Grant's View: Self-Taping
Posted Monday, February 14th 2022 by Grant MacDermott
The most important thing to note is no one actually knows the future of self-taping. Our industry is quite up in the air and the factions who want to "get back to normal" and those who want to redefine normal will battle it out in the trenches for a while more to come...
As we are in this holding pattern one thing is for sure: self-tapes are here to stay. What that does mean and could mean are what I will cover in this article.
Equity and Being “Seen”
The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of self-tapes is how it plays positively into the now ever prevalent idea of equity. Auditions can be inconvenient. They take place during the day when most more stable jobs (i.e. salaries and health insurance through work) take place. Leaving work for other work can always be a sticky thing to navigate. Add on top of that how some castings are in the city proper and are a 10-minute train ride while others can take hours to get to (just trying to keep straight exactly where you are going and how to get there on time can feel like a job in and of itself) and we see the stress starting to mount more. Add on top of that traveling in or with some sort of costume piece often in inclimate weather and it is amazing any actors show up to any auditions looking remotely kempt at all.
Taping at home removes all of those hassles. It can be done on your time with little to no hassle. Set up a tripod, hair, makeup, outfit, and you're good to go. If you need to record at 11pm because that is when the kids are asleep or because that is when you're at your most focused or ready, you may do just that. It allows everyone to be at their best. Almost everyone by now has a smartphone so the access to this simple technology that people used to have to rely on casting offices for is now in the palm of their hand. It seems to have taken many stressors out of the game.
We Have the Technology
However, not all phones (or home environments) are created equally. In any TV/Film audition of yesteryear (pre-Covid) you would have noticed almost all offices were equipped with industry-standard lights and a soft blue background for taping auditions. This ensured everyone's tapes all looked the same. The only thing that made someone stick out was their performance. It was a controlled environment. It created equity in how the tapes looked. Self-tapes at home remove that great equalizer. Tapes all look completely different now. And for someone with perhaps more resources (a nicer phone, a photographer grade background, class A lighting, access to natural light, and even a high tech camera) those little upgrades can make a huge difference and make a not-so-good performance look fantastic.
And how things look matter. We are a visual species and half our art is visual. How someone looks is paramount in judging and adjudicating their performance as this 2013 study shows. I know many actors who feel their surroundings and lack of technological knowhow have impeded their auditions, despite the convenience a self-tape may afford. So what might come to pass is a set of strict rules about what you can and cannot use for a self-tape. No guarantee of that, of course. But I can see a SAG-AFTRA symposium down the line where the merits of imposing self tape criteria is debated in the name of not only making sure that auditions are as fair as can be but also in the name of widening the net of applicants.
Putting Down Roots
If self-tapes become the industry standard then anyone from anywhere can now submit. Why live in NYC or LA if being physically present is no longer an imperative? This will present a few new facets to contend with. First, I can see this making the job of casting more involved and labor intensive. If anyone can submit from anywhere in the country because there are no physical limitations on where you have to be and when you have to be there, casting departments will have many more actors to sort through. However, without any offices to keep up, they can maybe use that money to expand their teams to be able to "see" all the actors who now submit for roles. Perhaps that number could rise to many as ten times what we currently have for an applicant pool. That sounds like a lot but if you are in New York or LA and reading this, ask yourself: are you from those places? Most likely not. Wherever you are from there are probably five to ten other people from that home town you left who were perhaps just as good or as driven as you and for whatever reason couldn’t relocate to either of those two meccas.
Plus, New York and LA are not for everyone. They are expensive and taxing in more ways than one (especially NYC with its city tax). Not living in either of those two cities is luxury often only afforded to actors who have “made it” and can live on a sprawling ranch in Montana and go to either of those places only when need be. But now with self-tapes, you, too, can live on a ranch in Montana. Quality of life could potentially severely increase for actors. Living your dream maybe doesn't mean leaving your family anymore. And airfare and a hotel once or twice a year for a job you book is much cheaper than New York City or Los Angeles rents month after month year after year. With all these potential new actors the quality of art could skyrocket. We really could get the very best person for the job because the applicant pool is so big. And actors may see a surge in quality of life. Living where you want and how you want can only, in my opinion, make an artist better. No more suffering for art. But it could make getting a job harder.
