Jose Simbulan holds the keys to success for thousands of auditionees. At most of SETC’s Professional Auditions for the last 25 years, he has been the unflappable pianist at the keyboard who, every 60 to 90 seconds, accepts another auditionee’s sheet music and – seconds later – plays it with precision and flair. At the 2020 SETC Convention in Louisville, he’ll be back again, sight-reading tune after tune for up to eight hours a day for three days straight.
By his own estimation, Simbulan has played approximately 35,000 auditions – just in his 25 years playing auditions for SETC and his 20 years playing auditions for United Professional Theatre Auditions (UPTA). Although his work is behind-the-scenes, SETC brought him center stage in 2019 to recognize his skills and years of service as the SETC accompanist, inducting him into the SETC Hall of Fame.
To call Jose Simbulan the SETC accompanist, though, is to diminish the impressive body of professional work he has accomplished outside the auditions room. From playing in the pit on Broadway shows to musical directing and conducting at theatres like Arena Stage, Baltimore Center Stage, Virginia Repertory Theatre, the Shakespeare Theatre Company and the National Asian Artists Project, Jose has a flourishing career that has taken him across the country.
In the interview that follows, I asked Jose about his piano training, his work, how he got started with SETC and his advice for auditionees. Our interview has been slightly edited for clarity and length.
How did you get involved with music? When did you start playing?
I had always liked music in elementary school and even performed in school shows and choirs. My mom signed me up for some piano lessons at a mall music store when I was nine years old, and that’s when the music bug formally bit. (Truth be told, the “reward” of a cone from the mall’s ice cream shop after each lesson was a big motivator early on – and sort of still is.) My dad was in the Coast Guard and got transferred to a new duty station every few years, so I went through a series of piano teachers as we moved from city to city, but we eventually settled in northern Virginia when I was in the sixth grade. While in middle school, I started accompanying the choirs and musicals. I was far from what anyone would consider a child prodigy but had enough talent and facility to be featured during a school assembly every now and then.
How did you go from musician to playing for theatre and auditions?
My love for musical theatre really developed in high school. I owe a huge debt of thanks to my high school drama teacher, Mr. Mike Garcia, as well as one of my fellow classmates, Bryan Louiselle, who served as a sort of mentor and inspiration to me. I played for some of the drama club productions, sometimes even doing double-duty: playing piano in the pit for some songs, then running up to the stage to be in some of the larger ensemble numbers, and then back down to the pit. I also saw shows when I could and listened to numerous cast albums that I would check out from the local library. Even while pursuing my BM [bachelor of music] in piano performance at Virginia Commonwealth University, I spent a good amount of time “on the other side of the building,” the theatre side, playing for directing projects and departmental productions. I was always sort of a good sight-reader, so playing auditions came quite naturally and easily for me. Once I was able to drive, I became involved in the community theatre scene around Washington, DC, and I would continue to play for community theatre productions when I was home from college. As some of those actors and directors started to make the transition from community to professional theatre in DC, so did I. I landed my first regional theatre credit as a music director in the fall of 1993 at Virginia Stage Company in Norfolk, VA, and then spent the next couple of years building my career between Richmond and the DC area.
How did you start playing auditions for SETC?
I got a taste of playing in “the big room” in the spring of 1993 when the annual convention took place in Arlington, VA. I went up there to play for some of the students from VCU. The following year, it turned out the previous pianist was not going to be available, and through a series of phone calls to the office at Theatre VCU, I was hired. I actually don’t remember much about playing the auditions themselves that first year, just that I did, and, apparently, without major incident. What I do remember from that spring is flying out of DC in the middle of a snowstorm – they ran out of deicing fluid twice! – and then landing in near summer-like conditions in Savannah: I had to buy shorts in the hotel gift shop. With the exception of three spring conventions – all of which were held in Florida (coincidence?) – I have played for the Professional Auditions ever since.
What do you like most about playing for SETC?
What do you like least? Each year, it is a wonderful combination of getting together with old friends and colleagues, coupled with meeting and making many new ones. I particularly like watching the progress of students who go from “summer-only” hires to “yearround” theatre professionals. There’s also a wonderful and literal sense of longevity amongst many of the company reps and actors, some of whom I have now known and worked with through SETC for 25 years. A few years ago, one young woman mentioned to me: “You played for my mother.” After taking a few seconds to do the math and realizing that was indeed a very real possibility, I thanked her and thanked her mother for remembering me. It felt good knowing that I was helping out a second generation of performers. The only quibble I have each year is the lack of personal time to check out the various other offerings at the convention: the workshops, exhibits and vendors. But I do make a point of taking a few strolls through the convention center when I can, as well as checking out the local restaurants.
‘There are still too many singers who come into the audition room who have never heard someone play the notes on their sheet music, or even performed their song with a pianist. Why would you leave that crucial part out of your audition preparation process?’
– Jose Simbulan
I know you have played thousands of auditions. Are there any that stand out? Do you ever find yourself thinking, “I’m going to remember this person. They are going places!”
