To quote one pretty famous musical, there’s a moment you know you’re f**ked. For me, it was standing in the holding room for a cruise tour of the musical “Rock of Ages.”
I’d spent four years of undergrad being told I had “character actress potential.” To quote one acting teacher, “You’re like a sitcom best friend but a little bit hot.” Theater school had been great in a lot of ways, but my self-esteem had seen better days.
After a disastrous regional theater audition the previous week, “Rock of Ages” seemed like a softball. But that was before I walked into the dance call to find 20 blond, athletic, Midwestern supermodels with perfectly curled hair and slick new LaDuca dance shoes, all rocking false lashes and contour at 9:30 a.m. Something in my heart plummeted into my butt as I glanced in the mirror at my half-done face and Forever 21 leggings. Should I have stuck it out and tried my best? Probably. Instead, a lifetime of being told I “didn’t look right” flashed in front of my eyes, and I yelped something about a “conflict” at a sweetly bemused casting intern before running for the stairs.
That was my last musical audition to date.
Now obviously there’s a lot of stuff in there that has to do with my own battle-hardened neuroses (therapy is great!), and I want to acknowledge upfront that as a cis white woman who is both able-bodied and conventionally thin, I was already operating at a significant advantage. My “sitcom best friend” moment is someone else’s overt racism or misgendering, which are much more harmful than anything I’ve encountered.
But musical theater “typing,” and its attendant horrors, continues to shape the way we approach auditioning. You can talk a lot about musical theater in terms of talent; how grueling it is to sing and dance your heart out for eight shows a week, the incredible virtuosity of hitting a high E while wearing tap shoes. It’s harder to talk about this being an industry born from ingenues and character actors, your Peggy Sawyers and your Dorothy Brocks. For a “progressive” culture, there is an undeniable concept of what [insert romantic lead here] is “supposed” to look like.
Even more oddly, there is a standard of what a musical theater actor is “supposed” to look like. It’s known colloquially as The Look: jewel-tone dress, nude pumps, immaculately curled hair. The “right” dance attire. And, floating above it all, an impeccably done face with nary a bead of sweat in sight.
In my work on the other side of the table, as a writer and director, I can very much attest that this type still dominates ― but things, sometimes almost imperceptibly, may be shifting. I talked to seven working actors about their personal beauty routines, their encounters with The Look, and how they’ve chosen to present themselves in an industry that is ever-changing.
In my headshots, I have straight hair. My hair is naturally curly ― y’know, because I’m Black ― so I have to think, “OK, am I going in for a character where they didn’t list a race? Or is it a character who’s listed as white, but they called me in? Or is it specifically a Black role?” So after I figure that out, I do my hair accordingly. Depending on what they want, I’ll cater more towards that. The hair thing is my typing thing; it’s a blessing and a curse, but not a lot of people look like me.
[For auditions] I’ll usually do my makeup very simply, because I don’t want anyone to be distracted ― so some mascara, some eyeliner, all the good stuff. I usually just dress in something I can move in, in a color that makes me feel good. I went to a musical audition where all the other girls were in leotards and tights and their little LaDuca shoes, and everything was pastel, and I was like, oof. I went in with leggings and a colorful top because I was like, “OK, this is a colorful musical, and it’s exciting, and I don’t actually feel the need to present the same way.” They were all kind of … peacocking.
I’ve also been to a few open calls recently, and I’ve never in my life seen 20 people who look so much the same. Medium-height white women with light blond hair, doing their makeup on the street. Look, it’s humbling for all of us. No egos at an open call.
A lot of people think, “Oh, I have to look perfect to get the part.” And I thought that, for a little bit. Now it’s more like, “Do I look presentable, and do I feel good?” Once you get your foot in the door, you have to do your best. There are gonna be people who look like you, but only you can do the things you do. So do you, because that’s all you can do. Trying to trick them will only last so long.
I think especially for young people who are being socialized as boys, doing theater is the first time you get to wear makeup. There was always something so exciting to me about that, even when it was just putting on eyeliner. I remember the director saying, “It’s high school theater, you don’t really need the makeup,” and I’d always be like, “No, I’m doing it, teach me, show me how.”
