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TBA Online: News & Features: Top News

A “Master of Ceremonies and Camp Counselor” Brings Everyone Together at the TBA General Auditions

Monday, December 4, 2017   (3 Comments)
Posted by: TBA Staff
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by Rotimi Agbabiaka

The scene at the annual Theatre Bay Area General Auditions can best be described as charged. The air is fraught with the nervous excitement of hundreds of hopefuls, auditioning before as many as 200 representatives from local theatre companies, and the space is abuzz with the constant swirl of actors, auditors, and volunteers bearing stacks of headshots.

Bringing some cohesion to this churn is Cassidy Brown, who has served as Master of Ceremonies at the TBA Generals for most of the past ten years. On a typical day at the three-day event, Brown checks in with volunteers and staff to confirm that participants have shown up with the right amount of headshots, gives encouraging thumbs up to the actors waiting in the wings, and then leaps onto the stage to announce the actors, pump up the audience of auditors, and test out new theatre jokes.

Brown says his role gives him a unique view of the audition process. I chatted with him over the phone about what he’s seen, done, and learned in his time at the generals.

Cassidy Brown. Photo by Jeff Martz.

Describe your role at the TBA Generals.

It's very much a combination of announcer, master of ceremonies, and camp counselor because of the sort of back and forth between onstage and offstage. [My role is] helping keep [the actors] calm and happy so that they feel, “Oh this is a safe place for me.” And then being out in front of the [auditors in the audience] I’m not just announcing the next group of actors, my job is to take care of business but also to kind of keep the mood in the room around all of us being our best selves because it’s person after person after person so by the middle of the afternoon you feel like you’ve seen the same round of monologues, you’ve seen some bad habits, or you might have seen something amazing but you’ve sort of reached a point where you might start judging people just based on where they are in the afternoon and not on their individual merits. So I’m there to keep reminding ourselves that, “Hey, this next group might solve all of your casting needs.”

What kind of auditions win the room?

The best work always just comes out of someone surprising you but not in a “clever” way. This is the biggest challenge. If you feel like you’re being “clevered” at, like, “I’m gonna do this thing and I’m bucking the trend and I’m saying f— you to the norm,” that feels like it’s not grounded in truth. But if I see you saying, “I want to share this idea with you that isn’t necessarily how it’s ‘supposed’ to be done” and you nail it, all bets are off, all rules go out the window and it’s very beautiful. The moments that are magical are honestly the moments when somebody just walks out and surprises you—not through shock or being particularly clever—but just by the combination of available truth and technical skill. You can have someone go out there and be really emotionally true but be rage-y and dangerous. You’re like, “Wow I really felt that but I’m a little terrified” and that doesn’t work but you can also go up there and hear people with perfect diction, they’ve clearly memorized their introduction perfectly in a very proper accent “Hello, my name is Cassidy Brown. I will be doing for you a selection from …” That’s great, I’m really glad that you are so well prepared but then what I missed was the underlying vein of available truth that is you. When someone [comes onstage] and greets us in a connected way, but not too casual, and then does a monologue that shows us that they have verbal skills like, “I can hear you [and] I want to keep listening to you because there’s something interesting and engaging about your voice.” So there’s both a self-confidence and a humility. It’s that combination.

Can you recall any of those magical audition moments?

There’s all sorts of advice-y rules we tell people: “Don’t do a chopped up monologue,” or “Don’t be clever,” or “Don’t do children’s theatre for your audition pieces.” And on the other side of it we specifically instruct the auditors not to applaud. This actor came out, said “I’m gonna do a montage of characters from A Christmas Carol”—antennas go up, “Oh God, that’s a terrible idea”—and then proceeded to nail it. To kill it. To bring some kind of magical physical and verbal embodiment to a series of literally one line per character and transformed from character to character to character to character in 40 seconds. She had done a more affecting, regular monologue for the first half [of her audition time slot] and then for the second half did this montage of Christmas Carol characters and when she was done the entire room erupted in applause—which we are not supposed to do!

Do you have any experience being an actor at the generals?

I first auditioned 20 years ago and I didn’t know what I was doing. I had recently moved back to town, I didn’t know how my audition turned out, I didn’t really get much work from it. A couple years later, I had a callback at the Willows Theatre and the only way I had that callback was because of the TBA Generals two years prior--that was the only access they had to my information. I had that callback, got that role, [and] that role led to a ten year relationship with the theatre company. I had roles galore, I became a casting director, and started working with TBA. My entire career in the Bay Area could be traced back to a TBA General two years prior to the actual audition which is to say you never know which seeds you’re planting.

What did you learn about auditioning from your time as a casting director?  

Spending all that time watching auditions you realize how much of it is out of [the actor’s] control but not in a way that is disempowering. In a sense it’s more empowering because it’s like, “All I can do is be my best and I can’t worry about what they might want.” Because I know when I’m watching an audition you can give me everything you’re good at and it may just not be what I need. And there’s nothing wrong with that. When I watch auditions, I care about your monologue selection and how you do it but I’m more concerned with how you show up on that stage. How much do I want to [work] with your energy and if your energy is energy I wanna work with and you have the basic technical skills to back that up then you’re probably gonna get a callback if there’s a role in our season that looks right for you.

How are you preparing for next year’s TBA Generals?

It’s different every year. For years I would try to have a bunch of theatre jokes on hand so every once in awhile I can toss out a theatre joke but I’ve used up every theatre joke at this point. Now what I do instead, drawing on my improv chops, is I’ll get a challenge on one break in between groups. I’ll ask [the audience] for a suggestion of a theatrical concept or object—lighting designers or sound cables—and then I’ll do a joke that goes like “27 ‘blanks’ walk in a bar, bartender says we don’t serve your kind here, and the ‘blanks’ say …” So then I’ll come up with a  few different jokes based on that premise and it can fail and it can go badly and no one cares because it’s just for fun anyway. I’ve had a couple that I’m very proud of but they are very rare.

I also set myself the challenge of [wearing] really interesting outfits to wow them with. Just to amuse myself I see if I can get people to comment on what I’m wearing this year.

So to answer your question: pick out clothes and figure out how I’m gonna be funny. Those are the two things I fret about in preparation.

Rotimi Agbabiaka is the Features Curator for Theatre Bay Area. He is an actor, writer, director, teaching artist, and a collective member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Learn more about him at rotimionline.com

Comments...

Sheila Townsend says...
Posted Friday, December 8, 2017
Cassidy Brown does such a wonderful job of creating a safe, fun space to work and play! Super excited about Generals again this year but will definitely have his words from this article ringing in my ears as I select and prepare material. And if I don't get a space, I look forward to volunteering and hearing more of his quirky theatre nerd improv. My favorite kind of improv! Great article about a wonderful event!!!
Valerie Weak says...
Posted Wednesday, December 6, 2017
'the combination of available truth and technical skill' - loving this!
David Boyll says...
Posted Wednesday, December 6, 2017
Great stuff, thanks Cassidy and Rotimi!