Dreaded by stage actors, the video audition & pre-screen have become required components for many a BFA Musical Theater / Acting applicant. Increasing interest in the field has resulted in even the newest of BFA programs using video pre-screens to narrow down the applicant pool. Be prepared for a burdensome task, which in my opinion, has been more cumbersome than either the application or live audition process. Taking a few steps to create a quality pre-screen will help keep options open and the invitations for live auditions rolling-in.
The key to succeeding with pre-screens is to NOT become overwhelmed. Just take this process one step at a time, and you will find you have a nice selection of video options to choose from. Partly due to availability, access to studios and staff resources, we had the luxury of being able to make some mistakes during earlier recording and correct them. Though more time would have been even better, we did allow enough time to do re-shooting when necessary.
* NOTE: I suppose you could make your recordings with recorded accompaniment on your iphone in a neutral location of your living room, but, as someone who reviews student audition videos on an ongoing basis, they are difficult to watch. The distractions of karaoke accompaniment (or worse NO accompaniment), video/sound quality, and your parents' taste in wallpaper border has the ability to distract the viewer from your actual performance, no matter how stellar. The BFA audition process has become extremely competitive, which means the actor must make an attempt to control as many variables as possible. Would you want to lose an invite to the live auditions, or admittance to a program that your talent deserves to a poor quality pre-screen video?
The videos: It's important that the student doesn't underestimate the preparation factor. As any studio musician knows, the preparation you do beforehand determines how much time you'll need in the studio. In the recording industry, studio time is costly. It can be in this scenario as well, so do your homework and preparation to keep the time recording in the studio to a minimum. Our timeline outlined below did not always make the best use of studio time, but it was our reality.
Homework: Long before walking into the studio, find your songs, acting pieces and cuts, work them and learn them. Research and experience helped us keep all of Micah's pieces in "playable" range. That means, as a tall 17-18 year old, (she had a birthday during the audition process), all of her songs and monologues have an acting range of a 17-20 year old.
She prepared two uptempo songs and three ballads that also cut well to 16mm and 32mm. These became songs she could sing on the fly. Her voice teacher worked with her on technique, and then I coached her on the musicality and interpretation of the pieces.
Micah prepped quite a few monologues, because she auditioned for Juilliard's BFA Acting program (the only strictly acting program she applied to). She also found two contemporary dramatic monologues, both from playwrights of note and two comic monologues -- 1 older, from a notable playwright and the other a contemporary that is incredibly funny and contrasts everything else she has. She also prepared 2 Shakespeare monologues, which she needed for Juilliard, though we never needed to record those. (Earl Weaver, from UCF, suggests only performing Shakespeare if requested). Once again, usually one would work with an acting coach on these. This is another area I feel confident in coaching. Side note: I am INCREDIBLY grateful she is able to take coaching from me. Many moms and dads who teach their own kids have a lot of trouble with this. Her willingness and coach-ability has saved us a great deal of time and money. Her high school theatre director also did a few sessions with her and helped finesse her acting pieces.
I hate to pile on the prep, but finally, there was dance. For the 6 pre-screens she needed, they requested four pieces: ballet, jazz, tap and one school required she replicate a performance of their choreography. Each of these took time to choreograph, rehearse and record. Once again, a great relationship with a group of dance teachers and access to studios helped tremendously. Overwhelmed yet? Remember, you DON'T have to do all of this at once, but you will need time to plan.
Recording session #1: She and I booked a studio after hours and we cut our teeth by recording two of her monologues and her tap routine, which the remarkable Susan Downey worked up previously for her. It was very relaxed, took about 40 minutes and the only cumbersome part was our split studio with the airwall up, which meant having to get creative with the dance portion. Dance has to be recorded from pretty far back, unless you're following the dancer, which doesn't accurately show usage of space.
Recording session #2: Her second recording session occurred while I was away at a conference. She actually used an ipad which resulted in good video quality, but because the device had to be close to the piano, the piano overpowered her voice. A few items to note is to check that you have a neutral, non-distracting background, are framing the shot well or as requested (waist-up? head to toe? shoulders-up? dance area?), DON'T include the accompanist, and that the voice isn't overpowered by the piano. We ended up with a few cuts that were usable, and others that were a little too piano-heavy, which meant we would need another round.
Recording session #3: We set-up a 45 minute session with access to a studio, accompanist Kavan Gillespie, video camera on tripod and me as camera operator. Micah knew what cuts she still needed, and we blew through all of her songs in about 30 minutes. We reviewed the video quality in the studio which lead to moving the camera away from the piano early on to get a good balance of volume.
Recording session #4: Dance. She and I did a late evening recording so we'd have the freedom to take as much time as we wanted to in one of our largest studios. She had already worked with the incomparable Steve Jones on her pieces, and had worked out the replicated choreography herself. She was able to perform one, watch it, self correct, and try it again. This resulted in final recordings that we were both happy with. I would estimate we spent 1 hr in this session.
Recording session 4: Ballet. One of her schools required a ballet sequence, so she worked with Steve again to prepare a simple ballet sequence. After they were ready, we recorded that one in several takes and Steve and Micah watched the takes, he gave notes, and she refined it. She ended up with a take that satisfied both.
The good news is, she has many quality videos and options she could use not only for auditions, but also for scholarship submissions that have come up recently. One of her schools accepted her into the college, but had no remaining audition slots for the musical theater program on-site, at Unifieds, or at their regional sites. They allowed her to submit a video audition, so all that pre-screen work made it a piece of cake to upload a nice package. She was notified early-on that she was accepted and received a scholarship offer for that program based on her video audition. In addition, all of her pre-screen schools, except one, invited her for their live audition. The labor was surely not in vain.