Makeup is actually a huge part of my trying to destroy the concept of type. As you can imagine, that’s not something that’s helped me in my career ― and that confuses me, because archetypes are so based on gender. They can be fucked up and misogynistic in that way, but ultimately all gender is a performance. People are so essentialist about what gender is, but performativity is inherent in gender ― and I know what it is to perform. I do find, though, when I go into auditions for male roles that I feel the impostor syndrome of not “living up” to male standards, and there’s dysphoria and discomfort. If I go in for a role that is female, I feel like it’s another question of, “Can you just be a girl onstage, or is it going to read as something different?” In a way, I can never win.
I had a meeting with a casting director for a show that was about a drag queen character, and so of course, I wore makeup ― also because, if I’m going in for a drag role, I want to show them my makeup skills. Until you book a big TV pilot, you’re probably going to be doing your own makeup. And she was like, “What are you doing?” So I kind of laughed, and then she held up my old headshot, which was more masculine-presenting, and she said, “This is what I wanted to see.” It was bizarre.
I have to strike a balance between not sacrificing who I am, and going out of my way not to confuse people. How much do I want to play the game that they’re setting the rules of? Because the winner gets a job and food on the table. For certain people, me presenting who I am makes them pay more attention; sometimes it’s to check a box, which isn’t great, but sometimes it’s someone who is genuinely looking to elevate voices. One of my friends recently used the term “non-genue,” and I was like, huh, maybe that’s what I’ve been trying to do all this time. Because I want to be the person who falls in love.
Actor, Musical Theater Performer
Typing is definitely a thing that I fall into. Most of the time, casting agents see a bigger Black girl and they’re immediately like, “Effie!” I went in for “Ragtime” and “Hair” last season, shows I happily would have done, and when I sang my song, the guy said, “Where’s your Effie song?” Which, of course, is code for “Where’s your big Black girl song?” That’s something I’m fully capable of, but it’s not what I always want to be doing. My go-to audition song is a Janis Joplin song. It’s not how they expect to hear Janice, but I make them hear it.
Colorism is a whole other issue. As a light-skinned black woman, there are auditions I actively don’t go for. I will not go in for Celie [from “The Color Purple”]. I can sing it, sure, but I should never play that part.
Over the years, it’s been not only a matter of telling people “This is who I am,” but of reminding myself who I am when I wake up in the morning. I have to remind myself often, when I’m looking at breakdowns and going, “This isn’t me.” I typecast myself. I think it’s really a problem with the education we’re getting, not even in college, but long before that. When I went to musical theater camp, I was one of two Black girls in the entire program. What are you going to do with that? You want to pick a “big Black girl” song, and you can’t give it to the little white girl, so you give it to the Black girl whom it may not fit. It’s not her voice! But she does it, and then that’s how she sees herself.
Musical theater is weird! But I’m really hoping that things are changing. We have MJ Rodriguez as Audrey, and a Hispanic Seymour [in “Little Shop of Horrors”] — how exciting is that? If we continue to push forward, and if the people who keep getting no’s just don’t stop, we can keep the momentum moving. If they tell you no, you just don’t listen to them. If you’re capable of doing the job: Just keep going.
I’m not trying to poo-poo a made-up look if it’s authentic to you, and it feels right. But it’s not authentic to me. If [casting agents] want somebody who looks like that, there are infinite people who look like that. But if they want somebody else, then I can be that person. In fact, I want to be part of breaking that standard. I still want to look put together, and like I care, but there are so many different kinds of women and femmes and those people should be onstage. The purpose of the woman in your musical is not to be of visual interest. They should be a character like any other character, and for me that means bringing my individual self to auditions.
Ingenue pressure is real. When I first came out of school, my headshot reflected that; I wore a delicate flower and I looked like a fairy. But an ingenue is anyone who is in love in your play, no matter what they look like. It’s about who they are.
There was an experience in college where I was getting ready to audition for a show, and I was on YouTube watching these videos of the original cast and putting on tight black pants and and a crop top and all this makeup. And I looked in the mirror, and I remember going, “Oh my god.” I looked just like [another girl who had been called back for the same part]. And if that’s who they want, then she’s going to be at the audition; but if they want me, then no one can out-Royer me. So I put on an outfit that made me feel really cute and reflected my sense of personal style, and wiped off all of that makeup, and I went to the audition and decided to give them me. There are a lot of people who are insanely talented, and if you’re dressing up as someone else, that person is probably at your audition. So you might as well dress as yourself.
