When you’re a theatre person like I am, writes Oliver Tompsett, you can never fall out of love with the business. We continue to have a passionate and fruitful relationship with all things theatre for our entire lives. As in any healthy successful relationship, there will be changes we must adapt to. Anyone who still thinks we need the Spotlight ‘book’ should not only learn to open a web browser, but should also open their eyes to the future.
I am changing my approach to how I can increase my chances of employment in musical theatre. I’m not the only one who is taking such measures, and I want to explain why.
Theatre — and musical theatre in particular — is obviously dominated by the need to sell tickets. For producers, that means raising the profile of their show, ensuring that word of mouth is good, and making people come and see their show over the rest. One of the most popular tactics is to use “names” or “celebrities” in the principal roles of their show. With recognisable faces pasted all over their advertising, the public is promised not only an evening’s entertainment but a glance at someone off the telly. This isn’t a new tactic at all, but has been on the increase for some years now.
So, how do actors, like myself — or even the undiscovered talent from around the country, that already have only a few ways in — even get half a chance, when nearly every lead role that’s going is almost certainly heading toward the next winner of Dancing on Ice? (A show which, by the way, I would love to be on!)
The answer is to continue to be the best you can and take every opportunity to not only improve your craft but also make people sit up and watch what you can do. The paths you take to raise your profile can be anything between making yourself available for the local cabaret and showcasing your talents to a small audience, to the other extreme of auditioning for a nationwide talent search that might showcase your ability to millions — as I tried to do with ITV’s Superstar.
The level at which you showcase does not determine your integrity, just how courageous you can be. Sometimes courage appears when you play to every single small club there is going, with the hope of eventually landing a long contract, possibly understudying along the way. To be that patient can take a lot of courage. If you want to pursue your career that way, and choose not to try out for a TV casting show, that’s your choice — but don’t belittle and judge those that have taken the opportunity. There is no shame in taking advantage of such programmes, as long as you go into it with your eyes open. Shows like Superstar can be seen in some people’s eyes as a fast track up the ladder — but choosing to audition for a televised talent search takes a whole different kind of bravery.
I find it harder than others to promote myself by using social media, which many performers do very successfully. What I can do is promote myself by just showcasing what I have to offer — whether it’s in an audition room, at a one-off concert or on a national TV search that might be shown to millions.
I have no problem with a “celebrity” being cast in a role over myself or anyone else. That’s just how the cookie crumbles, and in some cases they are famous because of how amazingly talented they are. In other cases, it can be frustrating to see a role played to half of its potential, but that’s just how the industry works.
I am lucky that Rock of Ages came around when it did. I am certain that if, when I auditioned, the casting team for Rock of Ages had found a celebrity with the vocal range to sing my role of Drew, they would have chosen them over me in a shot. As much as I believe I do a good job in the show, I am under no illusion that it was a matter of right man, right time and right place. Another month later, and who knows who I would have been auditioning against. Had they been casting the show, say, next month, they would now have a pool of high rock tenors with recent, high profile media attention — i.e., the Superstar finalists — to choose from, making the lives of the other auditionees that much harder.
I’m lucky, though — Drew is a particularly high role. There are tons of roles in the West End that I couldn’t play because I don’t have the lower register or because of other shortcomings, but singing high is something I can do. The majority of roles in musical theatre have far less specific requirements, which means the pool of people to choose from is larger — which also opens them up to a larger pool of high profile names.
So if all of sudden there were a surge of male performers in my casting bracket, with the same range as me, being thrust into the world of auditions with new found “high profiles” from a show like Superstar then I would be screwed. Superstar not only is an opportunity to fulfil a dream of possibly playing the role of Jesus at the O2 Arena, but also puts me in a “if you can’t beat them, join them” situation.
Common bitching like “I would’ve been much better in the role”, or the passive aggressive style of just casually making sarcastic statements suggesting they think they could do better regarding the roles taken by people from TV talent searches, bore me. In most cases I say, how do you have the right to complain? You could have taken any one of the opportunities they did. I get that not everyone would want to put themselves through a TV talent search casting process no matter how bad they wanted the role — but that doesn’t give you the right to bitch about the people that did.
I auditioned with pride for Superstar. In doing so, I witnessed a whole load of talent that wouldn’t normally have been seen for the role of Jesus had auditions happened the “conventional” way. That’s a good thing. Sadly it didn’t work out for me, as I had to withdraw myself from the process after a week of “Superstar Island” and getting down to the last 30. That sucked, because I didn’t get to go to Majorca. I enjoyed every step up to that point, and I met an incredible bunch of guys.
After the horror stories I hear about other talent searches and how they treat the contestants, I would like to mention that the whole Superstar team treated us all with the utmost respect. Even though at times they had to shepherd us about from venue to venue, they did it with a smile & went out of their way to keep us fed & watered. Quite frankly, it was like being on an activities holiday — but one where you occasionally sing a song for Andrew Lloyd Webber. For the Superstar team to achieve all this with 40 boisterous men whilst trying to make a TV show was no easy task, and I thank them for the experience.
