If you want to appear on AGT, be prepared to work hard, as it’s not really as simple as it appears on TV. You don’t just show up and perform for the judges. Here’s the real process.
First of all, the show’s producers decide in which cities to hold auditions based on the prospective number of participants. They want to spend their money on cities where they’ll get a good return on investing the huge amount of money it takes to do the process (and also, to give a chance to various cities that may have not been visited before). If you do want to make a difference, sign up for the auditions on their website at least a few months in advance, and select which city you’d prefer.
Once you get a notification of an upcoming audition in your city (or a city you’re willing and able to travel to in order to audition), make sure you clear at least half a day from work, school or whatever work you’re doing. Once you sign up via AGT’s website, they will send you a bunch of emails, and also call you personally a few days before the date to confirm you’re coming (it’s an actual person calling, not a machine). You will be able to select a specific time of day that you want to show-up, and I strongly suggest choosing the earliest. It’s no fun to wake up early, but showing up later might run you into trouble, as delays introduced during the day might cause you to wait longer, or even not make it at all.
After you confirm your audition, you will be asked to prepare some paperwork. They will want you to have a legal photo-ID, and a proof of US Citizenship or residency (Visa, green card etc). They will also want you to print, fill and sign a 6-page copyright/privacy waiver. This is a legal document that allows the production to use whatever you perform as part of the show (even if you’re not selected eventually) and certifying that you understand you actions during the day and performance are not private and may be used in any way they see fit. This is a big deal to the production, because as you may know, the eventual footage might show you in a bad light and sometimes utterly humiliate you, and the production needs a defense against a potential law suit.
If you’re selected time is the earliest, which is typically 9am, do make sure you show up a lot earlier than that, if you want to save time. Generally speaking, you will get to perform even if you show up at 9 sharp, but you might get stuck waiting for several hours in various lines. Also, showing up early makes you more likely to find a decent parking spot. The number of people who actually show up differs from city to city. Some cities have only several hundreds, while others might have thousands. For example, in the 2011 Portland auditions, over 1000 people were already around at 6am. In the 2012 Seattle ones, though, at 7am only 30 performers lined up, but by 9am there were over 400 people already.
Another very important thing to know is that the auditions are NOT the ones you see on TV. These are only pre-screening auditions (as you can imagine, even if an act takes only 2 minutes, there’s still no way for the judges to view hundreds of people in a single day (even with 100% efficiency, a 10 hours day would only accommodate around 100 people). What really happens is this:
After entering the building and lining up, ushers will pass around, and give everyone who intends to perform a numbered sticker, starting from number 0001. Performers will also get a yellow paper wristband, while visitors (performers’ parents, friends etc) get a purple band. The line will probably not have seats, so you can bring a folding chair, or sit on the floor. The facilities in some cities might have the line run outside the building, so you might want to pack up some protection against cold or sun. If you’re very early or late, you might also pack a drink and/or food for the wait. A book, phone or other form of entertainment is also a very good idea. If you have a lot of stuff (including or excluding musical instruments), it’s perfectly fine to have a bag or other form of luggage. Usually, bathrooms will be available. Once you’ve had your number given, the risk of losing your place in line becomes irrelevant, as the call-ins are done by number.
At the set starting time (9am, that is), groups of ~40 will move in for a security check. Naturally, they don’t allow guns, and they will personally check your bags, trunks and other equipment. They also scan your body for weapons with a standard magnetic wand (the beeping kind).
After passing that, there’s a registration line, where you’ll be asked to provide your ID and paperwork (the copyright/privacy waiver you were asked to print, fill and sign earlier). They’ll check your ID and signature on the waiver, and attach a personal questionnaire (1 page) to it, give the stack back to you, and send you to a waiting area. The waiting area will be indoors, and have seats and bathrooms. This is the time to fill in the questionnaire, which would ask you things like:
1. Your name, age, and more details about the act (like the age-range of members, if it’s a group)
2. What is your dream (with regards to AGT and your talent)
3. How did you get into what you’re doing, and how you learned it
4. What other talents you have
5. About your supporters (friends, family etc that supported you in your act and to go audition)
The production won’t provide pens, but if you haven’t brought your own, many people will have them, so you can probably borrow one. You would have at least half an hour to delve into the form, so no rush. Make sure you write clearly, though.
Once they start putting people through, they will typically do it in groups of 25, depending on how many auditions halls are available. That will also depend on how many people pre-registered to audition, so the production will typically have more rooms if more people signed up. This means you can expect the time-line to be comparable even if the more crowded cities. Statistically, most of the people who show up to audition are musicians and singers, and the ushers will separate your group to two. One group will be regular singers who do not need/use instruments, and the other group will be singers with instruments, as well as all the other non-singing performers (dancers, ventriloquists, comedians, etc).
The group will be led to an audition room, and wait outside to be called in. The usher will collect the paperwork stack from everyone, and then call in one person at a time. The order won’t necessarily be by name or number, but since the group is relatively small at this point, it will typically all be done within an hour. For some types of acts (the more common ones, like singers), they sometimes call multiple performers together.
Once called in, you go into the audition room. If you have stuff that’s not part of your performance, you can either leave it out with the others, or take it with you (since you’re not on TV yet, and it’s not a stage, it doesn’t hurt to have this with you). Inside the audition room you will meet a producer (sometimes more than one) to whom you will introduce yourself, and perform your act. The producer may want to ask you additional personal questions, such as about your day job, how did you get into whatever you’re doing etc. This producer will be part of deciding your next steps, so try to be honest, respectful, nice, friendly and accommodating. Naturally, don’t go too far with that – they still have to see hundreds of people every day, so don’t make them feel uncomfortable or creeped-out. If you messed up your act and want to start over, that is typically acceptable at this point, though you shouldn’t take this too far either (if they see you as unprepared or unskilled…that won’t improve your odds). Some producers are less interactive or sympathetic than others, so be prepared to perform to a “wall”. For example, if you’re telling jokes, the producer may not laugh or respond at all, and that in itself doesn’t mean you didn’t do well or that you failed. For some types of performances, like comedy or magic, performing with zero reaction can be really daunting, so when you practice your act, try to prepare for that by doing it in an empty room or in front of a friend that can keep a straight face. If you were called in the room with other performers, you will all perform one-after-the-other, and this is done this way to save time, as they do have to weed-out more people from the more common types of acts (again, singers are typically like that). During the performance, you might be filmed (so that your tape can be viewed by others later as part of the decision process), but that’s not always the case.
Once you’re done, the usher will ask you to stick around for a bit, and later on might ask you to stick around some more, or go home. Sometimes, the producers would want to see you again for some reason. One possible reason is that your performance was promising, but they want to see it again, or to see you do something a little different. Sometimes they have a certain number of performers in your category, and they might want to perform another round of screenings on the spot to thin the herd. Sometimes, the producer might be on-the fence about you, and would want a second opinion before making a decision. For the most part, though, you’ll be going home without knowing for sure whether you made it. If you did, the production will call you again (typically, around March) and invite you to the final auditions that would be taped for the show and in front of the real judges. The pre-screening auditions are typically done in November, but the judges get into action a lot later, and the show actually airs in May, so be patient and move ahead with your life. You might want to use that time to promote yourself – setup a website, a blog, a youtube channel etc.