Alexandra Merritt Mathews
In musical theater there’s a weird silent rule that your hair has to be coiffed like Glinda. Getting ready can really take time away from getting warmed up and preparing the material. So while there are men who take 15-10 minutes getting ready, that could be two hours for some women. That’s why you’ll see people with suitcases at auditions ― if they can’t get home to get ready, they have to do it there. I like to call them the hair curler gang, because you see them in the hallways curling their hair.
Typing is still a thing ― I’ve been typed out, especially at Equity Principle Auditions (EPAs) and Equity Chorus Calls (ECCs). But I’m teaching voice and speech now at New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts and I’m trying to make sure that I’m putting less emphasis on standard musical theater typing. The generation that I’m teaching is going to be part of a shift where these “types” are going to be changing, so I’m trying to make sure that I build a room that includes everyone and get away from body language and the language of “character actress.” I’m not interested in making them all one robotic student; there are these programs that turn out 20 of the same individuals, and that’s all they can do. I’m really hoping ― and noticing ― that the training is starting to shift to individually working with each person to find the tools within themselves.
Around the time I turned 30, I realized I needed to take better care of my skin because it was starting to lose elasticity. When it comes to makeup, I still don’t wear that much for auditions ― I like to do my eyes and very little else. For TV auditions, I’ll wear more makeup than I normally would, but it depends on the role.
It’s weird now, because I’m just a different type. I’m no longer a hot young 20-something, so I’m not trying to make such an impression with a “face.” I always think back to when I was in LA for my college showcase, and meeting with all these agents and managers. I remember going into the big final meeting with the agency I eventually signed with, and just dolling myself up to the nines ― curling my hair and wearing this mermaid-y black dress with my boobs up to my chin ― and they fucking ate it up, y’know. It was very “let me entertain you.” Let me make myself the epitome of what you’re looking for.
In some ways, that represented my entire 20s, because for every audition I went on, the first two descriptors were some variation of “gorgeous” or “beautiful but doesn’t know it.” It was always a physical descriptor, with no mention of character in the entire breakdown at all. It made me sick, but I didn’t have a feminist perspective yet to know why. For so long, I was putting a hat on top of a hat: let me be sexy on top of your sexy. I was, in a lot of ways, benefiting from the patriarchy. It’s been an incredible awakening process for me to realize what I came out of.
Actor/Director/Artistic Director of Beating of Wings: An Artist Collective
I had an experience, when I was younger, where my voice teacher actually told me, “OK, you’re going in to audition for this guy, and he likes to see girls who look like the ‘traditional musical theater girl.’” She told me to plan what I was wearing and to put on twice as much makeup as I normally would, because that’s what he wants to see. I don’t always feel like I’m perceived as the “sexy” type, so that is a factor for me going in for those kinds of parts. Doing that makeup can have the effect of making me feel more comfortable in that character and “more beautiful,” whatever that means. Certainly, I think I would feel more self-conscious without it. When I’m in the process of putting it on, though, I’m rarely doing that from a place of joy. I feel resentful when I have to do it, but I do it because ultimately I know that I wouldn’t feel confident walking into that room without it.
For auditions now, I generally have a “default” look; the tricky thing for me is trying to make myself look older, because I look like I’m 17 but my vocal style and my actual energy is much older, so people get confused. I always do a lot of contour, just because I’m self-conscious about a lack of bone structure definition in my face. So even if I’m doing a “light” look in an audition, I’ll always do the cheekbone contour. With this job, audience members are allowed to take pictures during the show. So, we have fans and hobbyist photographers taking pictures of us daily and then posting them on Instagram and tagging us, which means we have a constant barrage of our candid faces, usually from an unflatteringly low angle, endlessly parading before our eyes.
I want to mention headshots, because there’s this idea that you’re supposed to have different headshots ― theoretically, like 10 different headshots ― so that you look like everything. You’re a dramatic heroine, you’re a teenage girl. I have friends who are getting new headshots once a month, just because they’ve changed their hair. It’s like I have to hold someone’s hand and show them that yes, I really can play this part, and it’s not even based on my performance. It’s so much money, and it becomes this crazy cycle. It’s impossible. But that’s the expectation.