What are Cattle Calls?
Although many casting directors and producers may prefer the term open call audition, many struggling actors and singers know the meaning of a cattle call all too well. This type of audition is a process in which hundreds or even thousands of performers are allowed to vie for a certain number of roles. If an open audition for the musical Grease were being held, for example, the theater would be filled to capacity with hundreds of aspiring actors wearing black leather jackets and ducktail hairstyles. Each candidate may get to perform one line from a song or recite a few lines of dialogue.
The idea of a cattle call is said to have come from the earliest days of the Actors' Equity Association (AEA), a powerful theatrical union. Many theatrical and movie roles were being offered exclusively to established actors, not the rank and file members of the AEA. The open audition became a requirement for almost all union productions, although the auditioning actors were still obligated to join the AEA before receiving notice of these opportunities.
For many modern actors, this type of audition process has become a way of life. Notices of open auditions are usually posted in trade magazines or given to recognized talent agencies. An actor may discover a suitable announcement, or his or her agent may pass on the information. This typically includes the location of the audition, a basic description of the available roles, suggestions for actors, and a time to arrive at the site.
It would be unusual for the director or producers to appear at a cattle call audition, although some may want to participate in order to find a possible diamond in the rough, an unknown candidate with significant talent. For larger productions, a casting director is usually hired to make wholesale casting decisions during the open call. The casting director usually understands what the artistic director is looking for in an actor so he or she can narrow down the list of candidates to be seen again later. An audition generally ends with a dismissive "thank you" or a request for a return visit, known as a call back.
Quite often, the director and producers have already decided on specific actors for each available role, but union rules specifically dictate the need for open auditions. The casting director will sometimes audition and summarily reject almost every candidate during a cattle call. Actors understand how competitive the entertainment business can be, so many of them view these auditions through jaundiced eyes. The chances of winning a major role this way are notoriously slim, so many struggling actors concentrate more on developing industry contacts and improving their acting skills.
I don't know how anything actually gets accomplished during cattle call auditions. If I had to cast actors in a play, I'd create a short list of established actors that could do the job and call their agents. I don't know if I could sit in a big auditorium and look at people all day long.
Back when I was trying to break into show business, I went on a few cattle call auditions with my roommate at the time. One time I was running a little behind and didn't get to the audition center until right at the advertised starting time. The line was already out the door, and wound around a complete New York City block. Everyone in line was dressed just like I was. My roommate stayed in the line, but I went home.
He said the line actually started moving quickly once the audition process started. They all handed over a head shot and acting resume to an assistant at the door, then sat in groups of about 50 while someone walked around them. Some people got a tap on the shoulder, and the rest of the group just walked out the back door. He wasn't tapped, so his day was over.
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