The Interview: What Performing Artists Can Teach Everyone Else About Job Hunting
By Eric Schumacher:
For those of you who have been reading my work, I have written a lot about surviving emotionally in an unusual career or in an unusual calling, such as the performing arts. As strange a path as an arts career may be, everyone pursuing any career has one thing in common: we want to be successful. A key part of the pathway to success in most careers, arts included, includes the awful, terrifying, stress-inducing experience of . . . the job interview.
Nobody loves job interviews; most people hate them. In many cases, an interview consists of walking into a room and talking to someone who is going to decide your future. In a very short period of time, this individual may determine whether you can have the life you want, have the career you've always dreamed of, or earn the money you need. Most people believe that the slightest misstep during that interview—an awkward moment, the wrong word—will cost you that new opportunity.
Speaking for performing artists (the area in which I have the most experience), there are some significant differences between our process and an interview for a traditional job, but those differences can shed light on some things that can help a traditional job seeker nail their interview. Perhaps help you to level up, so to speak.
Traditional Job Seekers
Thankfully, most folks in traditional careers only have to interview every once in a long while. If you have an office job, for example, you may intend to keep that job for some time, and if everything goes well, you might try to move up within your company. You may have to pull out your resume only once every few years, update it, and begin the isolated process of letting others judge you.
The interview process from job to job is typically pretty similar and often highly regulated by various HR laws. In many cases, your skillsets are proven long before you walk in the door. Your resume explains the types of skills you have and your level of education and experience related to the job. Your references will verify that experience and your reliability. And so, a verbal interview can be extremely important as a deciding factor on whether you're a fit for the culture of the organization. A lot of it simply comes down to whether or not people like you.
For performing arts job seekers, the interview is traditionally an audition. Demonstrations of skill and artistic compatibility are often more important than the interview phase, although that is still very important. Typically, one walks into a room or onto a stage and, after a short introduction, is asked to perform a dance or a song or a piece of instrumental music, or to read from a script or perform a previously memorized monologue. Then there's some back-and-forth and that's it. There may be many “callbacks” wherein the job seeker is asked to return and re-audition, read or perform with others, and take more direction to help the casting director, producers, and director determine whether the performer is skilled enough for the role and is able to deliver something artistically that will be an asset to the production. You can have all the experience in the world and still not be a good fit for a particular job.
It should also be noted that most performing artists typically find their jobs very short-term, often lasting a day or less. It's extremely rare to find performing arts work that one might keep for months or years. I remember an agent explaining to me when I was a kid auditioning in a large marketplace that if you got a single job out of every 30 auditions you were doing quite well. And again, we're talking about jobs that can last less than a day.
Each audition is therefore extremely high stakes; the odds of you actually getting a job from a single audition—or even 10 auditions—are very low. A performing artist must be an absolute expert at the interview process and has to learn to face that process constantly and endlessly, knowing that the odds are stacked against them.
Talk about stress!
My own experiences both in the arts world and the traditional business world have taught me a few things that may be helpful to newer folks in either field.
1. Don't let rejection get you down. Since a performing artist is in endless job-seeking mode, and the ratio of auditions to jobs is so low, it's important for artists to find ways to cope with the constant pressure and not let rejection destroy them emotionally. The artist needs to learn that a rejection isn't a rejection of who they are as a person or even as an artist; it just means that the folks responsible for finding the right candidate didn't think the job seeker was exactly the right piece for the larger puzzle they need to assemble in order to make their particular artistic statement. Like a competitive skater who falls in the middle of a routine, we need to learn not to beat ourselves up for this or for a mistake during an interview. We have to pick ourselves up and get back to the job hunt as soon as possible so that we don't waste valuable time getting another audition that could be a score. Note where you can improve and keep going. Remember, it’s partially a numbers game. A good friend who’s in advertising once told me that as he was making client calls, he made a game of seeing how many rejections he could stack up. He became grateful for each rejection as it eliminated one prospect who wasn’t a good fit and got him closer to a win. That's the attitude we need to keep.