Back to Technology and What to Watch for
With all these other people as competition it could absolutely breed an entire new industry of self-tape coaches and packaging services so you have the very best looking tape. So you rise to the top even if you live in Montana. This is why I mentioned a potential symposium earlier to level the playing field for self-tapes. Another downside is, of course, not getting adjustments “in the room.” That real feel of being a human in another room with a human. Some people book jobs after the camera stops rolling because of their personality; something about them screams "work with me!" Any person-to-person interface will be lost. But with platforms like Zoom getting better and better by the second, real time virtual auditions are not far away. They are already here. And they can soon be industry standard with a few more months of tweaking from our industry's leading technical masterminds. There will be give and take with every shift. You can live on your family's ranch in Montana but your "work with me" warmth won't be able to come through via a screen.
But How Does this Work for Live Theatre?
That brings us to the question of theater. You’re thinking “this is great for TV and film but what about theater?” And since theater is my first love I too share your skepticism. And I don’t have an answer. As a playwright I can’t imagine adjudicating someone’s performance--that will be in person for the entire run--from a screen. It just isn't the same. Some are saying it is just as good. But I feel we as an industry have to be honest with ourselves. Theater is theater. TV is TV. Film is film. Recently when theater people say “hybrid” I think they just mean television. Sometimes when we say "a broadcast theatrical experience fully technically realized for your viewing pleasure," we need to be honest that at that point it is a movie. Theater is unique. It is meant to be felt in proximity to other humans. We can of course self-tape auditions and broadcast performances. But to get the very best people who can give us the very best in-person experience, nothing can substitute in-person.
So, are we going to extend the privilege of being anywhere to only TV and film actors? To those jobs that take smaller amounts of time and pay more? And make those who want the jobs that take longer and pay less live in only New York City? Somewhere that, perhaps the last two years have proven to them is not somewhere they want to call home for a variety of reasons? I don’t know. But we may have to let theater auditions be virtual too and trust that a good actor is a good actor and the mediums are questions of size and focus for the actor and that any actor with experience or training can shift accordingly.
Go Forth and Tape!
This article I know seems to play devil's advocate with itself but that is the crux of this new precipice we are on. Self-tapes offer so much, but like anything good, there are always trade offs. Self tapes pose tons of questions but also I think they provide many solutions for things we have been too scared to name as problems for too long; mental health, access, equal opportunity, etc. It is after all a tool. And a tool can be used well or used improperly.
There will be mistakes as we venture forward. But I submit we welcome self-tapes into the performance sphere with open arms. Not replacing in-person auditions, but looking to them as supplemental, even complimentary to the age-old practice of in-person auditions. I know there are and will be drawbacks. But a tool that can enable people to live their lives in a more fulfilling way, more on their own terms can't be bad. This industry is fickle, and at a moment's notice can make you a star and then just as quickly take that moniker away from you. If we are going to (because of our deep love for art) subject ourselves to those kinds of devastation oscillations perhaps it's best to do it in comfort. Maybe even from Montana.
Monologue & Acting Coach
Grant MacDermott is our head acting coach and Co-Director of New York Acting Coaching. Grant has been a professional working actor for most of his life. He began acting professionally at the age of thirteen in commercials and live theater. Grant later moved onto Boston where he received his BFA in Acting and Theater from Emerson College. He then immersed himself in the Boston acting industry by performing in commercials and small roles for movies while continually gracing all the stages in Boston. Grant's experience ranges from shows like Medea with Actor’s Shakespeare Project; Rent with New Repertory Theater; Nicholas Nickleby with The Lyric Stage Company, The Great American Trailer Park Musical with SpeakEasy Stage; and the American premiere of Now or Later at the Huntington Theater alongside Tony Award winner Adriane Lenox and directed by Broadway's Michael Wilson.
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