There are many people I fondly remember, including some that happened to get their big break while I just happened to be at the piano that day. There are also many actors that I’ve had the true pleasure of watching go from SETC to their first audition in New York City, and then on to booking their first major tour or Broadway show. The auditions that truly stand out to me are the ones where the connection, the chemistry between me and the actor, goes beyond “singer and pianist,” and I have been fortunate to have had many of those. And, yes, I am purposely not namedropping.
Have there been any major changes over your years of playing for the auditions?
What is different now from when you started? The only notable change in my eyes (and fingers) is the amount of new repertoire and new shows that have been written over the past 25 years. Point of reference: I started playing for SETC before Beauty and the Beast and Rent opened on Broadway. There is the relatively recent possibility of someone bringing in their sheet music on an iPad, but, otherwise, there really hasn’t been much of a change in the general process of auditions. An actor still brings in a piece of music they wish to perform, and I play it for them. I sight-read their sheet music and accompany them without any prior consultation or practice, and we somehow, almost miraculously, begin and end at the same time. Alas, one other thing that hasn’t changed over the years is a certain degree of “uneducation” among all levels of actors. This is even more disheartening and frustrating when you consider the amount of good information and resources that are now available at no cost to everyone via the internet. Even the viral nature of YouTube, along with the popularity of programs such as American Idol and The Voice and the prevalence of smartphones, hasn’t seemed to cut down on the number of more “interesting” audition experiences.
Can you elaborate a bit more on what you mean when you say “un-education”?
I am still surprised at the number of bad auditions that happen. I am still surprised by the number of aspiring performers who either don’t make the effort to access the information and resources that could truly help them, or are simply unaware of them, or just ignore them altogether. While there are many examples of general cluelessness and mediocrity on platforms such as YouTube, and on programs such as American Idol, there are also many examples of good singing, good stage presence and good technique out there as well. The ability to critique and “pre-screen” yourself is very easy, convenient and immediate(!) nowadays by using your smartphone. Take the time to rehearse, perform, record and review your audition material. Make the effort to find a competent pianist to assist you with your musical preparation. There are still too many singers who come into the audition room who have never heard someone play the notes on their sheet music, or even performed their song with a pianist. Why would you leave that crucial part out of your audition preparation process? Especially an audition situation where a registration fee, as well as travel and hotel expenses, are involved. And it actually angers me at SETC when it becomes evident that a college professor or director simply signed a student actor’s form, and then made no further effort to ensure their student’s success.
What keeps you coming back year after year to play for SETC’s auditions? Do you enjoy the pace? The challenge?
When I first started playing for SETC, I was usually looking for work for myself as a pianist and music director as well. Since most of the companies typically had their summer staff lined up by the time they arrived at SETC, many of the connections I made during the convention were for work later in the year. I would also regularly play callbacks in the evening for some of the companies to make a little more money during the convention. I look back on those early years and marvel that I had the energy for such a schedule: playing auditions all day in the main ballroom and then onto another four to five hours of callbacks in the evening. Audition playing has never really scared me. Yes, I’ve gotten nervous a few times, but since I’ve never had a fear of sightreading – sight-reading is just something I’ve always been able to do – playing auditions has never been a source of anxiety. While the pace and span of the day can try my mental and physical endurance at times, I do relish and appreciate the challenge and responsibility of complementing, supporting and showcasing the talents of the actor. As I state in my briefing at the start of each day: “This is your audition, not mine.” (And then I parenthetically add under my breath, “I have work …”, as a way of breaking the ice even more, hopefully.) Each 60- to 90-second audition slot is an opportunity for success and satisfaction. I come back year after year because I can, and because I want to. It is very satisfying to be a part of an annual event for a number of years running. And the three times I was not able to attend the spring convention were due to conflicts with a production I was working on, one of which was my Broadway debut.
Oh, I have to know! What was your Broadway debut?
The year was 2006. The show was (the short-lived) Lestat. I was one of the keyboard players. That’s really all that needs to be said, if said at all!
Fair enough! What do you do the rest of the year, when you’re not playing for auditions? Perhaps share a few examples of other shows you have worked on?
I spend a good deal of my professional life in New York City playing even more auditions, as well as vocal coaching. I like the “day job” aspect of audition playing since it leaves my evenings free to see shows and concerts, check out new restaurants and hang out with friends. I also travel regularly – usually to Chicago, San Diego, Los Angeles and Boston – to spend time with family and friends, eat at my favorite restaurants and see even more shows and concerts. I spent this past summer at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA. I served as the music director for their Musical Theatre Conservatory program for the first part of the summer, and then switched over to the music staff for the new musical Fall Springs by Niko Tsakalakos and Peter Sinn Nachtrieb. A good chunk of my work outside of NYC has been in DC at Arena Stage; I have been a part of 15 productions since 1997. I have also worked with Baayork Lee’s National Asian Artists Project (NAAP), and I have played workshops and recitals for the Amy Murphy Studio both in NYC and Birmingham, AL.
Interview by Richard St. Peter
Richard St. Peter is an assistant professor of theatre at Northwestern State University of Louisiana. He is the chair of SETC’s Directing Committee and a member of the Editorial Board of Southern Theatre.