2. Learn to block everything else out, including your fear. As I said before, for most performing artists, each audition will include some kind of live demonstration of your skillsets. This is the time to forget everything that happened before and everything that will happen after, to let go of your fear and nerves and completely focus on your performance. To be successful at this phase, you need to enjoy the moment, remember the art you love, and realize that this is a moment where you can perform in front of an audience. Only then will the interviewer really know whether you are an artistic fit for the production, because they will see you at your highest level. Likewise for the traditional job seeker, when it comes time to talk about the work and demonstrate your skills, geek out a little. Let everything else go and just enjoy explaining your process, your experience, and that thing you do well. This will show the interviewer that they aren't just getting a job prospect; they are getting someone who will do the job well because they care.
3. Don't be in a rush. Auditions, like traditional interviews, take the amount of time they take. If you expect your interview to be fast and you’re wrong, you might find yourself getting a little antsy. Make sure you've carved out more than enough time for the interview and relax into it.
4. If you're on time, you're late. I'm still amazed that a lot of people who work in film don't know this one, since it applies to performance dates as much as to the interview process. If you are scheduled for a 2 p.m. audition, be there no later than 1:45, earlier if possible. This is where you fill out paperwork and get your head back in the game after traveling to the interview. This is also where you might have a chance to get to know other people on the project team and see if there's emotional compatibility with people you may be working with. You'd be surprised how the even impressions of someone doing reception that day may affect your prospects. Timeliness says reliability. I've sometimes played receptionist on productions in which I was a producer just to observe how candidates comported themselves when they thought they weren't in the spotlight.
5. Dress the part. Performers know that they need to help the interviewer “see” them in the part. If you are showing up for a dance audition, wear clothing you can dance in that fits the part you're interested in some way. If you are auditioning for a cowboy, wear something that reflects the cowboy culture. The same is true of a traditional interview. Try to anticipate what look will help the interviewer visualize you in the job. Of course professional and formal wear is important for a traditional interview, but you can accessorize the look a little to make them see you in the role and visually indicate that you are a match for the culture. If you're interviewing for a construction job, think about the subtle cues you're sending when choosing color schemes, hair styles, and even your shoes. If you're interviewing for an office job, is it a young company with a Silicon Valley tech feel or an older, more conservative environment like the home office of an old bank? Do you need to imply creativity and openness or stability and efficiency? Dress accordingly and really take time to pick your gear. If you don’t usually dress the way you will for an interview or audition, wear your outfit around the house a little to get used to it. If you're not comfortable in your clothes, you won't be comfortable in the interview.
6. Be Memorable. Performing artists understand that there are many, many, many more seekers then jobs available in those fields. A casting director may receive thousands (I'm not exaggerating) of submissions for a single one-day role and audition 30 people. Of course, for traditional jobs with large companies, there may be a constant flow of resumes coming in and even a constant hiring process. Point is, HR People and casting directors see a LOT of resumes and a lot of people. After a while, everyone starts to look the same. I have been on the other side of the audition table and seen casting folks actually forget someone who auditioned only an hour ago because they didn't stand out somehow. While you must make sure to adhere to the conventions of the process so as not to inconvenience the review team or look unprofessional, you also need to find ways to stand out in a positive way in every part of the process. Actress Terri Gar famously used the technique of bringing brownies to an important audition. I will often pick a very challenging audition monologue that I know I do well. It’s one I've been advised by various casting people not to attempt at an audition because of the technical difficulty and heavy emotions the piece evokes . . . if done right. That piece has landed me more roles than I can remember, some of them national. Some candidates will do something unusual and daring with their attire or makeup. It’s up to you. Be creative but respectful. That extra touch might fail, but it might also mark you as the one willing to go the extra mile who can really bring something special to the job.
7. Make Friends: You know who's sitting on the other side of the table from you in an audition most of the time? Other artists. People who've worked just as hard as you have to make it in the arts and who care about the work and the meaning of it to the world. You know who's sitting across from you in a traditional job interview? People who once interviewed at that same company to do a job they wanted and who probably have very similar reasons for working there. See if you can find some common ground and truly make a friend. If you can't, odds are this gig or job isn't going to be a good cultural fit for you anyway.
I hope this article helps a little in your job-seeking process. If you have other tips about job hunting, please post them on this page. Feel free to send questions here as well and I'll do my best to answer them.
Also, if this article was useful to you, please share it with others and don’t forget to check out the other fascinating articles by my fellow authors on this site, each of whom is quite brilliant.