matter WHAT the choreography content or storyline. What the director gives you-you take and make it great! Your performance is everything! More than your technique, and the sooner you realize that, the sooner you can get closer to your goal of obtaining your dreams. Maybe your dreams are to be a studio owner or professional choreographer? Well, then, in those roles, you must know how to create and inspire, so that your performers, in turn, can grow into the performer they dream to be. Again, if your pride gets in the way of this thinking, then I highly suggest you sign up for a class in a dance/performance genre that you know nothing about, and I promise you- you will grow! You will have no choice.
Take a risk. Put your heart and soul on the floor. Your directors expect it and your audience deserves it.