I am a fan of the TV searches, but I also understand that some talent is ignored and forgotten in the process of making an interesting TV programme. I am not referring to myself — I totally understand why I was left out of the edit — but my experience on “Superstar” left me a little bewildered when I saw the broadcast. The spectrum of talent I witnessed was far wider than what was shown on screen. That is not to say that the boys still in the show, and that were given the air time, weren’t the best choice or didn’t deserve it. It’s just that there wasn’t a single guy in the last 40 who didn’t have something to offer. I guess the reality is that squeezing a whole week of training and performance of 40 guys into two hour-long shows is impossible.
I feel I should explain that when I entered the Superstar audition process, I was up front and honest about my commitments to Rock of Ages, and all parties were aware of my intentions at all times. Rock of Ages had agreed that I could arrange my holiday days to take part in the “boot camp” stage (Superstar Island and Majorca), as well as the live show stage if I was to be fortunate enough to make them. So before I had even auditioned for Superstar, Rock of Ages had agreed to my participation. If they had said no in the first place, I wouldn’t have even gone to the first round of auditions — but as it looked like everything was clear, I decided to jump in and audition.
There were no private auditions — everyone applied through the same route and everyone queued up to audition the same way. That is the only way it should have been done. After the first auditions, the callbacks and then Superstar Island, a new contract was shown to us that would mean that ITV would have our time exclusively for the next 12 weeks if we were to make the Top Ten. I would have to sign this before going to Majorca. This became an issue as I was already under an exclusive contract with Rock of Ages — and I would have been in breach of that contract if I signed the Superstar one.
Both ITV and Rock of Ages did all they could to try and allow me the chance to continue in the process, but in the end for ITV to bend the rules for one contestant would be wrong, and in my mind out of the question. Besides, it was still just another audition with no guarantee of a job, and I already had a job that I love, so it’s all gravy, baby.
If you had asked me five years ago if I wanted to audition to be Joseph on Any Dream Will Do?, I would have said, “no thanks, I’d rather try my luck the good old-fashioned way.” And if I’m honest, I was probably scared that I would show myself to be a fraud and not very good. These fears, and the fact that Joseph has never been a role I was that passionate about playing, was why I didn’t go for it .
However, what happened following that programme I didn’t see coming. The final 4 or 5 boys from the “Joseph” programme were propelled into playing leading roles all over the place because they had been brave enough to showcase their skills as performers on live TV. Much the same has happened to those who took part in searches for Maria, Nancy and Dorothy. So, by the time the Superstar opportunity arrived, my attitude had changed, as had that of my fellow competitors in my casting bracket.
This time round I was older, braver and realised it was time to man up and compete with the best for such a sizeable role. Whether I would be the best man for the job would be determined by a panel, and then ultimately a public vote. If anything, already being an established actor in the West End could go against me in a competition like Superstar, so several of us knew we had to be that much better.
When I went to my callback at Brixton Academy, I was asked by the panel (Jason Donovan, Mel C and David Grindrod) “Why have you auditioned when you are already doing quite well in the West End?”. I replied, “Jesus Christ Superstar, is, in my opinion, one of the greatest scores there has ever been. You find me one tenor in musical theatre who hasn’t dreamed of singing either Jesus or Judas at some point in their career and I’ll eat my sandals. No matter who you are or what you have done, to sing the role of Jesus at the O2 Arena? Wowzers! That’s too big a prize to ignore.”
(I know, did I really say “Wowzers”? I hope not — but I think I did.)
The fact that Superstar was being documented and filmed every step of the way does make it a “reality show”. Fundamentally the public voted for who they wanted to stay in the competition, and eventually decided that Ben Forster would play the role. Why not let them have a say? After all, they are the audience that will be buying the tickets.
Public vote is just one giant audition panel that chooses who they want to see play the role. The difference is that, in the normal casting setup, the panel of people who think they know best is much smaller. You audition in front of a panel of “experts” who base their decision on who they think the public will want to watch & who they, as the creative directors, want to work with. They make all the decisions. The panel is simply casting the performer that is most “popular” amongst the creative team and producers, and that’s based on the same attributes upon which the public base their decision in a TV search.
Maybe I’m being a little naive in thinking that people don’t really fall for the sob stories or the inaccuracies (e.g., describing a candidate as “working in a bar” when in actual fact he played Marius in Les Miserables last month). I believe, though, that the vast majority of the public cast their vote for who they like based on performance and on their personality.
In most cases I believe an experienced panel is the best way to choose your cast — but can a TV search and public vote be such a bad way to do it once in a while? Let the public choose someone without the prejudice of where they were trained or how many lead roles they have played. Let this panel made of millions sit back and make their decision from what they see and hear.
Yes, I understand that the audience only get to see the shortlist of performers that the TV executives have whittled down, based sometimes on personality & who’s going to make “good TV” rather than those who are the most polished of performers. But in my opinion, it is those with the interesting personalities that deliver the best performances. And similarly in the real world, casting directors have to whittle down the numbers also and choose the ones that will be seen by the decision makers.
