Thank You 10 – Featuring: Sammi Cannold
Thank You, 10 is an interview series brought to you by Audition Cat, an upcoming app with career management tools for the professional auditioning performer. Each article interviews an industry professional with a different experience and opinion about what the future of auditioning looks like. Through these conversations, we hope an image will appear about what’s next for the industry, and what it aspires to be. Have someone you’d like to be considered for an interview? Reach out to us Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
Occupation: Theater and Film director
Link to Sammi’s work: www.sammicannold.com
Playbill Feature – Dori Berinstein and Sammi Cannold at Work on Theatre Reopening Documentary, Featuring South Korea’s Phantom and More
Forbes 30 Under 30 in Hollywood & Entertainment
Evita (New York City Center)
Ragtime (on Ellis Island)
Getting to Know You
Who are you? What’s your artistic background / what started your journey into the arts?
My name is Sammi Cannold and I’m a theater and film director. My journey into the arts started early as I was fortunate to grow up in a theater/film/tv family — my mom produces theater and directs film and my dad produces tv and film. So, I was always around storytelling and, in a way, it was expected that I would go into the ‘family business.’ That makes it sound a bit clinical though and really, I think I decided to go into the arts, because being around it so much as a kid, it was hard not to fall in love with stories and storytelling.
When did you set out on your current career path?
If I trace it back, I think it was when I was in a summer arts program in my town when I was 13 and we were doing a production of Joseph that I was in. The head of the arts program, who was also directing the production, had to be in too many places at once, so he would leave the room and when he did, would leave me in charge for reasons I still don’t know. So, I started telling the other kids where to go on stage and ultimately, he credited me as the director of the production and hired me the next two summers to ‘direct’ You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown and Annie. I don’t think it would be accurate to call that ‘directing’ necessarily and I’m sure whatever I did on all three shows was not particularly great, but it certainly gave me the idea early that directing was something that I could pursue and wanted to pursue. Ultimately, I didn’t seriously pursue it until I got to college and started directing for one of the student theater groups on my university’s campus.
What is your “mission statement” as an arts professional? What drives you to continue in this industry?
I don’t have a specific mission statement per se, but I guess I try to navigate everything from a place of passion for the work and wanting to make an impact. What that impact is can change from project-to-project: sometimes it’s about helping an audience work through something, sometimes it’s about inspiring an audience to action, etc., but I always try to make things that have an impact beyond my own artistic interests.
Within your artistic profession, what other industry roles do you work with most closely?
As a director, I feel so lucky in that I get to work with basically everyone! Directors touch almost every corner of a production, so I would wager that we get the most collaborators of any position other than perhaps the PSM. So it’s hard to say whom you end up working with most closely — sometimes it’s your leading actor, sometimes it’s the PSM, sometimes it’s the associate director, sometimes it’s a designer, sometimes it’s the music director, sometimes it’s the choreographer, sometimes it’s a producer, and so on. But most of the time, it’s all of the above and then some.
What do you wish was more widely understood about your profession?
Directing–particularly directing large-scale musicals–is so much about crisis management and problem solving. I say this mostly for people who are interested in pursuing careers in direction, because I think it catches a lot of us off-guard when we start helming larger productions. Yes, a lot of directing is about the art on stage and a lot of it is about leading a rehearsal process, but a massive percentage of it is being presented with problems and having to fix them. And these problems can range from having to make peace between two actors who don’t get along, to figuring out how to work with a designer who’s not meeting deadlines, to figuring out how to find a middle ground when your audience is complaining the theater is too cold and your actors are complaining that it’s too hot. And then because I work a lot in site-specific theater, I get thrown a lot of problems that are very idiosyncratic — i.e. we need to take a ferry boat to get to the performance site, but this musician has severe sea-sickness, etc. But I’ve come to actually love the problem-solving aspect of the job — it keeps you on your toes and is a bit like a detective game. I think learning to love the problem-solving and coming into the room every morning ready for problems to be thrown your way is the only way to really be happy in a job that’s so defined by constant curve-balls.
Do you have any problems that come up consistently in your work on every or most projects? If yes, do you think the issue is systemic or something else?
