Missing the ‘Vibes’: Actors and Casting Directors Reflect on the Shift to Self-Tapes

Hilary Greer, a New York-based casting director and actor, loves auditioning. After given hundreds of auditions since she began acting at the age of 8, she had settled into a comfortable routine: “You catch the bus or take the subway. You carry your shoes in a bag, a change of clothes and your makeup. You rush into the bathroom and fix yourself up. You go into the waiting room, and check yourself in. You put your headphones on and you try to be as focused as possible. You’re called in, you exchange pleasantries, you stand on your mark, and…you get right into it. You go back to the bathroom, take your heels off and get back on the subway.”

That routine was disrupted by the pandemic, when auditions shifted almost entirely to self-tapes, which are auditions recorded by the actors themselves and submitted to the casting team. Some actors and casting directors welcomed the change: Self-tapes made the process of auditioning global, more competitive and more convenient. But others, especially theater actors, have their grievances.

“Sometimes you submit a self-taped audition that never gets seen. By anyone,” casting director Bonnie Gillespie wrote on her blog.

“There should be some sort of guarantee that the people requesting the self-tapes should watch at least 25 to 45 seconds of every tape, because that is a lot of effort as an actor,” said Margarita Zhitnikova, co-founder of Besties Make Movies, a bicoastal production company.

Destiny Lilly, president of an association of casting directors, even touched on the topic at the Artios Awards ceremony, dismissing the concerns. “We are going through the tapes,” she had said. “Actors are the lifeblood of what we do.”

While some actors do not like self-tapes, “there are actors who prefer it,” said Purvi Lavingia, a talent agent who also has experience casting. “It’s great to do the in-person thing. But auditions happen so fast, there’s no time. You’ve just got your one chance,” she says. “As far as self-tape auditions go, it just seems to be the way. It’s just more convenient.”

Ankur Bhatia, 43, a “tricoastal” actor, as he describes himself — based in New York, Los Angeles and Mumbai, India — agrees. He says that self-tapes allow for more time and flexibility. “You are the one who has control over what you’re showing a casting director,” Bhatia says.

When he started acting ten years ago, he says, agents in Los Angeles were not keen on hiring actors from New York because they wouldn’t be able to travel for auditions. But now, he says, “I’ve shot auditions in a hotel room, on a film set, in my balcony.”

Some actors are more comfortable with self-tapes. “You know how people will sing in the shower, or do karaoke when they’re alone? Sometimes I think people are braver by themselves,” Greer says, invoking her experience as a casting director. For screen actors, it has also “stepped up everybody’s game. You are working in the same medium that you are going to be working in, on set. You know that the camera is a fly on the wall.”

For many, can be more cost-effective, too.

From the casting side, Zhitnikova notes that “you don’t have to pay the rental of the room or bring in any sort of equipment,” with self-tapes. But, Zhitnikova notes, with in-person auditions “you did get to meet the actors and get a sense of their personality.”

Accessibility is also an important factor with self-tapes. Disabled actors may find it easier to tape at home. “Or if you have anxiety, you might be better on the self-tapes and not have to do the in-person element until you feel more comfortable,” Zhitnikova says.

But tapes come with downsides.

“I’ve gotten comments from casting saying, ‘Oh, I wish I would have taken this audition of yours, because I could have guided you better,’” Bhatia said. He’s had to send revised tapes back three or four times, following feedback from the casting team.

For television and film auditions, Greer said that nearly 100 percent of auditions are now self-tapes. Nikhil Saboo, 30, a Broadway actor, also said that the number of in-person auditions has drastically dropped. Three years after the worst of the pandemic, he’s maybe had two of them.

“Self-tapes are here to stay,” said Devi Peot, 22, CEO and founder of the nonprofit South Asians on Broadway, is also a member of the Casting by ARC team, and mainly casts for theater.

But she said that the casting industry, especially for theater, is starting to find a balance between the two. “We start with tapes and then eventually have people come in so we can do them in person and work with them on the spot, build a connection and really see their process,” Peot said.

Self-tapes come with practical difficulties, such as requiring another individual who reads lines to the auditioning actor.

“You need a backdrop, you need to find somewhere quiet,” said Saboo. “What if you live in a building where that’s not possible?”

The technical requirements are also daunting, he says. “You need to have good lighting, you need lighting equipment, you need to have a reader. You may even need to have a speaker for music. You’re basically making a film and you are the director, you are the lighting designer, the sound designer, you’re everything.”

These requirements can be expensive. While in-person auditions did come with costs, they were mostly borne by the casting team — including the cost of renting a room, paying readers, printing paper signs, résumés and session sheets.

For self-tapes, the costs are borne by actors. A high-quality lighting set can run nearly $300. A camera can cost up to $1,000. Zhitnikova says they spent around $250 on a backdrop, and that professional readers charge anywhere from $75 to $250 per half-hour.

Actors find self-tapes to be time-consuming as well.

Michael Di Liberto, 43, a Broadway actor who’s been auditioning since the age of 10, says, “an audition is five to 10 minutes, maybe 20 minutes. But for self-tapes, it can take you hours or days,” he says. “You’re not basing it on what someone is telling you. You’re basing it on what someone wrote in an email and your interpretation of what they wrote.”

With in-person auditions, “either it’s great or it sucks. It’s only those five minutes. But at home? Jeez.”

Also, while self-tapes are useful to screen actors who will ultimately be working through the same medium as the on-camera audition, theater actors and casting team members find that the human touch is indispensable.

“The chemistry between a reader and an actor is so important to witness in person…because we need to be able to see their body language,” says Peot. “For TV or film, we have closeups of people’s faces that they send in, because audiences have to be able to see the nuances — like their eyebrow movements, or lip twitches. So self-tapes are great for [that].”

“As a film and television actor, your charisma off-camera is kind of irrelevant,” says Sharayu Mahale, 29, a Los Angeles-based screen actor who has also worked off-Broadway.

But in-person auditions leave room for unexpected benefits, too.

“I had one audition that was going well, and then they asked me if I can cry on demand, and I asked them, ‘Can you?!,’” Zhitnikova recounts. “I was like, ‘I’m definitely not getting that job.’” But they ended up getting a role. “I didn’t end up getting the role I was auditioning for; I got a different one that was more fitting for a sassy character. But that’s something you miss out on when you’re doing tapes.”

Saboo misses even the stress of in-person auditions.

“I can walk into a room and win the room and do really good work. I love the pressure, I love the intensity of everything in one moment. It brings out the best in me, but those don’t happen anymore,” Saboo said.

About the author(s)

Mukta Joshi is an India-qualified lawyer and a fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.