You see, both processes are not all that different. The Stage’s Mark Shenton wondered why “established talent feels it’s necessary to submit themselves to the indignity of a public popularity contest” — but the way I see it, auditioning and laying yourself on the line to be judged isn’t really “dignified” at the best of times in a usual setting. So why does it mean that auditioning on television is any different? If anything, the contestants should be commended for their bravery because they auditioned knowing if they have a bad day it will probably be on YouTube for every casting director and anonymous forum “guests” to see and pick apart.
Every time we step in front of a panel in an audition room, it’s not too far removed from a popularity contest. “Dignity” is sometimes something actors have to flip on and off so you can take the leap of faith that might lead you to that dream role. And not just in the audition room. Whilst struggling to get acting work after a year in Mamma Mia!, do you think I enjoyed dressing up as a banana standing on Croydon roundabout advertising a cereal? Of course I didn’t. But it made me more determined to do all I can to improve my employability as a performer.
In the “normal” world of auditioning we get judged and critiqued on a weekly basis, and on some occasions experience more rejection in one month than the majority of the world has to face in a lifetime.
Obviously there are other ways of raising your profile as an actor . If you’re lucky, TV dramas will land you some good work, purely because you’ve been on the telly. To be honest, if you have achieved this then you have been gifted that coveted “high profile” instantly. And while it’s probably thoroughly deserved, you now have a whole other level of marketing & PR that I am not experienced enough to comment on.
It seems very easy for some established actors and already successful people within the TV & theatre industry to be outspoken, and to complain about the disgrace and shame these television searches bring to our ‘precious’ show business. But it seems to me that suggesting only those fortunate enough to be trained should be allowed to audition for a leading role is simply snobby and rude.
Last week in The Stage, one actress said, “I am finding myself really happy now that they are left with people who aren’t suitable. There is no one with the charisma, the authority, the stature or the maturity to play Jesus.”
Happy?! By all means, have your opinion that you don’t think the candidates are suitable — but to celebrate it? It makes me wonder, would you be angry if in your eyes they had found someone brilliant?
I do agree with some of her points. For example, she suggests that Superstar has not called on them to demonstrate their acting ability. I agree that the contestants should have had the opportunity to display greater acting range, as of course it is important for the role of Jesus — but that’s the fault of ITV, not the contestants.
The same actress, when referring to those who hadn’t pursued acting all their lives, suggested that the contestants’ positions could be described as “I didn’t do this when I was 12 but I wish I had done, but I didn’t have the guts”. To which the actress said, “Well, that’s your problem, because you obviously didn’t have the passion, spirit, drive, and the determination, to dedicate your whole life to it.”
Sometimes there are people in this world that are not lucky enough to have the encouragement and support around them to allow them to fulfil their potential. Whether someone decides to follow a dream when they’re only 5 or the ripe age of 85, they should be allowed that right to do so without the fear of already established actors looking down on them and refusing entry into our already “closed shop”. As Kevin Spacey said, “I feel it’s a responsibility for anyone who breaks through a certain ceiling… to send the elevator back down and give others a helpful lift.” I feel that we should be sending that elevator down from whatever floor we are on, and help those trying to make their way up.
Maybe one of the only negatives I can think of when doing well and raising your profile on TV talent searches is that you may find it hard to be taken seriously as a (excuse me) “serious”, (I hate this word) “straight” Actor in the world of television and film — but then that is something that most musical theatre performers have been battling with for years. Just because you happen to be an incredible dancer or singer — or both — doesn’t mean to say you can’t do minimal, naturalistic television acting. Maybe you’ve just never been given the chance. The good news is that the UK has been getting better recently, and is ignoring the pigeon holes more often.
So the reason why I auditioned for “Superstar” is that it’s a role I have always dreamt of playing in a venue that even some of the biggest of names don’t get the chance to play. Coupled with the chance to raise my profile to increase my employability to ensure my mortgage and bills get paid. Isn’t that what we are all trying to do — survive? I act and sing to survive and my jobs are under threat because I am not a celebrity, I am not making out that I am hard done by, I am aware of how incredibly lucky I am to have work today. But what will next year bring?
I will do whatever I can to fundamentally protect my wife, my future family and of course my dog, Teddy.
I watched bits of Superstar once I returned from my holiday. With my hand on my heart I wish each and every one of the final 11 the best of luck with whatever opportunities come out of such an incredible platform. Whether it’s playing Jesus at the O2 or any other job, you all deserve it because you dared to dream and took the leap. And so what if the ratings suggested only 2.5/3 million people were watching? It took me the best part of four years in Wicked to play to that many people, but you Superstar boys were doing that every night.
I hope I have given you a good insight into why I auditioned for Superstar and why I probably won’t think twice about going for similar shows — as well as why I think its important to adapt to the changes that are happening to our industry. Who knows, I may get a huge blockbuster movie role, and suddenly all that side of my career will be taken care of. But until then I will try my best to make myself the right person, in the right place, at the right time.
As the line from “The Yes Man” says — The only time you run out of opportunities is when you decide to stop taking them.