Not really. Because every project is so different and has such a different slate of challenges. I’d say, in terms of broad categories — time management and the balance between art and commerce are always major areas of focus — not necessarily problems — but challenges.
Auditions and You
In your experience, what is the most common pitfall that actors make with auditions?
This is a very specific one, but it’s one I notice all the time: actors not having comprehensive books. I tend to understand if an actor is not as prepared as I’d hope they’d be on material provided by the creative team, because oftentimes, there are unrealistic preparation periods, massive amounts of material given, or extenuating circumstances in an actor’s life (including other auditions and callbacks or rehearsals/show schedules) — I always trying to remember that actors are not being paid to audition, so while they’re trying to put themselves in the best possible light, sometimes that’s harder than at other times.
That said, every auditioning musical theater actor can and should have a comprehensive book, because that preparation can happen outside of audition and callback timelines and is evergreen/helps in any situation. So often in auditions, I’ll ask an actor if they have something ‘more pop-y’ or ‘more legit’ in their books and the answer will be no. In that case, they’re shooting themself in the foot, because those questions are fairly standard and easy to prepare for. And I’m only asking them in hopes of helping the actor try to show a side of themself that I believe they have in them and would help them get the role, but they haven’t yet shown.
Let’s talk about self-tapes! Self-tapes have become more and more common for auditioning actors, even more so during the pandemic. What do you like about self-tapes? What do you dislike about them?
I like that self-tapes can open up an audition process to actors from anywhere. On Evita at City Center, we had actors sending in tapes from many different countries in South America and Europe and it was so exciting to be able to widen our search beyond whoever was able to physically be in New York.
That said, I don’t like that self-tapes create a situation in which an actor can obsess over and tailor their performance so that we’re only seeing what they think we should see. There’s something really wonderfully raw about being in the room with an auditioning actor — and I don’t mean that in the sense of catching their mistakes. More the opposite — that you find beautiful things in a performance when it’s not manufactured and on top of that, you learn a lot about a person both from how they perform when put on the spot and also how they operate in a room/when speaking directly to you vs. through a screen.
As self-tapes become more and more prevalent in the industry, for your profession, what are the main differences between in-person and virtual auditions? What advice do you have for actors who have less experience with virtual auditions?
I think the difference is fairly straightforward: you don’t get to make a connection with the actor and vice versa — the actor doesn’t get to make a connection with you. Unless it’s over Zoom instead of self-tapes, I suppose, but I’ve only ever done that once and it was tricky because of a poor connection and whatnot.
In terms of advice, I guess I’d say — don’t let the fact that you’re doing this digitally flatten the more personal aspects of how you’d normally audition. If you’re someone who normally comes into the audition room with a lot of warmth, for example, bring that with you into the virtual audition room as well. We so badly want to know who you are and what makes you special and the virtual space can really make that tricky if you approach it too clinically.
If there was one piece of advice you’d give to any actor right before an audition or recording a self-tape, what would it be?
“Hang on tightly, let go lightly.” That’s not mine — it’s Anne Bogart’s theory that she talks about a lot in relation to directing, but I think it applies really nicely to auditioning as well. Come into the room holding tight to the choices you’ve decided you’re going to make with your material and being ready to make those choices with confidence and commitment, BUT also, be ready for something that the creative team or casting director says to cause you to let go lightly of the choices you’ve made. I find it most impressive and most telling in terms of providing intel on an actor’s dexterity when they can flip on a dime in an audition and make a completely different choice than the one they came in with.
How do you expand your “network”? When you interact with a performer for the first time, what inspires you, and what are you looking for in this initial interaction/audition to convince you to bring them back?
It really depends on the show and the role. I think actors get tired of hearing that adage that we really are rooting for you when you come into the room and so desperately want you to be the right person, but it’s true!
I think I’m often also surprised by who the right person is. I may go into an audition room with a certain conception of who I’m looking for and then someone will come and knock the socks off their audition and totally change that. So, sometimes it’s that they sang the material in an extraordinary way I’d never heard before, sometimes it’s that they had a take on the character that made it fresh and interesting, and so on.
