LAWRENCE — When Nicole Hodges Persley started teaching acting at the university level, she realized that for many minority students, she was the first theater teacher they’d had who wasn’t a white male.
“It shifts the discussion because you’re able to give a whole different set of insights for what it takes to engage with and penetrate some of the boundaries that are systemically racist in this industry,” said Hodges Persley, associate professor of American studies and African & African-American studies at the University of Kansas.
Those insights are now available to everyone in her new book, “Breaking It Down: Audition Techniques for Actors of the Global Majority” (Rowman & Littlefield). It’s the first such guide to showcase and assess auditioning based on the experiences of actors of color in the entertainment industry.
“Mainstream audition books are often written from assuming the actor is raceless and none of that comes into play,” said Hodges Persley, who co-wrote the project with Dartmouth’s Monica White Ndounou.
“These books avoid discussions of race or gender or sexuality. They avoid intersectional standpoints. So we’re saying, ‘These are really important considerations that happen in the room, and whether you’re focusing on them or not, they’re things you can’t avoid.’”
Hodges Persley selected the title of her authorial debut for its multiple connotations.
“First, it’s Black vernacular for ‘let me break it down for you,’ meaning that I’m going to tell you the truth about what’s going on,” she said.
“Next, you have to break down a script as an actor to learn how to attack the story. Third, when you actually go out on auditions, casting directors and agents are looking at what are called breakdowns. These describe the various roles available in different TV, film and episodic projects.”
Since auditioning remains the crucial gateway through which actors advance their careers, they are always in need of advice on how to maneuver within this process.
What’s the biggest mistake actors make when auditioning?
“One is focusing on the audition itself instead of the work you’re presenting,” said Hodges Persley, who also took over as director of KU’s museum studies program in July.
“You’re so worried about getting the job that you don’t really concentrate on the skill set this takes to get a job. I tell students, it’s like going into Google and saying, ‘Oh my God, I’ve always loved Google. I’m so excited to be here.’ And they’re like, ‘Great, but what are you offering us and why should we hire you?’”
She compares casting directors to heads of HR departments; they must understand how to match the talent to the work.
“If you went in to Google ‘kind of sort of knowing how to write code,’ that would come through to the person who’s interviewing you. This is the same with actors when you come in shaky, don’t know the story and don’t know who you are in relationship to it. I can’t risk bringing you on to a set or a stage with other professionals if you’re going to slow up the production time,” she said.
Hodges Persley estimates she’s been on 500 to 600 auditions throughout her career. But race often entered into the process in ways that proved awkward … and sometimes wildly offensive.
“As a multiracial, racially ambiguous-looking Black woman, when I was heavily auditioning in the ’90s, a lot of casting directors wanted me to pick a box,” she said.
“I had casting directors advising me that I should tell people I wasn’t Black. Instead, I should claim I was anything from Puerto Rican to Israeli. That became traumatic after a while. You would never tell someone at a job interview, ‘Wow, you’re so African American. I really wonder if you could scale that back a bit.’”
A Detroit native, Hodges Persley came to KU in 2009, where she honed her expertise in African American theater performance and hip-hop performance. She is currently the artistic director of the KC Melting Pot Theatre, Kansas City’s premier African American theatrical company. Her directorial credits include acclaimed productions of “A Raisin in the Sun,” “Rachel,” “Sunset Baby” and “Ain’t No Such Thing as Midnight Black.”
“This is a labor of love of wanting to pay forward the things that I’ve been able to learn, not only in my professional work as an artist but also in my practical work as a theater professional,” Hodges Persley said of “Breaking It Down.”
“I want actors of color to feel spoken to, seen and heard. At a moment when folks are discouraged about fighting all the time for visibility and for audibility, I just hope they find this book encouraging.”
Photo: Nicole Hodges Persley teaches audition techniques to KU students in this 2019 photo. Credit: KU Marketing Communications.