Phoebe Panaretos takes us step by nerve-wracking step through the protracted audition process which led her, finally, to the coveted role of Fran in Baz Luhrmann’s new all-singing, all-dancing stage production.
Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos in Strictly Ballroom the Musical
As I write this during the third week of rehearsals, I think back to my first audition for the role of Fran in Strictly Ballroom the Musical and it seems a lifetime ago. In fact, it was in early April 2013.
The auditions process was long and challenging. I always felt I understood the role of Fran and at each audition simply tried my best to hold onto that fact and not let nerves or the challenges put before me cloud my instincts.
Baz wasn’t introduced to the audition process until June. The others who had made it this far were all known to me as having recent experience in major musicals, whereas I had none. Although this was very intimidating, it was also exciting, as I felt I had really achieved something by getting this far alone.
I didn’t really know what to expect with Baz and I tried my best not to think about the fact that I was auditioning for one of Australia’s most successful creative people, and to focus all my energy on the character. I was shaking like a leaf.
Baz walked in and took all of 10 minutes to make me feel at ease. I imagine this was similar for a lot of the other actors in the room. He paired us up to dance the paso doble we’d been taught and asked us to tell our partner, while performing, what we had done that morning prior to the audition. Baz made it very clear he did not care about steps but simply about each of us being honest about our morning’s activities.
My partner and I got up second and I said something like, “Hi, my name is Phoebe. This morning I actually woke up at 4 to check WHATSAPP on my phone. I was checking to see if a boy I met last week from England had replied to my message. I tried to get back to sleep and rest before my audition.”
At the end of the routine, all Baz said was, “Did he reply?”
He did not.
The audition continued in this unfamiliar, exciting way. Unlike other auditions I’d been to, all the performers were in the room together the whole time.
We’d been asked to bring along one of our favourite songs, which Baz would turn into a scene. I’d chosen Michael Jackson’s She’s Out of My Life. After I’d sung it once by the piano, as directed by Baz and in front of the other 11 incredibly talented performers, he said, “Hmmm, I knew Michael, you know, and from what I can remember, he sang this song in a chair in a dark room, so let’s do that.”
Oh, cool, just casually knew Michael … no pressure! Baz had the lights turned off and sat me in the middle of the space. Very quietly, he said to me, “Think about what you’re saying; take your time.”
He gave me plenty of time alone to settle before the accompanist began to play. It was the most memorable performance of my life. Baz had created a space that felt the complete opposite of an audition. I poured my heart out and was able to forget I was in an audition at all.
It was at this point that the journey really began.
In that first audition, Baz had partnered Thomas Lacey and me for the Scott and Fran scene. Back in April, Thomas and I had sat next to each other in the waiting room prior to one of our first auditions. Having never met before, I asked him if he would read the Scott and Fran scene with me. After what seemed like a pretty smooth read, I jokingly said to him, “There you go. Scott and Fran, right here!”
Looking back now, we agree that encounter seems as though it was meant to be.
Despite being the last girl standing for Fran in this first round of auditions with Baz, it was not the end of the audition process for me. By now, it was July and I had survived three months of auditions. I could not believe how far I had made it. Little did I know I would endure another five.
I was told Baz wasn’t sure about me – nothing specific exactly, but I had to prepare myself to come back in September for an open call. Many other girls would audition from Australia, as well as Australian performers in New York and London.
I was told I had the part in November, playing opposite Thomas.
Never have I been so challenged, but I’d go through it all again.
Strictly Ballroom the Musical opened at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre on March 25