I think also something that a lot of early-career actors usually don’t know is — if you’re auditioning for the ensemble of a Broadway or Broadway-sized show, we’re almost always looking–usually predominantly except in dance calls–at whether or not you can cover a principal role or multiple principal roles. The web of coverage on a show of that size is so complex that the majority of the ensemble usually has to be able to go on for a principal. So, if you think you fit a certain principal role description, it helps to make choices in your audition that might help us to realize that.
Looking to the Future
What excites you about the future of the arts and auditioning in particular? What are your concerns?
I’m excited to get back, but concerned about so much! I’m majorly concerned about access, especially when it comes to auditioning. It was hard enough to get into the room before all this and now we’re facing a situation in which there will almost certainly be a whole new level of capacity limits in terms of who and how many people can be in the room — particularly for dance calls. So, I’m concerned about what that means for newcomers.
What do you think is the most likely outcome to address this? More dance calls? Shorter dance calls so more people can get seen?
It’s a great question and neither solution is ideal, because every call costs money and time and a shorter call could make it such that a dancer can’t fully demonstrate what they’re capable of or doesn’t get enough focus at the front of the room/the creative team doesn’t learn enough. I think the former is the lesser of two evils all things considered though. I hope someone somewhere has a third solution that magically solves it all.
Post-Pandemic, how prevalent do you think virtual auditions will be / what role will they play in the day-to-day casting process? Are there aspects of virtual auditions you’ve found that you prefer
I think that virtual auditions will certainly be more prevalent, especially because so many members of our community have now spread out across the country and the world even. I hope that that will allow us to provide more access, but at the same time, I worry that it will become a crutch that will reduce our ability to be in the room with actors for that all important chemistry test — both for our benefit and for the actor’s benefit.
Self Tape setups are a financial and technical obstacle for many in our industry. For those who either can’t afford or don’t feel confident in the technical knowledge to use self-tape equipment, what advice can you offer to give them the best audition?
I personally don’t really care about the aesthetic quality of one’s self-tape setup for exactly the reasons you mention. I think where it becomes tricky is in relation to sound; obviously, for singers, you want to make sure your voice sounds the same way it would in the room, and I know that can be pricey and tricky.
I think I’m probably not the right person to give advice on this as I’m not familiar with the ins and outs of a self-tape setup, but I guess from a practical perspective, I’d suggest borrowing equipment from others to the extent possible if you feel yours isn’t going to put you in the best possible light.
If you could rebuild the audition process however you’d want, what would it look like?
One thing that I don’t like about the system is the practice of asking actors to prepare a lot of material and then only asking them to perform some of it. I understand why that happens — if a creative team learns what they need to learn on the first cut and time is tight, hearing the other two isn’t necessarily a productive use of time. But I think we have to ignore that impulse and always hear all the material, because I hate the idea of an actor preparing material and then us not honoring that preparation. So, I think we also need to think more critically about what sides we give an actor ahead of a callback so that we’re not claiming hours of their lives for nothing.
The arts industry has inherent barriers to entry including but not exclusively race, socioeconomic status/background, gender, disability, and more. How do you think the industry should evolve to make it a more accessible, equitable, and intersectional space for all? Especially how can we apply this to the audition process?
I think this answer needs a whole novel written in response to it — and not by me! But because I’m in a position of power by virtue of being a director who hires people, it is something I think about a lot, particularly this year. So, I’ll answer specifically in relation to the audition process.
I’d say most importantly — I think we need to open up the pool. The oft-heard ‘well we didn’t cast an actor of color, because no actors of color came in’ just doesn’t fly. It is incumbent on us–those with hiring power–to do the outreach to the performers and communities that we are hoping to see in our rooms, because in many cases, they have received the message time and again that our rooms are not places that are welcoming to them. It’s our job–not theirs–to change that.
Do you have any changes you plan on implementing in your own process that might help other directors on that path?
Yes! I’ve been thinking a lot about putting the onus on myself to get to know actors beyond those who are making it into the audition room — by seeing more work in educational settings, seeing more work outside of New York City, keeping an eye out for actors who are putting out their own work online, etc. And then on a project-by-project basis, working with paid consultants or specifically chosen casting directors who are familiar with amazing performers who don’t get called in as much as they should.
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