Embrace the gift

Broadway star Laura Osnes will offer a workshop on auditioning. It’s grounded in her advice: Follow your heart and your gut.

By Jake Stepansky '17

Like most actors, Broadway performer Laura Osnes has a few wacky audition horror stories to tell. “During my audition for Rock of Ages on Broadway,” she said, “I was singing at a callback and they said, ‘OK, Laura, just feel free to use the room.’ And the next thing I knew I was crawling on the walls and rolling on the floor. I didn’t book it, and I totally felt like an idiot.” But Osnes has had her fair share of successful auditions, of course, landing leading roles in Broadway productions of Anything Goes and South Pacific after rising to stardom through the Grease casting reality show, Grease: You’re the One That I Want

Laura Osnes
Osnes, who has been nominated for Tony Awards for her performances in Bonnie and Clyde (as Bonnie) and Cinderella (as Cinderella), will draw from a deep well of industry knowledge for a Learning From Performers audition-focused workshop that she will present 2:30 p.m. Friday, November 11 in Farkas Hall Studio, 12 Holyoke St. Admission is free, tickets not required (seating is first-come, first-served, subject to venue capacity). I spoke with Osnes about the impact auditioning and audition techniques have had on her career. An edited version of our conversation follows.

What was your first ever experience with theater?
I played a munchkin in The Wizard of Oz when I was in second grade, but I was acting out musicals in my living room long before that. I sang Castle on a Cloud from Les Miserables in my kindergarten talent show. One of the first big shows I saw was Miss Saigon, when the touring company come through Minneapolis, and I was in awe. I remember thinking, “WOW! There’s a helicopter onstage! I want to sound like Lea Salonga!” We got the soundtrack and I listened to it all the time. It was so fascinating and inspiring.

Why are you holding an audition workshop instead of a traditional performance master class?
The art of auditioning is its own separate beast, and it’s one that comes less naturally to people, or they’re less informed about it. The audition is what’s going to get you jobs. I think it’s so important to work on that element of our business because I feel performing comes most naturally to people, but you won’t get opportunities to perform if you don’t get opportunities to give a good audition. That’s what I think is a potential weakness in college curriculums: the art of audition. It’s really cool to be able to give kids the opportunity to work on acting a song and making the best impression you can in the two minutes you get in the room at an audition.

Do you often find yourself auditioning for people you know?
Yes. There are maybe three or four main casting agencies for theater stuff in New York. It’s those same people, which can be a good and bad thing. Sometimes it makes you more nervous because you feel like you have something to prove, but it also means that if you’ve had some solid auditions for them in the past, you have those to build off of. I tried to use that to my advantage when I first moved to the city. I nailed a few auditions at Telsey & Co. that I didn’t get cast in, but they kept bringing me in for other things. That’s why I think it’s really important to go on every audition you can – make the connection, do a good job, even if you’re not perfectly right for the role, because they’ll call you back in for something else. And they did. Telsey cast me in South Pacific a year later. So it can sometimes work in your favor to know the people behind the table.

How do you go about picking what projects to work on?
I think you get better at navigating that the longer that you’re in the business. When you start out, you just say “yes” to everything to get your name out there and develop the relationships that you need to develop for future things. I actually booked a Broadway show right after Grease that I didn’t want to do. I had warned my agent during auditions that if I booked it I wouldn’t do it, and he said we’d cross that bridge when we got to it. I ended up booking it and ended up turning it down. You have to listen to that voice inside. Your heart is part of it. Your gut is part of it. It’s a weird unexplainable thing. And you get better at hearing that voice the more decisions that you have to make. It’s really important to develop your career the way you want to develop it. If you’re suddenly doing something you don’t feel right about – or maybe you don’t feel comfortable with or excited about the material – it’s exciting to think about what challenges you, what haven’t you done yet, what are you looking forward to doing as opposed to just saying yes because it’s another job.

What is your dream role?      
My current dream role is Marian Paroo in The Music Man. I’ve done the show three times already. I played Amaryllis when I was in third grade, I played Zaneeta in high school and now I want to play Marian. I’m getting close to Marian’s age now, so that’s the logical next step. I’d also love to do Millie in Thoroughly Modern Millie or Belle in Beauty and the Beast, maybe Clara in The Light in the Piazza. There are a lot. But Marian is at the top right now.

Do you have any interest in directing or writing or doing something besides acting?
You know, for me personally, I don’t really have any desire to direct or write. I just don’t. I admire my friends who do, and I think it’s an amazing gift and passion to have, but nothing in me has ever really wanted to do that at this point in my life. I love collaborating with the creative team and getting to create something together with the director in the rehearsal room.

What advice do you have for students looking to pursue careers in the performing arts?
I feel like I was put on this planet to do what I am doing right now, and if you don’t have that in you, that deep desire, then you shouldn’t do it. It’s too hard and too competitive to do it well if you don’t love it. It’s a lifestyle that requires a lot of sacrifices. I went to college for only a year before I started working in the business. I’m definitely an advocate for school, but it just ended up not being my path. I got an opportunity to work in the business for a year at a theater in Minneapolis, and I figured in that case it would be a different learning experience that I would be getting paid to do, and I would be learning on the job as opposed to learning in a classroom. Along with that, follow your heart and your gut. Following that gut instinct to fly to Los Angeles – it takes guts. And be yourself. I know that sounds really cliché, but we spend our whole lives as performers trying to be what people want us to be and the best thing you can do is bring your best self into the room. Only you can be you, so embracing the gift and look and voice and talent that you have and developing those also will make you the most strong and genuine performer that you can be.

Support for Laura Osnes's residency provided by the Bernard H. and Mildred Kayden Artist in Residence Fund through Learning From Performers, a program of the Office for the Arts at Harvard.